Why Arab farmers won't become militant suicide bombers

ISIS' dependence on permanent territorial expansion may represent the dead end of its strategy.

The sudden rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, led experts to conclude that the Western world is facing a new wave of Islamist radicalism.

The reason why this wave of radicalism is commonly thought of as more dangerous than Al-Qaeda lies in the territorial basis the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) managed to set up in the Middle East, a basis which nobody seems to be able, or willing, to attack and destroy.

But the connection between ISIS and terrorism in the West is both obvious and misleading. The attacks in Paris and Brussels were reportedly organised by ISIS headquarters in Syria: Fabien Clain, a French convert who joined ISIS, claimed responsibility by praising the suicide bombers.

However, the phenomenon of "home-grown" terrorists predates ISIS by 20 years. In France, it began in 1995 when a militant cell around a French citizen, Khaled Kelkal, placed bombs in the Paris subway, avowedly to protest against French support for the Algerian military that was fighting the Islamist insurgency.

The high proportion of converts involved in terrorist actions (around 25 per cent) indicates that radicalisation is not just a consequence of racism and joblessness affecting migrants.


Members of the archives of the city of Brussels collecting messages left at the Brussels Stock Exchange in tribute to the victims of the March 22 terrorist attacks, to preserve them. ISIS claimed responsibility for the massacre. The writer says that in the light of its territorial containment, ISIS thinks it has no choice but to internationalise its struggle by fishing into the pool of willing radicals in the West. But this is certainly a doomed strategy, as the West will not bow to terror.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Twenty years later, in 2016, we are still dealing with a "second generation" (people whose parents came to Europe as migrants) and with an increasing proportion of converts going for jihad in Syria, particularly among women.

Radicalisation is largely the consequence of a sudden deculturation of Islam. This explains why we find very few first- and third-generation individuals among the radicals: those in the first generation are still living under the traditional Islam of their country of origin, while those in the third generation have already experienced new ways to combine their own religiosity with a Western environment. As for converts, a common aspect they share with second-generation recruits is that they all break with their parents' religion and claim to be "masters of truth". Hence, both categories preach to their own parents and adopt Salafism as the model of "true Islam" purified from any kind of cultural influence.

This sudden embrace of a fundamentalist form of Islam does not mean that they are the product of years of religious training and indoctrination. On the contrary, most of the radicals have a history of a life totally engulfed in a Western youth culture, became "born again" just before turning to violent action.

All of them were living on the margins of the Muslim communities, with little or no contact with the existing religious, political or humanitarian Western Islamic organisations. In a word, these radicals are not the vanguard of a radicalised Muslim community in Europe, although they constitute a permanent reservoir of would-be suicide bombers who could be enlisted by any radical and global Islamist organisation like ISIS.

One important question has emerged in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris and Brussels: Why did ISIS decide to recruit these individuals to launch a terrorist campaign in Europe instead of enlisting them in the ranks of the "foreign legion" which allowed the organisation to score astonishing territorial victories in Iraq and Syria since the spring of 2014?

In a change of strategy, ISIS has, in fact, taken over Al-Qaeda's concept of "global jihad", although initially criticising the latter precisely for its refusal to carve a "liberated" Islamic territory in the Middle East. From the beginning, instead of adopting the tactic of international terrorism, ISIS built up its prestige by concentrating all its efforts on the creation and expansion of the Caliphate.

Most of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs and many Syrian Sunni Arabs saw in ISIS the tool of their liberation from either Arab Shi'ites or non-Arab Sunnis (the Kurds), since the Shi'ites capitalised on the United States' invasion of 2003 to take power in Iraq and the Kurds created their de facto state.

Nevertheless, it appears that its dependency on a permanent territorial expansion represented the dead end of its strategy.

ISIS rapidly reached its territorial limits early last year: the suburbs of Baghdad and Damascus in West and East, and the Kurdish populated areas in the North. Ever since, the group has slowly been repulsed on all fronts. However, it remains an active force in the region due to the distinctive geopolitics: each regional actor fighting it has a greater enemy in the area who is feared to benefit from the defeat of ISIS.

The Turkish government's priority is to avoid the creation of a free Kurdish zone in Syria, while President Bashar Al-Assad's priority is to fight the "middle of the road" opposition that could be supported by the West. The Saudi government seeks first and foremost to deter the Iranian influence, while the Kurds fear a united Arab coalition that would prevent them from being independent. And last, but not least, Iraqi Shi'ites exclude the possibility of any cooperation with Arab Sunnis in whatever capacity, and Iran, which fought a long war against Iraq from 1980 to 1988, fears the reconstruction of a Sunni Arab coalition.

In the light of its territorial containment, ISIS thinks it has no choice but to internationalise its struggle by fishing in the pool of willing radicals in the West. But this is certainly a doomed strategy, as the West will not bow to terror. Instead of falling into the trap of sending troops into the region, the West will continue to support the local enemies of ISIS, hoping that, sooner or later, the very Arab Sunnis who called for ISIS to help will turn against it as they will realise the lack of any prospect of a political settlement.

Young disenfranchised French Muslims and converts might be suicidal, not Arab farmers, tribesmen and city dwellers who just hope to regain a political status in a territory that is of their own.


  • Professor Olivier Roy is Professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he heads the Mediterranean programme at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2016, with the headline 'Why Arab farmers won't become militant suicide bombers'. Print Edition | Subscribe