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Causes of the Spread of Islamic Terrorist Groups

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Security
Wordcount: 4033 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Account for the spread and expansion of Islamic terrorist groups in the contemporary world.


Following a peak in 2014, deaths from terrorism have fallen for the third consecutive year. The fall in deaths is reflected in the Global Terrorism Scores, which show that 94 countries are improving, compared to 46 that have deteriorated. This is the highest number of countries to record a year on year improvement since 2004 and reflects the increased emphasis placed on countering terrorism around the world since the surge in violence in 2013. However, although the total number of deaths from terrorism has fallen, the threat of terrorism has not diminished in many countries, with over 300 terrorist groups still committing at least one attack in 2017. Additionally over 100 countries experienced at least one terrorist incident with 67 countries experiencing at least one death from terrorism, which is the second highest number of countries recording one death in the past twenty years (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2018; 35). The increase in attacks and deaths across more countries has meant that the impact of terrorism is becoming more widespread; even as deaths from terrorism are decreasing. Furthermore Islamic terrorist organisations have proven to be highly resilient and fluid, splintering and forming new groups and alliances at a rapid rate. Of the 169 terrorist groups responsible for at least one death in 2017, 42 were new groups that had not caused any deaths in previous years (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2018; 35). There is definite reason that fully explains why Islamic extremism expands, why radicalisation of new members occurs and why terrorism attacks continues to occur (Bjørgo 2004;). The spread and expansion of Islamic terror organisations is normally analysed through the prism ‘strain theory’ which is the idea that terrorist mobilisation is a response to the amount of strains and stresses encountered by a particular society however. It is maintained that ‘frame alignment’ is rarely sufficient in persuading people to engage in ‘terrorist behaviour’, and that involvement in acts of violence tends to be preceded by a process of ‘socialisation’ which alters perceptions of self-interest and increases the value of group loyalties and personal ties (Wiktorowicz 2004;8). I will analyse the topic through the prism of ‘Social Movement Theory.’ Social movement theory proposes that movements act rationally in summoning their resources. Depending on what they believe suits their purposes, they will endeavour to take advantage of formal structures as well as informal networks and use all the communication channels open to them, yet they will also adapt and respond to constraints and externally imposed limitations (Meijer 2005;280). I will argue that the recruiters utilising selected recruiting grounds, optimising free speech and lack of controls on the internet account for the continued spread and expansion of Islamic terrorist organisations.

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Recruiting grounds are specific areas that ‘spotters’ identify, locate and approach individuals who are willing to join Islamic terrorist organisations. Research suggests that there are two kinds of physical environment in which recruitment into Islamist militancy takes place. The first are places where Muslims assemble, most notably Mosques. Mosques are a fundamental element in the day to day lives of Muslim communities. They are not just centres for worship and spiritual enrichment, but they host educational activities, perform welfare functions and serve as a gathering place for different generations. Given the importance and the frequency of use of mosques by Muslims for community life, it is rational to think that violent extremists have tried to take advantage of these places in which to unearth support and recruit followers, as there is no more obvious place in which to meet large numbers of devout Muslims, who could be open to the religiously framed political message which Islamist militants hope to convey. Dutch domestic intelligence service assert that extremists in 2002 were trying to take over mosques as ‘safe havens’ from which to arrange logistics and raise funds for active personnel, but also in order to attract potential recruits, closely monitor selected individuals in the early stages and support the process of integrating new personnel into the structures of Islamic extremism (Veiligheidsdienst, A.I.E., 2002;13). In other words, the radical mosques assisted in the process of self-recruitment whereby individuals who had already decided to join up knew ‘where to go’ (O’Neill, S. and McGrory, D., 2010;115-116). Mosques also provide the surroundings for the creation of ‘cliques’, which would then embark on a path into violent extremism. This move into extremism occurs when the spotter lures the individual away from the mosque to continue the radicalisation and recruitment of individuals in secure locations, such as private flats and makeshift prayer halls (Siegel, P.C., 2007). Secondly locations in which individuals are likely to be vulnerable and may thus be receptive to the appeal of violent extremist organisations. A number of studies now indicate that, prisons are a highly conducive location for radicalisation and recruitment (Beckford, J., Joly, D. and Khosrokhavar, F., 2016). Prisons are unsettling environments in which individuals are confronted with existential questions in particularly intensive ways. Conversions towards Islam by non-practicing Muslims (becoming ‘born-again Muslims’) (Richardson 2013;163) or by individuals from other religious backgrounds far outnumber conversions towards other faiths. Others contend that Islam has become a symbol of anti-systemic defiance, and that converting to Islam constitutes an act of rebellion (Khosrokhavar, 2013;284-306). Two principal methods in which such ‘links to the jihad’ can be established. Firstly is through so called ‘radical imams’ who gain access to the prison environment because they claim to provide religious instruction and secondly is through Islamist militant inmates who can facilitate connections into existing networks and being convicted terrorists, their credibility is likely to surpass that of any radical preacher (Vidino, L., 2007). Other than France, no European Union country had an Islamist militant prisoner population of any significance prior to 11 September 2001. Within just a few years, the numbers rose to triple-digit figures in countries like Spain and Britain (Neumann, 2008;21-30). The prison systems have no capacity to control the activities of those convicted for lesser offences, some of whom are certain to engage in radicalisation and recruitment amongst the general prison population. Those who will be released within a relatively short period of time, that is, two or three years – that would merit the greatest attention. Research of these recruiting grounds show that the relationship between the recruiter and the willing individual is as if not more important that the location.

