On Nov. 14, London's Trafalgar Square hosted a vigil for victims of the Paris attacks (photo by Garry Knight via Flickr)

Paris, Beirut and ISIS: Aisha Ahmad on the terror attacks and the aftermath

We need to look at “the connections between criminality and terrorism” international security expert says

The recent attacks on so-called “soft targets” in Paris and Beirut are like chess moves in a global game by ISIS, the University of Toronto’s Aisha Ahmad says – and death is only part of the strategy.

“Not only does ISIS want European borders sealed to these refugees, but they also want Muslims in Western countries to face increased xenophobia and hostility, because they think that this will force migration towards their so-called caliphate,” the assistant professor of political science says.

A specialist in international security, Ahmad has conducted extensive field research on Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. She will be one of the panelists at an event on Nov. 20 at U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs, examining what the ISIS attacks mean for immigration, refugees and security. 

“ISIS has stated outright, in their official documents, that they want persecution of Muslims to increase to catalyze a "hijrah" (migration) to their lands. They want to stop the flow out of their strongholds, and force it back towards their base to replenish their ranks.”

Below, Ahmad talks with U of T News about ISIS, terror, and the global outpouring of sympathy for victims of attacks.

Is Canada likely on an ISIS target list?
There are a number of countries that are usually threatened in official ISIS statements: America, Israel, Britain, and France are usually on roster. Now that Russia is engaged in air strikes, Moscow has also been explicitly threatened. Although Canada is a smaller player, we are involved in the fight against ISIS and that does increase our profile. Based on recent ISIS statements, however, Canada does not currently occupy a prime spot on the ISIS hate-list. 

That being said, ISIS lives by a dangerously simplistic "us versus them" logic and is trying to force that extremist framework on the entire world. So in principle, anyone that is not part of their group is a potential target. 

Most of the people ISIS target, however, are within their own regional neighbourhood. They are at war with the Shiite, and seek extermination of the Yazidi population. They have slaughtered entire villages of Sunni Muslims who tried to oppose them, threatening death to anyone who speaks out against their tyranny. They declare anyone who doesn't share their vision an apostate and enemy. That's what makes them so dangerous and irreconcilable.

Could co-ordinated attacks on civilian targets happen in Canada?
These sorts of attacks are cheap and easy, and can theoretically take place anywhere. Attacks in Western countries, however, usually rely on "home-grown terrorists". These local agents need to be cultivated and motivated to strike. Using a sophisticated propaganda machine, ISIS has actively tried to radicalize domestic agents, and then incite them to execute attacks on their own home countries.

The profiles of these home-grown terrorists are highly varied, and show no clear pattern. While sympathetic to ISIS, not all of these actors have international ties. In last year's Ottawa attacks, the perpetrator was a mentally ill drug addict who lived in fear of "demons". How do such people fall into ISIS's sphere of influence? Answering this critical security question will require the combined effort of law enforcement agents, community leaders, security specialists, and psychiatrists. We need all hands on deck from our scholarly community to tackle this complex problem.

Can countries guard against these types of attacks?
Soft targets are, by their definition, easy to hit and hard to defend. That's why they are targeted by weak players. But what we need to look for here are the connections between criminality and terrorism. This type of large-scale coordinated gun violence typically involves access to illicit arms and supplies, which are trafficked through underground networks. 

Canadian law enforcement agencies will therefore have to work collaboratively to keep track of the dangerous relationships between criminal and terrorist networks. The good news is that our new Minister of Defence, Harjit Sajjan, is one of the world's leading experts on this problem. Not only does he have an exceptional military record fighting against extremists, but he has also worked in the police services on gang activities in Canada. He is exactly the right person to tackle the perilous nexus between crime and terrorism.

Do you see a dissonance between the global outpouring of sympathy for Paris vs. Beirut?
People do have sympathy for victims in Beirut, and in other parts of the world. Canadians aren't stingy with their compassion. I do think that fewer Canadians have visited Beirut, or thought of travelling to Lebanon as a potential holiday destination, so those attacks might feel further away from their personal experience. But it is unhelpful to shame anyone for feeling more or less grief in a moment of crisis.

Whenever there have been terrorist attacks in places that I am close to, I have felt more affected. In 2014 in Pakistan, a radical Taliban faction attacked a school that was a few minutes away from my family's old house, killing 141 people, 132 of whom were children. I cried for two hours that day. In 2013 in Kenya, the extremist group Al-Shabaab killed 67 people in an attack on a shopping mall that I used to frequent to get mango juice; in 2015, they launched an attack on a local university in Garissa, murdering 147 students and teachers. Each time I spent hours desperately trying to contact my Kenyan and Somali friends and loved ones. These incidents hurt me deeply because these were familiar people and places. 

We can't judge grief. Evaluating our reactions to these crises, however, is an individual moral issue. Have all lives matter to us equally? Have we responded to injustices by abiding by right principles? All people of good character regularly engage in this sort of critical personal reflection. We are all responsible for reviewing and correcting our biases through self-examination. 

What I do believe, however, is that the more we share our stories with each other, the easier it will be for us all to express compassion across these seemingly vast differences. My Canadian friends all feel closer to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia today because of me. These are no longer faraway places, but are parts of the world that are attached to someone they care about. Empathy and compassion do seem to have this transitive property, and in a country like Canada, we have an abundance of it.

Below, thousands gather in front of the French consulate in Montreal on Nov. 14 (photo by Gerry Lauzon via flickr)

photo of Montreal vigil


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