Special Reports
 
 


 

ISLAMIC HOLY WARRIORS:
WHERE IS TERRORISM GOING?

by

ALESSANDRO BRUNO

________________
  

 

 
Islamic Holy Warriors: Where is terrorism going?
Terrorism is not a new phenomenon and Islamic terrorism is not unique; all cultures and societies have at some point in their histories witnessed reversion to terrorist tactics. Modern terrorism had many secular variations before the Islamic variety came to the fore with ‘paradigm’ changing vigour, in the form of the tragic events of 11 September 2001. Over the past 12 years, terrorism has almost exclusively been associated with Islamic extremists to the point where facile and disingenuous analysis, of the tabloid kind. has purported to equate Islam itself with terrorism. As an uncomfortable reminder, the Roman Catholic Inquisition for centuries carried out a rather brutal form of terror in the name of Christianity. The various secular groups of the late 20th century from the Baader Meinhoff gang, Red Brigades, ETA Basque separatists, the IRA in Northern Ireland and white supremacists such as the KKK and their offshoots; down to Anders Breivik in Norway, have pursued their goals, whether nationalist, religious, ideological or political, with unrestrained violence and brutal cynicism.

The ‘colours’, persuasions, or ideological targets of terrorism may vary, but the tactics do not. Those who associate suicide bombing with Hezbollah actions of the early 1980’s in Beirut; Hamas extremists in Gaza; and al-Qaida and its offshoots in the past decade, may be surprised to learn that the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) separatists in Sri Lanka used that tactic around the same time and with similar brutality in the 1980’s, 1990’s and into the past decade. Terrorism, it must be stressed can involve any possible target, ideology and fundamentalism. In particular, it can be tied to a particular region or country, or constitute the armed wing of a national liberation movement, which can then expand to transnational networks. Islamic-inspired terror is but one aspect of this, if currently the dominant form. The apparent greater willingness to pursue suicide actions and technological progress in acts of destruction – no longer the prerogative of the ‘rich’ countries, is perhaps what generates the higher perception of danger and the increased power of terrorist action. More generally, the high visibility of terrorist acts - and of the 9/11 outrage in particular, have signalled to people throughout the world that nation states no longer hold any monopoly on violence.

Syria
The situation in Syria has already sent loud signals that it has become a new center of terrorism, even as that country used to be one of the safest and most stable in the entire Arab world. Ironically, the US, UK, France and the Arab Gulf countries have substantially supported this terrorism by facilitating the rise of questionable opposition groups, with some western countries and US political leaders even arguing in favor of arming some of the opposition groups. So long as the West continues to support the ‘opposition’, prolonging the civil war, Syria will act as a magnet for fighters from various Islamic countries. Thousands of Muslims have been born or have become naturalised citizens of Great Britain, France and other EU countries and some of those, a small number certainly, have decided to fight in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Asad. When they return to Europe, they could engage, given the precedents and the continued social tensions in the less than 1% growth EU, in a predictable series of bombings and subversive acts that they will have become experts in perpetrating, in their guerrilla warfare against Damascus. Certainly they are with good cause, indelibly badged for their return and doomed to remain on Immigration and State Security ‘hot lists,’ in a way that say, British volunteers returning from fighting Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil war were not.

They may not yet have learned in this war in which they are allied with the countries that seek Asad’s overthrow, that those same countries will for ever suspect them as clandestine enemies of the status quo of their legal nationality or adoptive western countries, if they return ‘home.’

There are an estimated 100 British citizens fighting in the "Syrian opposition". Many there are of West Asian background and immigrants from North Africa. A Canadian teenager, of Greek Orthodox descent, having converted to Islam, was recently identified as having participated in the attack against a BP oil facility in Algeria. This suggests there are sophisticated recruitment and indoctrination tools under the West’s own nose. UK airports have introduced more 'rigid’ controls for passengers travelling to and from some conflict zones. France has estimated that some 50-80 of its citizens are fighting within organised terrorist groups.. Some "new French" have joined Islamist groups fighting the regime in Mali and therefore have been fighting against their own French countrymen, since France has led the anti-islamist struggle there.

It seems the West will always be the main goal of Islam. After accumulating military experience and new ‘ideas’, these EU Islamists will return to European countries capable of launching a wave of terrorist attacks. Paradoxically, some of these future Jihadists may be getting trained at NATO funded facilities, (those volunteers arriving in Syria via Turkey, where they receive training and possibly weapons). The EU’s homegrown islamists have their contacts that route them through organisations in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Gulf States. Next door Iraq already had a thriving substantial al Qaida infrastructure, which has provided a core for arriving volunteers in Syria - on both sides of the border.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful that in the light of the Afghanistan experience of the 1980’s and 1990’s, such double standards will last for much longer. The Syria issue is all the more striking in view of the recent military mission in Mali, led by France but backed by the United States. This suggests that to find a political solution eventually, western nations may have to reach a compromise in the name of stability, abandoning their support of the rebels and reaching an agreement with those major states still backing Syria: Russia and China. Such an outcome is sure to engender resentment and potentially a new wave of Islamic terror in Europe and throughout the Middle East, as fighters return to their respective regions. (The Algerian civil war of the 1990’s relied extensively on the expertise of returning Jihadists from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. One of these, Mokhtar Belmokhtar was involved in an attack against a BP gas installation in the Algerian Sahara last February, leaving over 50 dead).

