There is an increased need for adopting a deeper and more comprehensive approach for understanding terrorism in the shadow of the present conflicting approaches adopted. One perspective depicts terrorism as a mere military tactic invested by regional and international powers in its contentions with adversaries and competitors. However tackling it from different perspectives shows its connection with the structural crisis in the countries, regions, and areas in which it is spread.
Notwithstanding, terrorism is categorized under political, social, and cultural contexts which are larger than horrific and brutal actions that it commits. This promotes an interest in the strategic factors which surround it, local factors that nourish it, and mobilizing tactics and mechanisms it adopts. In other words, the challenge must be fought on both the strategic level and on the local partial level.
What, then, are the transformations and mutations happening on these two levels?
On the first level, it could be said that the important starting point for the three waves of terrorism that hit the Middle East and its environment had been closely linked to American policies, and also to the conflicts ongoing since the end of the Cold War that related to the future of the international order. This happened in Afghanistan in 1979, in Iraq in 2003, and in Syria in 2011. At the beginning of every wave, the terrorists’ army was growing under the supervision of Western systems, and even in its arms, before it eventually recoils against them.
However, the current wave of terrorism is more regional in nature, driven by the conflict in the region between the coalition of the independent resistance on one hand and the traditional conservative alliance linked organically and historically to Western policies on the other hand. The first coalition – which is known as Resistance axis – adopts a state-based approach in its confrontations (especially against terrorism) through its cooperation with national armies, its association with regular institutions, its interest in gaining political legitimacy, and in its performance and activities. This is what Islamic Resistance in Lebanon is embodying, and the popular mobilization in Iraq is pursuing, and what is being adopted by other independent popular forces in the region.
On the other hand, the second alliance, composed of regional and armed groups relies on external support in the first place and does not hesitate to use all methods in order to achieve its objectives, even if this leads to abandoning national solidarity and undermining internal unity and fragmentation of entities. Also, this alliance did not hesitate from investing in takfiri terrorism and in developing temporary and permanent intersections with extremist groups, as we particularly see in the cases of Syria and Libya
On the second level, there have been successive shifts in the discourse of the terrorist groups in the region, and in their methods of recruitment and also in the characteristics of their recruiters, which cannot be read separately from the changes in the environment supporting terrorism, and in the circumstances of those benefitting from them and supporting them.
In the last three decades, several changes happened in the discourse of the terrorist groups, which began by their conciliating with the West before they turned against them for reasons related to the end of these groups, or to the conflict of interest among their sponsoring sides.
In that period, Al-Qaeda’s discourse was directed at large segments, and was interested in mobilizing the Islamic public opinion, in its alleged battle between the two militaries, “Islamic” and “Crusader” militaries. This is particularly true in the subsequent phase with the separation of the roots of the organization from the Western project, which had primarily grown among his arms. For Osama bin Laden, a confrontation with the “near enemy” was done by confronting the “distant enemy” who supported him. Also, According to al-Qaeda’s traditional literature, weakening the “Crusader West” is the best way to weaken its regimes in Arab and Islamic countries. Therefore, the organization’s operations were outward-oriented rather than inward-oriented, and this is why their discourse had a blatant ideological cover which enabled him to convince broad sectors to join or sympathize with them. Here we can see that the terrorist groups in the period between Iraq’s first wars (1991) and second (2003)- Under the pretext of confronting Western hegemony and fighting United State’s military presence- were working to spread chaos and create a vacuum and then seek to fill it in an appropriate manner.
In the period following the occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the destruction of this country politically, socially, and materially by US forces, terrorism with al-Qaeda roots became an integral part of the internal division. In this context, the famous letter of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004 is a landmark, where it stirs groups of Iraqi people against one another. Accordingly, fighting the near enemy became these groups’ priority once again while appeasing the “distant enemy” and even cooperating with it in many cases.
In this period, these terrorist groups did not focus on establishing a full-fledged Islamic state; their efforts were rather focused on establishing Islamic emirates whose function as a transitional administration (the management of brutality). An emirate here is a flexible framework which allows these groups to diversify their choices and alliances, allows them to be selective in their application of shari’a laws, and provides them with an opportunity on focusing to confront the local enemies and eliminate them instead of being preoccupied with the establishment of Caliphate state. Meanwhile, the terrorist movements remained interested in gaining the sympathy of the public opinion in the environments in which they are active; however, their public opinion was limited to a specific sectarian nature. Their speech acquired a sharp and fanatical tone of voice and openly declared its rejection of cultural, religious and ideological diversities. Over time, their performance became more divisive, radical, and bloody, and they adopted takfiri practices unprecedented in intensity and daring.
In the subsequent stage which witnessed the despicable emergence of ISIS as an organization, the state of caliphate became the organization’s immediate and direct target, and must be established even if only on a fraction of the land that it had controlled. The takfiri-discourse reached its peak, and massive atrocities were committed in order to eradicate religious and cultural diversities and eliminate the violators. The takfiri discourse is no longer interested in reaching out to broad social groups or gaining the empathy of the environments in which they are active, instead, their goal became only to mobilize the margins of targeted communities, that composed of individuals who are obsessed to scenes of violence, extremism and crime, or who are suffering from acute social exclusion for subjective and objective reasons.
In the midst of these changes, a shift also happened in the polarization and recruitment methods and means, and in the characteristics of the recruits. Prior to this, the traditions of the formation process of the terrorist movements’ members were complex and sought to reshape individuals based on a firm and strong ideological basis. According to a study which relied on data and documents belonging to the same Takfiri movements, the vast majority of those involved in the groups were ready a decade before to adopt the religious and political ideology of these movements, 70% were acceptably knowledgeable of Sharia sciences, while 56% of them said that their goal behind engaging in these groups was the sacrifice and getting martyred. This high level of ideological mobilization reduced the importance of the economic and financial factors in recruitment and polarization at the time.
