Ruslan Trad, journalist and analyst:
Education and dialogue can counter terrorism
The more discontentment and poverty there is, the more jihadists there will be
10 November, 2017
Close-up: Ruslan Trad was born in Sofia but is of Syrian descent. He is the founder and head of the Forum for Arab Culture. He is a member of the Foreign Policy Bulgaria blog team and a commentator for the Goethe Institut blog. He is also an analyst for De Re Militari, where he and his colleagues publish war conflict news and military zone maps. He recently released a book entitled The Murder of a Revolution, dedicated to the war in Syria.
- Mr Trad, we witnessed yet another terror attack recently. What do you think was the goal this time and why was the US targeted?
- Indeed, this is the latest in a long series of attacks over the two years since Islamic State took control of huge territories of Syria and Iraq. It feels like not a month has gone by without such incidents since 2015. This is part of the strategy of the terrorist group’s leadership and we should be prepared to see more - especially of the type that are easy to plan and carry out, such as assaults with knife or driving a motor vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians. Remember that a year ago the group’s spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, shortly before he was killed, said two important things. One, Islamic State and jihad as a whole do not rely and are not dependent on control of territories. Second, attacks on foreign targets will increase in frequency because this is part of the group’s strategy against its enemies. Islamic State has assumed responsibility for over 100 attacks. This time, the terrorists hit the heart of New York City - a long-time target of the group, which has been posting calls for attacks on its communication channels. It is important to note that as of noon today (editor’s note - 1 November) no evidence connecting the attacker with Islamic State has been found, even though the organisation remains the main suspect. I follow its channels and it is yet to assume responsibility. Interesting conversations about the attacker’s origin are still to come.
- But why did this occur on Halloween specifically?
- There may be any number of explanations at this point. The reason may have something to do with that date or not. Sometimes the attacks are planned for a date that is significant from the terror group’s perspective. Other groups prefer to attack on a date that is of significance to their enemy. There is still no solid evidence as to why Halloween was selected. I would not be surprised if this was a deliberate timing because of the holiday’s symbolism and the nature of its festivities, with people going out in the streets (for trick-or-treating).
- What kind of a signal does the origin of the perpetrator send?
- It raises an important point. Islamic State is not an exclusively Middle East phenomenon or creation, even though the group traces back its roots to the local conflicts and the chaos in which Iraq was plunged following the US invasion. But nowadays organisations such as Islamic State are international. Fighters from Central Asia and the former Soviet Union republics who represent a huge portion of both international attackers and sympathisers today take a special place. There are channels entirely in Uzbek language, the suspected nationality of the attacker, or in Russian, and these channels of communication are growing in number. In other words, attention should be drawn to this part of the world, which is a veritable factory for terrorists. Uzbekistan has long been a hub for people heading to war in the name of religion. First it was Afghanistan in 1970, and now Syria has become the home of entire militia forces made up only of Chechens and Uzbeks. We are talking about a modern global network that will be difficult to stop today. Despite the fact that they are a minority, these people are extremely well prepared ideologically and military.
- You are talking about a global network that is difficult to stop. What counter-terrorism measures should be taken? Is it really undefeatable? Does it actually boil down to a war that is solely in the name of one religion?
- Religion is the last possible concern of the leadership of a group as the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda. True, perverse interpretations of religious postulates are part of the propaganda and the mechanism to inspire new followers, but these groups have other goals too. Take for example Al-Qaeda, which has been somewhat forgotten because of the larger media interest towards Islamic State. At present, Al-Qaeda has about 70,000 fighters from the Sahara to Afghanistan. The organisation’s network includes money transfers, local structures, and parallel institutions. For years, the group’s branches have been actively participating in local rebellions such as the one in Mali, where the jihadists hijacked the local Tuareg people’s wave of discontentment. The same situation could be seen in Syria, where Al-Qaeda forced the rebels out by taking control of more and more territories. In Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Niger… a spike in activity is seen everywhere. All terrorist groups have one thing in common - they take advantage of injustices and tensions. The more discontentment there is, the more jihadists there will be. The more (oppressive) regimes there are, the more discontentment and poverty there will be - it is a vicious cycle. The terrorist groups exploit bad policies and problems brushed under the rug. Case in point, Islamic State is taking advantage of the rise of far-right parties and the xenophobic sentiments they spread. They use the far-right in their propaganda in yet another vicious cycle of hate. Perhaps this sounds cliched, but the best measures involve education and dialogue, both in the short and the long haul. A common policy on eliminating the existing discontentment is also needed. One viable option is to invest in the development of poor regions in Northern Africa instead of giving money to corrupted governments that only pretend to take action. Governments should communicate with the various communities, a package of measures should be created and, last but not least - young people susceptible to terrorist groups’ ideas should be offered an alternative. They should be able to find solutions in their own countries instead of feeling like aliens and as a consequence being lured by alternatives such as Islamic State and far-right groups. These topics are closely connected.
- How do you explain the fact that the attacker did not have a real weapon and that the incident occurred not far from the World Trade Center memorial in Lower Manhattan?
- There were obviously security failures. But there is more to it. It is really easy and cheap to organise an attack with a motor vehicle. That he brought fake weapon is only significant from the standpoint that were it real there would have been more victims. There have been other cases in which attackers jumping out of a vehicle carry fake weapons. The crucial moment is the method - easy, extremely easy. There is hardly a city in the world that is immune to being targeted by terrorists. The message is more than clear - the jihadists have long been posting images of key US locations, including the site of the latest attack. They are effectively communicating that they are bringing the fight to enemy territory and showing how easy it is to cause chaos and fear.
- Many experts saw similarities between this attack and those on Nice, Barcelona… But what are the differences?
- Except for the location, almost nothing. The model is the same and it has been developed for years all over the world. It is the same method, the same execution, the same ramifications. But the place is interesting in that, as you said, it is close to certain landmarks and it is in the heart of New York City. The US-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will expand to Libya, the region of Sahel, Afghanistan and probably Southeast Asia. Islamic State has bastions in all these parts of the world, so Raqqa and Mosul are not the end. This will happen in early 2018 and will not go unnoticed. Islamic State almost always justifies its attacks with the Coalition’s hits against it.
- Is it too late to defeat terrorism?
- It is not too late to fight but we must make a real effort. For now, all we see is populist measures. This is part of a long conversation to be had about our leadership - not only at home but in today’s international community as a whole. There are no leaders that could (or would) really tackle problems because it is what brings them to and keeps them in power. For now, we are putting the latest bandage on the wound, without treating the causes.
- You recently published a book entitled The Murder of a Revolution, which is dedicated to the war in Syria. What inspired you to write it and is it true that it draws on a personal story?
- Yes, the book is linked to personal stories, but also my work as a free-lance journalist. Over the years, I have been a correspondent in several Middle East countries, but the war in Syria is among the most significant events of our time, certainly for the region. This war, which started as a protest movement against Bashar al-Assad’s decades-long regime, has completely shattered today’s already eroded international relations. The Middle East has also changed - there are new players, replacing fallen old powers. This entire dynamic has not been explained well and many nuances have been completely absent from the narrative about the war. This is what made me write the book - besides telling some human stories, I wanted to try to explain the multitude of elements involved in the war. There has been no book like this in Bulgarian and even though it is not a scientific work, I hope it will turn out to be useful. There is a map of Syria in it and a list of over 100 factions fighting in the war. There are references to the modern history of Syria and an explanation of the structure and some of the specificities of the country’s regime.