ISIS and the Rise of Homegrown Terrorism in the West

Homegrown TerrorismOn 22nd October 2014, Canadian Michael Zehaf-Bibeau opened fire at the Canadian National War Memorial killing Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian soldier on ceremonial sentry duty. From there, Zehaf-Bibeau went on to the Parliament building in Ottawa where he attempted to kill as many parliamentarians as possible. A shootout ensued in which Zehaf-Bibeau was killed. Zehaf-Bibeau, inspired to his actions by Islamic State xxx (ISIS) apparently believed he had been acting on behalf of Islam, that he would be ‘martyred’ and go straight to paradise.

These kind of ‘stay and act in place’ attacks, along with a steady flow of impressionable young Westerners – males and females – going off to fight jihad are on the rise in recent years and it does not look like it will stop soon. The international call to jihad, originating first with Al Qaeda and popularised by Anwar Awlaki, has taken on a new appeal with ISIS since they euphorically declared an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq last June.

English-speaking Awlaki, who has a particular appeal to Western Muslims, was killed in a US drone strike in 2011, but lives on via the internet. From beyond the grave he continues to inspire acts of terrorism both at home and abroad. His internet lectures are implicated in nearly every Islamic-related Western terror attack since his death.

Awlaki argued, and still manages to convince many, that every Muslim has a duty to take hijrah – that is, travel to the battlefield and to fight jihad endlessly until Muslims bring in the end times as predicted in the Koran. According to ISIS, everyone has a part to play and is significant to the shared vision. They claim, like Awlaki did, that all Muslims are obligated to take part in bringing their apocalyptic vision to fruition.

Now with ISIS controlling territory and claiming a caliphate, for those wanting adventure there is a real and accessible place to come to. That place, Sham and Iraq, is held sacred in the apocalyptic vision of the end times and strongly resonates with the shared vision that ISIS is ushering in the new age of Islamic victory. Unlike foreign fighters who went before them to fight Syrian leader Bashar Assad, the Muslims who agree to take hijrah to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq generally believe they are coming to live a ‘pure’ Islamic life and take part in building the new utopian state. They are joining in a worldwide battle and apocalyptic vision far greater than toppling Bashar Assad.

With the rise of ISIS and their slick social media campaign, Muslims from every Western nation have been drawn into the battle. Unlike Al Qaeda that heavily vetted anyone who wanted to come and had many barriers to joining, ISIS welcomes all. Indeed, an estimated 15,000 foreign fighters have already joined their ranks, with estimates of 800 from France, 200 from the US and over 200 from Australia; and ISIS has simplified things for those not ready to make hijrah. Travel is not required – they can act in place, just as Zehaf-Bibeau did.

Chillingly, the Ottawa shootout occurred the same week as the release of the book Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18 – Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Extremism in the West, which details the inside story of terrorist plotters who, in 2005, also plotted to storm the Canadian Parliament with assault rifles. Their plan was to take over the Parliament and behead the Prime Minister and members of Parliament to demand Canadian troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

While many thought the 2005 plots were the wishful fantasies of terrorist wannabes and that the attacks could never have been actualised, part of the group was serious enough to have managed to build a working remote detonator and order tons of fertilizer for truck bombs to be placed in three different sites around Toronto. The blast charges of the bombs they plotted to detonate would have been similar to those that were used to take down the Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City. They would have caused a series of catastrophic attacks – the most lethal attacks in North America since 9-11.

It was only the actions of two undercover agents – Mubin Shaikh, primary among them – that saved Canadians from the disastrous effects of such a series of attacks. Undercover Jihadi details that account and highlights how groups like Al Qaeda and now ISIS get into the minds of young people and can motivate them to form homegrown cells to carry out lethal attacks in Australia, Canada, the US and Europe.

“We will attack the Parliament buildings of Canada,” the ringleader of the Toronto 18, Fahim Ahmad, crowed to his cadres. “First we will distract the police with bombs going off all around the city. That will take all the security forces’ attention away from the Parliament,” Fahim continued. “And when they are responding to the car bombs, we will storm the Parliament buildings!” He went on to tell his cadres that they would take the Parliament members hostage and behead first the Prime Minister and then the Members, one by one. His plan, thought by many to be far-fetched, now sadly has been shown, in part at least, to be conceivable.

