Iraqi Turkmen preparing to fight Isis militants last weekend. Photo: Marwan Ibrahim, AFP
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Isis and the global rise of non-state actors

The recent onslaught by Isis isn't a rogue success for terrorist groups; non-state actors are on the rise worldwide. We should be watching and wary.

Over the weekend Isis insurgents expanded their control across northwestern and central Iraq, seizing crucial border crossings to Syria and Jordan in Anbar province, as well as a number of key towns close by.

The latest conquests render the colonial border between Iraq and Syria all but obsolete. This blurring of state lines is, of course, all part of the jihadists' aim to create a pan-Islamic caliphate spanning as great a reach of territory as possible.

In geopolitical terms, Isis's challenge to traditional state authority and national divisions is also emblematic of the explosion of terror-driven non-state actors around the globe - most markedly in the Middle East and Africa, but also extending as far as the Asia Pacific to countries such as Indonesia.

It is worth being mindful of this global phenomenon, because the successful onslaught by Isis in the past fortnight appears to have caught Western intelligence agencies offguard. In reality it should have come as no surprise, not least because the group’s name-change last year from al-Qaeda in Iraq (Aqi) to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) reflected the growing scope of the group’s ambition.

Another reason the West should have been prepared is that Isis has been patently swelling its ranks during the past 18 months in Syria, another nation in which the state actor - the embattled Assad regime - is threatened by non-state players.

Events in the past year seem to indicate that Islamist terror groups are on the rise around the world, a sense that is backed up by statistics in a recent report by Rand Corporation, a US non-partisan think tank. The number of Salafi-jihadist groups (which includes al-Qaeda and its affiliates) jumped 58 per cent since 2010, from 31 to 49 groups, according to the report.

Outside of Iraq and Syria in the Middle East, Salafi-jihadists are flourishing in Yemen. In the US’s country reports on terrorism last year, the State Department described the Yemeni government as “struggling somewhat” in its efforts to combat al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (Aqap).

Meanwhile terrorist groups in North, East and West Africa continue to grow in influence too. A series of deadly attacks last year in Kenya, Somalia, Algeria, Mali and Nigeria put Islamist militancy on the continent under the spotlight briefly, but interest seems to have faded quickly.

To recap: a spate of lethal bombings to the recent kidnap of innocent schoolgirls, 200 of whom remain missing, Islamist terrorists Boko Haram are increasing a reign of terror in Nigeria. The group killed more than 1,200 people in under 8 months last year, according to the UN.

On the east coast of Africa, Islamist group al-Shabaab wreaked devastation when they stormed Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall last September, killing 63 people. The non-state actor, which is mired in a bitter contest with Somalia's UN-backed government, is suspected of having carried out a number of attacks in neighbouring Kenya over the past year as a warning to the nation that its attempts at intervention are unwelcome.

In Tunisia, separate assassinations of two leading secular politicians by the terrorist group Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia (AAS-T) last year plunged the government into crisis.

Meanwhile al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), North Africa's branch of the global terror franchise, has extended its tentacles deeper into the sands of Libya and Mali in the past year. Splinter groups have also formed and grown; most notable has been the Signed in Blood Brigade, which was responsible for the death of 39 foreign hostages, including 5 Brits, in Algeria's In Amenas gas facility attack last year.

In addition to lethal terrorist attacks, kidnapping operations have yielded hefty ransom sums for Aqim and its offshoots, which have upped their operations in the Trans-Sahara region. Meanwhile the smuggling of arms, narcotics and cigarettes remains a lucrative trade for these non-state actors too.

These are just some of the Islamist examples of non-state actors that are heaping pressure on governments; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood are a few other examples of non-state actors growing in influence and authority.

Unbound by the constraints of law and, in many cases, quick to extreme violence to bolster their influence and aims, non-state actors are a growing threat and one of which we should be wary.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland