As terrorist violence from "Islamic" militants spreads across the world, from Peshawar to Paris, affected states are struggling to devise effective responses.
So far, most of their responses have addressed the visible symptoms of the terrorist threat through military, police and intelligence measures. These are, of course, essential to stem the terrorist tide. Unfortunately, these responses are often insufficient or incorrect.
To develop the right responses, it is essential to honestly analyse and address the principal causes of "Islamic terrorism".
The fundamental origins of Islamist extremism and militancy lie in the failure of Muslim states, and other states with Muslim populations, to deliver jobs, justice and dignity to a growing army of young people. The economic, social and demographic indicators in Muslim countries are some of the worst in the world.
Similarly, Muslim youth in the advanced Western countries have not become integrated in the social and economic mainstream. Poor, unemployed and disaffected youth have always provided ready recruits for radical and rebellious movements.
The basic rationale for radicalism has been provided by the political and economic suppression of Muslims for so long in many places. The plight of the Palestinians and Kashmiris are two examples. The memories of brutal colonial actions in Turkey, Algeria, Iran, Indonesia and other Muslim countries are part of historical Muslim grievances.
These real and perceived historical injustices provided the basic justification for ideologies that advocate antipathy towards the West and the active propagation and "defence" of Islam.
The rise of radical Islamist movements was gradual and fitful. At some periods in the post-colonial era, some of these Islamists were sponsored and supported by Western powers.
However, with the "failure" of the Western capitalist and the Soviet communist models, Islamic movements, financed often from abroad, were able to move into the political mainstream in many Muslim countries.
Tolerant societies, like Pakistan, saw the rise of parties propagating a narrow and exclusivist version of Islam.
A major turning point was the use of Islamist zealots to combat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The seven-member mujahideen alliance, sponsored by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, other Arab countries and Iran, was composed exclusively of Islamist groups. Forty thousand radicals were imported from across the Arab and Muslim world, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. These foreign fighters also included Muslim rebels from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and Xinjiang.
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, this deadly cocktail of hardened local and foreign radicals either stayed on in Afghanistan-Pakistan or returned to their countries to spread their toxic ideology and fighting experience. These fighters and their descendants form the core of Al-Qaeda and its franchises in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa.
With the Soviet withdrawal and an equally hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamist groups ran amok in Afghanistan, Pakistan and their home countries. During the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, many mujahideen groups became criminalised, raising money to finance themselves through drug production and trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.
Criminality opened the door to the infiltration of these groups by state intelligence agencies, including those of Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the West.
Such infiltration of certain Kashmir groups by India was critical in transforming the legitimate struggle for freedom in Kashmir into a terrorist threat.
The 2001 US military intervention in Afghanistan and its 2003 invasion of Iraq provided a second life to Al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements, offering a rallying cause and proximate targets for "jihad".
Al-Qaeda received new recruits. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda in Iraq was born, a predecessor to today's Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), Al-Shabab, Boko Haram and several lesser-known groups all emerged in the renewed jihad.
The recent spread of extremist movements across the Muslim world has been made possible by three factors.
- One, the weakness of most Muslim states, in terms of their police, military and intelligence capabilities, political laxity towards extremist movements and official corruption.
- Two, misguided Western-engineered overthrow or erosion of authoritarian regimes in Muslim states, including Egypt, Libya and Syria, which opened the door to Islamist groups.
- Three, the external sponsorship of some of these groups, like the ISIS and TTP.
The "successes" of extremist movements and their narrative - Muslim rights can be regained only through violent struggle - have attracted thousands of alienated youth in Western countries.
Addressing "Islamic terrorism" is thus now a global challenge and priority. However, unless the origins and causes of this phenomenon are fully understood, it will prove difficult to formulate and agree on comprehensive policies and actions to meet this challenge.
DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the United Nations.