Islamist militancy is not going to subside soon because it is rooted deep in socio-political structures of Muslim societies. The responses of the international community to counter this threat that is external have been inadquate. At present, the prime focus of Islamist militants appears set on the ‘near enemy’ (the Muslim power elites) but they will continue to haunt the ‘far enemy’ (the West) as they continue to evolve and keep shifting their focus.
To counter the threat of Islamist militancy, the West has made huge investments in the security sector. But this investment has so far failed to build a shield against Islamist militancy and terrorism, which have entered a more alarming phase where they continue to transform and change shape. Seemingly, the key to halt this process is still missing.
A renowned author and journalist, Jason Burke, who has been covering conflicts for many decades, has tried to resolve the puzzle of Islamist militancy in his latest book The New Threat from Islamic Militancy. He offers new insights on the subject, which build on his observations of the phenomena of Islamist extremism and militancy in different Muslim countries. He has attempted to explore all possible dimensions of militancy and the factors which could be involved in the process of extremism including economic, social, cultural, political and religious. However, he has avoided suggesting any systemic solution to the problem.
Jason Burke explores all possible dimensions of militancy in his new book, yet avoids suggesting any systemic solution
Burke has tried to unravel the problem in a Western perspective with a view to understanding how Islamist militancy could affect and threaten Western societies. Although this approach helps in examining the issue of Islamist militancy with more objectivity, at times it misses the links which could be used to address it. The author is largely focused on understanding the threat and its evolution: “Islamic militancy remains a very diverse phenomenon which will not be destroyed by the elimination of a single group, still less an individual,” he notes.
Burke has attempted to look at the phenomenon of Islamist militancy in a broad perspective and has gradually narrowed down the focus. The nine chapters of the book basically deal with the historical context of Muslim countries. Burke finds traces of global Islamist jihad deep-rooted in the socio-political structures of Muslim countries, which he believes nurtured Islamist movements. These movements, he believes, triggered certain violent trends, a few of which initially shaped Al Qaeda and recently the militant Islamic State (IS) group. The author has also explored a cohesive pattern among violent Islamist movements. IS currently holds centre stage. Al Qaeda is still relevant but losing attraction.
The author considers ideology an important factor which glues together all the shades of extremism and militancy. He observes, “if early analysis ignored the importance of ideology for Al Qaeda in the Islamic world, the current analysis of IS misses the centrality of its bid to restore the lost power and glory of Islamic empires and the resonance of that project with many in the Middle East and beyond.”
“Why did the war in Syria exert such a pull on so many? There were multiple factors of course but several, shared in varying degrees across the Islamic world, will by now be familiar; the long-term resurgence of Islamic identities and practice; the growing dominance of the more rigorous, conservative strands within that more general revival of faith; an increasingly global vision of the responsibilities of the members of the umma to one another; the powerful example of the Prophet Muhammad’s [PBUH] flight from Mecca — the ‘Hegira’ — repeatedly referred to by al-Baghdadi in his calls to Muslims to join IS; the sense of the Muslims’ collective loss of power and glory and its current ‘humiliation’; the higher levels of radicalisation and mobilisation seen across the Islamic world since 2001. Although a decade or more after the 9/11 attacks, overall support for violent extremism of the type represented by Al Qaeda still remained low, this did not mean any less anti-US sentiment. In the Middle East, a median of just 21 per cent saw America positively in 2013, and only 14 per cent of Jordanians and 16 per cent of Egyptians. A significant minority everywhere believed most Christians are hostile to Muslims. One consequence of the invasions of Afghanistan and, particularly, Iraq was that the idea that the West was set on the division and humiliation of Muslims had become so well established as to be almost a commonplace amid hundreds of millions of people. Concepts such as the ‘defensive jihad’ and the responsibility of the individual to take up arms, once confined to fringe thinkers such as Abdel Salam Farraj or Abdullah Azzam, had also become much more widely accepted, even if they were far from ‘mainstream’. None of this translated directly into support for the Islamic State, but made the basic principles on which its project and world view appeared to be based significantly easier to accept.” — Excerpt from the book
The book also touches upon the relationship between violent radical movements of Al Qaeda and IS where the author tends to agree with a commonly held perception that the latter is an advanced form of the former. He also seems to agree with the argument that there are common ideological roots between non-violent Islamist thought and Al Qaeda, IS, and other militant groups.
Jason describes IS as “a hybrid of insurgency, separatism, terrorism and criminality with deep roots in its immediate local environment”, but at the same time, it is linked with broader regional conflicts and geopolitical battles. He goes deeper and traces the roots of insurgency in post-WWI Iraq as three provinces of the defeated and defunct Ottoman Empire eventually became independent in 1932. He sees the historical grievances, the political turmoil and rise of Ba’athists, Saddam Hussain’s brutality, and his expansionist ambitions as part of the socio-political discourse of the country which shaped the narratives of extremism.
However, a major portion of the book discusses the dynamics of Islamist militant groups, their strategies, and tactics. Burke elaborates Al Qaeda’s transformation after Osama bin Laden which he notes was not easy because it was not only about the organisational changes but also entailed changes in the strategy of the group.
