This is how ISIS wins

Groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda don’t win when they pull off a terrorist attack; they pull off terrorist attacks in hopes of winning in the aftermath. Terrorist organizations, or organizations that use terrorism as a tactic (the line in blurry but it does exist), survive only as long as they’re able to recruit new followers. When the pool of recruits dries up, so does the organization. Terror attacks are a tool to highlight grievance and to radicalize populations, both with the aim of increasing recruitment:

Terrorism is a form of “political jujitsu” to replenish a group’s stockpile of human capital. Importantly, the “political jujitsu” of terrorism assumes two different strategies. Domestic terrorism reflects a strategy of retribution. Transnational terrorism reflects a strategy of provocation. I address transnational terrorism in this post.

One objective of transnational attacks is to motivate indiscriminate counterterrorism retaliation that punishes both the responsible terrorists and innocent civilians. Indiscriminate counterterrorism radicalizes moderate populations, and, creates calls for vengeance that terror groups can exploit to supplement their rank and file. Israeli counterterrorism has been shown to create new terrorists, and, imprisoned PKK fighters have credited their membership to Turkey’s violent abuse of their relatives and friends.

Every time a government reacts to terrorism by blindly cracking down against its own people, it hands the organization that perpetrated the attack a victory. ISIS has recently won two such victories, in Tunisia and Egypt.

Here’s what’s happening in Tunisia, in response to recent ISIS attacks at the Bardo Museum and in the resort area of Sousse:

The Tunisian parliament has adopted a new “anti-terror” law aimed at beefing up authorities’ powers following recent deadly attacks claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

Following three days of debate, the law was adopted late on Friday night, with 172 members of parliament voting in favour and ten abstentions.

Here are some of the “anti-terror” provisions of the new law:

  • suspects may be detained for up to 15 days without being charged or having any contact with lawyers or family (golly, what could they plan on doing with those suspects for 15 days?)
  • the definition of “terrorism” is broad enough that it could be applied to any public protest or demonstration
  • witnesses may testify against terror suspects anonymously not just when there’s a risk to the witness personally, but when testifying opening could impact the witness’s “livelihood,” however that’s defined; this could circumvent suspects’ basic right to confront accusers and conduct a real defense
  • reintroduces the death penalty for terrorism charges, which admittedly is only problematic if you oppose the death penalty

This is the kind of stuff (the broad definition of terrorism especially) that can lead to general government repression above and beyond any reasonable sense of “counter-terrorism,” and that repression is what radicalizes new terrorists.

Now here’s what’s happening in Egypt, in response to that country’s ongoing problems with ISIS’s Sinai Province affiliate:

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has approved stringent new counter-terrorism laws to fight a growing jihadist insurgency.

The laws establish special courts and offer additional protection from legal consequences for military and police officers who have used force.

They also impose the death penalty for anyone found guilty of setting up or leading a terrorist group.

Setting up “special courts” to ram through quick convictions of terror suspects, and protecting soldiers and police officers “who have used force,” is giving up the game, but believe it or not this law actually gets worse:

Under the new laws introduced on Monday:

  • trials for suspected militants will be fast-tracked through special courts. Anyone found guilty of joining a militant group could face 10 years in prison

  • financing terrorist groups will also carry a penalty of life in prison (25 years)

  • inciting violence or creating websites deemed to spread terrorist messages will carry sentences of five to seven years

  • journalists can be fined between 200,000 and 500,000 Egyptian pounds (£16,300-£41,000; $25,550-$64,000) for contradicting official accounts of militant attacks. The original draft of the law was amended following domestic and international outcry after it initially called for a two-year prison sentence

So if there’s another Rabaa Massacre, the security personnel who help kill a few hundred protesters will be protected, but reporters who try to accurately cut through Cairo’s spin about it will be heavily fined (and that only because the plan to throw them in prison earned Sisi too much international grief). Reporters working for international news services might be able to pay those fines without too much trouble, but you can bet this will stifle most/all journalism by independent Egyptians and/or international freelancers. And creating a website that “spreads terrorist messages,” which I suppose may be defined in the law but is probably defined as “whatever President Sisi says it is,” will result in time in prison. No chilling effect on free speech there, not at all.

Provisions like these aren’t “anti-terror,” they’re “anti-opposition,” and in fact, to the extent that they empower government repression, they’re actually “pro-terror.” ISIS is dictating the rules of the game, and the Tunisian and Egyptian governments are playing right along.

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