The offline allure of ISIS


TSG IntelBrief: Two recent announcements highlight the difference between the so-called Islamic State’s reach on social media and its real-world appeal. On February 5, 2016, Twitter announced it had suspended more than 125,000 accounts for supporting terrorism since mid-2015. On the same day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that 34 militant groups worldwide had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as of last December, with more likely in 2016. The Islamic State’s social media efforts have always received disproportionate attention. Less attention has been paid to the offline power of the group in terms of radicalization and recruitment. Social networks matter more than social media when it comes to proliferating the ideology of bin-Ladinism espoused by both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

From pamphlets to audio cassette tapes—and now videos and mobile messaging apps—terrorists have always sought to broadcast their ideology to motivate and rally people to their cause. But the real propagation of terrorism requires salesmen and saleswomen—people who understand that the principles of persuasion begin with a deep understanding of the prospective customer. Graphic tweets may produce headlines, but persuasive individuals produce recruits, often in clusters.

The eight young men who left the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad, Norway, to join the Islamic State in Syria did not join because of social media, even if it did help spread the group’s message. All were reportedly motivated to join the Islamic State by the example of Abdullah Chaib, a charismatic local soccer player who traveled to Syria in 2012. The small group of friends created a feedback loop of motivation and encouragement that did not depend on Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, the terror recruit cluster in Molenbeek, Belgium thrived on networks built around friendship and familial ties, not Telegram or Kik. This same dynamic of peer-to-peer recruitment and consistent face-to-face interaction produced the cluster in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region of Minnesota. Long-time foreign fighter hotbeds such as Derna, Libya, and Bizerte and Ben Gardane in Tunisia rely on decidedly offline networks to export extremism. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s disastrous betrayal of the Syrian rebels

Emile Hokayem writes: What a difference a year makes in Syria. And the introduction of massive Russian airpower.

Last February, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite auxiliaries mounted a large-scale attempt to encircle Aleppo, the northern city divided between regime and rebels since 2012 and battered by the dictator’s barrel bombs. Islamist and non-Islamist mainstream rebels — to the surprise of those who have derided their performance, let alone their existence — repelled the offensive at the time. What followed was a string of rebel advances across the country, which weakened Assad so much that they triggered Moscow’s direct intervention in September, in concert with an Iranian surge of forces, to secure his survival.

Fast-forward a year. After a slow start — and despite wishful Western assessments that Moscow could not sustain a meaningful military effort abroad — the Russian campaign is finally delivering results for the Assad regime. This week, Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held “Azaz corridor” that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo. The city’s full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north. Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011.

In parallel, Russia has put Syria’s neighbors on notice of the new rules of the game. Jordan was spooked into downgrading its help for the Southern Front, the main non-Islamist alliance in the south of the country, which has so far prevented extremist presence along its border. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft that crossed its airspace in November backfired: Moscow vengefully directed its firepower on Turkey’s rebel friends across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Moscow also courted Syria’s Kurds, who found a new partner to play off the United States in their complex relations with Washington. And Russia has agreed to a temporary accommodation of Israel’s interests in southern Syria.

Inside Syria, and despite the polite wishes of Secretary of State John Kerry, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes have hit non-Islamic State (IS) fighters. Indeed, Moscow and the Syrian regime are content to see the United States bear the lion’s share of the effort against the jihadi monster in the east, instead concentrating on mowing through the mainstream rebellion in western Syria. Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and IS. [Continue reading…]


As long as the linkage between authoritarian regimes and extremism is ignored, ISIS and al Qaeda will never be defeated

Joyce Karam writes: “What are you talking about, 7000…No,no. We killed 38,000”, those were the words of former Syrian General Rifaat Assad in1982 as recounted by Thomas Friedman in his book “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. Rifaat, who is now in exile, was exulting about the number of Syrians his forces killed in Hama 34 years ago, quashing a rebellion against his brother’s dictatorship and setting the stage to what has followed.

