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Opinion

 
Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

New faces of terrorism

The Al-Qaeda threat may be fading. But injustice in authoritarian Middle East regimes and failure to integrate Muslim populations in the West come together to spawn a new generation of terrorists.

Published on Jul 17, 2014 12:16 PM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Over a decade after the world's top intelligence agencies first waged battle against international terrorism, some of those involved in that epic confrontation think it's time to move on.

In a speech in London last week, Sir Richard Dearlove, who headed Britain's Secret Intelligence Service of James Bond fame, told his country's top foreign policy analysts that they have literally blown the Islamic terrorist threat out of proportion, and that they no longer need to be obsessed with apprehending those "rather pathetic individuals".

Yet many Western governments are doing precisely the opposite. Days after Sir Dearlove spoke, Britain, France and the Netherlands rushed through new laws to combat terrorism, while Australia boosted the cash available to its own intelligence agencies to deal with the terrorist threat.

Who is right in this debate?

Awkwardly, both those who advocate that the old terrorist threat is largely gone and those who fear a new lethal wave of terrorism may be correct. For developments in the Middle East are moving into uncharted territory, in which the trends of political violence are difficult to assess.

There is no doubt that Al-Qaeda, the organisation which inflicted the single deadliest attack on United States territory since Pearl Harbour, has been dismantled. Its top leaders are dead, and its appeal to Muslims worldwide has faded.

Al-Qaeda was rendered irrelevant by the so-called Arab Spring, the wave of revolutions which brought to the fore demands for social fairness and economic prosperity, issues on which Osama bin Laden's organisation had nothing to say.

Besides, for a younger generation of Muslims, the feats of Osama and his followers in some Afghan caves decades ago are irrelevant. They are more likely to know more of his death in May 2011 at the hands of US Special Forces than his past exploits.

Still, while terrorism's top brand has faded, there is a surge in the number of people volunteering for "jihad".

According to a recently released study by the Rand Corporation of the US, while the total number of terrorists claiming their inspiration from Islam numbered around 10,000 in 2001, the number of self-proclaimed jihadists today stands at around 40,000, could be as high as 100,000, and the number of volunteers has doubled since 2010. The tally of people killed by terrorism is also rising exponentially - at least 18,000 people perished last year alone, an increase of 60 per cent of the victims recorded in 2012.

Changing profile of terrorists

MOST striking is the changed profile of the new terrorists.

While the previous generation was largely dominated by Islamic fundamentalists who learnt their trade during the 1980s by fighting Soviet invaders in Afghanistan, the new volunteers have almost no previous fighting experience and come from a much wider recruitment base.

Arabs from the Middle East predominate, but there is a large number of Muslim volunteers from Europe, at least 2,500 of them according to European intelligence sources. And these are complemented by volunteers from many Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore.

Governments are struggling to understand why someone born to, say, Moroccan parents in the Netherlands, should choose to die together with a British youngster of Pakistani origin and a Norwegian teenager of Somali background while fighting in Syria, a country with which they have no prior connection.

And, although less odd, it is equally puzzling why Arab volunteers from as far afield as Libya or Tunisia should readily lay down their lives in Iraq.

The trend seems to be driven by two political failures.

The first is the failure of the Arab world to create functioning countries which deliver justice, prosperity or good governance to their people; as the late Samer Soliman, an Egyptian political scientist, once aptly remarked, that has produced a Middle Eastern region in which states are generally weak, but regimes are strong, a complete disconnect between those ruling and those ruled.

The fight which currently engulfs Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is a struggle over a new regional order, so it is relatively easy to present it to volunteers as a battle for their future, a noble cause worth dying for.

The second element feeding this new terrorist recruitment is the failure of European countries to integrate their Muslim minorities.

For a young Muslim in a rotting housing estate on the edges of a French city, or a Briton of Pakistani origin living in a bleak, wind-swept northern English town, the choice is between working in a local grocery owned by a member of the family or embarking on a life of gun-toting adventure, fighting for a supposedly noble cause; it's easy to see why the latter seems more appealing.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of European Muslims are not tempted by such causes; volunteers to terrorism are far less than 1 per cent of Europe's total Muslim population. Still, the result is thousands of new recruits to violence.

Given such ominous developments, how can someone like Britain's former top spook still claim that terrorism is now a spent force?

Intra-religious battle

THE optimists base their case on operational arguments. The first is the fact that 99 per cent of the attacks are now between Muslims in the Middle East, rather than directed against the West; the grisly Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, a terrorist organisation grown into an army, is butchering people by their thousands every week, but all are locals.

Furthermore, many of the new terrorism volunteers are disorganised and owe their allegiance to no one; the bulk of them end up as cannon fodder, while those who survive may be battle-hardened, but they are more likely to stay in the Middle East rather than take their squabbles to Europe. So, argue the optimists, the new terrorism is a mere shadow of past threats.

However, this is a simplistic explanation. For although the fighting in the Middle East remains local, it is also promoting a strong anti-Western narrative. Largely through a litany of errors, the US has managed to position itself as the assumed ally of Shi'ite Iran in the region: Washington appears to accept both the Shi'ite-controlled governments of Syria and Iraq, but opposes the Sunni fighters of ISIS.

The anti-American and anti-Western narrative this generates feeds into a historic sense of injustice shared by most Arabs and could yet spawn a new generation of terrorists against the developed world; that, after all, is what happened to the veterans in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the new generation of terrorists are far better handlers of electronic media and, therefore, succeed in attracting their audience. As Ms Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution think-tank in the US points out in a recently published study, ISIS has been superb at using even pictures of its butchering of Iraqi civilians in order to sustain the organisation's claim for "cutting edge" violence.

"Status quo institutions, like the US government, are at a disadvantage competing against the producers of such spectacle; the benefits of law and order", adds Ms Schake, "make for boring footage by comparison".

It is noticeable that most European governments have chosen to simply ban ISIS websites rather than confront them head-on, a tacit admission that terrorists hold an advance in the cyber media warfare.

But the biggest imponderable about future terrorism trends is the fact that Western governments remain uniquely incapable of analysing the link between religion and politics, and particularly when it comes to Islam.

It was this inability to recognise the potency of religious ideas which meant that, when the US and Britain plotted the invasion of Iraq in 2003, nobody seemed to realise that it was blowing the lid off a future Sunni-Shi'ite civil war.

And few seem to realise today the true significance of the concept of the ummah, the Islamic community to which Muslims pay allegiance and which serves as a justification for many volunteers, or the appeal of the caliphate, which resurrects a political model to govern all Muslims that was only truly effective in the first decades of Islam, 1,400 years ago.

Mr Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi columnist, recently bemoaned previous daydreaming about the caliphate - encouraged by all Arab leaders at some point or another - as a "mistake" which has created "angry young men with a backward thinking and understanding of life and religion, eradicating the heritage of centuries".

But the reality is that the dream of reviving the Islamic caliphate may become a new driving political ideology.

Deep down, the debate between the optimists and pessimists is not so much about the nature of the current terror threat, which few really understand, but more about the risks which societies are willing to take.

For someone like Sir Dearlove, a retired security boss who no longer carries any responsibility, the temptation to take a relaxed view is big. But governments are not inclined to run such risks.

And with good reasons, since they got the terrorism phenomenon so wrong before.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

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