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Air strikes and terror attacks examined

An interview with Charlie Winter

Charlie Winter is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation specialising in terrorism and insurgency. Meanwhile, he is also pursuing a PhD in war studies at King’s College London, where he examines how militant groups cultivate creative approaches to governance and war. Previously, Charlie Winter has written for the BBC,  the Guardian while his work also has been published by platforms such as Critical Studies in Media Communication, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, the CTC Sentinel, Philosophia, The Atlantic, War On The Rocks, and Jihadology.
Charlie Winter holds an undergraduate degree in Arabic from the University of Edinburgh and an MA in
Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King’s College London.

What would you say are the main driving forces behind ISIS’ suicide attacks?  And how heavily do you think that the revenge narrative features in ISIS’ motivations behind suicide attacks?
There are a few different motivational factors at work here. On one hand you have a very tactical, kinetic understanding of why suicide operations are a valid weapon to use in the context of unconventional warfare. The vast majority of the Islamic State suicide operations over the last few years – specifically since 2014 – have occurred when the group has been engaged in either defensive or offensive operations, and they have been used in the same way that a conventional army uses heavy artillery or guided-missile technology. [Suicide attacks] have essentially been a way for the Islamic State to make up for the technological imbalances that they face on the battlefield. In that sense, I see their use of suicide attacks as tactical and bizarrely rational, perhaps more akin to Japanese kamikaze pilots than the terrorist operations that we more commonly associate with jihadist insurgency. So alongside military suicide tactics, these have continued to take place over the last few years, but in smaller numbers. I suppose you can see them as having a more strategic understanding of what can be done, so these are the ones akin to the Islamic State’s ideological aims.

Would you then say that there are two types of suicide attacks? One that’s being used for tactical reasons on the battlefield and then the ones targeting civilians outside of conflict zones?
Yes, also the ones within places like Syria and Iraq but outside the conflict, such as in Baghdad, Latakiya, where civilians are targeted rather than military actors. Of course, there is a fusion of the two, which we have also seen in suicide attacks that target army or police barracks where the target by definition is a military target, but they are being hit out of the context of battle. And the principal aim here is to scare them, to intimidate them, to sow fear among them. Again, I see that as a more strategic use than anything else. And of course, these categories are very, very loose and there are a lot of changes between them, but that is broadly how to see things.

The airstrikes have caused the Islamic State problems militarily, they have driven [the IS] to use other tactics to make up for what they are lacking.

Is there a reason to think that airstrikes in particular fuel a need for revenge compared to other means of fighting terrorism, especially compared to putting boots on the ground?
I think the airstrikes have been a real problem for the Islamic State. The US expended a huge amount of effort back in 2014 and 2015 to try to get some sort of boots on the ground, whether it was their own or from other Coalition partners, who are considered to be “crusaders”. They did not get that because I think somewhere someone realised that it was probably what they were hoping to achieve and that it would be a temporary reprieve and potentially a long-term catastrophe to mobilise a large number of ground troops against the Islamic State. So, in magazines like Dabiq and Rumiyah and Arabic publications like Naba’ and in videos as well, the Islamic State will spend quite a lot of time talking about airstrikes and positioning themselves as being under attack from an indiscriminate wave of bombings that are targeting them and by that, they are targeting regular Sunni Muslims. And, through that positioning, the Islamic State then makes the case for its retributive terrorism incitement mechanisms and the Islamic State is calling for terrorist attacks in Western countries, basically in countries of the Coalition in order to make up for their reported friends and civilians living in the Islamic State. There are quite a few incidents where that particular message has been delivered very strongly. So, to answer your question to whether airstrikes make things worse: on the one hand, they accelerated material demise, but on the other hand, in accelerating material demise they have also increased the incentive for its supporters to perpetrate acts of terrorism outside of the conflict theatre. Now there is the question – if we can say that because of their airstrikes the Islamic State is calling for attacks against the West – there is a fair question as to whether anyone is actually listening to that. Of course you have lots of global self-starters or whatever you want to call them perpetrating attacks against civilians in Europe, America and elsewhere over the last few years, but whether they are carrying out those attacks actually because of airstrikes or because of incursions being made by the Islamic State, or they are carrying them out for other, more broad ideological reasons is another question and something that cannot be answered because we cannot get inside their heads. But I do not think it is necessarily a clear-cut case of airstrikes attacking the Islamic State causing it to shift, or recalibrate, its targeting to incorporate more attacks against the West, and then more attacks follow. It could well be a lot less linear than that, even though it is not in the interest at all of the Islamic State to make clear that that relationship can be more complex than what first meets the eye.