The ghosts of Hama today hover all over Syria, cementing the pillars of the Assad doctrine to rule by fear and hold on to power at any cost even if it means surrendering the country to devastation, radicalization and ultimate death. From father to uncle to son, the Assad playbook has not changed, copying the narrative of Hama to Homs, Douma, Ghouta, Idlib, Daraa and Aleppo, and in the process leaving behind more than 250 thousands dead, millions displaced, and a society in shambles.

The 3-week assault on Hama in 1982 has laid the ground for how the Assad regime reacts to any signs of rebellion later. Not coincidentally, the same horror tactics utilized in Hama in 1982 with Assad the father were replicated by the son across Syria following the 2011 uprising.

In a chilling report by Amnesty International in 2012, survivors of the Hama massacre give their account of what happened, describing images of the dead splintered in the streets, left to be eaten by dogs and as a red flag for those whose lives were spared. Snipers were on the roofs, neighborhoods were razed and one survivor recalls the the attack on Mas’oud Mosque, where “some 60 men were killed before the security forces cut off their fingers and placed them along the mosque’s walls.” She tells Amnesty “for around two years after the massacre, no one dared remove the fingers. They were so frightened.” [Continue reading…]


Syrian rebel splits deepen after failed ‘merger’ with Nusra

Reuters reports: The leader of al Qaeda’s Syrian wing tried unsuccessfully at a recent meeting to convince rival Islamist factions to merge into one unit, several insurgency sources have told Reuters.

Abu Mohamad al-Golani, head of the Nusra Front, even suggested he was willing to change the name of his group if the others, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham organisation, agreed to the deal, the sources said.

But he made clear that Nusra would not cut its ties with al Qaeda, and its allegiance would remain to Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over as leader after U.S. Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Much was riding on the outcome of the meeting, which the sources said took place about 10 days ago.

Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are the most powerful groups in northern Syria: when they briefly teamed up with other Islamists last year in an alliance called the Fatah Army, the rebels scored one of their biggest victories by seizing the city of Idlib. [Continue reading…]


Why Burkina Faso is a choice target as al-Qaeda bids to reclaim stolen thunder

By Berny Sèbe, University of Birmingham

The latest terror attack in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, on Friday 15 January, announced the bloody entry of an al-Qaeda franchise into a country that had so far been spared the traumas of radical Islamism.

At first glance, this looks like the spillover from a wider conflict with militant Islamists across North and West Africa – but the attacks have as much to do with Burkina Faso itself as with global jihadist movements and their goals.

Nestled just underneath Mali and Niger in West Africa, Burkina Faso is still in the midst of a democratic transition which began in 2014 with the ousting of its president of 27 years, Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré was a towering regional figure: having orchestrated the assassination of his predecessor Thomas Sankara in 1987, he changed course and made his country a staunch ally of the West.

As abductions by militant groups in the region steadily mounted from the early 2000s onwards, he became a go-to negotiator whenever Western powers tried to free hostages held in the Sahara. Ouagadougou became a natural base for negotiations and regional dealmaking, whilst at the same time remaining a crucial logistical base for the French army.

[Read more…]


The Burkina Faso attack shows how al-Qaeda is exploiting weak governments in West Africa

Omar Mohammed reports: The attacks in Burkina Faso that left 28 people dead and 55 injured point to an increasing security challenge in West Africa, where, analysts say, militant groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are taking advantage of fragile and weak states to hit western targets.

This is the second time in a couple of months that militants launched an assaulted directed at an establishment popular with foreigners. In neighboring Mali last November, in a similar fashion to what happened at the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, gunmen stormed the Radisson Hotel in Bamako and took 170 people hostage and ultimately killing 21 people many of whom westerners.

In both of these cases, the militant group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility.

