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The following blog post was written by Andrew Rento, a first-year Excel@Carolina student in the EURO-TAM program. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not reflect the official policy or position of CES.

Transnational Terrorism Today Conference: Keynote Speech

UNC’s 2017 Transnational Terrorism Today Conference’s keynote speech was delivered by Bruce Hoffman, University of Washington’s School of Foreign Services professor. He is also Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program. He was also appointed by the United States Congress to serve as a commissioner on the Independent Commission to Review the FBI’s Post-9/11 Response to Terrorism and Radicalization. Along with serving as an advisor to various offices and headquarters in Iraq, he has edited several books including The Evolution of the Global Terrorist Threat: From 9/11 to Osama bin Laden’s Death (2014). Hoffman’s keynote speech mainly focused on ISIS insurgence and Al Qaeda resurgence, and these two themes were cemented through various examples. In addition, Hoffman commented on the broader context of current political trends related to terrorism as well as how the West should continue its efforts in lieu of his often-daunting statements. The information that follows comes from Hoffman’s speech which cannot be specifically attributed to him, but rather refers to his research that may change depending on source.

Hoffman first focused on ISIS, the terrorist organization most recognizable today. After the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks, any hope that ISIS violence would remain confined to Iraq was thrown aside as Hoffman said, “ISIS is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.” Further proof of ISIS’ temporary permanence is their infiltration into the EU. Today, with hundreds of operatives in the EU and hundreds in Turkey alone, ISIS has at least eighteen branches around the world. Hoffman warned that many of these branches may develop their own leaders, become independent, and pose significant threats separate from, but alongside ISIS. In addition, Hoffman cited estimates that 7,000 foreign fighters are expected to return home with 40,000 in all having been trained in Syria and Iraq under ISIS. This means that in the past four years, ISIS has surpassed the number of foreign fighters who journeyed to Al Qaeda in the 1980s and 1990s combined.

The reason for this success is ISIS’ outreach and communication. Their use of technology and media has been astoundingly successful as Hoffman called it a “self-sustaining echo-chamber.” ISIS uses free social-media and social-messaging platforms to directly engage with their audience which removes the possibility for anyone to misinterpret their messages. They have even live-streamed ongoing terrorist attacks. In this way, ISIS can give their audience a selective taste of the war, telling them exactly what they want to hear. In addition, each individual foreign fighter can have thousands of followers on Instagram or Twitter and maintain daily, real-time communication with their audiences. ISIS also utilizes “narrow casting” which aims uniquely crafted messages to a specific niche within the global public. For example, ultra-violence can resonate with a young man frustrated with society while theological references will resonate with religious audiences. Finally, ISIS uses western media to their advantage. They have happily claimed responsibility for various terrorist attacks and have relied on news agencies to spread their message and promote their image. Hoffman added that these headlines boosted ISIS’ self-esteem, believing they were more important and more threatening than they actually were.

This leads into the next section of the keynote speech: Al Qaeda. Hoffman said that if his ISIS overview seemed depressing, the audience needed to prepare themselves because Al Qaeda is currently more dangerous than ISIS. He explained that their success is due to the slow-and-steady structural rebuilding while staying under the shadow of ISIS. While ISIS targeted the world-at-large for recruitment, Al Qaeda focused on specific targets for political or military reasons. They also posed as a moderate extremist group and presented themselves as the more palatable rival than ISIS. Not only did this attract many to join their fight who were turned off by ISIS’ “unrestrained exaltation of violence,” but it also tricked Westerners into believing Al Qaeda was less of a threat. Similarly, they have been content with letting ISIS take all the heat from the Western coalition against terrorism while they sat in the background growing, undisturbed.

The reason why Hoffman pressed that Al Qaeda is more of a threat is because of their more organized command system and the more expansive web of connections they have spread across the world. Despite ISIS being known for rapid recruitment, Al Qaeda has actually quadrupled its ranks in the past few years. They have also beaten back ISIS in East Africa, taken control of Yemen’s coastline highways ensuring a constant source of revenue via smuggling, and are poised to take advantage of ISIS’ recent territorial losses. Hoffman said that the only thing in which ISIS is superior is the name of their brand and their maneuverability throughout Europe.

The keynote appropriately followed with a comment on how the West can efficiently counter and react to the terrorist threat in the future. Firstly, the “War on Terror” has lasted longer than both World Wars because it has become a war of attrition which always favors the guerrilla fighters. Furthermore, terrorist groups are intelligent and manipulative, proving the battle will not be won easily. In some instances, terrorist groups have succeeded with their goals in the West, such as ISIS having pushed liberal democracies like the United States to adopt illiberal security solutions to terrorist threats that demonized immigrants and violated individual liberties. These types of responses supported ISIS’ rhetoric, convinced more civilians to join their cause, and achieved the opposite of what the democracies intended. Another example is how the West has proven overall inadequate at training partners outside the U.S. and Europe in anti-terrorism techniques, as all regions in which terrorist groups are active have shown an increase in terrorist activity. Hoffman attested that the inability of the powerful Western nations to win the “War on Terror” is due to their divided, nationalistic approaches. Each nation has taken independent steps to defend its own border and citizens without consulting allies. This has made any united anti-terrorism attempts futile. France and Germany’s resistance to NATO expansion in counter-terrorism did not help create unity against terrorism either.

Hoffman ended his speech by saying that if things do not change, the war will not end. Even more daunting is the possibility that if the disparity between Al Qaeda and ISIS grows too large and the two merge to any degree, the threat against the West would escalate greatly. That being said, Hoffman stresses that realistically, the West is not under severe threat. In recent years, the terrorist threat has often been exaggerated and—in a historical comparison—overblown. “We know how to fight terrorism” he assured the crowd. However, he made it very clear that NATO members need to commit to a complete restructuring to the international approach to terrorism. They need to anticipate attacks better, put more resources into effective strategies, make massive improvements on information sharing between NATO states as well as with individual security structures, and to understand that in the long haul, single victories are not proof of turning a corner towards overall victory. To conclude, we are not in the midst of a nightmare. The international terrorism threat is not our greatest concern, and the terrorists will not win. But the question remains, can we make them lose?

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