And while the Toronto 18 members were rounded up, resulting in 11 convictions, Canadian extremism did not disappear. Indeed, with the conflict in Syria and the rise of al-Nusra and now ISIS, Canadians, Australians and Belgians are presently overrepresented among Westerners in the fight. And the ideology of ISIS is fanning the flames around the world.

The ISIS claim of having created a real caliphate and having anointed a legitimate caliph (al-Baghdadi), along with their call to an idealised version of being a Muslim (to live like the original Companions) speaks to the inner needs of many Western first and second generation Muslim immigrants who are somehow failing in their lives, as well as religious seekers who have converted and sought out an extremist form of Islam. For them, this call to ISIS resolves issues of identity. If they go on hijrah and migrate from Western lands to the land of Sham and Iraq where ISIS is in charge, they believe it will provide them with a ‘safe’ place to practice their extremist form of Islam. Sadly, they do not realise that they actually have their highest religious freedoms inside Western countries and will forfeit nearly all of their rights in joining ISIS.

ISIS, in its social media outreach, claims, “we are all ISIS” thereby creating a community of belonging. Indeed, their films and social media outreach make a big point of the international gathering, that those of all skin colours and ethnic descent are welcomed with open arms. All Muslims belong and everyone is accepted. Not only that, they claim that fighting jihad brings religious rewards and earthly ones as well, ranging from cures for depression to the pleasures of owning sex slaves.

For Western Muslims lost in their path of self-actualisation, failing somehow in their lives and looking for some way to redeem their manhood, womanhood, their sense of self, or to bolster a failing identity or belonging, ISIS offers them a compelling vision for a path forward – to bring about the final caliphate. It just requires a commitment to violent action.

In October of 2014, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani ash-Shami stated, “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever… including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”

The current ISIS meme that is replicating itself virally over the internet via Twitter, Facebook and other social media, builds upon the ideology laid down by Al Qaeda; namely that Islam, Islamic people and Islamic lands are under attack by the West and that Muslims need to band together and enact terrorist attacks to fight back. As long as the ISIS meme keeps replicating itself in the minds of young, disillusioned, marginalised and even mentally ill Muslims in the West, these attacks will continue to occur and grow in numbers.

One should recognise that the strongest memes are those that replicate themselves well, often even at the expense of their host. In the case of ISIS, the meme requires that the host be willing to self-sacrifice on behalf of the group and its cause to supposedly win the ultimate rewards of paradise. A small number of Muslims who cannot find their way to belong to society, feel rejected or lack purpose in their lives, who want adventure or to bolster their sense of manhood or womanhood, or who are angered by geopolitics and insults to their religion are buying in to that belief. If left unstopped, they will continue to cause death and destruction in the West. The belief among those who drink the ‘kool-aid’ proffered by ISIS is that they are engaging in a powerful compact with Allah. They may have to kill and die for it, but it is their Muslim identity and duty to do so, even inside Western countries they now call home.

Ultimately, the lethal cocktail of terrorism relies on the interaction of a group, its ideology, the social support that exists for both and the vulnerabilities of individuals who are exposed to the group and its ideology. While it is unlikely ISIS will be defeated anytime soon, the Western world can work to delegitimise its ideology, poking holes in its claims and showing what is actually happening in Iraq and Syria and de-glamourising the call to jihad. It can identify vulnerable persons and begin to redirect them to other ways of answering their needs and concerns. But these things take time, resources and thoughtful approaches. Until Western governments commit to spending on thoughtful counterterrorism prevention, intervention and redirection, committing resources as they do for military kinetic solutions, there will be no end to either ISIS or stay in place attacks.

Anne Speckhard Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Anne was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 detainees and 800 juveniles. She has also interviewed over 400 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world, including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.

Anne Speckhard
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is the author of five books including the just released, ISIS Defector: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate coauthored with Dr Ahmet S. Yayla, based on 32 interviews with actual ISIS defectors. Over the past fifteen years, Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Turkey Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She has consulted to the U.S. Senate, House, NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, Justice Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and is also a sought after counter-terrorism expert appearing on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times,The Washington Post, London Times and in many other publications.