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Stop portraying Islamic State as a band of exotic globetrotters

Don’t jump to conclusions: protesters in Kashmir with a mocked-up IS flag. EPA/Farooq Khan

The so-called Islamic State (IS) has been dealt a severe blow to its “centre” with the liberation of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the group’s de facto capital. Yet the media is awash with various experts warning us of what’s next for IS and their alleged exotic outposts. Much of this is nothing more than opportunistic scaremongering, built on an old and tired misunderstanding of militant Islamic terrorism.

As implied by its full name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or of Iraq and the Levant) was born in a specific place and time. In this respect, it is far from unique; as long as the Syrian conflict continues, jihadist groups will emerge and congregate. And at this point, IS’s fantastical dream of re-imagining the caliphate is no more than hyperbole, a device to inflate its brand internationally and give it the impression of a cosmopolitan brotherhood.

Beyond Syria, in what political scientist Oliver Roy calls “the periphery”, many IS-branded attacks are committed without any logistic or training support from the group itself. As it most directly relates to the West, IS works not in baroque, extravagant terrorist spectacle, but with mundane, everyday items – kitchen knives, pressure cookers, lorries and cars, even fairy lights.

As IS’s Middle Eastern centre collapses, we should be critically reassessing the global reach and threat of militant Islam and making sure not to play into the IS leadership’s branding goals. Instead, too many are buying into the group’s propaganda about links with far-flung insurgencies.

Journalists and their audiences should know better. After all, they were sold a similar story a decade ago during the heady years of the War on Terror, when all manner of disparate threats were lumped together under the al-Qaeda banner. Yet here we go again, in danger of falling into the same trap, often laid by the same people. And this is more than a matter of mere misapprehension: policies meant to deal with the reach and lure of jihadism cannot succeed unless their framers understand the reality of the threat.

Look at us

Desperate to make its brand more exotic and exciting, IS will of course appropriate whatever group or incident it can, as far into the periphery as it can. Generic “experts” in terrorism and jihadism only pile on the pressure with their own, often ignorant takes, which conflate remote, locally driven and longstanding conflicts into a supposedly global menace.

The resulting impression is of a sprawling group whose tendrils extend to the most “exotic” corners of the world, at least from a Western point of view. Its supposed extent is regularly mapped by the mainstream press, whose infographics help create a familiar geography of jihadist terrorism.

Besides spreading inaccuracies, this reductive coverage helps re-broadcast the jihadists’ desperate claims to allegiance with Asian and African Muslims fighting their own local battles. Given the panoply of very different Muslim rebellions, from struggles for greater autonomy to outright separatism and insurgency, all manner of causes, ethnicities and geographies are ripe for conflation.

Less than exotic: the aftermath of a raid on a small terrorist cell in Morocco. EPA/Abdelhak Senna

The problem is particularly fuelled by the rich variety of jihadist video media, catering for every language, ethnicity and culture to create what looks like a cosmopolitan virtual community. But while cosmopolitan on the surface, all this community really amounts to is a series of echo chambers, from which videotaped fighters issue statements of comradeship for their far-away fellow jihadist travellers.

The empathy is evidently diverse and can reach far, but the proliferation of exotic jihad-themed clickbait does not imply a genuine global menace. Understanding the global nature of jihadism means reconciling the local “truths” and global ambitions of this global phenomenon, whose participants are as opportunistic as they are sincere. What’s needed is critically sound local knowledge.

On the ground

I can only speak from my own expertise. I have lived and conducted fieldwork in the Philippines and Thailand, two countries wrestling with separate Muslim insurgencies that many onlookers claim are “linked” to global jihadism. A recent spike of IS conjecture has drawn much attention to both, at least in the West. But a more astute analysis would look at these countries’ problems as the local, highly specific conflicts they are.

In the Philippines, this year’s five-month battle for Marawi City in the restive Mindanao region spawned IS-linked headlines all over the place. In reality, the siege was the work of a collective made up of local militants (whose usual business is kidnap for ransom), a powerful family from the Maranao clan, and a handful of individuals from Malaysia and Indonesia. But this unholy union – with their black flags, pledges of allegiance, IS communiqués and propaganda – is not a “sanctuary” or “breeding ground” for global jihadism. The Muslim insurgency in Mindanao is half a century old; it will outlast IS as it did al-Qaeda.

A ruined mosque in the Philippines’ Marawi City. EPA/Richel V. Umel

Meanwhile, the IS-themed chatter about Thailand’s southern Muslim insurgency should be quietened by an excellent report recently published by the International Crisis Group. To squash any attempt to draw spurious links between Thai insurgents and IS central in the Middle East, the group titled its report Jihadism in Southern Thailand is a Phantom Menace.

Once you notice news outlets and politicians are casually exoticising jihadism, you start to see it happening everywhere. In October, local militants put Niger on the jihadist map when they killed four US Special Forces soldiers. This briefly lifted the veil on the extent of US foreign intervention against remote jihadism, but also yielded a rash of stories racing to find an IS link.

And perhaps most concerning has been recent coverage of the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. As the world slowly finds its voice (if not much else) to condemn the Burmese government, too many onlookers are falling for that same government’s claim of a Rohingya extremist insurgency. It seems the West found another opportunity to invent new jihadists: exotic, remote, and ready to keep the story going.

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