Gateway organisations form part of a ‘conveyor belt’ through which people are prepared for their later involvement in terrorism (Baran, Z., 2005;). Gateways operate along three phases, firstly Indoctrination where religious and political ideas which are similar, if not identical, to those of violent extremists are conveyed. Secondly socialisation which introduces individuals into the radical environment in which it becomes easy to establish social networks with violent extremists and find ‘links to the jihad. Thirdly is subversion where values which are incompatible with democracy and the full integration of Muslims into societies are embraced. Dealing with gateway organisations represents one of the greatest challenges in the fight against violent extremism. Secondly it had been demonstrated that ‘radical preachers’ tend to appear as ‘central nodal points’ in the formation of terrorist networks, but ‘do not… feature as prominently or as decisively [at the] training or tactical planning’ stage. Radical imams can be said to serve as chief propagandists, who make the basic narrative of Islamist militancy relevant to the life conditions of a second and third generation European Muslim audience. They are seen as religious authorities, who provide rulings (fatwas) and justifications for violent jihad. They are recruitment magnets, who attract followers from a diversity of backgrounds and integrate them into a coherent network. They generate networks of networks by forging national and international links between different groups and networks, thus providing the glue that holds the Islamist militant movement together. Radical imams mainly appeal to second a8nd third generation European Muslims, who – despite their acute sense of alienation and exclusion – are firmly rooted in the West. They articulate their followers’ cultural anxieties and provide them with an ideological template that allows them to rebel against their parents and Western society at the same time (W.D.T.C., 2006;160, Hudson 1993; 13). The third type of actor involved in recruitment is often described as ‘activist’. The activist provides leadership and cohesion. They are normally the point of contact who the cell has originated, and he is the individual responsible for holding it together. The activist is the most persuasive and most ideologically driven member of the group, manages the group’s ‘external relations’ as they are most likely to have a network of friends and associates through whom to ‘spot’ and select new recruits and leading the process of cell expansion (Sageman, M., 2004).The activist leads the engagements with the guiding authority and oversees the groups integration into the larger network of Islamic terrorist organisations which has access to the strategic leadership, resources finances and guidance. An example of the role of the activist in action was the self starter group of Ceuta Spain in 2006, which was dismantled by the Spanish police. Karin Abdelselam Mohamed who was radicalised in prison as a result of involvement in petty crime, befriended a group of eleven youths from a predominately Muslim area. This group met in a mosque outside formal prayers without mosque leadership. In these meetings Islamist militant videos and songs were utilised to further radicalise influential members of the group which developed into the group engaging in actions including the spreading of rumours of impending attacks. This was quickly followed by destructive actions with the intention of escalating towards conducting a high casualty attack which had already been agreed on. The activist sought to engage his contact and connections who he met while in prison, some of those who had been involved in recruitment and radicalisation in Iraq. Due to the diligence of the Spanish security services, this link was blocked which denied the self starters the opportunity to become a guided and funded cell capable of conducting a terrorist attack (Jordan, J. and Horsburgh, N., 2005; 169-191).

