David Cameron extremism speech Birmingham 2

Guest post by Alia Brahimi, Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University and IISS Armed Conflict Survery contributor, and Chris Mackmurdo, Director, Contest Global

On 9 July the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) took the extraordinary step of urging all British nationals, including roughly 3,000 tourists, to leave Tunisia. This tightened travel advice followed the Sousse attack by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) that left 38 people dead, including 30 British holidaymakers, and reflects concerns over the adequacy of current security measures in the popular holiday destination.

The Tunisian ambassador to the UK, Nabil Ammar, criticised the FCO's decision, and called instead for a response to terrorism that promotes economic development – which, in Tunisia’s case, is heavily linked to the tourism sector – rather than merely hardening security measures. He argued that a security response may contain the problem but it cannot solve it.     

The FCO had very compelling reasons for warning against all but essential travel to Tunisia, including the reality that the Sousse attacker’s accomplices might still be at large, and the threat assessment that a further terrorist attack is highly likely. But there was also value in the Tunisian ambassador’s suggestion that, on their own, simple security measures are not sufficient to tackle a complex problem such as the one presented by ISIS.   

Instead, there needs to be a ‘full-spectrum’ approach to combatting ISIS and similar groups. British Prime Minister David Cameron and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon have both used this language since the Sousse attack. However, it is unclear exactly what they meant by a ‘full-spectrum’ response, and there has been little elaboration from Whitehall on how this might mark a departure from business as usual.

A meaningful full-spectrum counter-terrorism strategy might be composed of four pillars.

The first pillar is the traditional ‘detect and disrupt’ activity that seeks to mitigate and neutralise threats to the UK, led by the police and the security and intelligence services.  

The second pillar of the strategy is capacity building through international engagement. The UK needs to work with other countries such as Tunisia to identify and tackle terrorist networks ‘upstream’. However, beyond the question of British values, it is critical to the UK’s security strategy that the development of intelligence and counter-terrorist capabilities overseas does not infringe human rights. While jihadists have been able to swiftly capitalise on the chaos of ‘weak’ states, ‘strong’ states which adopt a heavy-handed and indiscriminate counter-terrorism approach offer an important longer-term entry point for ISIS and similar groups.   

The third pillar deals with the enablers of terrorism. Terrorists are able to operate because of flows of people, weapons, money and ideas. The aim is to put the squeeze on terrorist resources, by tackling facilitation networks, tightening border controls, enacting financial sanctions and relentlessly challenging jihadist ideology, among other measures. 

The fourth pillar of a full-spectrum counter-terrorism strategy seeks to address the drivers of terrorism, as highlighted by the Tunisian ambassador. Often left out of the counter-terrorism picture, these drivers include issues around poor governance, poverty and armed conflict. Together, they create the space – political, social and physical – in which terrorist groups operate. The UK must therefore promote conflict reduction, encourage inclusive governance and support the development of institutions and programmes that empower populations to address the underlying issues driving terrorism.

While there has long been an emphasis on ideas-based radicalisation, it is important to recognise that much of the radicalisation that takes place outside the Western world is grievance-based. Ideas do play a role, but grievances, many of them desperate and real, provide the critical context in which ideas take hold. Grievances drive terrorism more than the ideas that usually serve as an influencing and recruitment device for terrorist leaders and propagandists.

Of course, military intervention has a part to play in a full-spectrum counter-terrorism strategy, but not as a distinct pillar. Instead, military activity cross-cuts the four pillars outlined above, for example, through special-forces operations to disrupt terrorist cells or leaders, training provision by the army, targeting of terrorist-held oil refineries by the air force, or peacekeeping missions. The use of force cannot be an end in itself; rather, any kinetic activity must clearly serve the political goals of the full spectrum’s four pillars.

A full-spectrum counter-terrorism approach for the UK must also support the development of comprehensive regional counter-terrorism strategies with which it can integrate. The Sousse attack demonstrated the urgency of this task, as it emerged that the perpetrator was trained in Libya and the operation may well have been planned in Syria. The ongoing debate over whether the UK should expand the air campaign against ISIS to Syria (the UK has participated in air-strikes in Iraq since September) also suggests the growing importance of a coordinated transnational response to a coordinated transnational threat.

As the FCO warning over Tunisia indicates, ISIS is withstanding current counter-terrorism efforts. No doubt, it has suffered some recent setbacks in its heartlands, including the loss to Kurdish forces of Tal Abyad, an important town on the Syrian border with Turkey, and Ayn Issa, another town some 30 miles from ISIS’s de-facto capital of Raqqah.  However, these reversals may be offset by imminent advances on Kobane, the famous Syrian town near the border with Turkey controlled by Kurdish and other Syrian opposition groups, and the Syrian-government-held city of Hasakah, as well as new offensives in Iraq. In Libya, rival militants recently ejected ISIS from Derna, but ISIS’s star is ascendant in former Gadhafi strongholds such as Sirte and Bani Walid and the group may soon threaten Misrata.

ISIS is also seeking to further raise the sectarian temperature in the Gulf by attacking civilian Shi’a targets – mainly houses of worship – in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen and eventually, its spokesman has promised, Bahrain. In Lebanon, Palestinian security forces are facing an uphill struggle to prevent ISIS and similar militants from over-running long-established Palestinian refugee camps. The Sinai branch of ISIS is in full swing, determinedly assaulting government targets with increasingly sophisticated weaponry. We can expect major pushes in Gaza and Afghanistan. 

ISIS leaders are shrewd political operators who exploit local conditions and identity politics to further a global ambition. Therefore, developments in the Middle East and beyond can no longer be separated from the threat picture in the UK, where police are making an average of one terror-related arrest a day.

A full-spectrum counter-terrorism response requires a cohesive strategy which synchronises ‘traditional’ counter-terrorism activity with upstream capacity-building and measures addressing the drivers and enablers of terrorism. It entails leveraging ‘whole of government’ resources to implement a range of programmes at home and in fragile and conflict-affected regions overseas, which together aim to solve the problem rather than attempting to contain it.

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