On Shifting Sands: Victory and Peace in the Age of Global Terror

Photo: CNN

By Sydney Fernandez

Prelude: Enemies Without Borders

The Global Jihad Movement of today bears little resemblance to the starkly clad pious fighters that Usama Bin Laden imported from the Islamic universities of Egypt and Sudan to the mountains of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Fighting this metamorphic enemy will require a shift in approach by the global community that focuses on alleviating the enabling factors behind terrorism: poverty, political instability, and social alienation. The international coalition against ISIS must contend with the group’s unchecked territorial ambitions whilst simultaneously striving to combat radicalization at home. To do so, a real and durable solution must be brought to bear on the global migration crisis, but accomplishing this aim may only be done by a unified group of partner states. This group will have to include regional rivals, such as Turkey and Iran, who must be convinced to set aside long standing power struggles in order to achieve the aim of security.


Shifting Strategies
The Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015 was an ominous signal of the metastasizing nature of the Global Jihad Movement. As the remnants of Usama Bin Laden’s organized religious fundamentalists were being eradicated by focused American air power globally, a disjointed network of young men, raised in Europe and disenfranchised with both European Culture and their own, who rejected fundamental Islamic principles such as abstinence from alcohol and sex just as much as they abhorred western gluttony,  had been plotting the most sinister terror attacks the West had yet witnessed.(1) Charlie Hebdo did not target financial institutions, like 9/11, or the armed forces, like the USS Cole Bombing, it targeted the value of free speech, a critical sinew in the muscle fiber that holds western society together. The 13 November terror attacks in Paris undermined the crucial belief that we were free to gather publicly to enjoy concerts, sports, or other public activities without risk of being shot, run over, stabbed, or blown up. These attacks were carefully chosen to target not just our citizens but our values.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continued to advance the Movement’s easternmost flank, ensuring a constant flow of crucial battlefield victories to strengthen the group’s global prestige even as they lined their coffers with petrodollars looted from Iraqi banks and swelled their ranks with forcefully recruited youths from captured territory.

Unexploited Terrain
A significant advantage honed by the Global Jihad Movement in recent years has been their ability to reach disenfranchised Muslim youth living in the west with targeted and superbly produced media. Isis’s Dabiq and Al-Qaeda’s Inspire both read like (and target much the same audience as) young-adult magazines, and sharply edited video footage showcasing elite fighters with sophisticated weapons coming from Hezbollah and others encourages young men to join the cause. By providing constant reinforcement to the fundamentalist underpinnings these groups ascribe to, whilst simultaneously basing their media campaigns off of the most successful in Hollywood, Jihadist groups aim to reach and radicalize as many young men as possible. Absent from the global community’s counter-insurgency campaign is any sort of organized counterattack to the Jihadi media war.

Unwelcoming Horizons
With the recent capture of Mosul by the Iraqi army and encircling of Ar-Raqqa by an uneasy coalition of Turks and Kurds,(2) the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s territorial ambitions have been significantly quarantined. While this bodes well for the innocent people subjugated to their brutal regime, it does not spell the end to their reign of terror. Already there exist tacit indications that ISIS is encouraging its global network to focus their efforts on attacks abroad,(3) and the final dissolution of the their territory could drive huge portions of the currently dormant radical population to action.

On All Fronts
While the reduction of ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria bode’s well for the global community’s ability to limit Jihadi principles to criminal acts of violence rather than territorial acquisition, the Middle East is not the only front where ISIS controls some territory. Having suffered recent setbacks in the coastal city of Sirte,(4) the Islamic State offshoot in Libya seems content to expand their training and logistical capacity near Derna in the far east of the war-torn nation. But with chronic instability and infighting between political factions still plaguing the region, the Islamic State in Libya need only bide their time until an opportunity presents itself for them to expand once again.
Likewise in the Lake Chad region, Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015, has retreated into rural regions in Nigeria’s northeast after a series of military setbacks. (6) But with Nigeria’s military having been neutered for decades for fear of a coup, and the nepotistic and corrupt government unable to alleviate chronic poverty and social insecurity, the bacterial breeding grounds that allow Jihadi principles to thrive remains.
Without targeted support from the international community to address the underlying social, political, and economic issues that plague nations where terrorism is rampant, it is unlikely that any meaningful advances in the global counter-terror campaign will occur. Previous strategies focusing on eliminating key leaders and destroying weapons and personnel proved ineffective throughout the Iraq and Afghan wars, and are unlikely to be any more effective in places such as Yemen or Libya.