AQIM, which traces its roots to the Algerian civil conflict in the 1990s and became an al-Qaeda affiliate in mid-2000s, has increasingly focused their strategies on targets located in countries that are either weak or unstable. In west Africa, it has targeted Algeria, Niger, Mali killing people and carrying out kidnappings for ransom, all done with the objective of ridding the region of what they perceive to be the corrupting influence of the West. [Continue reading…]


Jakarta, Paris, San Bernardino: The age of ‘marauding terrorist firearms attacks’

Christopher Dickey writes: While America slept, terrorists struck in Jakarta on Thursday, and their multi-pronged attack hit, most dramatically, a symbol of the United States: a Starbucks coffee shop.

Despite bombs going off, a hostage-taking, and an extended gunfight with Indonesian police around Thamrin Street (near several embassies, luxury hotels, and the offices of the United Nations), casualties were fairly low by the standards of modern terrorism. Initial reports say seven people died, including five attackers, which would seem both a credit to the response of the Indonesian authorities and a reflection of the killers’ ineptitude.

A website linked to the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility in the name of the putative caliphate for the attack, “targeting foreign nationals and the security forces charged with protecting them in the Indonesian capital.”

Back in November, police reportedly picked up ISIS chatter about a “concert” planned for Indonesia, and perhaps 100 Indonesian citizens are believed to have joined ISIS’s ranks in Syria.

But the particular affiliations of the madmen are less important than their method in this case. The siege by squads of terrorists using assault rifles and low-grade explosives to slaughter innocent people at cafés, stadiums, hotels, shopping malls, and such has become standard operating procedure for violent extremists all over the map. [Continue reading…]


Burkina Faso attack demonstrates al Qaeda revival in Africa

CNN reports: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, often seen as a fractured and undisciplined group, apparently has carried out its second major terror attack in two months — claiming more than 20 lives in the assault on a luxury hotel and two other targets in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

The gun attack on the Splendid Hotel bears many similarities to that on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, on November 20 in which 22 people were killed.

Both targets were popular with Westerners and international (especially U.N). officials; they were “soft,” rather than military installations or police stations. The attackers (two in Bamako, possibly four in Ouagadougou) were armed with automatic weapons, their aim to kill and then take as many hostages as possible.

And both operations apparently were carried out by an AQIM group called Al Mourabitoun.

The group’s statement after the latest attack claimed the Splendid Hotel was “frequented by staff of the nations of global disbelief;” the attack was “to punish the cross-worshippers for their crimes against our people in Central Africa, Mali, and other lands of the Muslims.” [Continue reading…]


Mokhtar Belmokhtar, ‘The Uncatchable’ desert jihadist

AFP reports: Wily one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed the attack on a hotel in Burkina Faso, shot to global notoriety with a spectacular assault on an Algerian gas field in 2013, but had long been known as “The Uncatchable”.

Washington has offered a $5 million (4.7 million euros) bounty for the 43-year-old, born and bred in the Algerian desert, and of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region straddling the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar who is most wanted.

He was behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south of his homeland, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed.

And his Al-Murabitoun group, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, also claimed responsibility for the jihadist siege at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako that left 20 dead in November, including 14 foreigners. [Continue reading…]


Obama ridiculed for saying conflicts in the Middle East ‘date back millennia’

The Washington Post reports: In his seventh and final State of the Union address, President Obama played up the state of the economy, played down the threat of the Islamic State, and introduced a new effort to beat cancer. He also found time for several not-so-subtle swipes at the Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

But for those versed in international relations, there was one line in particular that jumped out from his hour-long speech.

“The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” Obama said.

Thousands of years? Many of the conflicts in the Middle East don’t even date back a decade.

The Twitterati spotted the gaffe, and pounced. Obama was accused of peddling convenient falsehoods while others said he was espousing concepts unworthy of an undergraduate university student. Many said that Obama was not only excusing the conflicts, but in effect was making them seem normal and intractable. [Continue reading…]


Charles Lister interview: ‘ISIS is a convenient obsession’

Der Spiegel reports: British-American terror expert Charles Lister believes that al-Qaida ally Jabhat al-Nusra is more dangerous than Islamic State. In an interview, he warns that most Syrian rebel groups will abort the peace process should Bashar Assad remain in power.

