Global Terror Deaths Down but Jihadist Threat Levels Increase
Recorded deaths from terrorist attacks may have reduced globally in 2017 according to the newly released 2018 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report, but terrorism and insurgency groups are becoming more organized, coordinated and focused on winning the hearts and minds of the local population than ever before.
The Middle East and Africa remain the most vulnerable and unstable regions in the world as a coalition of ISIS and Al-Qaeda Jihadist groups linked to organized criminal networks are becoming more strategic, choosing to focus less on the number of attacks and more on the significance and long term impact of targets. The 2018 GTI report should not be misconstrued as an indicator of reduced terrorism threats globally; rather a jihadist change of strategy, challenges in recording death from terrorist attacks, selective media reporting and global terrorism fatigue.
The 2018 GTI report by the Institute for Economics and Peace has recorded a 27% decrease in death from terrorist attacks in 2017 compared to 2016.
It also cites a reduction from 79 to 77 countries where someone died as a result of a terrorist incident. Attacks and deaths as a result of terrorism in Syria, Iraq and Europe dropped significantly since 2016. North, Central, Sub Saharan Africa and the Sahel where Boko Haram factions, Al-Shabaab and AQIM linked jihadist groups operate recorded more attacks and more casualties than anywhere else in the world.
THINKING IT THROUGH: Taking into context the attack patterns in 2018, what explains the 2017 drop in the number of terror-related deaths and has Africa become a fertile ground for global jihadists to settle after the fall of Raqqa and Mosul?
The Balloon Effect – From Raqqa & Mosul to the Middle East and Africa
The level and nature of attacks leading to mass casualties may have dropped in Iraq and Syria after the slow but steady collapse of ISIS strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul between 2016 and 2017. The eventual collapse of operations in these regions led to a balloon effect in parts of the Middle East and Africa particularly in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Mali, Northern Nigeria and Somalia by Boko Haram, a faction of ISIS (Islamic State of West Africa Province – ISWAP) AQIM, Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda.
Breaking the terrorist stronghold in Raqqa and Mosul did not lead to the disappearance of surviving ISIS fighters into thin air. The leadership negotiated its way out of the ruins, moving its remaining fighters across Turkey, Libya, Lake Chad and the Sahel region. The transitional gap of moving hundreds of men and resources to link up with other ISIS networks like ISWAP and the time required for new arrivals to understand the theatre of operation may account for the reduced terrorist activities and deaths immediately after the collapse of Raqqa and Mosul in 2017. Compared to current activities in 2018, the balloon effect has its greatest impact in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel where experienced foreign fighters returnees have joined ranks with ISWAP and other existing AQIM and Al-Shabaab networks.
These Africa-based jihadist groups are benefiting from the experience and capacity of the foreign fighter returnees (FFRs) and they are taking the battle to the military and other hard targets.
No doubt the GTI reports rate Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, Congo DRC, Republic of Congo, Central Africa Republic, Cameroon, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Mali, Kenya very low scores in peace and stability for 2017. Thanks to the displacement effect of the collapse of Raqqa and Mosul.
What accounts for reduced attacks and deaths in Europe in 2017 and the gradual collapse of Raqqa and Mosul forced ISIS leadership to redirect their attacks to alternative territories.
There has also been an increase in security spending and community vigilance efforts within Europe following the random truck, knife and gun attacks on soft targets. Most European governments including the United Kingdom introduced more proactive measures, increased spending and human resources towards anti-terrorism and counter terrorism activities. These measures have led to reduced vulnerability of public places and preferred terrorist high-value targets. The more difficult the target, the less attractive it is to a terrorist, hence fewer casualties. For Example, the United Kingdom and most countries in Europe have promoted community awareness activities on social media, newspapers and mainstream media platforms. Visible adverts in popular spots, catchy captions like, ‘See something, say something’, quick tips on how to spot and report suspicious activities and video adverts on what to do when faced with a terrorist’s gun, knife or van attack may have played a real and psychological deterrence effect on potential terrorist attacks but also increased the population’s knowledge and confidence to recognize and report suspicious activities. Terrorists rely on the element of surprise and they would avoid selecting hard targets or anyone with a high survival knowledge and skills.
The Role of Propaganda
The real number of casualties from security service men and women is still a reporting taboo shrouded in ‘classified documents.’ Official reporting of casualties from the military and security is the most underreported when a terrorist attack occurs especially in Africa and the Middle East. The story goes that it is always the terrorist that gets killed in their numbers and not the military or other service men and women. This underreporting or hiding of real number of casualties among servicemen and women is a strategy applied by most states in the Middle East and Africa to avoid creating panic amongst service men and women on and away from the battlefield. This is necessary to maintain fighting morale, avoid negative reactions from the population, families and friends of military personnel. Above all, not reporting the real number of servicemen and women casualties is done for propaganda against enemy fighters.
Winning Hearts and Minds: Have Jihadist Groups Changed Their Strategy?
Every successful battle, especially one that is asymmetric in nature depends largely on the support and trust of the local population that each side depends on to either get intelligence, hide their activities or get moral support. Intelligence is the key and security services, as well as jihadist groups, understand the need to win the hearts and minds of the local population to survive and sustain their activities. The focus on winning hearts and minds by ISIS-linked jihadist groups has resulted in a change of attack tactics within the past two years.
Lessons from the collapse of Raqqa and Mosul indicate that jihadist groups are focusing on long term strategic planning and limited attacks on soft civilian targets to win the battle of hearts and minds necessary to realise their perceived goal of a Caliphate. They focus their attacks on sensitive government infrastructures rather than busy markets, shopping malls and worship places where innocent civilians are likely to be the highest casualties. But these tactics can change in 2019 if jihadist groups become more desperate.
Deaths from terrorist attacks may have fallen in Europe, Syria and Iraq in 2017 but ISIS coordinated, inspired and directed attacks increased in Africa and the Middle East due to the ISIS displacement effect. The jihadist key players like ISIS and Al-Qaeda may have gone quiet in Europe in terms of their attacks and casualty level but these groups are certainly not silent in other areas of the world especially Africa. In the long war against global jihadist groups, the number of attacks should not be mistaken for a low threat level. A more globally coordinated effort beyond words is required to reduce to the barest minimum the threats that these jihadists pose to global peace and security particularly in Africa and the Middle East which seem to represent the weakest links in efforts to tackle ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s growing influence.
Culled from Bulwark Intelligence