In October Minister of State at the UK’s Department for International Development – Rory Stewart – explained that British-born Islamic State (IS) fighters could expect to be killed by their own government. Stating that these were individuals “who have essentially moved away from any allegiance towards the British government…and believe in an extremely hateful doctrine which involves killing themselves and killing others”, the minister concluded that “the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them.”
This line of argument is not an unpopular one. After all, the UK is at war with violent Islamist extremists (VIEs), specifically IS, al-Qaeda and its acolytes. As a member of the US-led coalition against IS, Britain has been part of the aerial bombing campaign which to this date has dropped more than 102,000 bombs in Iraq and Syria. Equally, certain groups of VIEs are engaged in a perpetual war against the West. It was only this summer that IS urged its supporters to wage “all-out war” on the West during Ramadan. Within the theatre of war, the measures described by Rory Stewart could seem justified.
The difficulties British authorities have had in tracking, arresting and prosecuting British-born IS fighters provides further credence to this idea. A recent publication from the Soufan Centre reported that the UK had the highest number of returning fighters in Europe, estimated at 425. As the report explains, returning foreign fighters represent an immeasurable threat. Should the British government take the risk in giving these individuals an opportunity to come back to the UK, potentially causing further bloodshed? It is conceivable that killing foreign fighters on the ground provides a more reliable and safer alternative.
But this line of argument is short-sighted, signifying a short-term, reactionary response. As a solution it fails to see the bigger picture, does not account for the pervasiveness of VIE ideology, and reflects a poor understanding of the importance of propaganda to VIEs. As Shiraz Maher from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) recently wrote: “Raqqa has crumbled far more quickly than anyone imagined…the Islamic State message remains as defiant as ever”. In other words, while regaining territory represents military rewards against IS, it does little to dent the potency of its ideology and the power of its propaganda apparatus.
Like all insurgents, VIE groups are engaged in conflicts characterised by asymmetrical dimensions of power. Undeniably, IS and al-Qaeda are materially inferior to their adversaries. Accordingly, propaganda represents VIE’s most important weapon. As Haroro Ingram, Associate Fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, said last year “words and images carefully combined to create messages are given strategic centrality in the plans of violent extremists not despite their weakness but because of it”. VIEs have developed a propaganda strategy superior to their Western counterparts, beating misguided strategic communication campaigns. VIEs recognise this, and have done well to exploit their strategic superiority. In February of this year, IS claimed that their propaganda machine was ‘more powerful than the atomic bomb’, and while a euphemism, it shows how reliant and confident they are in their propagandistic capacities.
One of the central factors in VIE propaganda is promoting ideas of credibility, both in their actions and in those of its enemies. This can otherwise be described as a ‘say-do gap’. While VIEs seek to propagate congruence between their words and actions – doing what they say they are going to do – they also highlight inconsistencies in what Western states say and do. For example, forgetting commitments to human rights and liberal ideas when it comes to counterterrorism measures, or bombing campaigns in the Middle East. VIEs promote their narrow say-do gap, while decrying their enemies’ large say-do gap. This allows VIE groups to tactically strengthen their narrative, polarising their audience and encouraging mobilisation. This is relevant to Rory Stewart’s statements.
In advocating for a solution going against the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the minister effectively provides free material to fuel VIE propaganda. Capital punishment has long been abolished in the UK, and even when it existed, it followed a due legal process. When British politicians describe acts of Islamist terrorism as being fuelled by a hatred of Western values – such as democratic principles, tolerance, and the rule of law – and then promote solutions which directly contradict these stated values, the evident dissonance directly contributes to the VIE narrative.
Another important example of this discordant dynamic is that of Theresa May’s response to Islamist terrorism. In July 2017, she said she was ready to ‘rip up human rights law’ in order to make it easier to deport foreign terrorist suspects. There is an inherent contradiction in claiming, on the one hand, to be under attack because of morally superior values, and on the other, looking for solutions that immediately undermine these same values. Again, this discourse (and subsequent action) is counter-productive, playing into the hands of VIEs, providing material for their messaging and strengthening their narrative.
The bigger picture
The way the West has handled the refugee crisis has also given VIEs opportunities to capitalise on the notion of a credibility deficit, whilst boosting their personal image of legitimacy. Charlie Winter, Senior Research Fellow at ICSR wrote in 2015: “heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like ISIS”. While it offers further opportunity to emphasise Western failure to live up to its own moral standards, it also provides the chance for VIEs to contrast this with their capacity to care for Muslims.
Following the outbreak of the refugee crisis in 2015, IS’ Khayr Province Media Office published a propaganda video entitled Welcoming Muslims Seeking Refuge from Regime-Held Areas. The narrator in the video says “we invite all Muslims in regime-held areas to leave them to go to the land of the Islamic Caliphate. They will be welcome in the land of Islam”, contrary to Europe. Inaction throughout the refugee crisis fuels the narrative that the West systematically fails to respect its values.
Such a notion is compounded by Islamaphobic rhetoric and policies. Here, Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ offers yet another example. After its implementation, IS and al-Qaeda propaganda channels hailed the ban, describing it as “the best caller to Islam”, and claiming, as the deceased al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki had done, that “the West would eventually turn against Muslim citizens”. Propaganda exposing perceived Western duplicity rings truer with every such instance.
It is necessary for politicians to choose their words and actions carefully when responding to Islamist terrorism, and reflect on how their rhetoric and policies undermine the very values they claim to be protecting. It is common for politicians to state that counter-terrorism practices are needed to protect our way of life and our freedoms. In the name of ‘national security’, it is argued that compromises are needed. But knowing the strategic consequences of such action, and the way in which violent Islamist extemists disingenuously exploit enemy dissonance, politicians cannot subscribe to the idea that the best way of protecting their values is by undermining them.