So far in this featured blog, I have mostly explored the role the Islamic State (IS) plays in Middle Eastern politics. This piece, however, analyzes the dynamic domestic terrorism creates in Western politics. To frame this discussion, I think it would be best to dive into a specific case: the Berlin truck attack that occurred last December.
On Dec. 19, 2016, a hijacked truck driven by 24-year-old Anis Amri crashed through a market in Berlin, Germany, killing 12 and injuring 49. After an extended chase across Europe, Amri was eventually killed by police in Italy. IS claimed responsibility for the attack.
On Feb. 22, 2017, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point released a report summarizing the attack, Amri’s pathway to terrorism, the network he was a part of and the implications of these findings for counterterrorism efforts.
Amri was born in an area of Tunisia noted for being prone to radicalization. However, all indications show he was not radicalized while in Tunisia, as he had a reputation for drinking and stealing. In fact, it seems he was radicalized in Italian prisons.
This fact presents a challenge to counterterrorism officials. Radicalization is not geographically contained; no amount of immigration screening can stop an individual being radicalized within the country in which they are residing.
Eventually, Amri began taking classes at a Qur’an school in Germany. The school was run by an individual with connections to a man known as Abu Walaa, a 32-year-old Salafist preacher who ran a recruiting network for IS in Germany. Walaa brought Amri in as a messenger for his network, transporting messages across Germany on his behalf. These activities were known to German authorities. Phone conversations intercepted by authorities, while confirming his Islamist ideology, also indicated his involvement in standard criminal practices, like drug dealing.
This example provides a dilemma national security officials find themselves in. Had officials intervened too early, they may have tipped of the Walaa network, sending them further underground. In addition, the authorities may have ended up arresting Amri, who was not devoted to the terrorist cause at the time (as evidenced by his activities involving drugs). While we know today that he was prone to violence, it is important to consider these facts in the context in which authorities discovered them.
Six weeks before the Berlin truck attack, Walaa and four associates were arrested. This caused the hierarchal structure of the Walaa network to weaken, with its top leaders at the federal and regional levels in the hands of German authorities.
This may seem like an immense victory for German authorities. The Walaa network, and what remains of it, has strong ties to IS actors operating in Syria and has funneled several fighters to the region over several years. However, in my opinion, it may be too soon to celebrate.
Researchers who look into the organizational structures of terrorist groups, such as Princeton University’s Professor of Politics and International Affairs Jacob N. Shapiro, suggest removing the leadership of terrorist networks may not always be the best policy. In his book “The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations,” Shapiro argues cracking down on groups may loosen the control more politically experienced leaderships have over their operatives.
Often times, the leadership of terrorist organizations has more knowledge as to how the actions of their operatives will be taken in the political arena. In addition, terrorist leaders tend to know when to lay low and when to operate in a greater capacity. Potentially, we could place Walaa and Amri in this leader-operative relationship Shapiro describes. Without Walaa’s direction, Amri may have taken it upon himself to carry out the attack in Berlin.
This places counterterrorism policymakers in a difficult position. Amri was an individual who floated around in the waters of extremism. He obviously had extreme rhetoric, as highlighted by his tapped phone calls. However, his actions involving crime and drugs told a different story. Walaa’s influence, and potentially lack of influence, had reverberating effects from Germany to Syria. This example demonstrates the difficult decisions that have to be made on a case by case basis by security officials when attempting to detect potential terrorists domestically.