Why rad­i­cals still at­tack us


BE­CAUSE most peo­ple think of the Is­lamic State, al-Qaida and their ilk as be­ing zealots mo­ti­vated solely by ha­tred, they are not puz­zled by re­cent ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the West such as those in Paris, Brus­sels and Cal­i­for­nia. Like car­toon vil­lains, the ter­ror­ists are sim­ply evil, and no fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion is needed. But in the real world, be­ing vi­o­lent and fa­nat­i­cal does not make you stupid.

The small group of Arab Is­lamists who started fight­ing the Amer­i­can in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003 were, by 2014, the rulers of a new “coun­try” of some five mil­lion peo­ple they call the Is­lamic State, which sug­gests they are clever peo­ple who pur­sue ra­tio­nal strate­gies. And yet they go on back­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks in the West, which no longer seems like a ra­tio­nal strat­egy.

It was a per­fectly sen­si­ble strat­egy once. By 2000, the Is­lamist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of the Arab world were close to de­spair. They had been try­ing to over­throw the dic­ta­tors and mon­archs who ruled the Arab coun­tries for a quar­ter-cen­tury, and there was blood all over the walls — around 300,000 Arabs were killed in the strug­gles be­tween the Is­lamists and the regimes from 1975 to 2000 — but they had not man­aged to over­throw a sin­gle regime.

Their main strat­egy was al­ways ter­ror­ism, sim­ply be­cause they lacked the re­sources for any­thing more am­bi­tious. In the­ory, their ter­ror­ist at­tacks should have driven the regimes into ex­treme re­pres­sion, which (again, in the­ory) should have alien­ated the pop­u­la­tion and driven them into the arms of the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. Then the peo­ple, led by the Is­lamists and united in their wrath, would rise up and drive the op­pres­sors from power.

The Is­lamists had a few early suc­cesses, in­clud­ing the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 and the as­sas­si­na­tion of Egyp­tian pres­i­dent An­war Sa­dat in 1981, but their strat­egy did not work. The Arab regimes did in­deed be­come more op­pres­sive, but the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies did not get mass sup­port. Their doc­trines were too weird and their be­hav­iour too ex­treme. So by the late 1990s, the Is­lamists were look­ing for a dif­fer­ent strat­egy.

It was Osama bin Laden, the founder of al- Qaida, who came up with a new strat­egy: at­tack the West. The ul­ti­mate goal was still to come to power in the Arab world, but rather than revo­lu­tion in the streets, the Is­lamists would now win power by lead­ing a suc­cess­ful guerilla re­sis­tance move­ment against an in­va­sion by in­fi­del for­eign­ers.

Bin Laden had hit on this strat­egy be­cause he had fought in Afghanistan as a vol­un­teer, and that was ex­actly how the game played out there. The Soviet Union in­vaded in 1979, and Is­lamist ex­trem­ists took over the re­sis­tance move­ment.

Af­ter a long and bloody war, the Sovi­ets went home in 1989, and the Afghan Is­lamists (the Tal­iban) took power be­cause they were the he­roes who had driven the in­fi­del for­eign­ers out.

To re­live this tri­umph re­quired get­ting some other in­fi­del army to in­vade a Mus­lim coun­try, and the ob­vi­ous choice was the United States. AlQaida’s 9/11 at­tacks gave Amer­i­cans the nec­es­sary mo­ti­va­tion, and two U.S. in­va­sions fol­lowed in rapid suc­ces­sion, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The mass-ca­su­alty ter­ror­ist at­tacks against western tar­gets con­tin­ued for a long time (in Madrid, Bali, London), pre­sum­ably in or­der to give western coun­tries a rea­son to keep their troops in the Mid­dle East. But the at­tacks grad­u­ally di­min­ished as alQaida’s fight­ers in Iraq came closer to their goal of cre­at­ing their own state. That would clearly be eas­ier to do if most of the western troops had al­ready gone home.

The cre­ation of the Is­lamic State and the procla­ma­tion of the caliphate in 2014 was the cul­mi­na­tion of this long strug­gle, and it should have ended Is­lamist ter­ror at­tacks on the West. Now that they set up a “state,” they are seek­ing to ex­pand in Syria and Iraq by mil­i­tary force, and the last thing they need is western troops around to make mat­ters more dif­fi­cult. So why didn’t the at­tacks on western coun­tries stop?

The only plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is the great split in the Is­lamist move­ment in 2014, when the Is­lamic State broke away from al- Qaida. Since then, there has been a fe­ro­cious com­pe­ti­tion be­tween them for re­cruits and for the loy­alty of Is­lamist or­gan­i­sa­tions across the Mus­lim world. (The main Is­lamist or­gan­i­sa­tions in both Egypt and Nige­ria have switched their al­le­giance from al- Qaida to the Is­lamic State in the past two years).

In this com­pe­ti­tion, the best and cheap­est way of show­ing your or­ga­ni­za­tion is tougher, more ded­i­cated and more ef­fi­cient than the other lot is to kill western­ers in spec­tac­u­lar ter­ror­ist at­tacks. So, for ex­am­ple, al- Qaida spon­sored the Char­lie Hebdo at­tack in Paris in Fe­bru­ary 2015, and the Is­lamic State replied with the much big­ger at­tack in Paris last Novem­ber.

There is no strate­gic cost in these at­tacks, since western and Rus­sian forces are al­ready bomb­ing both the Is­lamic State and al- Qaida’s lo­cal fran­chise in Syria, the Nusra Front. The ma­te­rial cost of the at­tacks is neg­li­gi­ble: nei­ther or­ga­ni­za­tion is de­vot­ing even one per cent of its re­sources to them. So they will con­tinue for a while, and the West will just have to deal with them as they oc­cur. Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.


A woman with tape on her mouth dis­play­ing the word free­dom in French at a Jan­uary 2015 rally in Berlin in sol­i­dar­ity with vic­tims of two ter­ror­ist at­tacks in Paris.

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