South Africa should not be lulled into complacency about the threat of attack by the likes of Islamic State (IS) just because it was not participating in the international fight against the terror group.
“What we’re seeing is that no one is totally immune,” said Australia’s special envoy on counter-terrorism, Miles Armitage. He spoke this week in Pretoria at a seminar at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) which asked “Can violent extremism be defeated?”
In an interview afterwards, Armitage was asked if South Africa’s non-involvement in the international anti-IS coalition provided it with immunity from attack.
None was totally immune and complacency could be a problem, he replied.
But “I think SA has many strengths,” he added. Being a democratic and open society and a competitive economy “has been very helpful in terms of building that immunity and acting as a form of innoculation”.
Yet, in an era of lone wolf attacks, of individuals being radicalised and inspired by IS, sometimes just by trawling the internet in their bedrooms, it was hard to be certain of safety, he suggested.
He said that one of the things that IS (also known as ISIS and ISIL and Daesh) had brought into focus was the spectrum of influence of the organisation on individuals.
“Analysts refer to it as Daesh-inspired, Daesh-enabled and Daesh-directed. There is a spectrum between exhortation and encouragement and inspiration on one side and direction and instruction on another.
“And I think in some of these attacks over the last six months we’ve seen a whole range of those – Paris, Indonesia, Turkey, there are plenty of examples.”
In this range of options, it was harder to say how much immunity South Africa had, Armitage indicated.
Australia was towards the other end of another spectrum from South Africa because of its active participation in the international coalition against IS.
Armitage acknowledged this might be a factor in its “significant” foreign fighter problem, but said this should not be exaggerated.
He had earlier detailed in the seminar how Australia had been surprised by the extent of its foreign fighter problem, with about 110 Australians fighting in Syria and Iraq for the likes of IS, and 190 in Australia under investigation.
Over the last four years, Australia had produced about five times the number of foreign fighters than during the previous 25 years when about 30 had gone off to fight in Afghanistan, he said.
“I think [among] the grievances people have that are part of their radicalisation, there are geo-political issues that go beyond their particular country context.
“I think in the Australian context, the government’s position regarding the (Syrian President Bashar Al-) Assad regime, that’s certainly a source of frustration. I know that some of my colleagues have had discussions with young Muslims in Australia who say that well, ‘if you’ve got the ability to take out Daesh, why don’t you take out the Assad regime?’ There are some issues there. And for Al Qaeda, the issue of Palestine is obviously a driver.
“I think it’s also fair to say that if we were to remove all the conflict in the world, if we were to remove all these grievances from the past, would we be living in a world free of violent extremism? I don’t think so. They are a factor but I don’t think we should over emphasise that.
“I think the number of Australian fighters were going at quite a fast rate before Australian joined the coalition and begun the air strikes in Iraq. So I think the correlation between those is not well established. But it’s difficult to generalise. In some places those factors probably are more significant.”
Armitage stressed that Australia was focusing much more on preventing radicalisation of its people rather than fighting violent extremism by law enforcement, intelligence gathering and military action.
And that was what all countries should be doing.
He noted that intense intelligence gathering and law enforcement had degraded the core capabilities and greatly reduced the threat posed by Al Qaeda and Islamiya al Jamiya in Indonesia.
But against IS, the international community also had to do much better in countering its “poisonous ideology,” he said, which was reaching deeper and wider into society to much younger people, through slick propaganda efficiently delivered by social media.
Countries had to counter this by promoting social cohesion and community resilience.
“We need to address the legitimate grievances of the marginalised and excluded. We need to contest the extremist narrative, promote alternative messages.
“And we need to draw on the strengths of our societies.
“The broader agenda beyond a security response has been given much greater prominence over the last year through the White House countering violent extremism process and now more recently with the launch of the UN Secretary General’s Action Plan for Preventing Violent Extremism.”
Armitage said violent extremism would never be eradicated, but it could be contained.
ISS terrorism expert Anneli Botha said that “relative deprivation”, rather than pure poverty, poor education and bad governance – including police brutality against certain groups – were major causes of radicalisation she had identified in her research.
She had discovered that every organisation had a unique profile and so any counter-terrorism strategy based on generalisations was bound to be ineffective.
– African News Agency (ANA)