The agonizing wait for their basic needs of food and water is a microcosm of that which refugees will wait much longer for: safety in a new land.
Photo: legacycollective.org

The Curse of Fear

Perhaps the most successful tactic implemented by Jihadi strategists is their ability to convince Western nations of the need to elect nationalist leaders who are willing to trample democratic principles in order to combat their ideology. The vehement backlash against immigration throughout Europe, the rise of of anti Muslim rhetoric in the United States at the highest levels of government, and the increased focus on policies that ignite the racial divide further marginalizes the communities that Jihadis seek to recruit from. The tens of thousands of refugees trapped in Greece and Turkey with no state to represent them now feel trapped between fortress Europe and the meat-grinder-esque cities of Aleppo and Homs. ISIS aims to become their sole option for the provision of safety and basic needs, and they accomplish this aim through insider attacks that fuel Western suspicions and racism, and violence in origin countries that causes displacement in the first place. Jihadis seek to control both ends of the migration route, from the highest debate chambers in the EU to the debris and body-filled streets of Syria, ensuring those trapped between have no-one to turn to but them for protection and statehood.

Stateless Victims

a 38 year old-woman named Avan recounted the story of why her family was forced to flee their home community in the perilous border region between Syria and Turkey. Her nephew and son had been threatened with death should they refuse to join the local militia. Extortion and forced conscription are extremely common threads forcing families to flee Syria. Slipping away in the middle of the night, Avan’s extended family arrived to a sibling community that welcomed them the next day. She had been unable to convince her stubborn and prideful nephew to flee with them, and feared for his safety. During their first night in Turkey, the same militia knocked on the door of the small house they were staying in, and again demanded her son join them. The next morning, Avan saw her nephew for the last time – delivered to her doorstep in two trash bags. Avan resolved to continue north, and delivered a baby boy in Greece whom she named after her prideful nephew. I met Avan while working in the capacity of medical translator with a Swedish NGO in Ritsona Refugee Camp, Greece. I was lucky enough to hear her story, and many others about life before and during the war. Young men often face the same dilemma in conflict zones: Join or die. Often they choose to flee with their families. In the case of Syrians and Iraqis, they are frequently met with suspicion and fear upon their arrival in Europe; treatment that serves to alienate them from society, and, given the right push from Jihadi media, radicalize them.

Abdulrahman was an exhausted man with the look of a fighter – his feet adorned with well-used running shoes and track pants, his belly pudgy but his arms muscular, scarred and burned. He was stocky and short, his eyes blurred and empty. When the Jihadists came to Ar-Raqqa he sent his family to be with relatives, and he and his father fought them in the narrow streets where they had played soccer. First it was Al-Nusra, but soon ISIS replaced them, and Abdulrahman painfully recounted watching his father die in combat. He travelled to Germany when the borders were still open, hoping to secure a passport and bring his family immediately. As his relatives reached greece, the EU-Turkey Agreement of March of 2016 went into affect, stranding his family, one of tens of thousands, in squalor on the Macedonian border. I met him there, at an abandoned gas station-turned refugee camp, where he had come from Germany as an EU citizen to protect his family, fearing for the safety of his wife and young girls. Abdulrahman worried rightfully for the safety of the women in his family – the rates of sexual exploitation among women and girls living in displacement contexts is shockingly high. The longer the global community waits to address the issue of migrants and refugees in Greece, Turkey, and elsewhere without a suitable relocation plan, the more young women become victims of rape, trafficking, extortion, and violence.

