As terrorist violence from ‘Islamic’ militants spreads across the world, from Peshawar to Paris, affected states are struggling to devise effective responses. So far, most of their responses have addressed the visible symptoms of the terrorist threat through military, police and intelligence measures. These are, of course, essential to stem the terrorist tide. Unfortunately, these responses are often insufficient or incorrect.
To develop the right responses, it is essential to honestly analyse and address the principal causes of ‘Islamic terrorism’.
The fundamental origins of Islamist extremism and militancy lie in the failure of Muslim states, and other states with Muslim populations, to deliver jobs, justice and dignity to a growing army of young people. The economic, social and demographic indicators in Muslim countries are some of the worst in the world. Their societies are imbued with inequality and injustice.
Similarly, Muslim youth in the advanced Western countries have not become integrated in the social and economic mainstream.
Poor, unemployed and disaffected youth have always provided ready recruits for radical and rebellious movements.
The basic rationale for radicalism has been provided by the political and economic suppression of Muslims for so long in many places.
The plight of the Palestinians and Kashmiris are two examples. The memories of brutal colonial actions in Turkey, Algeria, Iran, Indonesia and other Muslim countries, are part of historical Muslim grievances. The oppression and discrimination against Muslim minorities in India, Burma, Russia etc, have added to these grievances.
These real and perceived historical injustices provided the basic justification and support for ideologies that advocate antipathy towards the West and the active propagation and ‘defence’ of Islam.
The rise of radical Islamist movements was gradual and fitful. At some periods in the post colonial era, some of these Islamists were sponsored and supported by Western powers.
However, with the ‘failure’ of the Western capitalist and the Soviet communist models, Islamic movements, financed often from abroad, were able to move into the political mainstream in many Muslim countries.
Tolerant societies, like Pakistan, saw the rise of parties propagating a narrow and exclusivist version of Islam.
The basic rationale for radicalism has been provided by the suppression of Muslims.
A major turning point was the use of Islamist zealots to combat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The seven-member mujahideen alliance, sponsored by the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, other Arab countries and Iran, was composed exclusively of ‘Islamist’ groups. Forty thousand ‘Islamic’ radicals were imported from across the Arab and Muslim world, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. These original ‘foreign fighters’ also included Muslim rebels from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and Xinjiang.
After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, this deadly cocktail of hardened local and foreign ‘jihadists’ either stayed on in Afghanistan-Pakistan or returned to their countries to spread their toxic ideology and fighting experience. These fighters and their descendants form the core of Al Qaeda and its franchises in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa as well as the IMU, ETIM and TTP.
With the Soviet withdrawal and an equally hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Islamist groups ran amok in Afghanistan, Pakistan and their ‘home’ countries. The first attack was engineered by Al Zawahiri against the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. He later joined Osama bin Laden to form Al Qaeda. The mujahideen, meanwhile, split into several factions, vying for control of Kabul. A struggle for influence ensued between Pakistan and Iran in Afghanistan. Pakistan became the battleground for externally sponsored Sunni-Shia violence. Meanwhile, Iran sponsored Shia groups in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere.
During the 1990s’ Afghan civil war, many mujahideen groups became criminalised, raising money to finance themselves through drug production and trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. Criminality opened the door to the infiltration of these groups by state intelligence agencies, including those of Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the West. Such infiltration of certain Kashmir groups by India was critical in transforming the legitimate struggle for freedom in Kashmir into a ‘terrorist’ threat.
Notably, it was Mullah Omar’s Taliban who restored order in southern and eastern Afghanistan, overcoming or winning over the warring groups, except those in the Iran-India backed Northern Alliance. Mullah Omar’s association with Al Qaeda came about only after the US and Western decision to isolate the Taliban. His adamant refusal to surrender Osama bin Laden or expel him led to the Taliban’s ouster by the US with the help of the Northern Alliance.
The 2001 US military intervention in Afghanistan and its 2003 invasion of Iraq provided a second life to Al Qaeda and other Islamist movements, offering a rallying cause and proximate targets for ‘jihad’. Al Qaeda received new recruits. Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq was born, a predecessor to today’s Islamic State. AQAP, AQIM, TTP, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and several lesser known groups all emerged in the renewed jihad generated by opposition to Western interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The recent spread of jihadi movements across the Muslim world has been made possible by three factors. One, the weakness of most Muslim states, in terms of their police, military and intelligence capabilities, political laxity towards extremist movements and official corruption. Two, misguided Western-engineered overthrow or erosion of authoritarian regimes in Muslim states including Egypt, Libya and Syria, which opened the door to Islamist groups. Three, the external sponsorship of some of these groups, like the IS and TTP.
The ‘successes’ of jihadi movements and their narrative — Muslim rights can be regained only through violent struggle — have attracted thousands of alienated youth in Western countries. Reportedly, there are over 5000 ‘foreign fighters’ from Europe who have joined the IS. The Paris attacks have brought the war home for the Europeans, transforming a foreign policy challenge into a domestic priority. These attacks have also laid bare the cultural and religious divisions within these advanced countries, manifested by the anti-Islam Pegida movement in Germany, the National Front in France and burning of mosques in traditionally tolerant Sweden.
Addressing ‘Islamic terrorism’ is thus now a global challenge and priority. However, unless the origins and causes of this phenomenon are fully understood, it will prove difficult to formulate and agree on comprehensive policies and actions to meet this challenge.
By Akram a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.