Think Tank (6/2021)
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2021 CENS Countering Extremism Workshop
08 Nov 2021

The Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at RSIS brought together nine leading experts for a lively and thought-provoking series of discussions at its annual workshop on countering extremism from 8 to 11 November 2021, and held via Zoom.

Panel one considered evolutions among violent extremist networks in Indonesia and recent developments in counterterrorism. The speakers included Mr Alif Satria (Researcher, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Indonesia), Ms Dyah Ayu Kartika (Analyst, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Indonesia), and Mr Jordan Newton (Senior Adviser, Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Justice).

Panel 1: Violent Extremism in Indonesia: Updates and Evolution

The following evening, panel two outlined the current research on the psychology of radicalisation and examined the similarities in the personal pathways leading towards different extremist narratives. Leading the discussions were Professor Arie Kruglanski (Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland), Dr Michael Wolfowicz (Honorary Research Fellow, University College London) and Dr Leor Zmigrod (Research Fellow, University of Cambridge).

Panel 2: Current Research on the Psychology of Radicalisation: Commonality Across Ideologies

Concluding the event was panel three, which evaluated the Taliban’s return to government in Afghanistan and its implications for Islamist militancy in the region. Expert insights were provided by Dr Amira Jadoon (Assistant Professor, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point), Dr Cole Bunzel (Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University) and Mr Andrew Mines (Research Fellow, Program on Extremism, George Washington University).

Panel 3: After Kabul: The Return of the Taliban and Violent Extremism

The first panel focused on Indonesia, where terrorist networks have been decimated by counterterrorism operations in recent years. However, the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) movement maintains significant organisational resources and a robust structure, according to Mr Satria, while Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD) remains resilient through a decentralised network of autonomous cells, low barriers of entry and a degree of international connectivity.

Online pro-ISIS propaganda in Indonesia has declined in volume and quality since the fall of the movement’s self-proclaimed caliphate, but its content has diversified and continues to be purveyed across small and mainstream platforms. Meanwhile, JI’s messaging increasingly resembles that of non-violent Islamist groups opposing the government, which could lead to the group being misconstrued as activists instead of terrorists and potentially generate further support for violent resistance.

Looking further afield and towards the future, Ms Kartika described the dire conditions and perilous security environment in the displacement camps of northeastern Syria, where many of the Indonesian nationals who had joined the ISIS cause now find themselves. Repatriating the children of these nationals is, no doubt, complicated but may be the most effective way to address the humanitarian concerns while weakening Indonesian links to global terrorist networks.

Twenty years after 9/11, terrorism and ideological violence is now diffuse and diverse, with a variety of conspiracy-fuelled narratives and identity-based convictions spawning new forms of extremism. But, despite this apparent diversity of extremist perspectives, recent empirical research has highlighted substantial commonalities across different ideologies. The workshop’s second panel explored the evidence.

In a comprehensive meta-analysis of attitudes, intentions and behaviours among ideologically violent individuals, Dr Michael Wolfowicz found that psychological factors are more important ingredients for radicalisation than socioeconomic or experiential conditions.

Breaking down this observation further, Professor Kruglanski stressed the individual need for personal significance, which can be facilitated by exclusive networks and compelling narratives. Delving deeper still, Dr Zmigrod’s research has identified certain neuro-psychological signatures often present among those with extremist convictions, such as cognitive rigidity and impulsiveness. This cutting-edge research could have important implications for disengagement and upstream prevention initiatives.

Panel three discussed the ramifications of recent developments in Afghanistan. Dr Bunzel highlighted the threat posed to the United States by both ISIS-Khorasan, the ISIS affiliate responsible for Central and South Asia, and Al-Qaeda, but also outlined the two organisations’ respective constraints in terms of their preoccupation with local conflicts and decapitated leaderships. According to Mr Mines, ISIS-Khorasan has stepped up attacks over the past two years, targeting certain local communities and infrastructure in order to further destabilise the war-torn nation, but its operations have become less deadly.

Regardless of the Taliban’s intentions with respect to foreign extremist groups, Dr Jadoon believes the new government’s limited protective security capacity may mean the nation becomes a “passive sponsor” of terrorism. What will be of concern for the wider region is the prospect of greater fusion between locally oriented extremist networks and transnational organisations, which may influence the tactics and strategies of the former  in the future.

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