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From silent to deadly. Revisiting Manciulli’s terrorism report after October 7

The Med-Or Foundation paper, which anticipated the Hamas attack on Israel by two days, was the centrepiece of a Middle East Institute panel with Blout, Katulis, Lister and Vidino. With proselytism and attacks on the rise around the world, states must focus on prevention as well as repression: here are their views

Back from the shadows. The name of Andrea Manciulli, terrorism expert and Director of Institutional Relations at the Med-Or Foundation, has been making the rounds after he presented his latest report – “The Silent Enemy: Presence and Evolution of the Jihadist Threat in the Broader Mediterranean” – two days before Hamas launched a large-scale attack on Israeli civilians. October 7’s was an unprecedented assault that reopened a season of war in Gaza and is destined to mark the future balance of power in the Middle East.

  • When planning the report, “we decided to speak of the ‘silent enemy’ because we noticed that the general attention paid to the terrorist phenomenon was decreasing, even as it was still moving, creeping, less visible than at the time of major attacks such as the Bataclan, but no less worrying,” said Mr Manciulli.

The MEI event. The report and its contents were discussed at a Middle East Institute webinar on Monday, moderated by its Vice President Brian Katulis, where Mr Manciulli was joined by some of the world’s leading experts on terrorism, including Emily Blout (a scholar at the intersection of media and national security), Charles Lister, (Director of the MEI’s Syria Program), and Lorenzo Vidino (Director of the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security’s Program on Extremism at George Washington University).

Terrorism today: an overview. The large-scale attack, combining tactical, strategic and communicative actions, was one of the possibilities hypothesised in Mr Manciulli’s study. And beyond its predictions, the document attracted the attention of the prestigious US think tank because, while the operational campaign on the ground has never stopped, terrorism is also returning to the forefront of US national security on a more public and mainstream level.

  • In its recently published 2022 Intelligence Report, the State Department highlighted the more than 20,000 deaths from terrorist attacks worldwide, as well as 12,000 injured and 5,000 kidnapped.

The role of climate change… This report also confirmed a key point of the Med-Or report, namely the impact of climate change in the Sahel region – the epicentre of the phenomenon’s expansion – on the resurgence of local terrorism. Rising temperatures in this region (and in sub-Saharan Africa in general) are driving impoverishment and existential threats to livelihoods – which in turn are driving young people to respond to radical preaching and to find sources of income and answers to socio-economic hardship in armed groups (the case of the Fulani herdsmen around Lake Chad is emblematic).

  • These conditions also encourage waves of migration northwards, the Med-Or report notes, which in turn have a knock-on effect on the trafficking of drugs, arms and people in the Balkans – with further implications for the Caucasus region and Central Asia.

… the implications for NATO, global security … As Mr Manciulli noted at the MEI event, the Alliance is under pressure as jihadist preachers in the Balkans “feed on resentments dating back to the Yugoslav war, playing on narratives also fed by Russian disinformation. Something similar is happening in North Africa and the Sahel with NATO’s intervention in Libya to overthrow the Gaddafi regime.”

  • Thus, traditional terrorist groups are merging their interests and activities with smuggling gangs, rooted in historical resentments, fuelled by disinformation – and strengthened by the proselytising effect of what is happening in Gaza.

… and the end result. This “effervescence of media and communication jihadism”, as Mr Manciulli defined it, has spread beyond the Sahel and onto the international stage. Recent examples include the attacks in Paris (where a subject took action because he was “tired of seeing Muslims die”, especially in Gaza, where France is Israel’s “accomplice”) and in the Philippines (where a bomb exploded in a Catholic church on Sunday, killing four people).

A “glocal” phenomenon. Terrorist organisations benefit from political divisions and use them for their propaganda: the Islamic State is undoubtedly benefiting from the war in Gaza, Mr Lister said, warning against limiting the terrorist phenomenon to its local roots (a “major strategic error”) and stressing its global dimension.

  • IS is “clearly” not claiming responsibility in some areas of the world because terrorists recognise that Western counter-terrorism assessments are largely based on claims of responsibility rather than actual attacks on the ground.
  • But it’s one thing to fight what’s happening on the ground, and quite another to fight the movement, which has the ability to spread beyond the ground – thanks to the internet.

What about prevention? It’s always external events that determine the size and direction of the proselytising bubbles; and every time we see a major external event, the wider jihadist movement grows in size, noted Mr Vidino. So, assuming that some international control can be exercised over terrorist dynamics, “the best way to counter the [silent] effect of terrorism is to talk.”

  • Ms Blout then focused on preventing recruitment by making digital platforms more accountable – in part because they have limited incentives to cooperate fully with governments and identify potentially vulnerable individuals.

Beware the young “jihadisphere”. As Mr Manciulli noted, the most pressing negative development is some young people living in the online “jihadisphere” where, despite some preventive and countermeasures by social networks, there is still a lot of propaganda material available, making self-indoctrination easy. This can also be a form of escape from socio-economic problems and an outlet for related resentments.

  • This is very different from the deep Islamic culture that jihadists used to experience; today’s young people feel a fashionable attraction to jihadism, as sympathy for jihadist causes has grown since the Hamas attack.
  • “That is why repression alone is not enough and we need prevention too,” said the expert, calling for a “dual legal register” of repressive laws – for those who commit a crime – and the possibility of preventive action – to moderate those who turn to extremist entities but are still recoverable.

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