SPIEGEL: A surprising conclusion in your new book [The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency] is that while Islamic State (IS) and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad are obvious obstacles to ending the Syrian war, in your view the biggest problem is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is allied with al-Qaida. Why is that?

Charles Lister: In the West, the threat posed by IS has become an understandable, but convenient obsession. However, Jabhat al-Nusra has embedded itself so successfully within the Syrian opposition — within the revolution for a long time — that in my view it has become an actor that will be much more difficult to uproot from Syria than IS. Islamic State is all about imposing its will on people, whereas al-Nusra has for the last five years been embedding itself in popular movements, sharing power in villages and cities, and giving to people rather than forcing them to do things. That has lent it a power IS just doesn’t have. The reason I call IS a convenient obsession is that I don’t think anybody in the West knows what to do about Jabhat al-Nusra. There was a period of time where it was relatively clear that al-Nusra had a foreign attack wing that was plotting attacks in the West. They have never let go of their foreign vision, they have explicitly said they want to establish Islamic emirates in Syria, and they belong to an organization, al-Qaida, whose avowed goal is to attack and destroy the West. Not to establish an “Islamic State” and gradually expand it like IS, but explicitly to destroy the West.

SPIEGEL: Yet it was IS that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13, carrying out the bloodiest terrorist attack on foreign soil since 9/11. Are these attacks a sign of strength or a sign of them being under pressure in Syria?

Lister: If these attacks were indeed centrally planned by IS, they have to be a sign of strength. Islamic State certainly is not weakening in Syria and Iraq. Yes, it has lost territory, but as a movement it is in no weaker position than it was 18 months ago. It still has sustainable sources of income, it has large amounts of territory under its control, and now, for the first time it has demonstrated a real ability to carry out what one might call spectacular attacks in the West, with real geopolitical repercussions. It shows its ability to shape international affairs. That in itself is a sign of strength. [Continue reading…]


Saudi executions seen as sending message to all dissenters

The New York Times reports: Officials in Saudi Arabia have said that the executions of 47 prisoners on Saturday were a long overdue reckoning for militants, including accused Qaeda members who were said to be recruiters, propagandists or bomb makers who helped carry out deadly attacks in the kingdom more than a decade ago.

But despite the weight of some of the accusations, the Saudi authorities had been in no hurry to put the men to death, allowing some to languish in prison for a decade or more. Only four of the men were convicted of crimes in the most severe category, punishable by death under Islamic law, reinforcing the fact that the death penalty is far less common in terrorism cases in Saudi Arabia than in drug or murder cases, according to human rights advocates.

With its decision to execute the accused militants, along with Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken antigovernment cleric and advocate for Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority who was arrested in 2012, the Saudi government seemed willing to endure the potentially high political costs of the killings in order to deliver a warning to would-be militants, political dissidents and others that any challenge to the royal family’s rule would not be tolerated, analysts say.

It remained to be seen whether the executions would provoke a backlash among Sunni ultraconservatives. But the killings of Sheikh Nimr and three other Shiite dissidents undermined the government’s assertions that it had executed only terrorists and prompted an explosion of tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Shiite government of Iran that has shaken the region. [Continue reading…]


Jihadists deepen collaboration in North Africa

The New York Times reports: A group of light armored vehicles skated over the moonscape of the Sahara, part of one of the largest detachments the French military has deployed here since colonial times. Its mission is growing ever more urgent: to cut smuggling routes used by jihadists who have turned this inhospitable terrain into a sprawling security challenge for African and international forces alike.

Many of the extremist groups are affiliates of Al Qaeda, which has had roots in North Africa since the 1990s. With the recent introduction of Islamic State franchises, the jihadist push has been marked by increasing, sometimes heated, competition.

But, analysts and military officials say, there is also deepening collaboration among groups using modern communications and a sophisticated system of roving trainers to share military tactics, media strategies and ways of transferring money.

Their threat has grown as Libya — with its ungoverned spaces, oil, ports, and proximity to Europe and the Middle East — becomes a budding hub of operations for both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to reach deeper into Africa.

