The Islamic State (ISIS) has been defeated in Syria. This brings an end to the world’s most feared terrorist group and their control of physical territory over the past five years. However, despite the defeat of the “Caliphate,” the global jihadist movement is alive and well.
A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated there were approximately 230,000 terrorist fighters across the globe supporting jihadist ideologies (ISIS and al Qaida) in 2018. That’s an increase of 400 per cent since 2001.
The number of countries affected by this type of ideologically inspired violence has increased across the board.
Consider that ISIS has expanded and is present in the Philippines, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and West Africa. Al Qaida has become entrenched in Yemen and has an arm in Mali that is fighting a United Nations peacekeeping mission and causing chaos across the wider Sahel.
Boko Haram has morphed into a regional security threat in West Africa, destabilizing Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad in particular. In the Horn of Africa, the militant group al Shabaab continues to carry out frequent attacks against civilians in Somalia and Kenya. A new jihadist group has recently emerged and carried out attacks in northern Mozambique.
The danger of underestimating jihadists
The international approach to counter these groups has not been the success many would like us to believe, and underestimating the ongoing threat of jihadist ideologies to global security would be a grave mistake.
These groups are unified in their opposition to democracy, multiculturalism, pluralism, diversity, freedom of religion and freedom of expression, women’s rights and those of sexual minorities. They want to impose a mono-religious culture on others, and their violent acts have resulted in massive human rights violations, including genocide and crimes against humanity.
ISIS in particular has had a negative impact on the West, fuelling far-right groups and populism, contributing to anti-immigrant sentiments and fostering a general fear and hatred of Muslims.
Are we, the international community, truly ready to discuss what these terrorist groups are trying to do? Are we prepared to confront the ideology that drives their actions and political objectives?
Writing in The Atlantic, journalist Graeme Wood commented:
“A funny thing happened after the tragedy of Christchurch: Everyone discovered, all at once, that ideology matters. Four years ago, commentators were contorting themselves to attribute jihadism to politics, social conditions, abnormal psychology —anything but the spread of wicked beliefs that lead, more or less directly, to violence.”
Indeed, decision-makers across the globe hear from experts who argue the drivers of ISIS-inspired terrorism are climate change, mental health issues, the internet and/or poverty. More often than not, they ignore the elephant in the room — ideology.
The real battlefront is on the ideological level. Like it or not, we must engage in this battle of ideas. Only by having rational discussions about the ideas that drive modern-day terrorist groups’ behaviour and actions will we be able to adopt and implement a global strategy to prevent and contain the problem at hand.
With the collapse of ISIS’s stronghold in Syria, the international community now has a historic opportunity that it cannot let pass.
Instead of drone attacks and assassinating ISIS members and other extremists, we should pursue justice and end impunity. Western countries in particular must bolster its democratic institutions and follow the rule of law.
The Kurds are now holding thousands of ISIS fighters in northern Syria and have called for the international community to set up an international tribunal to prosecute them. Germany, Sweden, Austria and a few other countries have publicly supported this initiative. Most Western countries however have been reluctant to repatriate their citizens who joined ISIS, or prosecute them in domestic courts.
The Kurdish call to bring ISIS to justice is an idea worth pursuing.
It is imperative that a new global strategy in countering terrorism focus on prosecuting ISIS and their leaders for crimes that are enshrined in international human rights law, while also exposing how the group was created, funded and supported.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad recently pronounced:
“International actors must help preserve evidence of the Yazidi genocide and other Islamic State attacks, including mass graves, documents and the testimonies of survivors. We are ready to face our captors and rapists in local and international courts, and even participate in a truth and reconciliation committee. Do not let our stories and our bravery go to waste.”
Only by prosecuting these extremists will the world be able to marginalize those who carry out violent acts and those who give credence to their ideas.
By holding the perpetrators to account and exposing what they have done, the world will send an important signal that all countries, cultures and religions stand united against these extremists.
Written by Kyle Matthews, Executive Director, The Montréal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University