The post-Qadhafi Libyan scenario moreover, has discouraged western governments from acting on their rhetoric in Syria; the problem is now a catch-22, as the West looks for a way out, avoiding the potential blowback. No doubt, they will reach a deal with Russia and China over Syria, but it won’t be able to do much with the dozens of splinter groups, some undoubtedly emulating or having links with al-Qaida, that have formed and are currently thriving in the chaos of Syria.

The one difference perhaps that leaves some room for optimism is that if they continue refusing to engage in an air campaign or no-fly-zone, the western states have left the Syrian army in a far better shape to retaliate against threats. Similarly, the sanctions enforced against Syria, thanks to Sino-Russian vetoes, have not crippled the Syrian Baathist government to the same extent as the post Gulf War sanctions did in Iraq. Russo-Chinese agreements point to further areas of tension, which will continue to generate islamist terrorism.

Afghanistan and Central Asia
At a recent summit of the prime ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in Bishkek, Afghan Vice President Karim Khalili requested the support of the group’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure, in 2014, or when the West’s ISAF coalition is scheduled to leave the country. Essentially, that means the Moscow and Beijing duopoly have been asked to succeed in creating a plan for peace in Afghanistan where the West has failed! The measure of success will be to what extent terrorism will be contained. Nevertheless, in order to contain it, many of the principles that have been at the basis of Western policy will have to change.

Russia and China, the latter in particular, will enter Afghanistan piercing its way in by using its financial strength and funding reconstruction and development. Its efforts will be unencumbered by the democracy and human rights-tied financial and lending policies of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other Western trappings, let alone inhibiting the thriving Opium/Heroin production that the western armies over ten years failed to eradicate.

This would allow the Afghan government to pursue a more authoritarian line, while reducing cultural resistance to progress by making it more ‘manageable’.

The concepts of parliamentary democracy and human rights it seems, are too advanced for Afghanistan, which remains a highly traditional society. By reducing the barriers between the people and their government, Afghan security forces would be better able to target terrorism nodes and ports, identifying ideological centers, sources of funding and training camps, including in Pakistan, where there are many militants, and in some Central Asian former Soviet republics– the ‘stans’ all of which have a Muslim population.

The withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan could create a security vacuum, allowing more Afghan jihadists to move to and through such neighbours as Tajikistan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, threatening Russia’s southern federated republics, as well as China, because these countries border with China’s province of Xinjiang. It can be seen that this is a key part of what the Shanghai Co-operation Council was set up for.

The Salafi Arabs are not the only terrorists in the Muslim world. Islamic extremism (especially of the Wahhabi type, that is the type originating in the Arab Gulf countries) endangers even Russia and China in particular, because of its ability to attract some Tatars in Crimea, Chechnya, Dagestan; and the Uyghur, many of which are in Xinjiang and other parts of the Central Asian steppe. Uzbek President Islam Karimov a few years ago in connection with riots in disturbances in Andijan in 2005 and a resulting massacre of hundreds of people, blamed Islamist groups for destabilizing the city, although the issues there were tribal.

Russian Federation
In Russia proper, in the regions north of the Caucasus, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan the Salafis are struggling for influence against Muslims of far more established and less radical schools, the Hanafi and the Shafi. There are also two million Russian Azeris, many of them Shiites. There are Sufi orders and brotherhoods (the Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya for instance) who oppose the Salafis vehemently. Sufi orders are formed on an ethnic basis, but the Wahhabi influence is also present in the Caucasus. Salafi learning centers, madrassas, just as in Pakistan or Afghanistan are able to attract more ‘scholars’ because of the easier study requirements as compared to Shiite or Sufi madrassas and because they are often backed financially by Saudi Arabia with substantial funding and facilities for the Pilgrimage to Mecca. Many poor Caucasians adhere to Wahhabism to get rich. (In Mali and Niger, where Islamic radicals have been growing recently, moderates and Christians have complained of excessive Saudi money as well, essentially suggesting that there is a money-fueled increase in extremism).

Africa
The recent North African experience points to an alliance between smugglers, drug traffickers and Jihadists and it is not quite clear whether Jihad is the goal of such groups or if it is merely a means to exercise control and establish narco-states – more than Islamic ones. There are five main groups that have been identified in northern Mali, where France continues its military offensive. Moreover, as long as the Tuareg self determination, or independence issue is addressed – the problem had been contained by Libyan funding and absorption during the Qadhafi years- the vast desert areas of Mali, Niger, Mauritania and of course Libya and Algeria will always be at risk of significant criminal activity – islamist or otherwise.

