The threat of modern Islamist terrorism

Al-Shabaab fighters during military drill in Somalia. Photo credit: Mohamed Sheikh Nor/AP

In Brief


  • CNN journalist and co-author of Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al-Qaeda, Tim Lister, says the growing number of lone wolfs and radicalised youth traveling to jihadist hotspots pose the biggest danger today
  • For de-radicalisation efforts to work, authorities must court (and work with) radical influential figures who don’t believe in what groups such as Al-Shabaab, ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda are about
  • Checks and balances are critical in anti-terror legislation, particularly laws that allow intrusive surveillance 


Regarding the threat of terrorism in the world, what is the biggest danger today? 

The biggest current dangers are the expansion of ISIS to places like Libya and its new affiliation with Boko Haram in Nigeria. And the growing number of 'lone-wolf' terrorists in western countries, as well as the travel of hundreds of young people to Iraq and Syria, which is very difficult to stop because so few of these people have obvious connections to terror groups like ISIS.

Have exposés such as yours raised the level of scrutiny of western converts by terror groups? How is the pool of spies for intelligence agencies being impacted? 

Groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS are very careful nowadays about admitting western converts, or people saying they are converts. They realize that for western intelligence, having an informant inside these organisations is a very precious asset. So they test and question such recruits at great length before allowing them any sense of how the organisation operates or what its senior figures are doing. ISIS in particular runs a very devolved structure, so a western recruit would get nowhere near the top leadership. It's impossible to tell how many informants have managed to penetrate these groups. Periodically they claim to have executed a spy - AQAP did so a year ago with a guy who had come from Sweden - but it's difficult to establish whether these individuals really were spies. 

You have previously mentioned the ‘lone-wolf operators’ and the danger they represent. How can they be detected effectively considering the dearth of information?

Tim Lister - Journalist with CNN

This is one of the biggest challenges. Intelligence relies on monitoring communications, meetings and associations. If there are none, and no suspicious behavior online or in social media, these people can emerge from nowhere. Whether they present a danger depends on their skills as bomb-makers (such as the Boston bombers) or as gunmen (such as the Kouachi brothers in Paris.) Many would-be jihadists are amateurs whose aspirations never approach an operational state; but a few do cross the line from talk and thought to action. In a democratic society it is impossible to monitor everyone who expresses militant views.  

Amid the increasing fears about the number of young people from the west (and other regions) heading to fight with the declared-radical groups like ISIS, are there any effective government-led initiatives to counter the appeals by the groups and hence stop further radicalization?

There are many programs operating in western Europe. Some have been more effective than others. The critical thing is to get influential figures with the same mindset - radical Salafists who don't believe in what ISIS and Al Qaeda are about - to join the deradicalization effort. Government programs in France, for example, have failed because they have relied on moderate preachers who are despised by would-be jihadists. Of course, it's not easy to get radicals or former members of terror groups to join such initiatives, but they have proved more effective than most. Even a quarter of those released or deported from Guantanamo Bay have rejoined terror groups. But governments are realising at last that they have to provide serious resources for programs to spot and deter young people who might be vulnerable - whether they are in prison or in local communities where a militant Imam might have undue influence. 

In Africa there are various anti-terrorism laws and measures being implemented to deal with terror groups especially in East and West Africa. However, citizens (e.g. in Kenya) are wary, stating that some sections of the laws give blanket powers to security agencies to violate constitutionally-enshrined rights. Is this a legitimate concern? How can we find a balance? Are there regions where effective laws are generally acceptable in the democratic space?

This is a huge issue. Governments across the world are implementing tougher anti-terror measures, which include more intrusive surveillance of suspected individuals and preventive confiscation of passports. But such powers can be abused where there are no checks and balances, where surveillance and preventive detention are not subject to judicial review. Security agencies that are not sufficiently independent of the government of the day can easily be persuaded to spy on and harass political opponents. But post 9/11 we are living in a different world where the balance between civil rights and security has shifted, most notably in the United States, where for years it was held that the President and the Executive had the right to seize terror suspects overseas and hold them incommunicado - all the while using interrogation methods that would be considered torture by many.  

US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admitted to the dilemma at a Congressional hearing two weeks ago, when he said "There's a balance between protection of national security and protection of civil liberties and privacy. And so if there is some way that we can just find the needles without having to bother not just one haystack but hundreds and hundreds of haystacks to find those nefarious needles that would be great. Right now we can't do that. So we do our upmost to ensure that we don't infringe unnecessarily and certainly illegally on...there are very stringent laws about this."  

Would you say Nigerian and Kenyan governments have adequate intelligence to thwart attacks by Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab respectively?

It's very difficult to penetrate remote places and highly suspicious and security-conscious organisations. Boko Haram has used remote parts of Nigeria and bordering countries to plan, train and ambush security services. Al-Shabaab can use vast areas of ungoverned Somalia - and its long border with Kenya - to plan attacks. It's obviously very difficult to keep tabs on such groups; otherwise they would have been degraded and destroyed long ago. That said, there are clearly inefficiencies within both the Nigerian and Kenyan military and security apparatus, as well as resource constraints and a lack of technology.

How does leaking of information (deemed critical), particularly content that detail covert operations of intelligence bodies impact the fight against terrorism? Should there be a line to draw, even as we claim to serve the ‘public’s interest’? 

Another huge question. (Edward) Snowden obviously thought he was doing democracy a service by revealing what he (and indeed many others) regarded as excessively intrusive, blanket surveillance - a vacuuming up of information about ordinary people the world over without any accountability. Additionally, he raised questions through his disclosures about the vulnerability of the private communications of public figures such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel to surveillance by an ally. But in the process of divulging vast amounts of U.S. National Security Agency data, Snowden also gave terror groups and others an insight into the way intelligence agencies work. Leaks are often double-edged: they reveal wrong-doing or excessive use of power but at the same time can undermine legitimate operations, whether against fraudsters, drugs traffickers or terrorists. But the world is probably a better place for having had Watergate and the Pentagon Papers: and even with regard to Snowden, Clapper said recently:  "I think a major takeaway for me, after the Snowden leaks, was that we, in the intelligence community, need to be more transparent."

With the passage of time, views about leaks and leakers change. But we have to remember that not all leakers are whistle-blowers; many have their own agenda - to shape a narrative or debate in their favour. 

Several disenfranchised terror groups have emerged especially after the September 11 attack in the US. Is the fight against groups seemingly without visible leaders a losing battle? In your view, what would be the best way to address the threats emanating from activities of such groups?

It's not necessarily a losing battle - after all Al Qaeda's core capabilities have been hollowed out with the capture or killing of so many of its leaders. But it's an ongoing battle - and until some of the root causes of militancy in the Muslim world, and among Muslims in the West, are confronted, there will be no end in sight. The reasons for this militancy are many: there is the defining struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims, a sense of hopelessness among young unskilled Arab men with no sense of opportunity in their lives who can easily e manipulated by silver-tongued imams. And in the age of social media, these recruiters can get into every bedroom, mosque and cafe with the click of a mouse. 

But with a group like ISIS, its brutality and betrayal of Islam - according to prominent Salafist preachers - is the most potent weapon that can deter others from joining and financing it. Above all, this is a struggle for the soul and future of Islam. 

How do Al-Shabaab and ISIS justify attacks on fellow Muslims?  

They say they have forfeited their rights to be considered Muslims through their behavior or allegiance or history or membership of a group deemed 'unIslamic.' Hence ISIS' rejection of the Shia as followers of a deviant sect. These people are 'takfiri' - who have committed apostasy and are therefore outcasts. 

Click here to read the summary of Agent Storm: My Life In Al-Qaeda