Nigel Inkster stepped down from his position as Deputy Chief of MI6 in 2006Chatham House/Wikimedia Commons

It would be difficult to find anyone with more knowledge of violent extremism  or terrorism, a term he prefers  than Nigel Inkster. After 31 years working for MI6, Inkster eventually retired in 2006 as Deputy Chief and Head of Operations, and now holds the position of Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

So, as an authority that ought to be taken seriously, it is interesting that – counter to the prevailing zeitgeist  he plays down the existential threat of Islamic terrorism. “From a statistical perspective, the good news is that very few terrorist movements have ever achieved their objectives”, he tells me. “The figure is somewhere between five and ten per cent, and those that have succeeded have tended to be attached to an identifiable and resolvable political issue, that commands a level of genuine popular support, and is susceptible to negotiation  Northern Ireland being a case in point.”

“We need to fight smart and to recognise that the fight has to take place on a much broader front than the purely military dimension”

Inkster is also quick to highlight the fact that the West, at least, is currently living in the least violent period in human history to date, where the figure for those dying violently is close to zero per cent. However, as I push him on the point, he does admit that ISIS cannot be ignored.

“We have to be prepared to fight if necessary”, he says, “but we need to fight smart and to recognise that the fight has to take place on a much broader front than the purely military dimension.”

Indeed, he continues by noting there is no prospect of negotiating with ISIS because, “you simply cannot negotiate with fanatics because they are incapable of making the sort of compromises that are an essential function of any negotiation process.” He shrugs. “In a case like that, there is no other alternative but to fight.”

However, I wonder if  in the age of soft power  that combating ISIS by cutting off their supply lines of fighters through propaganda which undermines their recruitment methods is a more viable option?

“I think there is an issue about the way in which you deal with IS propaganda, and that should not be about shooting the messenger, it should be about combating the message.” This is precisely Inkster’s area of expertise: he is an authority on cyber-security in relation to international terrorism, having authored a number of books and articles on the subject, as well as heading up cyber-security at IISS. 

And it is evident, as he explains that “some of the big media giants, the Facebooks and the Googles, are now adopting a much more responsible approach to content on their services. They’ve moved a long way from their original position, which was that they were simply service providers and not responsible for policing content. That has changed quite significantly.”

“Violent extremism is rooted in grievance, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter all that much what the grievance is”

For Inkster, one of the key issues for the West is that they must be aware of the basis for the emergence of terrorist organisations. After all, he points out that, “violent extremism is rooted in grievance, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter all that much what the grievance is. All that’s needed to turn it into a threat is an ideology that frames the grievance in a broader context and gives it an intellectual and moral justification, and a mobilisation mechanism that gets the individual to the point where he or she is prepared to resort to violence.”

Indeed, Inkster explains that not recognising this basis could lead to trouble for the West on an internal level, before noting that “the scope to exploit grievance is by no means confined to the Islamic world. There’s always going to be a plentiful supply of ideologues, marketing simple solutions to complex problems.”

“Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump are indicative of this sort of action”, he continues. “Globalism and the relentless march of technological change have undoubtedly empowered violent extremism to an unprecedented degree. And the ways in which technology is set to evolve could well provide a fecund source of future grievances if it destroys existing employment options  particularly for an aspirational middle class  without replacing them with comparable alternatives.”

So it seems that, in his view, Western governments are, in essence, going to struggle to counter extremism without addressing the unstoppable tides of globalisation and technological development. But how about the fights they could win: are they doing the right things to counter the threat posed by ISIS?

“I think that certainly in relation to Iraq, the way things are being done there, which is providing capacity building equipment and enabling the government itself to deal with the problem, is right,” he explains. “Dealing with the manifestations of Islamic State that impact on Western countries’ own security is simply an extension of existing counter-terrorism practices and policies, so there’s no need for anything radically different there.”

On President Trump’s ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, however, he is less positive. “That’s something that certainly could not have been the subject of consultation with the intelligence community,” he says emphatically, “because the intelligence community would have advised against it. No question about it.”

“Smug disengagement may make us feel better about ourselves, but it’s not going to do anything to solve any problems”

And he is also less certain about the West’s handling of ISIS in Syria, partly because, as he notes, it is “more complicated. Islamic State is a key actor in a complex, multi-faceted civil war that is taking place and is very much the creation of Bashar al-Assad. He’s created a Frankenstein’s monster,” he says dramatically.

So should the West have acted earlier to suppress ISIS in Syria? “I think, in retrospect, failure by the US and its allies to intervene in Syria at one particular point was counter-productive, and that was when Obama drew the so-called ‘red line’ over the Syrian state’s use of chemical weapons. I think we’ll look back at that as a seminal moment in the evolution of this conflict.”

“And not to back up that threat with the reality of force was a mistake,” he continues, “because that really created the vacuum into which Russia has stepped. Smug disengagement may make us feel better about ourselves, but it’s not going to do anything to solve any problems, least of all ours.”

Inkster, using his experience, has this uncanny ability to vividly highlight the complexity of the threats posed by violent extremism. Counter-intuitively, however, his message is essentially one of reassurance, setting the current situation in its historical context and recognising that there is nothing dramatically new in the challenges we face today. 

In his view, the words of Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ring true: “Don’t panic,” he tells me. “We have a problem here, we’re always going to have problems but if we’re sensible and realistic, we can deal with it.”