The West Has No Solution for Its Own Islamic State Jihadis

Eliminating Islamic State will take years; for now, Western governments must up their cooperation if they hope to deal with the thousands of their citizens who flock to radicals' arms.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An Islamic State member in Raqqa. June 29, 2014.
An Islamic State member in Raqqa. June 29, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

When President Barack Obama said last week that his administration does not yet have a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State, he was pilloried in the media. But he was actually downplaying the total lack of a joint policy of the western nations now facing a threat, not only to the stability of the Middle East, but to their own security from hundreds, even thousands of fellow-citizen Jihadists, natives of the West who traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq.

In the last four months, there were two rude awakenings for the West. The first was the murder of four people at the Jewish Museum at the end of May by Mehdi Nemmouche, a French Muslim who had returned only a few months earlier from Syria where he spent a year fighting with the IS. The next one was the video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley by a man who spoke in a London accent. The same man reportedly appears in the video released Tuesday of the beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff, threatening to execute a British hostage next.

Even without these incidents, the threat has been on the agenda of Western leaders for at least a year now, with their intelligence agencies repeatedly warning of the danger of home-grown Jihadists. Some plans to carry out terror attacks on home soil, including in Britain and France, have already been foiled. However it was these events that captured the media's attention that served to focus attention on the fact that those nations most under threat have no joint strategy to counter it.

It's not only the governments and law-enforcement agencies which are finding it hard to agree with themselves on the best way to handle thousands of Jihadists from Europe and America. Even after decisions are made, they are difficult to implement. Part of the problem is a shortage of verifiable intelligence on the identity of the Jihadists and their number. The European Union has assessed their number at over 2,000, the Belgian security services put the number at double that. Neither is it clear how many of those who return from Syria and Iraq continue to see themselves as Jihadists. Some ex-fighters who have been questioned by the security services in their countries have claimed that the bloodshed and cruelty they experienced made them rethink the path of Jihad. Others have claimed that their commanders expected them to continue Jihad once back in their homelands.

Last week British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke about drastic steps to prevent the travel of would-be Jihadists and the return of those already gone, including travel restrictions, preventive arrests and cancellation of passports. But on Monday when he presented his government's program, it had been "softened" following the advice of legal experts and pressure of politicians who objected to the limits on civil liberties. The number of Britons who have already joined the Jihad in Syria is around five hundred, half of whom have already returned and MI5 believes at least some of them are still part of networks planning terror attacks in closer to home.

The British Home Office has already cancelled the passports of 23 citizens over the last year to prevent them from travelling, but this is nowhere near a number that can significantly reduce flow of Jihadists. In any case it is very difficult to ascertain whether someone who is buying a plane ticket to Turkey is planning a vacation or to cross over the border to Syria. In the case of those who have already travelled and had their passports cancelled, it is unclear whether the government's action are legal and if it can effectively render their citizens stateless.

A different method used by the United States since 9/11 is to demand that airlines notify them of their flight-lists in advance so no-fly lists can be used to prevent the travel of those suspected of involvement with terror organizations. Israel has a similar system but despite attempts by Britain and other EU members to implement a similar system, the European Union has blocked such moves over the concern it will contravene its open-borders treaty.

In some European countries, including Britain, Germany and Sweden, there are "de-radicalization" programs designed to locate young people who may have fallen under the sway of radical Islam and help them reintegrate into society, The supporters of such programs say they have been effective in drastically reducing the numbers of potential Jihadists and that other punitive measures are ineffective in influencing those who already see the authorities as their enemy. The fact remains however that there are still thousands of radicals outside the reach of these programs which are insufficient when hundreds of Jihadists are already out there and the security services have no way to predict when and where they will act. Exactly like Nemmouche who easily crossed the border into Belgium where he was unknown to police, to carry out his attack.

For years now there have been in place programs to work with mosques and in cooperation with moderate imams in an attempt to convince young Muslims not to choose the radical path. These programs have lost their effectiveness as the process of radicalization is increasingly taking place online, through social networks. But even attempts to work with companies such as Twitter and Facebook to close down popular accounts of Western Jihadists calling on their friends to join them, have been largely unsuccessful as new accounts were immediately opened or moved to less compliant networks. In any case, the intelligence services also have an interest in keeping these accounts open to allow them more details on the identity and movements of their users.

The United States for now is less under threat as only a very small number, around a hundred of its citizens, have travelled to fight in Syria. But the leaders of the Islamic State have made it clear they see the U.S. as a target and as the American airstrikes in Iraq continue, their motivation for revenge will only grow. Law enforcement in the U.S. has generally been more forceful at carrying out preventive arrests of anyone they suspect of involvement in terror activity, partly because the Muslim community there is smaller relative to the general population than in Europe and there is less fear of a backlash in the form of widespread protests. Republican senators are already calling to strip Jihadists of their citizenship and even the Democratic Obama administration has shown it is capable of killing American-born Al-Qaida operatives in drone strikes in Yemen.

The U.S., which is already striking IS targets in Iraq, is preparing to expand operations to Syria. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to stop the movement's advance but it probably won't stop it from being a magnet to young people who for various reasons have given up on their lives in the West. In any case there is no solution now besides eliminating IS but that will take years, if it is ever achieved. The only effective policy for the West until then to prevent them from operating back home is cooperation between governments, coordinated action, effective intelligence-sharing and the realization, especially by the Europeans, that there is no alternative to a certain limitation of movement and privacy of potential suspects. The Caliphate recognizes no borders or national and international laws and Western law-enforcement will have to adapt to the new landscape.

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