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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Friday, February 20, 2015

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief 2/20/15


An article about ISIS by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic sparked off the latest
round of the "Islam and terrorism" debate that has been hanging around since the days of the first World Trade Center bombing. Wood's story emphasizes his view of ISIS as "very Islamic," in his words, and argues to ground an understanding of the group in an Islamic context.

On the far opposite end of the spectrum, President Obama for the first time this week discussed his reluctance to use the word "Islamic" to describe Islamic extremism. By his argument, ceding the word 'Islamic' to extremists some how validates their religious claim. This logic was much in the news this week as the White House summoned many Muslims to Washington to discuss mostly Muslim extremism, all without using the word Islamic.

Between these two poles, a forest of op-eds sprang up this week, decrying one or the other approach, mostly on the basis of social issues, specifically who is most offended by which perspective (Muslims by the former, conservatives by the latter, with many others, from experts to lay people, made uncomfortable in varying degrees), although rare spots of nuanced analysis could be found, such as this by H.A. Hellyer

My own take on this, published over at the Brookings Institution, is focused on classification. While there are legitimate social dimensions to this question, which I have written about previously, my focus in this piece pertains to accuracy and targeting. To fight extremism strategically, we need to understand it. And it's extremely important to understand what groups like ISIS believe about religion and how they define themselves. (While this is arguably the point Wood was trying to make in The Atlantic, the phrasing of certain passages contributed greatly to the response the piece received.)

Ultimately, the group dynamics that fuel a phenomenon like ISIS can be found in the world of identity-based extremism. I argue in the piece that ISIS has a greater commonality with identity groups from a wide variety of ideologies than it does with mainstream Islamic groups. An overemphasis on situating ISIS within Islam can cloud important strategic issues, including why it is so successful at recruiting and inspiring violence, while simultaneously creating wide opportunities for collateral damage from our anti-ISIS efforts within Muslim communities.

It should be noted that my views have evolved on this front. When I first started studying terrorism, I spent a lot of time reading about Islam and trying to understand the context from which I presumed jihadist groups arose. This wasn't a wasted effort, by any means, Islam is certainly not irrelevant to understanding jihadism.

But over time I began to see the parallel structures that pervade many extremist movements and ideologies, commonalities that remain even when those groups hate and fear each other. I believe understanding ISIS means first understanding the extremist dynamic that crosses boundaries of race and religion, and then understanding how that dynamic exploits religion to create and reinforce an exclusive identity.

If we are going to try to counter the ideology of ISIS, we first need to counter what makes it extreme, not what makes it Islamic (or not). This issue is explored at considerable length in my forthcoming book with Jessica Stern, ISIS: The State of Terror, and expect more on this in the weeks to come.

-- JMB


Why Countering Extremism Fails
Globally, there are hundreds of counter extremism programs. But there are very few countries that have programs addressing all four aspects (prevention, intervention, interdiction, and reintegration)—especially intervention and reintegration. As a result of this gap, individuals who have begun to radicalize are not turned around and those who have acted violently are not rehabilitated.

The White House CVE Summit: More of the same or a new direction?
America trots out CVE every three years or so in response to the latest atrocity perpetrated in the West by a confused young man inspired by whichever terrorist group has recently grabbed headlines. Properly conducting CVE today requires a simple, narrowly focused strategy that answers three questions: "Where?", "Who?" and "How?"

F.B.I. Chief Not Invited to Meeting on Countering Violent Extremism
The White House did not invite the most senior American official charged with preventing terrorist attacks — the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey — to the three-day conference this week on countering violent extremism in the United States and abroad because the administration did not want the event too focused on law enforcement issues, according to senior American officials.

Twitter under pressure to act more aggressively against terrorists
Twitter, the social media giant, is facing mounting questions from members of Congress and outside groups over the abuse of its network by Islamic State terrorists to spread propaganda and recruit foreign fighters.


Islamic State Sprouting Limbs Beyond Its Base
The Islamic State is expanding beyond its base in Syria and Iraq to establish militant affiliates in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, American intelligence officials assert, raising the prospect of a new global war on terror.

The Islamic State ‘caliphate’ is in danger of losing its main supply route
For weeks, U.S.-backed forces have been fighting to oust the Islamic State from key areas of northern Iraq in a series of small-scale battles that could have an enormous impact on the group’s “caliphate.” A major prize in the clashes is a highway that serves as a lifeline for the Islamic State. It runs from the group’s Iraq stronghold in Mosul to its enclaves in northeastern Syria, including its self-styled capital, Raqqa, 300 miles away.

Egypt Launches Airstrike in Libya Against ISIS Branch
Egypt conducted an airstrike against an Islamist stronghold in Libya on Monday in retaliation for the beheading of at least a dozen Egyptian Christians by a local franchise of the Islamic State, in Cairo’s deepest reach yet into the chaos that has engulfed its neighbor.

Westerners join Iraqi Christian militia to fight Islamic State
Thousands of foreigners have flocked to Iraq and Syria in the past two years, mostly to join Islamic State, but a handful of idealistic Westerners are enlisting as well, citing frustration their governments are not doing more to combat the ultra-radical Islamists or prevent the suffering of innocents.


After Attacks, Denmark Hesitates to Blame Islam
Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein’s journey from drug-addled street thug to self-proclaimed jihadist declaring loyalty to the Islamic State has stirred soul-searching in liberal-minded Denmark over whether Islam, in fact, was really a prime motivator for his violence, or merely served as a justifying cover for violent criminality.

Iran’s Shiite Militias Are Running Amok in Iraq
The United States is now acting as the air force, the armory, and the diplomatic cover for Iraqi militias that are committing some of the worst human rights abuses on the planet. These are “allies” that are actually beholden to our strategic foe, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and which often resort to the same vile tactics as the Islamic State itself.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram Loses Ground to Chadians
Chad’s army has made its deepest push yet into Nigeria in a three-front regional war against Boko Haram, entering a town 50 miles from a beleaguered Nigerian state capital that has been surrounded for months by the militant group, Nigerian security officials said Wednesday.

Houthi rebels in Yemen eye oil-rich province, sparking fears of all-out civil war
The Shiite insurgents who have toppled Yemen’s government are threatening to take over a key oil-producing province to the east of the capital, triggering fears that the country could explode in all-out civil war.

-- by INTELWIRE Staff

Pre-order ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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", granular analysis..."

ISIS: The State of Terror
"Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS," should be required reading for every politician and policymaker... Their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations... a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group." -- Washington Post

More on ISIS: The State of Terror

"...a timely warning..."

Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam:
"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times

More on Jihad Joe


INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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