In the current phase, which began after the Syrian war, an additional change happened in the structure of the takfiri terrorist movements that had increased their violence and brutality. Ideological mobilization retreated to its minimum and was replaced by sectarian mobilization and racism. Religion was no longer important except in the context of race among religious groups in acquiring religious legitimacy and depriving others of it, or for legitimizing practices which are otherwise contradicting to religion. The above-mentioned data, drawn from private sources, shows a significant change in the composition of these groups, with only 5%being moderately knowledgeable of Sharia laws, 88% of the members attributing their affiliation to such groups to matters irrelevant to sacrifice and martyrdom.
In battles fought by ISIS, for example, suicide bombers and “inghimasis” (suicide fighters), appear indifference to death, but these groups form only a minority within an “army” of ordinary fighters, opportunists or even mercenaries who are attracted to the idea of improving their situation and getting out of the misery in where they live, and achieve social progress through criminal means. ISIS brokers are spreading in poor suburbs all around the world and their counterparts are active on social media. These brokers are tasked to open a single outlet for people with severe problems in order to get rid of the social and political quagmire in which they sink, and finally they found themselves in a neighborhood in Mosul, Raqqa or Idlib.
One of those prospective migrants to land controlled by ISIS ( said in a private interview with a researcher ) that his friends who had preceded him in emigrating are living a better life much than the life he currently lives in his native country in North Africa, where they enjoy social guarantees which enable them to get married and have a family, and do not suffer from isolation – as falsely believed – on the contrary, they have the chance like others, to communicate with the outside world through social media. Contrarily, another member tells about the tragedy of reverse-immigration and the dangers of leaving ISIS land and similar Takfiri groups, after the expatriates discover the falsehood of their promised paradise and the ferocity of living there.
It is obvious that the status of terrorist groups is changing, amidst the wars in the region, from being characterized as global terrorism beyond the borders of conventional geopolitics to becoming a part of this geography in which civil conflicts are blasted and wars are fed for serving the aspirations of certain countries. This is why these groups have become, more than ever, the major interest to global and regional capitals that seeks hegemony and expansion of power, which have made secret and public ties with these groups. But when one of these groups becomes out of control they replaced with another one, as what happening now in some areas in Western Iraq and Southern Syria. We can see that American bases and training centers are deployed in these areas to increase the production of extremist armed groups with Takfiri characteristics, whose main task is to replace ISIS (and al-Nusra Front later on) and to fill the vacuum that will accordingly result.
There are a few facts that must be taken into account in the efforts of countering terrorism:
– First fact: terrorism is primarily a phenomenon with a global dimension, whose establishment coincided with the pursuit of a new world order in the post-Cold-War era and was an integral part of the efforts seeking to move from the bipolar system to unipolarism. But the failure of these attempts caused a breakout of terrorism from its basis and its retreat to its original shepherds.
– Second fact: Terrorism benefits from the current regional rivalries, which are being used by regional states, particularly some Gulf States, as a lethal weapon in their struggle with adversaries, in trying to control Arab decisions, and stand up against change in the region. However, this approach failed to achieve its objectives, and instead of this, the fire of violence flared back on the countries which sponsored Takfiri terrorism in the first place. So .instead of reviewing these countries for its policies, they are working to develop a policy of supporting terrorism by integrating some of their groups into direct wars they waged here and there, as in Yemen and Libya, for example
– Third fact: Terrorism has its local roots and its social and cultural contexts. Despite the fact that it is primarily a political phenomenon, terrorism feeds on the deterioration of the social environments of nations, the collapse of nationalities, disintegration of identities, and the tyranny of sub-affiliations on key affiliations. It also benefits from the infertility of public policies pursued by governments and from leadership weakness, so these reasons turn many countries in the region to failed states or put them close to failure. The phenomenon of terrorism also feeds on the discourse of violence, estrangement, and sedition used by some Arab regimes in the face of neighboring countries, which replaces the comprehensive discourse centered on common issues.
The effective and successful response to terrorism must include the aforementioned levels together. In Lebanese experience, which until now continues successfully, the military and security option that has been carried out by regular forces and resistance has proved to be effective in countering terrorist and extremist groups. But this successful cooperation appeared in the framework of a broader strategy including maintaining internal cohesion, neutralizing international and regional factors, and building a national anti-sedition consensus.
– Finally, it is important to note here that we are living in the post-American-hegemony era, thus the countries allied with Washington and the circle in its orbit must get accustomed to the progressive retreat of the USA and also to the coercive retreat of its influence in the region. Accordingly, these countries should manage their own affairs and cooperate with their neighbors instead of trying to lure foreign interventions into the region. As we can see here the Riyadh summit and the subsequent escalation provides strong evidence of the futility on the attempts of seeking major countries aid either by money and arms deals or by unconstructive political collusions.
– On the whole, terrorism cannot be countered without dealing with the policies of global hegemony associated with it, and without easing regional rivalries and easing the tensions surrounding it, and also without abandonment of some states to their aspirations of illegally dominating regional decisions. Also fighting terrorism requires an uprooting to the divisive and racist political discourse nurturing terrorism, reconstruction of Arab State on the basis of independence and nationality, and adopting development policies which would develop our societies –societies which terrorism lives on its failure its backwardness, and on its collapse.
Note: This paper was presented during the International Conference “Evolutions in Fighting Terrorism and the New Challenges of the Middle East”, held in Bucharest on the 5th of July 2017.