A Global Call to Action
The so-called Global War on Terror is reaching critical mass. It now involves previously uncommitted actors such as Turkey, Iran, and Russian all operating within the same theater, sometimes in close proximity to American or Gulf Coalition aircraft or ground forces. The risk of any major player’s proxy actors engaging the other, thereby causing a spillover from regional to global conflict, is high. Meanwhile, Jihadi groups are able to exploit high conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq to fuel regional rivalries or force commitment of ground troops. Simultaniously, they are expanding their training, logistics, and planning capabilities unmolested in fringe territories ranging from the Philippines to Lake Chad.

In order to reverse the catastrophic affects of Jihadi groups, the global community must first focus on achieving a consensus of shared goals while focusing on sharply reducing the disastrous affects of sustained air campaigns on innocent populations in built up areas. By focusing on mutually beneficial objectives, such as bolstering regional security through bilateral dialogue, regional rivalries can be carefully mitigated. A superb example is that of Turkey and Iran, whose shared hostilities can be relegated to the back-burner as both nations focus on preventing the disastrous affects that ISIS control of Syria would have on their shared security neighborhood. By coming to a universal agreement that every refugee rescued is one less that may turn to Jihad, the global community can focus resources in places like Turkey and Greece with high refugee populations to alleviate suffering and provide access to education and other basic needs. Simultaneously, nations bringing substantial air power to bear on Syria can reduce the intensity of their bombing campaigns and put universal pressure on the Assad regime to do the same, thereby sharply reducing the number of refugees fleeing places such as Ar-Raqqa presently.

To truly eradicate the Global Jihad Movement, the international community must create a political milieu that is decidedly non-conducive to terrorist recruiting. That means targeting poverty abroad, racism at home, and government exploitation and corruption everywhere. Sustained bombing campaigns, troop surges, and increased security measures are only stopgaps, and bad ones at that, to reducing the effects of terrorism. Capacity building must begin among allies, such as within Europe, which could stand to participate on much stronger terms in ensuring the sanctity of their security neighborhood. A unified command between Europe and other Western nations such as the U.S. would provide the launching point for further recruitment of powerful allies in the fight against terrorism such as Iran and Russia, but to do so would require the realization that the risk of sustained engagement in counter-terror operations is greater than the risk of conventional war between old rivals. Setting aside regional power struggles will be crucial to reducing terrorism, as is evident in the case of Europe and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Israel and Lebanon, and Turkey and the Kurds. By using the fight against terrorism as the launching point of discussion, shared dialogue has a much higher chance of success and a bedrock on which to build in later years.


Since the rise of terrorism as a global force during the 1980’s and 1990’s, the global community has achieved no substantial or meaningful victories against the surging Jihadist forces. The newest generation of Jihadi sleeper cells, decidedly different in appearance and tactics than the last, is taking the battle to the streets of major western cities. Meanwhile, the Islamic State Movement has succeeded in carving out enclaves from which they will be difficult to permanently dislodge in several countries, namely Syria, Libya, and the Lake Chad region. Without a drastic shift in strategy to address the underlying conflict-determinant factors that cause violence, and a meaningful plan to aid migrants fleeing war, the global community risks further setbacks in the fight against terror. Terrorism now affects every major industry and nearly every nation on the planet. What’s more, it has claimed hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable lives. Previous generations have overcome great challenges, but they were often of the type that required force and grit: a Nazi war machine or tough economic times. Now, the issue of Global Jihad requires a decidedly different touch: A focus on migration, more precise military operations, shared capacity building, and a forging of new partnerships in the fight against extremism.

Proposals to the Global Community: 

1) Build global partnerships by focusing on the shared aim of reducing the influence of jihadist groups

To reduce jihadist groups’ ability to exploit international tensions, utilize diplomacy to bring regional rivals to the table for thorough discussions on the steps necessary to defeat terrorism. By making counterterrorism the cornerstone of diplomatic aims, other disagreements can be resolved more amicably.

