Open has been consistent in writing about the ideas that shape the future and divide the present, and no idea concentrates the global mind as much as radical Islamism does today. Here we carry excerpts from the past pages of the magazine, and taken together, the following views by our first-rate contributors tell us that we haven’t travelled much from that horrifying day in January this year in Paris
NOTHING MEDIEVAL ABOUT THEM
By Jason Burke
Every incident underlined that, despite the death of Osama bin Laden in a US special forces raid in Pakistan in May 2011, despite huge expenditure of blood and treasure, and despite new laws and enhanced powers for security services, Islamic militancy has not been beaten. Instead, a threat faced by the world for more than 20 years had entered an alarming new phase. If anything, it now appears more frightening than ever. Why? Why does Islamic extremism not only endure but seem to be spreading? Why does its violence and utopian message appeal to so many? How real is the danger it poses? Why is the phenomenon so extraordinarily resilient? How will it evolve in the decades to come?
These questions are important. The answers are complicated. But one guiding principle should condition our response. One particular misconception is perhaps the biggest obstacle to a genuine understanding of the problem, and therefore an effective response. Many believe that Islamic militancy represents some kind of regressive historical riptide that is in opposition to the onward march of human progress. This is wrong-headed, complacent and dangerous. Extremism is not ‘medieval’, as politicians often say, echoing the dismissive, uncomprehending ignorance of their 19th-century predecessors when confronted with a similar wave of violence. Nor are its leaders ‘temporally perverse’, as one commentator memorably described Osama bin Laden. They may be distant in terms of morality or values, but they are not distant in time or place. They do not exist in some kind of other world. Rather, Islamic militancy is fundamentally, profoundly contemporary, a product of the same global interaction of politics, economics, culture, technology and social organisation that affects us all. It is of its time, which is now, created and shaped by its environment, which is here.
The idea that extremists are visitors from another era, and less capable as a result, is comforting but entirely misplaced. The most recent group to emerge, the IS, is now making inroads among young, disaffected Muslims in India itself, or working in the Gulf. Here the IS is exploiting a gap in the market left by other organisations that cannot match the group’s fast-paced, gangsta-style media productions with their emphasis on violence, adventure, excitement, guns and even girls, albeit enslaved rape victim, or, as frequently seen but receiving less attention from observers, the level of government services and the degree of security found in the new ‘Caliphate’.
The truth is that when Islamic militant groups, whether in the Middle East or South Asia, do not keep pace, they fade from the scene. Those that manage the challenges and exploit the opportunities of our fast-changing world thrive. Islamic militants use social media because we all use social media; they seek resources, from money and territory to hydrocarbons and weaponry, in the way that many actors do across the world today, whether formally recognised within the international system of states and multilateral institutions or not; they multi- task as terrorists, insurgents and administrators because we all now play roles which are increasingly ill-defined; they exploit and are formed by the dramatic disruption that digital technology and the internet has brought; they ‘swarm’ people and resources rapidly and efficiently because they now can in a way that was never possible before; for many of them, financing is effectively crowd-sourced from donors, often via the internet in a way that would be recognisable to any entrepreneurial start-up anywhere in the world. The phenomenon of Islamic militancy is diverse, dynamic, fragmented and chaotic—like so many other forces which shape our lives today. The shift within the phenomenon from hierarchical structures to flatter ones, from vertical to interconnected, from top-down to ‘peer to peer’, does not simply reflect that of the wider world: it is an integral part of it. Indeed, violent extremists are not just a product of broader trends, they often anticipate them. The Islamic State’s new vision of expansion, involving ‘pop-up caliphates’ scattered across continents but all loyal to a single leader and a single political entity, appears much more ‘modern’ than the increasingly outdated idea that states are defined by the possession of contiguous territory. As successive generations of terrorists have shown, extremists are frequently ahead of the curve, not behind it. Through looking at them, we can learn something of ourselves and, for good or bad, of our future.
– From an essay based on his book The New Threat; 28 September 2015
(Jason Burke is the South Asia correspondent of The Guardian. He is also the author of The 9/11 Wars)
NOT A RELIGION OF PEACE
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
On ___, a group of ___ heavily armed, black-clad men burst into a ___ in ___, opening fire and killing a total of ___ people. The attackers were filmed shouting “Allahu akbar!”
Speaking at a press conference, President ___ said: “We condemn this criminal act by extremists. Their attempt to justify their violent acts in the name of a religion of peace will not, however, succeed. We also condemn with equal force those who would use this atrocity as a pretext for Islamophobic hate crimes.”
As I revised the introduction to this book, four months before its publication, I could of course have written something more specific, like this:
On January 7, 2015, two heavily armed, black-clad attackers burst into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, opening fire and killing a total of ten people. The attackers were filmed shouting “Allahu akbar!”