Islamic linked online extremism, its support base and networks represent an online social movement (2019;80). According to social movement theorists such as Castells and Diani, a social movement is represented by a group of people with a collective identity and shared values, and consists of both formal and informal networks (Christiansen 2009;1258). The communication technological developments since the turn of the millennium and accessibility and limitless opportunities of the internet is one of the strategic factors driving the increase in and spread of Islamic terrorist groups across the globe. Technology developments in software, hardware and networks are all inextricably tied to both the spread and expansion of Islamic terror groups, by playing a key role in spreading violent extremist messages to individuals who might otherwise remain immune (Hilton 2018;). The benefits of Internet technology are numerous, starting with its unique suitability for sharing information and ideas, which is recognized as a fundamental human right (UNDOC 2012:2).Internet technology has made it easier for an individual to communicate with relative anonymity, quickly and effectively across borders, to an almost limitless audience Roser 2018;). Islamic terrorist organisations and their supporters have utilised this technology for a wide range of purposes, including recruitment, financing, propaganda, training, incitement to commit acts of terrorism and the gathering and dissemination of information for terrorist purposes (UNDOC 2012;1). Ayman Al Zawahiri, wrote in 2001: ‘We must… get our message across to the masses… and break the media siege imposed on the jihad movement… This can be achieved through the use of the Internet’ (Al Zawahiri, A., 2008).The effective use of the internet to spread and expand terrorist organisations was reflected in the analyse conducted by the Malaysian Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division, which revealed that 98% of Malaysian terrorist supporters and members were recruited online (Azizan 2016;1). This argument is further demonstrated through the reported online recruitment by Islamic State of at least 40,000 individuals from about 110 countries, who have travelled to Iraq and Syria in support of the organisation (Chan 2017; 1). Islamic terrorist organisations continue to focus their efforts on creating a solid support base through the online space, which remains a challenge and threat to regional security, developing tactics to appeal to audiences in diverse online communication platforms (Yasin, N.A.M. and Azman, N.A.B., 2019;80).The internet allows for the complete radicalisation, training and funding of terrorist activities with little footprint (Behr 2013;). Firstly, the Internet is used to illustrate and reinforce the ideological message which recruits are likely to receive in private study sessions such as the case of the Dutch Hofstad group, for example, most experts agree that the group would not have moved along the path of Islamist militancy as quickly and as decisively as it had without the Internet from which members gained most of their inspiration and ideological support (Vidino, L., 2007;585). Secondly the Internet allows recruits to network amongst like-minded individuals such as the Glostrup network from Denmark, for instance, had failed to hook up with a ‘link to the jihad’ in their home country for several months, but quickly managed to find more experienced militants in other European countries via the Internet (Taarnby Jensen, M., 2006).

A recent trend has been the pledging of allegiance to terror groups with which the individual has had no contact at all. Indeed, “Half of all plots with an IS connection have been conducted by people who have had no direct contact with IS” (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2016;35) This combined with the events that unfolded following Wikileaks and Snowdon revelations, the requests for privacy from government agencies that led to a boom in end to end encryption technology that is being exploited by ‘virtual planners’ who have taken advantage of the total anominity the internet can provide. Susceptible individuals searching online can engage with these organisations and operatee according to the principles of ‘leaderless resistance’ in which the leadership provided incitement and (religious) justification but left it to their supporters’ initiative to act on them Institute for Economics and Peace, 2016;35.This can be clearly seen in the case of Irfan Raja who was convicted of downloading and sharing extremist materials in September 2007 along with four other British Muslims of Pakistani descent. His entire radicalisation occurred online, he declared his intention to participate in ‘jihad’ and at that time an extremist based in the United States put him in touch with the four others, who were based in Bradford, around 350 kilometres away. The five decided to go to Pakistan in order to attend a training camp and fight in Afghanistan and a more experienced ‘jihadist’, who was able to provide precise instructions on how to make their way to Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. (Casciani, D., 2007. S).

In this essay I have taken a systematic approach to explain how the spread and expansion of Islamic terrorist organisations has occurred in the contemporary world. Much of the drive behind the motivation to join Islamic terrorist groups parallels other group formation: individuals may seek companionship, survival and security, status, power, control and achievement (EU Lifelong Learning Program 2017). The Social movement theory and the look at how recruiters use recruiting grounds show how radicalisation process is most potent in group settings, as individuals ‘cluster’ around an influential personality, group of friends or established structure (Reynolds, S.C. and Hafez, M.M., 2017). Group radicalisation through in-person social interaction is at the heart of recruitment in most highly economically developed countries as well as in many other countries which has led to the overall spread and expansion of Islamic Terrorist organisations (Osman, S. 2010).. Utilising the development of technology and in reaction to the efforts of security services Islamist militant recruitment has largely been driven underground and I contend that these organisations are innovative and adaptive. Modern technology enables groups to evade authorities and transmit ideologies as well as plans with impunity. These organisations rely on the social environment to spread their message quickly and easily, where they apply a centralised leadership but a decentralised operational control. This approach fosters rapid expansion with recruiter’s indentifying suitable individuals from within safe locations. Weather the individuals are successful in their ultimate objective it still provides maximum effect for terrorist organisations in terms of information warfare and future recruitment. The spread and expansion of Islamic terrorist organisations in the contemporary world will continue utilising the networks discussed in this essay however these organisations will adapt continually in response to global and regional developments.


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Hinton, P., The Spread of Islamic Terror in the Contemporary World.


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