However, the transformation within Al Qaeda did not prove productive as the group continues to be weakened because of the challenges posed by IS and local affiliates. Yet, Al Qaeda is committed to pursuing the same strategy formulated by Bin Laden during the 1990s. Despite being weakened, the group still poses a major threat to global security mainly due to its secretive nature. Obviously, IS is the emerging threat, which follows a carefully calibrated strategy of calling individuals to mount terrorist violence and mainly focuses on territorial control. In simple terms, Al Qaeda largely focuses on attacking the ‘far enemy’ — mainly the US and the West — and IS is attacking local regimes around the Islamic world — the ‘near enemy’ — which are allies of the West.
The author has also narrated the networks of affiliates that both Al Qaeda and IS have established as well as other independent groups and/or violent Islamist movements that may or may not pose a threat to the West. According to him, each group or movement poses different threats in different ways, but their alliances and nature of operational coordination make them more dangerous.
As far as Al Qaeda is concerned, after Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri took the lead and he tried to make the organisation more structured; he was enthusiastic about a formal association with each Al Qaeda chapter. Interestingly, this was the time when Al Qaeda chapters were struggling for legitimacy within their local political and ideological contexts.
The formal association with Al Qaeda central provided a temporary relief to many of these chapters that have had different motives to join the club. For example, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) appeared to have been motivated primarily by a desire for rebranding after a series of setbacks.
Al-Zawahiri was keen on developing a “solid base” around the world, where central leadership would have complete control over affairs of its affiliates. Burke also sees the formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in September 2014 in the same perspective and he argues that comparing with affiliates in other parts of the world there was no significant existing group on the ground ready to be incorporated into the Al Qaeda network. According to him, the other affiliates had been established over the best part of the decade — in Iraq in 2004, in the Maghreb in 2006, in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009. Each was the result of months of negotiations, as the terms of the relationship were worked out in a series of back-and-forth clandestine communications.
It seems that the ground situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan did not get proper attention in his analysis about the inception of AQIS. The situation in this region was quite fluid both on ideological and operational fronts. The local militant groups were getting inspiration from the newly emerging IS, and were arguing about Al Qaeda strategies, which they believed had failed to satisfy them and fulfil their dreams of territorial control and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. The launch of military operations in Fata, including Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan, and growing internal differences among the militant groups there weakened the moral authority of Al Qaeda, which was the real strength of the group in this region. Seen in this perspective, the establishment of AQIS was a compulsion and not a decision of choice by al-Zawahiri. One should not ignore the fact that Al Qaeda and IS were not only involved in infighting, but on the propaganda front IS successfully painted the image that Al Qaeda has lost its relevance in the emerging context.
One interesting chapter in the book titled ‘The Caliphate’s Cavalcade’ is about the phenomena of growing extremism and the rise of lone wolves in Muslim societies. The author quotes the examples of Maldives and Bangladesh where liberal bloggers were targeted by IS-inspired individuals and small groups. He observes that India and Pakistan have manifested similar trends but the case of Pakistan is more complex because of its widespread extremist tendencies, and its potential to evolve into something much more threatening.
The key question the book raises is linked to the export of IS’s success in other parts of the world where Burke focuses on exploring the probabilities of expansion of the militant movement and examines the character of its affiliates. He sees a potential threat to the West from Syria. One dimension of that threat is linked to “returning veterans who do not get involved in any terrorist violence themselves but who help propagate extremist ideas among others.”
He considers the growing popularity of apocalyptic prophecy in the Middle East as an important tool for the inspiration and recruitment of the youth. Islamic State is continuously exploiting the idea in its publications that the apocalypse will be imminent when Islamist fighters will fight against infidels in Dabiq, a town in Syria that IS now controls.
IS’s sectarian tendencies help the group attract militants affiliated with sectarian organisations and also the Sunni youth. The author argues that “throughout the 1990s, violence towards the Shias had risen in parallel with the growing animosity towards the West, and growing intolerance towards other Sunnis who did not follow the more conservative, rigorous schools.” The propaganda strategies of IS are well known. The author also notes that sexual opportunities offered by the group also attract foreign volunteers. The organisation encourages marriages between volunteers from overseas and provides captive ‘wives’ to be systematically raped.
A chapter is devoted to the phenomenon of lone wolves in the West and tries to understand this through the case history of the French lone wolf Muhammad Merah who had conducted the March 2012 terrorist attacks targeting French soldiers and Jewish civilians in the cities of Montauban and Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France. He had a criminal background and was arrested several times for petty crimes and jailed. He was fond of violent video games and behaved like a game character when he turned radical. He kept a low profile even when he travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan for training. While quoting French security officials, Burke says, “Merah incarnated the new operational techniques of Al Qaeda. But Merah insisted that he had done the killing all alone. This was the puzzle but his travel record and other forensic evidence showed that he was connected with semi-autonomous groups.”
This case might appear familiar to many who are aware of the story of Saud Aziz, allegedly the mastermind of the Safoora Goth terrorist attack in Karachi in May 2014. Aziz and his journey are not much different from Merah’s with the exception that the former had formal relations with militant groups in Karachi. It is interesting that the radicals among diaspora communities and educated youth in Pakistan’s upper classes share lot of commonalities. That indicates how certain radical tendencies are getting globalised.
Overall the book provides an informed analysis of the potential and the threat of Islamist militancy and will be considered a valuable addition to the existing literature on the subject.
The reviewer is a security analyst. He is the Director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Islamabad.
The New Threat from Islamic Militancy
By Jason Burke
Bodley Head, London