2) Implement durable solutions to the migration crisis to reduce the size of Jihadis’ recruiting pool. 

The international community must recognize the potential for permanence among Europe’s new refugee population. Displaced individuals must have access to basic human needs such as housing and education as quickly as is feasible. Such an act is not only humanitarian in nature, but also crucial to preventing the galvanization of support for Jihadi principles among disenfranchised segments of the refugee population who feel betrayed by the global community.

3) Provide support to nations battling the enabling factors of terrorism: poverty, political instability, and social inequality 

It is critical to support nations currently battling terrorism: Not just with weapons but also with military and financial support, as well as committed development programs that address poverty and social inequality. Such aid can be predicated on fair and transparent political processes, which will serve to combat corruption and ensure fair representation as well.



1) : The identity of many of the Paris Attackers bears striking similarity: Nationals of European Nations, hailing from North Africa, having grown up disenfranchised with both Europe and Islam, and known by others as vice-indulging risk-takers.  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34832512

2) : In a manner eerily similar to George Bush’s “mission accomplished” Iraqi officials declare an end to the caliphate after liberation of Mosul

3) : As ISIS territory dwindles, their capacity to call for attacks abroad remains a significant threat
4) : With the help of U.S. air power, Libyan allies push ISIS from Sirte, but where are their fighters retreating to?
5) : Boko Haram may be retreating, but the path of destruction they have left remains a substantial challenge, says UNHCR

2 thoughts on “On Shifting Sands: Victory and Peace in the Age of Global Terror

  1. Syd, I like your thoughtful analysis, but I have to question one of the underlying ideas.

    Your insight on the inseparability of humanitarian efforts and security efforts, I think is correct, but may be incomplete. Security and humanitarian work can certainly have a positive relationship in that strengthening one reenforces the other. But it’s also possible that they might have a negative relationship where strengthening one degrades the other.

    Specifically, I think that accommodating refugees and migrants degrades the security of the migrant’s country of origin. I know this sounds heartless and improbable, but I’ll try to explain. The reason is a little complicated.

    Defeating an insurgency requires pressure from the local populace. A population that won’t resist the insurgency will never be free from it. I saw this in Afghanistan. The US did everything it could as a third party: more military might, more monetary resources, and more infrastructure than the locals could dream of bringing to bear on their own. But it was fundamentally an American initiative. The locals would simply not fully buy in, and so the Taliban was never fully resisted and flushed out. You rightly pointed out that The US strategy “proved ineffective throughout the Iraq and Afghan wars, and is unlikely to be any more effective in places such as Yemen or Libya.” But I think the reason it didn’t work is not because of some additional thing the US failed to do, but because no third party (like the US) is in a position to make it work. This is half-way acknowledged in the official COIN strategy, but the supposed solution—to get the locals to like the US—is wishful thinking. We can’t get the locals to like us enough to incept our goals and initiatives into their minds.

    Flushing out the insurgency has to be an initiative that originates from the local’s own motivations. So the question shifts to what motivates good people to fight. I think Sun Tzu had the right answer.

    “Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve. Officers and men alike will put forth their uttermost strength. Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.”
    At the critical moment, the leader of an army acts like one who has climbed up a height and then kicks away the ladder behind him. He carries his men deep into hostile territory before he shows his hand. He burns his boats and breaks his cooking-pots… To muster his host and bring it into danger—this may be termed the business of the general.”
    “Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.”

    Unfortunately, to accommodate migrants is the opposite of kicking away their ladders, burning their boats, and breaking their cooking pots. Instead, it is “a golden bridge” across which they are retreating. That is, it perfectly sets the stage for insurgents to conquer territory virtually unopposed. In this way, humanitarian efforts can have a negative relationship to security. I think this is a tragic reality that has to be considered.

    Liked by 1 person

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