Facing losses on the battlefield, ISIS has been changing its outlook regarding recruits from Western countries. Weeks before the June 12 terror attack that killed 49 people at an Orlando gay nightclub, carried out in the name of ISIS, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urged aspiring Western jihadists to carry out attacks close to home. He said, “the smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us.”
This represents a 180 degree shift from ISIS’s long-standing, often repeated, call for Muslims to leave Western countries for Iraq and Syria to fight for and build the self-proclaimed “Caliphate”. Encouraging “lone wolf” terror attacks, previously urged only if travel was not possible, is now the key focus of ISIS’s slick online propaganda.
In Australia, we have seen various apparent lone-wolf attacks including the December 2014 siege at Sydney’s Lindt chocolate café, the murder of police accountant Curtis Chang in Sydney last year, and the stabbing attack on two police officers in Melbourne in 2014.
Meanwhile, on June 8, Tel Aviv experienced its own Islamist terror attack, coincidentally at a branch of another chocolate café, Max Brenner. That attack, which killed four people, wasn’t related to ISIS but came shortly after another Islamist terror group, Hamas, called for Muslims to engage in jihad against Israelis during the month-long festival of Ramadan.
How to best respond to such attacks has been a contentious issue.
In the case of the Orlando attack, the issues of homophobia and gun control have added layers of political complexity. And while it’s important to recognise and address these issues, it’s even more important not to use them as pretexts to avoid confronting the Islamist motivation that was the primary inspiration.
There is no doubt that by deliberately targeting homosexuals, the Orlando terrorist exposed a deep hatred for them. But it also seems fairly clear he did not learn that hatred – or the idea that he should express that hatred through carefully pre-planned mass murder – from mainstream American anti-gay marriage activists or Christian churches which condemn homosexual acts.
A more likely source is suggested by the reality that Islamist extremists have been killing homosexuals in the Middle East and Africa regularly and with impunity, while persecution of homosexuals – including the use of the death penalty – is codified in the law of numerous hardline Islamic countries including Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Similarly, in the case of the two Palestinians who attacked Israelis at a Tel Aviv café, there has been a temptation especially among some journalists to contextualise it as nothing more than an expression of frustrated Palestinian nationalism. But here, too, given the perpetrators were members of Hamas, Palestinian nationalistic fervour and the fact that it was an Islamist terror attack inspired by Hamas were also not mutually exclusive.
Hamas identifies as Islamist and then Palestinian nationalist in that order, seeking independence only under its version of Islamist rule.
The question remains how to respond to such lone wolf, Islamist inspired attacks like those in Orlando, Tel Aviv, San Bernadino, Sydney and elsewhere.
Some – apparently including US President Obama and individuals in Australia – argue that it is best not to mention the Islamist ideology and belief system behind them. They say that doing so increases xenophobic anti-Muslim sentiment and makes mainstream Muslim communities uncomfortable, increasing the alienation which can lead to terrorism.
This appears to be background to the FBI’s controversial decision to initially redact the transcript of the Orlando terrorist in his call to authorities, removing all reference to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS.
However well-intentioned this strategy might be, it’s badly misguided for several reasons. Rather than decrease anti-Muslim tension, failing to identify Islamism – a violent, totalitarian ideology which argues all political and social problems can be resolved by returning to an imagined version of the Islamic caliphate which existed in the time of Muhammad and his companions – risks failing to create a clear public distinction between the perverse Islamism that guides such attacks and moderate, mainstream Islam. This does no favours to the vast majority of non-Islamist Muslims, the primary victims of Islamism.
Indeed, the failure to speak clearly about the wider ideology behind a whole series of terrorist groups almost certainly fuels the rise of populist groups and demagogues intent on painting Islam as a whole, and all its adherents, as the problem – such as the Australian groups noted in this edition, and too many prominent international politicians. Their rise plays into the hands of the Islamists, who like to portray the world as a “clash of civilisations” – a fight between the Islamic Umma (community) and the “Crusader” Christians and Jews – when in fact, as the death toll among Muslims demonstrates, the Islamist surge is primarily the result of a civil war amongst Muslims – a clash within Islamic civilisation.
At the same time, fighting the Islamist ideology which underlies groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah requires a multi-pronged comprehensive strategy – including law-enforcement, diplomacy, aid policy, intelligence and military means – which will likely need to be maintained for decades. It is impossible for governments to garner the public support necessary for such measures without speaking clearly about the nature of the Islamist challenge.
This is why most major Western democratic governments – such as those of France, Britain, Italy and Germany – use language that publicly recognises the Islamist ideological threat, while also being very careful not to validate the Islamist worldview of a “clash of civilisations”. This is the only sensible starting point for confronting the ongoing Islamist terror threat. It does not in itself meet the challenge of bloodthirsty terrorism and genocidal impulses emanating from Islamist extremist groups – but it is a necessary pre-condition to developing long-term strategies, policies and diplomatic tools that can.