And as Africa’s jihadists come under the wing of distant and more powerful patrons, officials fear that they are extending their reach and stitching together their ambitions, turning once-local actors into pan-national threats. [Continue reading…]


Saudi mass execution driven by fear of Sunni militancy

Angus McDowall writes: The Al Saud ruling family regard the expansion of Shi’ite Iran’s influence in the Middle East as a threat to their security and to their ambition of playing the leading role among Arab states.

Inside the kingdom, however, it is the threat of a rebellion by the majority Sunnis that most alarms a dynasty whose rule is based on conservative support at home and an alliance with the West.

All past threats to the Al Saud, from a 1920s tribal rebellion to riots in the 1960s, a siege at Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979 and protests in the 1990s, were caused by conservative Sunni anger at modernisation or ties with the West.

That was why the al Qaeda uprising that began in 2003, and attacked the Al Saud by turning its own conservative Salafi brand of Sunni Islam against it, was such a danger. It is why the jihadist movement’s latest iteration, Islamic State, is also a problem.

While Islamic State seems to lack real support among Saudis, some may sympathise with its broader goals, approving of its rhetoric against Shi’ites and the West and its criticism of corruption among the Al Saud.

By executing al Qaeda ideologues and attackers, Riyadh was showing its determination to crush support for the militant cause. By also killing four Shi’ites, angering Iran in the process, it was telling conservative Sunnis it was still on their side. [Continue reading…]


Who was more prescient: Clinton or Awlaki? And why is YouTube helping promote a Trump conspiracy theory?

After a 52-minute video made by al-Kataib, the media outlet of Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliate, al-Shabaab, was posted on YouTube yesterday, it was swiftly removed. YouTube has a long-standing policy of banning videos that incite violence.

As the ABC News report above shows, the element in the video which has grabbed the media’s attention is its use of Donald Trump’s recent call for Muslims to be prohibited from entering the United States.

Here’s the part of the video which features Trump — although, by the time you read this post, YouTube will have removed this clip, which is why I’m also posting a transcript:

First we see the American imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, making a prediction about the fate of Muslims who continue living in the U.S. — Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Then comes a clip of Trump and then Awalaki again.

Awlaki, date unknown: Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history. There are ominous clouds gathering in your horizon.

Yesterday, America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan. And tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps.

Trump speaking at a campaign rally on December 7: Guys remember this and listen: Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States [cheers] until our country’s representatives can figure out what [expletive bleeped] is going on [cheers and applause].

Awlaki: The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens. Hence, my advice to you is this: You have two choices, either hijra or jihad. You either leave or you fight. You leave and live among Muslims, or you stay behind and follow the example of Nidal Hassan [perpetrator of the Fort Hood mass shooting] and others who fulfilled their duty of fighting for Allah’s cause.

In response to pressure from Western governments, YouTube and other social media channels are becoming increasingly aggressive in blocking the distribution of terrorist propaganda. There is understandable frustration at the fact that the internet is being used to threaten the very societies within which this global communications system was created.

Censorship can easily backfire, however, and this is happening with the removal of clips of the new al-Shabaab video.

After the full-length version had been removed, snippets which just showed the al-Awalaki statement and Trump, have also been removed (as I noted above).

It is clear that these videos are being posted by Trump critics rather than al-Shabaab supporters and their removal is breathing life into a conspiracy theory being propagated by some Trump supporters: that the al-Shabaab video itself is a fabrication created by the Clinton campaign!

It seems likely that there are some Trump supporters who — following the lead of Bashar al-Assad supporters — are using YouTube’s community guidelines in order to silence criticism.

Although in the short clips of the al-Shabaab, Awlaki is indeed inciting violence, the clips themselves are clearly not being posted in order to incite violence — they have been posted to show how Trump’s rhetoric serves as a propaganda gift for jihadists.

By removing these clips, YouTube is playing straight into the hands of conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, censorship also buttresses the perception among ISIS and al Qaeda supporters, that the West feels threatened by “the truth.”