So, it is not a direct cause and effect but rather one of many reasons?
No, but the Islamic State really wants to seem like it is direct cause and effect. I just think in general, with this kind of issue, there never really is a direct cause and effect.

To what extent would you say that ISIS uses the West’s airstrikes – and the civilian harm they cause – as a way to recruit new members?
Propaganda about airstrikes has been used primarily as a way to incite terrorism outside the conflict theatre. I think the core recruitments, the key promises that the Islamic State made, to its supporters and would-be supporters in Iraq and Syria for example, tended to be more material. The promise of economic benefits, security; things that make any insurgency appealing to a population. But 100%, some or perhaps even lots of people have joined the Islamic State because airstrikes killed their family members. But I do not think that the Islamic State recruited solely on the basis of that, to manipulate that emotional response to airstrikes.

Has the civilian harm caused by airstrikes made civilians more inclined to sympathy with ISIS?
I do not know – would be very difficult to know. But if you consider the battle of Raqqa for example, that was a particularly airstrike-heavy battle. And essentially, the Islamic State, as far as I understand it, ended up leaving Raqqa by reaching a deal with the Coalition via a mediator, because the airstrikes were so bad that there were fewer and fewer incentives for the civilian population to provide them any assistance during the battle. That is just from the top of my head, but I think that is what happened. We know that there was some sort of deal made because so many fighters and families left Raqqa in that big convoy, so the turns of that deal obviously have not been made completely public. But also, I think that there were some reports that the airstrikes were especially geared to make it so difficult for the Islamic State to maintain any sort of legitimacy or credibility in the eyes of the civilian population that they basically had to leave. So, it could actually have had the reverse effect. There have been lots of changes during the last five years, so perhaps since 2014 the airstrikes did not have that impact, but it is very difficult to say. Certainly, the Islamic State is publicly messaging news as evidence or images from the aftermath of airstrikes to try to garner sympathy among people who were already sympathisers of it. But whether people who are not mobilised, who are not sympathetic to it, if they cannot be sympathetic to it, that is the question. Maybe, and I have no idea of how you would study this, but it could be the case that up to a certain point airstrikes may give some sort of sympathy among some demographics but then after a certain point when the costs increase to that demographic, this could be the tipping point and the sympathy goes – I do not know, it is very interesting but difficult to answer.

What do you think that the UK has done right and wrong militarily speaking in its counterinsurgency strategy against ISIS?
It is not really within my field, but I think broadly, the Coalition’s response to the Islamic State, militarily, has been an unequivocal success. Of course, the Islamic State has not been defeated and the Caliphate is very much in existence, but it has profoundly changed since 2014, and while it remains in effect in many, many sentences, it is still presenting a threat. One thing that it is not able to do now is that the Caliphate itself is a viable proto-state alternative, it is de-facto running half of Syria in terms of the territory it took control over. So [the Coalition’s efforts], I think, can be seen as a success. But it took a while to get there, and a lot of civilians were killed in the Coalition airstrikes and that is a record that can be faulted. At the same time, there is a war – so some civilian casualties are expected, but I think it is a very difficult one. But what the UK has been taking the lead in has been on the strategic communication side of things and I think they have done a very good job of coordinating Coalition partners and their response to certain things and the discourse around certain issues, so that has been quite impressive. But in terms of the specifics of the British military operations against the Islamic State, I cannot really say – out of my field.

So, you do not think the strategy has relied too heavily on an idea of “bombing the problem away” and lacking a deeper, contextual understanding of counterterrorism operations?
It is probably too early to say, either way. If the Coalition were to pack up now and the governments in the Coalition stop providing money for post-Islamic State stabilisation, then that would be the kind of short-termism that often poses problems in these kinds of contexts. But if funds do continue being injected into Iraq and Syria, and meaningful stabilisation and reconciliation of communities and economic securitisation, and all that stuff, if that takes place, then there will be results, but we just have to wait and see really. It is hard to make any predictions because so much can change.