Erroll Southers, a widely recognized international terrorism expert and author, explained that the ISIL terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria has a message that is resonating with “frightening” success both globally and in the United States.
“They have the most sophisticated social media network we have ever seen,” Southers told a group of USC Price School of Public Policy alumni in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 16. The event was part of the school’s annual “Conversations in D.C.” series.
Southers, director of transition and research deployment for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s USC-based National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, said ISIL maintains a website written in a number of different languages — each of which uses correct syntax and grammar — underscoring the breadth of ISIL’s expertise and global reach.
The way they are resonating and the ground they are gaining is frightening.
“They are well-funded, well-resourced and gaining ground every day,” said Southers, an adjunct professor at USC Price. “The way they are resonating and the ground they are gaining is frightening.”
The next threat
In a sobering assessment of the terrorism threat facing the United States, Southers said, “Al-Qaida aspired to do it, but these people are doing it.”
He speculated that the next threat will either involve “foreign fighters that might return” to the United States or the individuals that connected with ISIL online and are already here.
According to Southers, experts are now seeing a number of “self-recruits.” These individuals need “just themselves, an ideology and a motivation” to strike a blow at the United States. Frequently, he noted, they may have “hybrid ideologies” that include being anti-American, anti-Israel and Neo-Nazis.
All of these individuals had some sort of “cognitive opening” that served as a pathway to their radicalization, Southers explained. Each became alienated, found a legitimizing ideology and existed in an enabling environment. But he said, “Terrorists don’t live in a vacuum” and most talked about taking some sort of radical step before doing it. It is the environment, which we as a community are most likely to influence, Southers added.
“We live in a democracy where extremism is a constitutionally protected right,” Southers said. “But we should unapologetically challenge everything violent extremists stand for.”
Q&A with Dean Knott
In a question-and-answer session following Southers’ remarks, USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott observed that the ISIL terrorist organization “seems to have a political sophistication and international relations understanding that we don’t match.” Southers agreed.
“ISIL is like a successful startup company. They have mastered bureaucracy … and have anticipated everything we’re going to do in at least the next three to six months. Every mistake and misstep we make with respect to our national security is a learning opportunity for our enemies,” he said.
Knott also asked Southers about how the terrorist organizations are getting the social media skills they use so successfully.
“First, their patience level is second to none,” Southers replied. “They are what I call a ‘learning organization.’ There is no such thing as a failed plot. They constantly learn. They do R&D [research and development] just like we do … they’re very patient and methodical.”
“Their structure is just frightening,” he continued. “If we kill a leader today, he’s replaced tomorrow morning, and they thrive on that. They seem to have mastered that capacity.”
No clear victory?
Although the United States also is learning about counteracting terrorism, Southers said there is a need to recognize that antiterrorism is a fight that will continue and not end with a clear victory.
“We have got to get to a point where we embrace it as part of what we do,” he said. “We embrace extremes where we seem to be extremely afraid of the terrorism label or not at all. Counterterrorism is not a strategy with a success defined by ending terrorism. We must prepare, prepare, prepare. We can’t stop preparing for it.”
To counter terrorism in the prison environment, Southers’ conversations with prison intelligence personnel recommend restricting the ability of prisoners to communicate with unlimited outsiders and reinstituting the screening of prisoner mail because prisons “have become an incubator” for Muslim and other extremists. He also urged a tough stand when it comes to “homegrown extremists.”
“Call terrorists ‘terrorists,’ ” Southers said. “Prosecute these people for murder and call it a terrorist attack. When we don’t do that and use the ‘lone wolf’ title, we don’t inform or educate the public about the real threat. A terrorist can look like anyone.”