Attempting to dissect Islamic terrorism.

Whenever there is an attack on European soil, immediately the cries go up. “Spread love not hate.” Or “Don’t let hate win.” It’s not only that this is hackneyed and does nothing other than foster the belief that we will somehow defeat nail bombs with pure emotion, but it is also likely to be based on an incorrect presupposition. Take this quote from page 135 Marc Sageman’s Understanding Terror Networks:

‘Social bonds are the critical element in the process and precede ideological commitment. These bonds facilitate the process of joining the Jihad through mutual, emotional and social support, development of a common identity and encouragement to adopt a new faith…. As in all intimate relationships, this glue, in-group love, is found inside the group. It may be more accurate to blame global Salafi terrorist activity on in-group love than out-group hate.’

Shall we change the slogans post-terrorist attack to – don’t let love win?

The argument that Sageman makes is that often recruits into radical organisations and their terrorist cells, come from isolated men and potentially women. The camaraderie and identity they find within the groups they find fulfilling. Once combined with an ideology that provides them with a higher purpose, one that goes beyond the current earthly plane, they can utilise both to perpetrate inhumane acts.

Where does this higher purpose originate from? Loosely based on Abdel Bari Atwan’s The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida, it originates from a Salafist interpretation of Islam. Salafism has a variance of belief, however amongst the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri it served as a return to what they perceived as the original Islam, practised by the Prophet and the first three generations that followed him. They believe that they were the only true Muslims and anything since has been a distortion, therefore any progress made or alteration in moral argument has been a dilution of the faith. It’s a form of hearkening back to the time when Islam conquered vast swathes of the world, when Muslims were a united community (the Ummah) and hadn’t been dwarfed and divided by inward fighting and the outward expansion of the West.

This is why ISIS want a return of the caliphate. The caliphate was last in existence in the Ottoman empire, prior to it being dissolved by Mustafa Kemal who created the nation state of Turkey, with the rest of the Muslim community of the empire being divided up into nation states along western lines. This is anathema to Salafists who see the splitting of the ummah along national lines as a betrayal of the true faith.

In my opinion modern Western values are incompatible with this austere version of Islam, it is also why Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz will fail with their remedy of reforming Islam itself as a means to tackle the phenomenon. The very movement is a rejection of reform, including all the reform that has come since the inception of the thousand-year-old faith, in an attempt to rediscover pure Islam before it was cowed by the West. It is a religious revivalist movement based on identity.

Back to the concept of the Ummah. It is this concept that blows a hole in the fatuous belief that this phenomenon has nothing to do with religion and it has everything to do with foreign policy. If these Muslims did not see every Muslim in the world as part of a mass community identified via faith, they would not see the US attack on Iraq as an attack on all Muslims, as the Western bully throwing its weight around against the victimised Islamic world.  Whether people like it or not, Islamic identity is the base concept that threads its way through the lives of those that perpetrate terrorism in its name.  I’m not saying that real or perceived foreign policy outcomes from the undertakings of Western nations, specifically America, don’t play a massive part in the grievance mentality that we see in terrorists, they clearly do, but to say that it is all down to foreign policy and nothing to do with religion is dishonest. Without the concept of global religious community, foreign policy decisions wouldn’t motivate people born in Western nations to blow up tube trains.

From Mobilising Islam by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, we see that Islamist movements largely have their ideological genesis in Egypt. Sayyed Qutb is recognised as a godfather of sorts for radicals. He was intensely anti American seeing the US as morally corrupt and heavily materialistic. His brother Mohammed Qutb was a mentor for Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaeda. This I’d wager is in part where bin Laden got his ascetic lifestyle from, fasting for a couple of days a week, rejecting a materialistic lifestyle, despite being a multi-millionaire, to live without worldly possessions on the mountainsides of Afghanistan, Sudan and Pakistan.

This ties me into a point that I would like to put forward. When it comes to America and the West in the eyes of jihadis, Western values and foreign policy seem to be conflated. When corruption within a middle eastern state keeps a dictator at the top of the pile seemingly with a Western backer, this corruption is then pointed out as hypocrisy, especially for the US, which is supposed to be a nation that values freedom and democracy. What happens is all of Western values and thousands of years of philosophical effort are then consigned to the rubbish heap by radicals who pick and choose the worst aspects of Western society and use them to represent its whole. It’s a very clever and convenient way of justifying a return to an austere version of Islam, by pointing to the perceived decadence of the chosen enemy and using it to push the narrative that what you’re offering is a pure and virtuous solution to an evil region and its reign of corruption. It is clearly a myopic way of viewing the West and its legacy, which has produced some of the world’s best philosophy, art, culture, architecture and governmental systems.

It was Soviet foreign policy, with the invasion of Afghanistan that mobilised the Mujaheddin in the 1980s.  The Soviets were seen as attackers on Muslim soil with Egyptian and other nations’ Islamists turning to violence to repel them. They were successful, with Bin Laden funding initiatives in battles against the Soviet forces to the tune of millions. Fast forward to US forces repelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia allows US forces to station inside the country because of fears that Saddam wouldn’t stop at Kuwait. The Saudi military was much weaker than the Iraqi forces and they were economic allies based on oil provision.

The presence of ‘infidels’ inside the holy land was too much for Al-Qaeda to take. Seen as an affront to all Muslims everywhere, this decision and in their eyes the materialistic, corrupt lifestyle led by the house of Saud, leading lavish lifestyles from American oil money, whilst the common man dealt with high unemployment rates and poor prospects, were unforgivable. This was probably a factor in influencing Al-Qaeda to switch the focus from local agitation to the global jihad we see today, in which supporters are encouraged to attack the ‘infidel crusaders and Jews’ in their homelands irrespective of whether they support Western foreign policy or not.

In sum what seems to motivate the members of terrorist organisations is a number of general factors. There are probably many more I haven’t yet discovered or analysed in enough depth and they are probably different in importance to each individual, but seem to comprise, isolation and subsequent bonding within a close knit social group, Islamic group identity, real or perceived grievances with Western foreign policy, a move towards purified Islam as a combative against real or perceived corruption in the world around them, victim mentality and a desire to return the Islamic lands back to when they prospered in the so called golden age of Islam.

I have meandered around this topic and I hope the product makes some sense to the reader. This is the sum of my thoughts on the past year of learning about Islamic terrorism from scratch. I write this now as I prepare to enter my MA degree in history and politics. One of my module choices is Islamist groups. I will probably write periodically about this topic as my knowledge base grows. It will be interesting to see how much my position changes on the origins of this phenomenon. My sources are the three books quoted within the piece, as well as the clash of civilisations by Samuel Huntington, Iraq: A history by John Robertson and hours of podcast material, by various political commentators. Thank you for reading.