The reach of Islamic State

I have gone on record several times to state that Islamic State (IS) does not pose an existential threat to anybody.  It can certainly cause havoc and mayhem and destruction but there is no way that this motley crew of extremists is ever going to threaten the world.  Yes, it has a state – sort of – and yes it has territory – sort of – but we need to stop talking about these terrorists as if they loom on the horizon like the Mongol hordes, or to use a more recent analogy, Nazi Germany.  Now THOSE two groups posed existential threats to anyone who got in their way!

But what I find fascinating about IS is the sheer number of nations whence members have come.  In previous jihads (Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, etc.) there were thousands and they came from all over, but I do not think that we have ever seen either the quantity or diversity that we have with IS.  Here are a few examples of countries we do not normally associate with foreign fighters that have featured among the extremists:

  • Estonia: the government charged two men with helping a third get to Syria
  • Trinidad and Tobago: a man posted a video with IS in which he said he fled his country because of the restrictions on Muslims
  • In the idyllic Maldives, there may be as many as 200 fighting with IS
  • 25 Swiss citizens are believed to have gone to IS
  • a 25-year old man from Ghana informed his family in August 2015 that he had joined IS

Of course there are countries where thousands have left to enter Syria: Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and parts of the former Soviet Union.  And some  in the middle (ranging from dozens to hundreds) including the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, Australia, the US and Canada.

But it is the first group that worries me.  When I worked as a terrorism analyst at CSIS we would have exchanges with a number of partners around the world. Some were well-versed in terrorism and what to do about because, like Canada, they had experienced the scourge of extremism all too often.  With the smaller intelligence services, however, I could sense a puzzlement over violent radicalisation as their recent histories were different.  Oh too be so lucky as to not have to worry about radicalisation among one’s citizenry!

It will be interesting to watch how these countries deal with the returnees.  And although not all foreign fighters become domestic terrorists, these nations will now be faced with a new reality.  They will have to decide how to best deal with these individuals, ranging from counselling to investigation to arrests/trials and incarceration.

In any event, the legacy of returning terrorists will outlast IS by years, if not decades, and cause us all problems, not just for the Maldivians and the Estonians.  So when IS finally joins the many other terrorist groups that no one talks about anymore – well no one save historians – those who bought into its violent ideology will be with us for some time.

Which I guess will give me lots more material to blog about.

PS after I posted this blog I learned that 89 residents of Trinidad and Tobago have joined IS. 89!!  From a small Caribbean island!  This speaks volumes about the reach of IS.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

4 replies on “The reach of Islamic State”

To clarify, I say “get” for lack of a better word. Not sure there is a suitable word. Hope you know what I mean. Looking forward to really getting into your book.

Sounds good Phil. I received your book a couple of days ago and am only about 25 pages in. Work and planning for the move to HQ in Halifax is eating up all of my time! Your book is very accessible so far – it would make a good required reading for an undergraduate course on extremism/security. Hopefully your publisher is pushing towards this end. My childhood was steeped in biblical teachings of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ. I remember learning about how the bear (Russia) would come from the north and the dragon (China) would come from the east and converge on the Holy Land in the “last days”. The irony is that IS believes it is bringing this about, while conservative Christians believe they may just be doing this as well… While I have (thankfully) rejected the fundamentalism of my youth, one of the gifts that it gave me is that I actually get how powerful these beliefs are on the psyche for these people. The Manichean narrative seems so real to them.

I have to admit Phil that every time I read your thoughts on IS not being an “existential threat” I balk a little… I can’t figure out why, because I agree with you for the most part. One of the problems of having a full time job an analyst with the government is that it doesn’t leave much time for extracurricular academic research activities, my first love… What I really would like to explore (one of the many, it seems) is the underlying role of anti-modernity in terrorist/extremist activities and recruitment. Anti-modernity is fairly pervasive and can range from mild to severe throughout the world but is certainly part of the root of religious fundamentalism (as I can attest to given my upbringing in it). I can’t help but think it is the door through which many recruits have travelled through into IS. It explains why people of so many backgrounds/experiences choose IS – it may not be so much the allure of IS views pulling them into the fold but a discontent with modernity/capitalism/secularism/consumerism that is pushing them to violence against the elements of the “Single Narrative”. My fear is that, while IS may not prove to be an existential threat, it’s possible connection with antimodernism and so much discontent and anger may make the fertile ground for recruitment that much richer. Again, just some musings which may prove to be absolute tosh.

Stephen – always nice to hear from you. Good points. Have a read of my book and let’s chat. I think you will find some of your issues covered. Nevertheless, IS wants to be an existential threat and believes it is – that doesn’t make it so. Remember too that IS uses modernity to undermine it

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