By Tom Odhiambo
That global terrorism has become part of life in most parts of the world is not in doubt. What is debatable is whether governments can successfully fight terrorist organisations and eliminate them. This question arises because of the transnational character of terrorist groups. But probably what makes it difficult to confront terrorist organizations today is because of their religious character. In fact, there are hardly any terrorist organisations today that are founded purely on political ideology. There may be groups fighting civil wars within countries but they hardly have following beyond their locales.
But it seems that Islamic militancy has the capacity to take the fight to the global arena, according to some commentators. There is no doubt that Islamic fundamentalists have inspired young men and women all over the world to take up guns, bombs, swords and knives to supposedly fight for their religious beliefs. This is a fighting force without a single commander or centralised command chain, no clearly outlined (political) manifesto, capable of buying or making weapons to fight any “localised” or “global” war, under conditions that defy military rulebooks, and is constantly mutating. This is the present and future threat that Jason Burke explains in his book, “The New Threat from Islamic Militancy” (The Bodley Head, 2015).
Burke’s book joins a crowded list of books on the subject of global terrorism, especially of the religious type. But The New Threat is different because it explains, in detail and with very specific examples, the elusiveness of this new security threat, to the whole world. This is how he introduces the topic: “Survey the new landscape of violent Islamic militancy and the immediate impression is of an impenetrable chaos. There are scores of groups who all apparently subscribe to the same basic principles of Islamic extremism but who have different names, are based in different places, and have apparently different priorities tactics and strategies. By one count, there are thirty-three militant groups in Pakistan alone.”
Even if one were to disagree with Burke – and many other writers and commentators who talk about Islamic extremism without specifically defining or contextualising it – his description of the amorphousness of what is called “Islamic militancy” today should be scary. Does it make sense to think of these groups generically? In other words, does the logic of “singularisation” – which is founded on what is often some prejudicial Western thinking about Islam – that insists on the Islamic-ness of these armed groups not undermine the efforts to understand “who” these individuals and groups are, “what” they really seek or stand for (beyond claims of wanting to institutionalise Islam in many parts of the world), and “why” they appear so successful, seemingly against many odds?
The New Threat takes you on a journey of the world of 21st century “Islamic militancy” through nine chapters: “The Rise of Islamic Militancy”; “The Origins of Global Jihad”; “Al-Qaeda and the Origins of ISIS”; “The Islamic State”; “The Affiliates”; “The Caliphate’s Cavalcade”; “Leaderless Jihad”; “The Movement”; and “The New Threat”. All these chapters are connected by a thread that seriously suggests that the world, or let’s say the politicians and governments, seem increasingly unable to understand these (Islamic) militant groups. Consequently, they also appear incapable of confronting or countering them.
The inability to deal with the current Islamic militancy has many reasons, most of which Burke identifies and explains. The most common problem for any government or security force dealing with Islamic militancy is the very idea of its religious basis. The fact that the militants call on religion to back their cause is a powerful polarising force. If you consider that these groups are not just active in countries where the majority of the population is Muslim, but that they extend their activities to multi-religious societies, raises the spectre of religious conflict. Sometimes the groups cultivate such conflicts because it aids them to recruit new members who are told that they are not just fighting for their religion, God and culture, but that they are also defending their very lives. It doesn’t help that when confronted with such conflicts, many governments tend to react to the Islamic-ness of the group rather than the militancy.
It would naturally follow that if the struggle is posed as a religious conflict, then Jihad – which is naturally sold to new recruits as fighting for a holy cause or a holy war – becomes self-explanatory and a vocation rather than just a dispute that is to be settled by force or arms. It wouldn’t take much explaining or recruiting to get volunteers from far and beyond to be involved in what was or is originally a “local” conflict. This is how Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, ISIS and many such other groups draw into their ranks young men and women from different parts of the world, ostensibly to fight in the name of their religion. Therefore, the fight against terrorist groups that claim religion as their logical basis has to begin from an understanding of the ways in which religious beliefs can and are manipulated to justify what are often individual or group grievances, or even enterprises, as the case of ISIS or Al-Shabaab has often shown.
However, Burke emphasises that the “lone attacker” phenomenon is probably the biggest terrorism nightmare in the future. Terrorism counterstrategies – like with conventional warfare – work best when directed at a group. Groups often have defined claims or ideologies. They can be identified and isolated. They can be infiltrated. They can, therefore, be attacked and their power reduced as their numbers are eliminated.
But how does one confront a faceless enemy? What if the enemy is just one person, who has never publicly expressed an opinion on any contested or political subject, isn’t known to be religious or extremist, and so on? Lone ranger attackers are often described as “never having exhibited any signs of deviance, or having been a ‘normal’ child, a good student, a committed local citizen, a liberal, etc.”, generally after the fact. These are tags that merely express normative values and show how difficult it is to isolate that single shooter or bomber.
Yet just a few hours on the Internet will expose any innocent soul to extremist and divisive sermons, videos of “suffering fellow believers” (meant to arouse anger), or prejudicial literature, whose main aim is to convert the gullible to the cause of militancy. Of course not just the naïve get trapped; these means also recruit some very intelligent people. Some eventually claim that they joined militant groups because they were bored, felt alienated or unemployed or even because of the excitement of the adventure. How does one deal with such adventure seekers? Does bombing them, like America is doing in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, resolve the crisis or deter them?
Well, Burke ends his story with these wise words, “… The principle aim of terrorism is to ‘terrorise’, to provoke irrational fear that forces policymakers or populations to alter their thinking or behaviour. To be afraid of terrorism is normal, to be concerned is natural. But it is better to be so in measure and reason, not in panicked ignorance, and thus win one immediate and important victory.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org