But, on reflection, there seemed little reason to pick Paris. Just a few weeks earlier I could equally as well have written this:
In December 2014, a group of nine heavily armed, black- clad men burst into a school in Peshawar, opening fire and killing a total of 145 people.
Indeed, I could have written a similar sentence about any number of events, from Ottawa, Canada, to Sydney, Australia, to Baga, Nigeria. So instead I decided to leave the place blank and the number of killers and victims blank, too. You, the reader, can simply fill them in with the latest case that happens to be in the news. Or, if you prefer a more historical example, you can try this:
In September 2001, a group of 19 Islamic terrorists flew hijacked planes into buildings in New York and Washington, D.C., killing 2,996 people.
For more than thirteen years now, I have been making a simple argument in response to such acts of terrorism. My argument is that it is foolish to insist, as our leaders habitually do, that the violent acts of radical Islamists can be divorced from the religious ideals that inspire them. Instead we must acknowledge that they are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in Islam itself, in the holy book of the Qur’an as well as the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad contained in the hadith.
Let me make my point in the simplest possible terms: Islam is not a religion of peace.
For expressing the idea that Islamic violence is rooted not in social, economic, or political conditions—or even in theological error—but rather in the foundational texts of Islam itself, I have been denounced as a bigot and an “Islamophobe.” I have been silenced, shunned, and shamed. In effect, I have been deemed to be a heretic, not just by Muslims—for whom I am already an a postate—but by some Western liberals as well, whose multicultural sensibilities are offended by such “insensitive” pronouncements.
My uncompromising statements on this topic have incited such vehement denunciations that one would think I had committed an act of violence myself. For today, it seems, speaking the truth about Islam is a crime. “Hate speech” is the modern term for heresy. And in the present atmosphere, anything that makes Muslims feel uncomfortable is branded as “hate.”
– From her book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now; 8 June 2015
(Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a severe critic of Islamic orthodoxies. Her previous books include Nomad, Infidel and The Caged Virgin)
DYNAMIC, CHAOTIC, FRAGMENTED AND STILL EVOLVING — AND HARD TO FIGHT
By Jason Burke
Last week in Paris, three men killed 17 people, including several of France’s best known political cartoonists. In Nigeria, up to 2,000 may have died in a string of attacks. In Afghanistan, amid continuing violence, elements among insurgents pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In Pakistan, the school attacked by the Pakistani Taliban last month reopened.
Are any of the attacks linked? No. Are they part of the same phenomenon: the dynamic, chaotic, fragmented, ever-evolving world of contemporary militancy? Yes, absolutely. And that’s the problem. Sweep them all together, and you risk generalising. Divide them, and you’ll miss the common elements.
In the wake of any attack, the same questions are asked. In the wake of those last week, these are more urgent than ever and answering them is crucial to determining the level and nature of what is clearly an ongoing threat. What is the nature of the threat? And how dangerous is it?
Let’s take the French attacks first. The first step is to establish what links there may be between the attackers on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris and any international organisations. It now seems clear that two of the three known members of the network—the Kouachi brothers—had spent time in Yemen. At least one had met Anwar al’Awlaki, the Yemeni- American propagandist based in the country who played a key role in the radicalisation of a series of extremists in the US and UK before his death in a suspected drone strike in 2011. Al’Awlaki was a senior figure within the Al’Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula organisation (AQAP), an affiliate of the main Al’Qaeda group.
AQAP has a long track record of trying to attack the West, and the Kouachi brothers have claimed themselves that they were acting on the group’s behalf. A link here seems clear—though the degree of command and control exercised by the group does not.
The third attacker, Amedy Coulibaly, claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, the group which has overrun much of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Here a connection seems less evident, though entirely feasible. Coulibaly’s partner, Hayat Boumeddiene, left France days before the attacks for, it is thought, Syria. The group has repeatedly called for attacks on France and several Frenchmen are known to be with the IS, including one who is a close associate of Coulibaly.
So who was behind the attack?
One possibility is that the IS and AQAP are cooperating. This seems unlikely. The two organisations are deadly rivals. The IS broke away from Al’Qaeda senior leadership and denounced them as betraying the true legacy of Osama bin Laden, the founder of the group who was killed nearly four years ago.
Another scenario is that AQAP itself is splintering. The group has been under pressure for some time, with drone strikes killing many leaders and offensives by both government troops and Shia rebels forcing it out of territory captured earlier. It is entirely possible that, in the constantly shifting world of jihadi groups, we are looking at a new combination of allies, perhaps a faction of AQAP and IS joining forces. What is certainly the case is that the best way for IS and Al’Qaeda to win the battle for credibility within the Islamic militant movement is to pull off a spectacular attack in Europe or the US.
