By Afzal Ashraf
12 Sep 2014
The so-called Islamic State has had a surprisingly bigger impact on public debate in the UK than in other Western countries because of the high number of British citizens believed to have joined the group. A potential threat of returning fighters hell-bent on attacking the UK has been highlighted by senior police and government officials.
Politicians and experts have called for greater legal powers to prevent returnees from coming into the country and for controlling them when they are within the UK. Others have argued that sufficient powers already exist and that new laws will only threaten Western civil liberties. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College, London, has even called for a national deradicalisation programme for returning fighters so that they can become a source of credible information for any UK citizens influenced by the Islamic State group's message. While these views challenge each other, they do not challenge the somewhat flawed premise of both sides of the debate.
The premise that there will be a significant influx of returning foreign fighters is based primarily on out-dated experiences. After the so-called "Afghan jihad" of the 1980s, the job was done when the Soviets withdrew and foreigners fighters returned home to what they hoped would have been a hero's welcome. Al-Qaeda's subsequent post-9/11 call for a global holy war recruited Western fighters to Afghanistan and Pakistan for training to conduct attacks in their home countries.
However by 2005, most of al-Qaeda's training centres had been destroyed so it began to encourage volunteers for its sponsored insurgencies in Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb. When only a few of those individuals returned to conduct attacks at home, its propaganda emphasis shifted to encouraging home-grown terrorism plots.
In the meantime, the United States' counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, involving mainly drone strikes, created a sense of panic and exhaustion within al-Qaeda's central command.
Hundreds of its operatives were killed and all of its operational commanders were systematically targeted. Paranoia about spies grew with reports of summary executions of suspected collaborators emerging.
The culture within al-Qaeda core and other "jihadist" movements changed during this period with an obsession on operational security. The organisation began to revert to small cell structures of trusted groups. Movement of personnel in and out of these groups was restricted to prevent Western intelligence gaining information necessary to target its personnel.
US drone strikes against al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Yemen and Iraq resulted in those groups adapting in a similar way to the security threat.
Another factor that influenced their attitudes to security was that even the most loyal senior commanders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad began to leak information under US interrogation, allegedly resulting in the killing or capture of a number of al-Qaeda operatives.
The consequence has been a paranoid attitude towards spies and operational security within the Islamic State group as the predecessors of the current "Caliph" suffered the same fate.
Security issues aside, the new "State", in keeping with other totalitarian regimes, has political and presentational reasons for stopping its "citizens" from leaving. Just as the Soviet Union used to prevent the departure of its citizens and North Korea currently imprisons its people, the Islamic State, like these regimes, cannot abide the thought of its followers turning their backs on the utopian ideal their violence has created, for a better life in the sinful West.
Add to that the deep commitment that many fighters have to their idea of martyrdom and the Caliphate, and then the few who chose to leave will mostly be the disillusioned and the unfaithful. These individuals will have to escape in secret to avoid execution on charges of spying or desertion. It is these that will be of most use to Western intelligence and deradicalisation programmes.
The bottom line is that the Islamic State group has learned the importance of operational security and the dangers of allowing Western intelligence contact with its members. That is not to say that there will be no Islamic State-backed attack plots targeting the West and that Western governments need not worry. But the selection of suitable operatives to carry out attacks will be highly problematic for the group, leaving only a tiny pool of possible options. Its commanders will have to choose individuals with a proven track record of competence, loyalty, independence and determination.
Threat in Context
Gauging those characteristics without exposing the individuals concerned to operational information will be very difficult. The Islamic State group is unlikely to take a risk in most cases and will probably only attempt to release a few trusted individuals for uncomplicated suicide missions. The challenges of making and deploying suitable bombs without detection back in their home countries will probably be beyond most of these few. So, while the threat is real and must be taken seriously it must also be seen in context; one that is not as numerically great as the assessments of officials and experts have so far indicated.
Failure to put the threat into context has dangers of its own. Firstly, the Islamic State group monitors the media and will be encouraged by the fear-mongering aspect of the debate. It might be tempted to amplify its terror impact by encouraging attacks in the West, having so far been regionally focused.
Secondly, the UK government, in particular, should be giving higher priority to issues that represent a more immediate and potentially greater threat, such as the Ukraine crisis or the Scottish independence referendum. It seems that UK politicians have achieved more headlines debating a threat that, even if it materialises, will have a transient impact on the country than with the increasing likelihood that the UK will cease to exist in its current form and be permanently weakened by the independence referendum in few days.
Afzal Ashraf is a Consultant fellow at Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and served in the UK Armed Forces. He was involved developing a counterinsurgency strategy and in the Policing and the Justice sector in Iraq.