Ansar Dine – are Tuareg fighters who have come together after returning from Libya, where they fought alongside Qadhafi. The group's leader, Iyad ag Ghali, organized the Tuareg revolts in the 1990s. In early 2000, however, he was commissioned by the government of Mali to negotiate the release of a group of Western hostages (mostly German) who were captured by the ‘Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)’, a predecessor of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The goal of Ansar Dine, whose full name in Arabic is Harakat al-Ansar Dine (i.e., the Movement for the Defence of Islam) is to impose Sharia law throughout Mali.

Islamic Movement for Azawad (MIA) - Shortly after the start of France’s intervention, in January 2013, a slice of Ansar Dine broke off from the main group, which claims to reject terrorism and extremism. It intends to establish Sharia government goals through peaceful means and dialogue.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - Before (up to 2004/5), it was known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), and even then considered to be al-Qaida’s branch in North Africa. The founding leader, Amari Saifi, also known as Abderrezak the Paratrooper (he was a paratrooper in the Algerian army, who was captured in May 2004 in the Tibesti region of northern Chad on the border with Libya, in the Sahara. AQIM controlled Timbuktu during the Islamic occupation.

The Movement for Uniqueness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) -a splinter group, spun off by AQIM in mid-2011, the purpose of which is to spread the jihad throughout West Africa while Al Qaeda is limited to the Arab Maghreb. The MUJAO was responsible for kidnapping Rossella Urru and three of her Spanish colleagues in October 2011. Many members are Tuareg militiamen, but the leader is Mauritanian Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou. MUJAO is one of the key groups involved in the trafficking of drugs from the lower Sahel, such as Guinea Bissau, Senegal or Ivory Coast. In some ways it is similar to FARC, financing itself with drug money.

The battalion of ‘the Signatories to the Blood’: this is a faction that broke away from AQIM. It has been engaged in a global jihad and is responsible for the assault against a gas plant in Libya last January. The group is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He wanted to be the leader of AQIM.

These groups are fighting in the Sahel, the intermediate region that runs from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. In accordance to the old colonial policy of "Francafrique", Paris has used air offenses and ground troops against the jihadists in defense of the Malian government. However, the battle directly affects the Americans because of the presence of Al Qaeda in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, leaving them vulnerable to Islamic and terrorist infiltration at the border, involving the interests of the Arab monarchies of the Gulf, that in turn have financed the fundamentalists on the rise throughout Africa and the Middle East.

There is no longer a 'Sheriff in town'. Qadhafi acted as the guardian of the Sahel, keeping undesirables at bay, allies and opponents. Indeed, this was one of the main reasons for Algeria to have generally opposed NATO’s intervention against the Colonel, fearing the Islamists would start to invade the Sahara and beyond. Senegal, for instance, could easily be dragged into the crisis given that many of the issues that led to the collapse of Mali exist there as well. Many Senegalese nationals have joined the ranks of MUJAO. Among those MUJAO Senegalese are the many that failed to emigrate to Europe, and joined the MUJAO as an alternative solution.

There are others, so-called ‘Talibes’, young religious students who have more militant goals in mind, having been ideologically trained in a network of religious schools in Senegal. These individuals come from abject poverty where the opportunity to improve one's social and economic profile is nonexistent and where the religious teachings have shifted from peaceful Sufism teachings and practices, to the more militant and aggressive Wahhabi and Salafist leaning, with religious Madrassas funded by Gulf monarchies. The very same environment of illegal arms dealing that is financed by drug trafficking and other criminal activity exists in both Mali and Senegal, and certainly elsewhere in the Sahel. Like in northern Mali, military officers and soldiers in the Casamance are poorly paid. Long established civil and religious authorities have no power to influence and solve crises. The extremist voices tend to fill the gap, just as the Muslim Brotherhood has done in Egypt, or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Conclusion
Challenges to safety can come from a variety of individuals and networks acting at the sub-state and non-territorial level, using materials and resources that are beyond the control-state monopoly. In identifying the present and future of Islamic terrorism it is necessary to consider the fault lines in the present Islamic world and the international forces that are applying the ‘seismic’ pressure that can exacerbate the action of existing groups and prompt the rise of new ones. There is also another factor that is essential in understanding so-called islamist terrorism. Much of it is being increasingly tied to basic greed and crime, usually in the form of drug smuggling and piracy. This is as true in the eastern Islamic world as it is in the new merging frontiers of Islamist action in West Africa. Islamist terrorists, moreover, are increasingly international; and their growth, while continuing in the Arab world per se, will see the greater involvement of individual Black Africans, North Americans, Europeans, Central Asians and Chinese. In other words, Islamic terrorism will become even more ‘globalized’ than it is today.