It’s worth remembering the trajectory Awlaki followed which eventually led to him promoting terrorism from Yemen.

In 2000, he supported George Bush’s campaign to become president and after 9/11 believed his own emerging role must be to serve as bridge between America and all Muslims.

Last August, Scott Shane wrote:

At midnight on Sept. 14, 2001, Awlaki, then a young Yemeni-American imam at the prominent Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., finished a long day by answering an email from his younger brother about the terrorist attacks of a few days before. ‘‘I personally think it was horrible,’’ he wrote to Ammar, a college student in New Mexico at the time. ‘‘I am very upset about it.’’ He added, ‘‘The media are all over us.’’ Anwar was disconcerted, but perhaps also pleased that an onslaught of reporters had turned his Friday prayers, or jummah, into a circus. ‘‘At jummah today we had ABC, NBC, CBS and The Washington Post.’’ He closed on a positive note, hinting at a noble purpose, to be sure, but also displaying a trace of personal ambition: ‘‘I hope we can use this for the good of all of us.’’

Though the country was in mourning, a sense of defiant unity emerged. A non-Muslim neighbor of Dar al-Hijrah organized a candlelight vigil around the building to show solidarity with the mosque. Roughly 80 residents of a nearby apartment building sent over a note saying, ‘‘We want your congregation to know that we welcome you in this community.’’ Journalists, hunting for an authoritative voice from the Muslim community, began to pass regularly under the mosque’s grand marble arches or to gather in Awlaki’s modest family home. He denounced the 9/11 attacks but in the same breath would criticize America’s record in the Middle East. Reporters were impressed. The New York Times wrote that Awlaki, just 30, was being ‘‘held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.’’ He relished the spotlight. He seemed to be quite self-consciously auditioning for a dual role: explainer of Islam to America and of America to Muslims. ‘‘We came here to build, not to destroy,’’ he declared from his pulpit. ‘‘We are the bridge between America and one billion Muslims worldwide.’’

The challenge presented by ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups is more than one of security and communications. At its core, this is a moral challenge.

The jihadists present themselves as offering the solution to a moral problem: a way for Muslims to confront the immorality, corruption, and hypocrisy they see in the contemporary Western-dominated world.

An effective counter-jihadist strategy cannot simply brush off this critique of the West. It has to present an alternative solution.

Currently, who has the more credible voice? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Anwar al-Awlaki?

Unfortunately, it’s Awlaki.

As Shane observed:

Awlaki’s pronouncements seem to carry greater authority today than when he was living, because America killed him.

Right now, it’s easy to castigate Trump for providing terrorists with fodder for propaganda, but we mustn’t forget the extent to which the U.S. led by Bush and then Obama, has helped reinforce the jihadists’ narrative — by opening Guantanamo; through the use of torture, rendition and secret prisons; through the disastrous war in Iraq; through drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia; through continuing to prop up authoritarian regimes across the Middle East; through allowing the Assad regime to destroy Syria, and through failing to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The real challenge for Western political leaders and whoever becomes the next U.S. president is not whether they can destroy ISIS and effectively tackle global terrorism.

It is this: How can they regain sufficient moral authority that their words carry weight? How can they restore some much-needed respect for democracy?

In a global failure of governance, the Middle East can be viewed as the emergency room, while in the West, governance suffers from chronic illness for which symptom-relief is the only treatment on offer.

It’s time we face up to the fact that terrorism is just a symptom what ails the world. Indeed, much of the time a global obsession with terrorism is having the effect of turning our attention away from broader issues that undermine the health of societies and our ability to survive on this planet.

This isn’t a question of striving for some kind of unattainable and contestable moral purity. No one wants to live under the control of zealots. It’s about trying to create societies in which government is no longer a dirty word, where ordinary citizens receive the respect they deserve, and in which individuals are no longer cynical about the possibilities for securing collective interests.

In a word, it’s about the restoration of honesty in public life.