Mr. Rowley noted that British authorities arrested 69 people for Syria-related activities in the first half of this year, a fivefold increase from last year. Nearly half of British travellers to Syria who have been deemed “of concern,” Mr. Rowley added, were not previously known to authorities as terrorist risks.
The struggle to identify Mr. Foley’s killer is in many ways illustrative of the myriad challenges facing Western governments trying to slow the recent meteoric growth of IS. Even if Mr. Foley’s killer is identified, capturing him from IS-controlled territory may still prove exceedingly difficult. The challenge is as much about combatting the terrorist group’s narrative as it is about bringing any one IS member to justice.
For the IS propaganda arms, the Foley video represents one extreme of a binary media strategy. On one hand, the group has become infamous in recent months for posting graphic videos showing beheadings and multiple executions as a kind of warning to the organization’s many enemies.
However, the IS media teams have also produced many videos that present the so-called Caliphate of Iraq and Syria as a safe haven for pious Muslims. In one such video, released earlier this month, a handful of foreign fighters call on Muslims from around the world to come join IS. Interspersed with footage of children playing, the video features testimonials from fighters originally from South Africa, Belgium, Britain and the United States, among other countries.
A slick, 10-minute IS video apparently recorded in Syria in 2013 includes a Canadian who is believed to have died fighting with the extremists. André Poulin of Timmins, Ont., says he was just like any other “regular Canadian” before he embraced Islam. “I watched hockey. I went to the cottage in the summertime. I loved to fish,” he says in the video. “I was a regular person. Mujahedeen [holy warriors] are regular people too … We have lives outside of our job.”
The quantity and production quality of the IS media offensive has, in many ways, caught Western authorities off-guard. Mr. Rowley said that British investigators are currently in the process of removing some 1,100 pieces of content from the Web that breach the country’s terrorism laws – of these, about 800 are related to the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
Building a coalition
As British and U.S. investigators attempt to identify Mr. Foley’s killer, Washington appears on the verge of enlisting a broader coalition to contain the massive gains made by IS in the past few months. With many U.S. voters still not very supportive of another large U.S. combat troop presence in Iraq, the White House is pressing its allies to engage on a number of other fronts.
“It will require an effective, inclusive Iraqi government that can unite that country to face the threat that’s posed by [IS],” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest this week. “It will require the involvement of other governments in the region that have a blatantly obvious interest in this outcome. It will require the involvement of countries around the world, particularly our Western allies that also have an incentive to confront that threat that’s posed by [IS].”
For Washington, that strategy necessitates asking different things from different allies. For example, the White House is likely to request that Turkey beef up security along its border with Syria, which is a potential gateway for money, arms and fighters coming in from Europe. The U.S. government will also press Saudi Arabia to pressure Sunni groups in Iraq to buy in to a unity government, rather than side with Sunni militants in IS.
“The most important thing for IS to be contained … is for moderate Sunnis to hive themselves off from a very fragile coalition with IS and join a unity government in Baghdad,” said Prof. Juneau of the University of Ottawa.
But unlike the United States, many of these regional allies are next-door neighbours to IS and must weigh the likelihood that their actions may provoke an immediate response from the terrorist group. As such, it is yet unclear just how much they will be willing to contribute to U.S. efforts to contain, if not crush the so-called Caliphate.
“What you now have is the beginning of a full-fledged strategic approach on the part of the Obama administration,” said Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.
“Many of us will regard this as a test case of how much you can do by supporting like-minded groups in the region.”