Islamic State remains a threat despite defeats
Military setbacks haven’t diminished terrorist organisation’s appeal to would-be jihadists
Despite its setbacks on the battlefield, Islamic State still holds its appeal to disaffected Muslim youth in Western democracies, says University of Wollongong academic Dr Mark Rix.
A Senior Lecturer in the School of Management, Operations and Marketing, Dr Rix has researched extensively on the recruitment of Australian jihadists by Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist networks and on money laundering and terrorism financing in Australia.
Dr Rix recently contributed a chapter about the involvement of Australian jihadists in the ongoing wars in Syria to a book about Australian Muslims (‘Australian Jihadists in Syria’, in Muslims in Australia: History and Multicultural Policies, edited by Mansour Alnogaidan and published by Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center, Dubai UAE).
He warns that IS’s recent military defeats in Iraq and Syria have not necessarily diminished its attraction.
“For some its appeal would have declined, but for others it fits the Islamic State narrative of Western dominance and of attempting to crush Islam,” he said.
“Islamic State paints the West as the enemy of Islam. And the West can be blamed for all sorts of issues, not only what has happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria but also for unemployment and the disaffection and alienation of young people in countries like Australia.
“While many of these concerns are well-founded, they nevertheless can be twisted and manipulated to serve Islamic State’s counter-Western narrative.”
He adds that social media has become an increasingly important recruitment tool for IS.
“Social media is used as a way to keep people informed, to highlight the activities of Islamic State, to provide an avenue for disaffected youth and give them a path to fight the so-called West … and to make them feel they belong to something larger than themselves. Social media has been incredibly important for Islamic State.”
Dr Rix says as many as 250 Australian Jihadists have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for IS. Many have been involved in frontline fighting, while others have been more active in recruitment and collecting funds.
Casualty rates among Australian Jihadists has been high, however, and IS has been unable to recruit enough new fighters to replace those killed.
“My chapter was written about a year ago, but from what I've read there's fewer and fewer actually fighting, although there's a rump who have remained fighting and holed up in places like Raqqa in Syria, the so-called capital of the Caliphate, and also around Mosul in Iraq.
“However, from about November 2015 the numbers of Australians fighting in Iraq and Syria has been in decline. By the middle of 2015 there were between 120 and 150 over there – that's a pretty rough figure.
“By the end of 2015, approximately 41 of these had been killed, which was a significant increase from the 15 who had been killed up until September 2014. And the figures indicate the death rate is higher than the rate at which new recruits are able to join the ranks of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.”
Dr Rix said new terrorism laws in Australia had played a role in slowing IS’s recruitment
“The drop in a number of Australian foreign fighters is a result of, among other things, tougher counter-terrorism legislation, especially that dealing specifically with foreign fighters.”
While it is tougher for would-be jihadists to make their way to the Middle East war zones, with IS still able to attract followers in places like Australia the bigger danger now is of IS-inspired terrorist attacks at home.
“Islamic State is encouraging people to carry out attacks like the recent ones in Manchester and in London which require no training and use readily available ‘weapons’ like cars and knives and things,” Dr Rix said.
“The other worry for governments in Australia, and in Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere, is that those hardened combatants who have returned to their countries of origin can spread the word, can recruit and encourage others to carry out attacks.
“This all suggests that governments need to develop a credible counter-Islamic state narrative that includes a genuine reaching out to young people who might be attracted to Islamic State with measures to promote inclusiveness, acceptance, and real employment and training opportunities.
“It also requires much better and more effective rehabilitation of, and genuine reconciliation with, returned Australian foreign fighters.”