Given all of this, the failures of French intelligence would seem very significant. If their resources have increased significantly over recent years, all European security agencies have been sorely tested by the ongoing Syrian war. More than 1,400 young Frenchmen have travelled to Syria, and many have returned. At the same time there are people going, like the Kouachis, to Yemen or other conflict zones. All of them pose a potential danger and one which intelligence services have long been aware of. Last year, a security official in London described to me how the ‘grid’ of references his agency had built up over the years had been rendered totally out of date by the new influx— or reflux—of veterans. No security service can watch them all, all the time. Technology can only take you so far and it can take between 20 and 30 people to watch one individual around the clock. So decisions have to be made about who is and who is not a threat. In this instance, someone clearly made a tragically bad call.
Similarly, warnings from other agencies, such as that reportedly given by the Algerian secret services, are frequently too vague to be of any use. Unless there are specifics, such intelligence is not ‘actionable’ but just part of the huge flow of data constantly pouring in. A report— or several—will be commissioned and its conclusion will no doubt be that there was a significant analytical and institutional failure. This will be put right. But as the last decade or so has shown us, by the time this happens, the threat will have evolved once again, and the danger will still be there.
– 26 January 2015
“THEY WOULD HAVE DIED OF LAUGHTER”
By Samantha de Bendern
Laurent Léger, 48, is a senior investigative reporter at the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. He was present on 7 January when masked gunmen killed ten of his colleagues and two policemen on the paper’s Parisian premises, and has agreed to speak to Open about what he witnessed.
“We were all sitting around a table for our weekly editorial meeting when… all of a sudden, a masked gunman dressed all in black burst into the room and began firing at us. I somehow was able to hide under the table. I heard him shout ‘Allahu Akbar ’ twice and then he asked for Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier, Charlie Hebdo’s editor in chief). He did not mention anyone else and just fired indiscriminately with what looked like a very heavy weapon, something you would take to fight in a war. I was absolutely petrified and remained completely still. It felt as though the whole event lasted a really long time, but in reality, it all happened in a matter of seconds… After the gunman left, I heard further shots.”
These were probably the shots that killed the French policeman, Ahmed Merabet, who happened to be Muslim, in what has been qualified as the worse terrorist attack in France since 1961.
Léger speaks with remarkable detachment of the shootings, and when pressed for details, explains that his memory is completely blocked. “I seem to use the same words, the same expressions over and over again when describing the events,” he says, as if this almost rote-like recitation would somehow protect him from the trauma. Of those who were in the editorial office that morning, eight died on the spot, four were wounded and four escaped unharmed. Of the wounded, two are still in hospital but out of danger, one is in a medically-induced coma and one is facing extensive facial reconstruction surgery after losing his tongue in the shooting. This grim description highlights what is often overlooked in the aftermath of a terror attack: the focus is almost exclusively on the dead, some of whom gain posthumous fame and glory. But for the survivors, there is often a lifelong battle with disability that stays hidden in the shadows.
– 26 January 2015
(Samantha de Bendern has worked for the European Commission and NATO)
BEWARE THE HATE WAVE
By Tufail Ahmad
The 7 January terror attack on Charlie Hebdo has been described by some Indian politicians as a ‘backlash’ against the French satirical weekly’s publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad a few years ago. However, it appears that the ideas that drove the jihadists to kill the cartoonists and editors of Charlie Hebdo are very much alive in the streets of towns across India. A review of Facebook comments made by Muslim youths on the Paris shooting reveals that the geography of this radicalisation in India is indeed wide, fertile and raw.
Soon after the attack, Indian Muslim Ekta, a page on Facebook that describes itself as ‘peaceful for Muslims and Non-Muslims’, posted a news report on the killing of 12 people in Paris. Within five days, it had 1,245 ‘Likes’, mostly by Indian Muslim youths who appear to be in their teens and twenties, though there were others of relatively mature ages as well. A study of nearly 400 comments, mostly in Roman Urdu, posted on this page raises a serious question over what Islamic scholars in India are teaching the next generation of Muslims. It also reveals a wide geography of radicalisation across India.
Naseem Ahmad is a teenager whose moustache is just beginning to grow, as seen in his profile photograph. He wrote: ‘All praise be to Allah; very pious deed was done; glory be to Allah; heart was gladdened.’ Sohaa Ali, a hijab- wearing woman who lives in Jaipur, commented: ‘Very good news’. Rajib Ali, a youth in his thirties and based in the Assamese town of Tinsukia, wished the Paris attackers safety: ‘May Allah protect those who killed.’
– 26 January 2015
(Tufail Ahmad is Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC)