ISIS has recruits from over 100 countries. Large numbers from Belgium and France but proportionately it also has a significant number from the Caribbean- specifically Trinidad and Tobago. This is not a coincidence or an aside. This is a major issue to be dealt with for two reasons
ISIS operates in nodes.
ISIS is a violent transnational social movement
Nodes are standalone operators. They determine attack vectors individually. Their role is to execute the ISIS idea and not to create terrorist cells and hubs which are noisy (chatter) and can be tracked. Instead ISIS operators might be thought of as a series of nodes which appear to act in a co-ordinated fashion but instead are a group of agents who are attached by a common cause but operate individually in groups as local nodes. There is an increasing number of familial groups involved in these operations. This gives the ultimate protection to the node because of the loyalty and silence which this ensures. Another important factor with nodes is the emphasis on the local nature of the agents as they can shift and blend into their environment easily.
This is one of the key factors to consider with ISIS. They are bringing a globalised idea of jihad to the countries in which they wish to operate but execute using trained combat hardened locals blended together with trained combat experts. Each of these remain independent and separate nodes which require nothing from ISIS HQ except ‘the cause’ and initial training. Intelligence agencies looking for chatter have nothing to find since these nodes have no need to communicate and no reason to raise attention as they are local and blend into the terrain. This lack of requirement for direction makes it particularly hard to seek out and tag node operators.
The second key consideration is the fact that ISIS is a social movement and as such it is a social construct. Its actions and behaviours are bound in an agreed code and belief system which all its participants adhere to. This coded system creates practices and rituals which bind the participants together. This process creates community and identity. When combined with territory it creates a civil ethnicity. This makes ISIS particularly lethal in the long term and in many ways its present activities today are just preparatory for its long-term vision.
Ethnicity – a way of behaving and viewing the world- a central core of shared beliefs that engenders belonging- is not the same as having an idea and acting on it. Tied into the belief system is the concept that individuals are not isolated or misunderstood or disenfranchised or marginalised any longer but part of a community in which the role they play is vital. This sense of belonging can be intoxicating. It engenders a sense of purpose and the opportunity to believe that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves.
Given the power of ISIS’s social construct and its common bonds which hold its disparate membership together, it becomes apparent ‘returning home’ is unlikely as ‘home’ is where an individual feels they belong- not the country they initially escaped from due to the sense of not belonging. Returning home takes on a new dimension- a purpose which will involve delivering the objectives and mission of the group. Nationals returning home with an ISIS identity and ethnicity are soldiers whose role is to complete a mission. This mission is further imbued with religious teaching. It becomes God’s purpose and not just the individual’s desire. ISIS identity cannot be taken off like a carnival costume on Ash Wednesday. It is more akin to a tattoo which lives on, for life because the ink is under the skin.
ISIS is therefore a clear and present threat to the Caribbean because those unidentified returners and those who support ISIS Salafist jihadism do not need to be members of a group to be effective in executing their objectives. They function in isolation with only the broad attack vector and time having been agreed. The disparate and distinct nature of each node practically renders them invisible to intelligence and law enforcement with the exception of those agencies who have a high human intelligence capacity and a handle on grey area activity (illegal extra state activity such as gun runners and organised crime gangs)
ISIS marks a watershed in the evolving nature of transnational threats to states. It is an army which acts as individuals and asymmetric operators focused on the same attack vector, acting as an army, without the need to communicate. Such an entity marks a new era in TERRORIST HYBRIDITY and renders ISIS distinct from all other groups who seek to change the structure of the system they operate within.
The Caribbean is a particularly attractive target which explains the alleged presence of regional ISIS recruiters in such islands such as Aruba, Margarita and Surinam. It is attractive because any incident in one island has a material and profound effect on all the others in the chain. What happens in one country reflects upon and impacts the other. This symbiotic relationship has to be nurtured and protected and that means thinking as one unified region where regional threats are the same as state threats. The effect of one incident in one country will have material impact on tourism and trade in another. Caribbean islands do not live in isolation. They are part of the global system. They are inter-connected, interdependent and inter-related.
Part or dealing with this reality is to change the way security operates. In a hybrid enemy paradigm, conventional warfare does not work. Hybrid enemies are transnational and non-state in nature. They are borderless in design, intention and action. The countries of the Caribbean are still configured to deal with state enemies, rather than non-state enemies. They are equipped with standing armies instead of cyber armies. There are counter-terrorist military units instead of anti-terrorist population-centric action plans. The operational posture remains national border patrol using state assets for state security instead of regional cooperation and coordination of assets, as a functional priority. There are a plethora of intelligence units which do not harmonise operations nor interact as a matter of course, on a daily basis and a regional intelligence agency is a financial improbability.
Transnational non-state actors fight with ideas and recruit through the concept of persecution. When states use military means to address population-centric social movements then the military is seen as acting against elements of the very society it was created to defend. The single state-centric paradigm the Militaries in the Caribbean assume is no longer valid in the face of trans-national threats.
Joined up intelligence, regional intelligence infrastructure and planned and defined career paths for dedicated intelligence professionals creates the base upon which good regional security is built. Intelligence is not limited to tactical actionable intelligence. Social, economic, political and environmental intelligence forecasting in addition to criminal and terrorist collection is equally vital. One might be considered proactive and the other preventative. It’s time for a new approach to national security given the current threat ISIS represents. The state-centric approach is dated and globalisation and the emergence of transnational threats means a real attempt is needed at security sector reform in the region. Regional is the new national.
The nature of the message which the security services deliver is just as important as how it is delivered. It is not counter-terrorism that is needed to deal with this emerging threat. Counter-terrorism is reactionary and conducted after the terrorist event. Anti- terrorism initiatives, on the other hand, provide a counter dialogue which can be employed in social media, on television and in religious and social spaces. Pro-active responses will ensure those with intent to harm our region are saved from themselves.