A conflict which has lasted over five years; dismounted the infrastructures of a country set the entire surviving population to seek asylum in neighbors’ states: the Syrian civil-war. The perfect stage to allow terrorists and extremists to enforce their plans and gain territories. Syria is not the only battlefield of this unbalanced amorphous and revised war on terror. North Iraq, Southeastern Turkey and on a broader spectrum the whole of Europe remains a potential target. A conflict where superpowers as the US and Russia played a major role leading to a ceasefire and alleged peace talks in Ginevra; a conflict where actors, structures and outcomes are yet to be fully unveiled.
This conflict is another historical landmark for many foreign policies; it reshaped the approach to terrorism and justice; showed the world a climate of desperation and fear; cruelty and loss of lives have filled the daily newspapers. Europe has worked on resolving the collateral effect of migrations and has faced attacks within its capitals; other players have tried to eradicate ISIS. No winners; only an apparent and fragile ceasefire.
From any “problem solving” point of view the first step of the analysis is to acknowledge the problem; identify the causes beginning by minimizing the effects. Who is ISIS?
Before describing the organization we should consider the so widely used term “Terrorism”. Historically the term refers to the unlawful use of violence towards civilian’s targets in a desperate attempt to enforce political goals. The rise of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham began in 2004 as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It was initially an ally of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda and both were radical anti-Western militant groups devoted to establishing an independent Islamic state in the region. AQI was weakened in Iraq in 2007 as a result of what is known as the Sunni Awakening, when a large alliance of Iraqi Sunni tribes, supported by the US, fought against the jihadist group. AQI saw an opportunity to regain its power and expand its ranks in the Syrian conflict that started in 2011, moving into Syria from Iraq. By 2013, al-Baghdadi had spread his group’s influence back into Iraq and changed the group’s name to ISIS. It disowned the group in early 2014 proving to be more brutal and more effective at controlling seized territories.
While ISIL has not been able to seize ground in the past several months, that hasn’t precluded them from conducting terrorist attacks, and it hasn’t precluded them from conducting operations that are more akin to guerrilla operations than the conventional operations that we saw when they were seizing territory. The organization understood the value of pushing out content, specifically videos of atrocities, into the world. Therefore, they could recruit very brutal young men to come and join their struggle. As the organization evolved, it made media very central to its ideology and strategy. ISIS had harnessed the power of the “information arena” to propagate its ideology, recruit, move money and coordinate activities. The question arise naturally: “What can be done?”
A top Pentagon official reported that the US is hitting ISIS with “cyber bombs” as part of its new arsenal of tactics being deployed against the terrorist group. The cyber effort is focused primarily on ISIS terrorists in Syria and that the goal is to overload their network so that they cannot function. An attack of this magnitude can interrupt the group’s ability to command and control forces. Similar principle was applied over the power and water disruptions in the middle of a two-week truce between government forces and certain militant groups. Disruption of critical infrastructure was used in order to gain an advantage over the group. Moreover the Islamic State is clearly frightened by the outflow of refugees. A lot of media have been created excoriating those who flee from these territories. By taking advantage of those refugees a powerful tool could be created in order to tell their stories to the world.
The humanitarian issues, the fallout, the civil war, the core issues have not been addressed yet. So far the military intervention and the coalition of multiple air strikes, carried out by Russia and US, have diminished the capabilities of the group; however there is so much more to do and the future remains uncertain. It is highly likely that ISIS will not cease to exist in the near-medium term; their strategy, tactics and objectives are likely to remain unaffected. The struggle in the region and the level of threat to Europe are still primary concerns and subjects of ongoing discussions.
According to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, NATO ships are being deployed to the Aegean sea in a bid to deter people-smugglers taking migrants from Turkey to Greece. The announcement follows a request from Turkey, Greece and Germany at a defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
MR Stoltenberg has disclosed that the mission would not be about “stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” adding that instead, NATO will contribute “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking.” He further disclosed that the decision was made in order to help Greece and Turkey “manage a human tragedy in a better way then we have managed to do so far.” Earlier, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter commented that targeting the “criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people” would have the greatest humanitarian impact.
NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2, which is under German command, will lead the operation in co-operation with Greek and Turkish authorities. According to the United Nations refugee agency, almost 75,000 migrants and refugees have already arrived in Greece by sea in 2016.
Xenophobic tendencies have been growing for a long time across Europe with race-hatred related crimes being reported frequently and an increased support for anti-immigration parties, especially since the influx of migrants increased to extreme numbers and it became an issue. An upswing of these tendencies in everyday life, incidents of discrimination and general behaviour towards strangers of different cultures has been noticeable after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November. It appears Muslims are taking the hardest blow because there is a tendency to link terrorism to Islam. Tell Mama, a project recording anti-Muslim crimes in the UK, published reports in November revealing a 300% increase of hate crimes directed at Muslims since the Paris attacks. Perhaps this, if anything, confirms the theory that people tend to fear what they don’t know. The question is where does it stop? How much discrimination can be accepted because people are afraid after 13th of November? Early in December a Moroccan man who was praying and watching a religious movie prior to the take-off on a Paris-bound Air France flight from Copenhagen’s airport was forced to leave the aircraft due to a complaint by another passenger. The man had to take another flight to his country after having his luggage search by airport police, upon which nothing suspicious was found. In Northern Ireland, journalist Angela Rainey conducted a social experiment after having noticed the high number of hate-crimes aimed at Muslim women. A mother in Antrim, reportedly told her child that nightmares would follow if looking at women wearing burqa, and referring to them as “mental”. Rainey has described incidents where she was called a “terrorist” and told she was “not in [her] own country now”. She also noted how security guards and policemen were suspicious towards her, while others accused her of trying to break into cars and told her to take her veil off. In early December, in southern England, a Muslim man was asked to leave National Express coach following a complaint from a fellow passenger, who said she would feel “uncomfortable” travelling with him because of his religion. A staff member is then said to have stepped in to ask the man to get off the coach service. A spokesperson for the National Express said: “We categorically deny an incident in which a passenger was asked to leave one of our coaches was in any way Islamophobic”, claiming that the man was asked to leave because of a dispute over his luggage. However, fellow passengers who witnessed the incident claim to have overheard the conversation between the woman and the driver, and insist that the man was asked to leave because of his religion and not because of his luggage. The xenophobia doesn’t just show in incidents of discrimination, but also in crimes. A man in Leeds allegedly tried to buy pigs’ heads and feet from a butcher because he wanted to desecrate mosques. According to the Armley butcher, a smartly-dressed man walked in saying he wanted to buy all the pigs’ heads and feet that he could, and when asked why, he said: ‘Because I want to desecrate as many mosques as possible’. In other European countries anti-immigration marches have been taking place in protest against the influx of refugees. In Finland demonstrators have even been seen wearing Ku Klux Klan masks while marching in the area of Kempele, a small town that was shook by the rape of a teenager, allegedly carried out by man from a migrant centre. Locals in the area have said that they have changed their behaviour since the incident, and out of fear have started escorting their children to school even though they never did in the past, while others say they are avoiding unknown areas after dark. In some, the fear has clearly turned into rage, and refugees have been compared to the Finnish deserters during wartime, whom normally ended up getting shot. Others have said young men should be swapped for refugees who need the help more, like families, women and children.
Hate crimes and acts of discrimination signal a growing popular discontent with the influx of migrants and it is equally clear from the political opinion as the support for anti-immigration- and far right wing parties across Europe have increased steadily. In October Poland elected one of Europe’s most right-wing parliaments, kicking out the long ruling centrists. Earlier on last year the anti-EU, anti-immigration People’s Party in Denmark gained huge support, while in neighbouring Sweden the Sweden Democrats, a party started in the late 1980s as a white supremacist group, has steadily risen in polls, and become one of the country’s most popular parties. In Austria the far-right Freedom Party came second during regional elections in the summer. These political parties have had a tendency to speak of the consequences the influx of refugees will have on their countries, fuelling the already lit spark of fear. In Poland Law and Justice party figure and former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski warned that Muslim refugees would bring parasites and diseases, while in the Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson stated last year that “Islamism is the Nazism and Communism of our time.” Hungary’s Viktor Orban has said that the refugees entering Europe “look like an army.” These are just some examples. The long-term discontent with the influx of migrants has been fuelled by the fear of terrorism since the Paris attacks and it is to a larger extent considered a realistic threat that hiding among refugees is a way for terrorists to enter Europe. This has led countries to oppose the quota system, some have altered it and suggested only Christian refugees are welcome, while others have built walls and closed borders. Some are convinced the far-right parties are here to stay, that this is their time.
The 20 November 2015 attack on a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako killed nineteen people and highlighted Mali’s ongoing security concerns. In the wake of the attack, three terrorist groups known to operate regionally claimed responsibility. Amongst them is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Many experts have indicated that the attack was partly aimed at asserting the global terror network’s relevance as it continues to face an unprecedented challenge from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group for leadership of the global jihadi movement. It came exactly a week after IS carried out several attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people in what is the bloodies attack on France in decades. That attack, which is also the deadliest to take place on the European continent in the last ten years, also marked the first time that suicide bombers were used to carry in Europe, it has also prompted the questioning of security across the European Union and the ongoing migration crisis. What is evident however is that in recent years, al-Qaeda has to a certain degree been eclipsed by the IS group and its self-styled caliphate. As IS continues to expand in Syria and Iraq, and garners further allegiance from terrorist groups operating in other regions of the world, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, al-Qaeda is attempting to remind the world that the movement founded by Osama bin Laden continues to pose a serious threat.
IS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, a local affiliate that battled American troops and carried out deadly attacks which targeted the country’s Shi’ite majority. However from the beginning there were tensions between the local group, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and al-Qaeda’s central leadership. In a 2005 letter, which was obtained and publicized by US intelligence officials, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, objected to al-Zarqawi’s brutality towards Shi’ite civilians, stating that it would turn Muslims against the group. While Al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, he is seen by man as being the founder of IS, which continues to use brutal tactics.
In 2013, IS leader Abu Bakh al-Baghdadi renamed the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and proclaimed his authority in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, rejected the move and swore allegiance to al-Zawahri, who ordered al-Baghdadi to confine his operations to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi however refused and by 2014, al-Nusra Front and IS were battling each other across northern Syria. This split was felt across the world, with al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Northern Africa remaining loyal to al-Zawahri while others choosing to pledge their allegiance to IS.
While both al-Qaeda and IS want to end Western influence in the Middle east, and want to unite Muslims under a transnational caliphate that is governed by a strict version of Islamic law, both groups are bitterly divided over tactics. Bin Laden believed that attacking the “far enemy” of the US would weaken its support for the “near enemy” of Arab autocracies and rally Muslims to overthrow them. Under al-Zawahri, local al-Qaeda affiliates have sought to exploit post-Arab Spring chaos by allying with other insurgents and tribes and by cultivating local support in places such as Syria and Yemen, where they provide social services. For bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid in Pakistan in 2011, as well as his successor al-Zawahri, the establishment of a caliphate was a vaguely defined end goal.
IS however began seizing and holding territory in Syria and Iraq and later forming affiliates across the Middle East, and into Africa. In the summer of 2014, IS declared a caliphate, and deemed the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital. Al-Baghdadi has since claimed to be the leader of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, however an overwhelming majority have rejected his ideas and brutal tactics.
Although it may seem a strange route and unnecessarily long detour to access Europe via Russia and the border to northern Norway, it has its advantages. The convenience of this route is that it bypasses a lot of the strict border controls of the normal routes. The route has been used by Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and other nationalities, and it’s not just refugees fleeing from war or oppression. It is also used by those who are, like so many, looking for better jobs and living conditions. Rather than defying the border fences of and strictly controlled crossings of southern and eastern Europe, not to mention the dangers of the Mediterranean crossing, some seem to prefer the so called ‘arctic route’ to Europe. Many of the migrants come much underdressed though and face tough challenges in the tough, northern climate. Whether or not this route has been easier than the more frequented travel routes to Europe is hard to say.
After flying via Moscow to Murmansk migrants must first try make their way from there, some 136 miles north, past barren tundra, an area of Russian military bases and heavily armed checkpoints, to the small mining town of Nickel. There, refugees face yet another challenge: Russian law bans foot traffic at the border and Norway fines drivers for carrying migrants across because it is considered human trafficking. Because of this migrants have taken to crossing the border by bicycle. The legal twist has prompted a brisk trade in used bicycles throughout Russia’s Northwest — any size or condition is accepted. Entrepreneurial Russian smugglers have made business of this, and even arrange package deals of minivans and bicycles.
News of this arctic route has spread and the fact that the crossing is actually possible has led to an increase in migrants coming this way. The small town of Nickel has seen the stream of people coming north and a lone hotel there has become a key stopover point before heading for the border. Syrians, Afghans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis and others have filled the hotel’s 30 rooms some nights and yet more migrants are left to seek refuge in a nearby student dormitory. Norwegian authorities have been relatively welcoming and offered temporary refugee status to the migrants. But the growing wave is testing the limits of Norwegian hospitality and as the weeks have gone by, the influx has grown larger than what can be handled. In Kirkenes, a small Norwegian town just across the border, mayor Rune Rafaelson, has said local police estimate 10,800 migrants may arrive by year’s end — in effect doubling the entire region’s population. Rafaelson is one of a growing number of Norwegian politicians who suspects that the Kremlin is driving the current influx, as neighbouring Finland – a non-NATO member that has warmer relations with Russia —faces no similar migrant surge. Storskog border crossing has seen more than 4,000 refugees arrive so far this year, the majority of them riding bicycles. Norway has started building new refugee accommodation at the airport in the nearby town of Kirkenes, where the refugees can stay before being flown south. While the number of asylum- seekers remains small compared with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, their number is steadily rising, and with more than 1000 migrants per week, it has changed the hospitable attitude of the Norwegians.
With the tension between Norway and Russia the issue has since taken on a diplomatic dimension. The arctic route has been known among the migrants as a safe route to Europe, and relatively easy with the checkpoints as the Russians don’t bother anyone who wants to cross over to Norway, but it will be far less safe as the weather steadily gets colder. Besides this, Norway, like so many other countries in Europa, is not interested in taking on more refugees than it can handle. Authorities long refrained from closing this crossing point as it would possibly provoke the Russian government, but now have to consider it an alternative. That Russia allows asylum-seekers to cross the highly-militarised region is sometimes seen by Norwegian commentators and media as a bid by Moscow to destabilise its smaller neighbour. Some suggest it is a provocation, punishing Oslo for adopting European sanctions regarding the Ukraine conflict, or creating divisions in Norway. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has said, earlier in November, that closing the border will not solve any problems but the government has sent warnings to asylum seekers that they risk being sent back, not just to Russia, from where they crossed into the country, but all the way to their home countries. It has been under discussion in the last couple of weeks that the border crossing of Storskog might be closed under the seldom used “Law on Access to Certain Areas”, which was brought in by the parliament right before the German invasion in April 1940. This would partly be to control the influx and partly a diplomatic reaction towards Russia.