With Isis losing more and more territory each day, inching towards its territorial death, we mustn’t fall into the delusion that this could spell the end for radical Islamist terrorism or even the end of Isis; the same analytical error that was made when Bin Laden was killed. On the other hand, as Isis nears its territorial collapse, we must become even more vigilant against its next metamorphosis that is already beginning to take shape. In my analysis, the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism can be categorised into three major phases.
The first phase began with Al-Qaeda and the rise of Bin Laden. This was the phase of jihad that was primarily carried out in retaliation for the heavy Western involvement in the Middle East, namely in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is perhaps best described in Bin Laden’s own words:
“Terrorism can be commendable, and it can be reprehensible. The terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind for it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah.”
Though Al-Qaeda’s origins can be traced back to 1979 and the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the group was only seen as a problem once they turned against their former Western allies. That was when this first phase emerged and began calling for war to be waged against the “far enemy,” i.e. the United States and the United Kingdom.
This marked the end of reactive conflict in Afghanistan and Bosnia that evolved with the influence of Salafism and Islamism, and the beginning of offensive jihad. Bin Laden himself said:
“Our work targets world infidels. Our enemy is the crusader alliance led by America, Britain, and Israel. It is a crusader-Jewish alliance.”
This first phase of jihad employed the strategy of highly-organised and extremely well-planned out attacks that were orchestrated by a central command centre. These high-tech high-impact attacks (i.e. 9/11 in the USA, 7/7 in the UK) were sophisticated, complex, and above all, symbolic: these jihadists aimed to target the infrastructure of their enemies.
The second phase of Islamist terrorism has manifested in the form of Islamic State. These next generation extremists have taken the Al-Qaeda manifesto of fighting against “tyrants and aggressors” to its logical extreme, targeting any and all individuals or nations that they saw as “infidels.” Al-Baghdadi’s approach is clear to see: “Islam was never a religion of peace, Islam is the religion of fighting. No one should believe that the war that we are waging is the war of the Islamic state, it is the war of all Muslims, but the Islamic State is spearheading it. It is the war of Muslims against infidels.”
Thus, these jihadists will aim to create their ideal of a utopian infidel-free state through whatever means necessary. Though travelling to Syria would be the ultimate goal, this second phase entails that the perpetrator does not physically have to be within the Islamic State to be able to make efforts (i.e. wage jihad) in order to carry out Isis’ bidding.
Strategically, this period, which we are currently experiencing, is marked by the emergence of “self-starters”, a product of leaderless Islamist terrorism. Very different from the organised terror attacks that we saw in the Bin laden era. These are more of a case of Isis inspired than Isis instructed. MTFA (Marauding Terrorism Firearms Attack) and bombings, requires higher levels of sophistication and coordination, which means a higher level of traceability by our security services. With this low tech – high impact acts of terrorism, they have a ‘light footprint’, thus very hard to prevent and very difficult to detect creating a major challenge to security services
This is the kind of extremist ideology that sees the British extremist, Khalid Masood ramming a car into pedestrians outside the UK Parliament, or an Omar Mateen shooting and killing 49 people inside a club in Orlando, or a married couple attempting to bomb an office Christmas party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people. These individuals have not necessarily directly communicated with Isis and may not be officially affiliated with the group, yet they are very much inspired by their words:
“The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us. If one of you hoped to reach the Islamic State, we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night.”
Islamist extremism is now entering, or one could even say has already stepped into, its third, and perhaps most dangerous phase. This new emergence of the ‘meta-jihad’ is one that is purely based on a hyper ideology struggle. Any way of life that is not equal to their world view is seen as hostile and more importantly an offence against God.
What makes this mutation radically different from its predecessors is that it is not based necessarily on physical threat to Muslims by non-believers or to the perceived Caliphate. The threat is simply to hold a world view contrary to the extremist’s world view which by definition makes them an enemy that must be dis-empowered and eradicated. All states that are ruled by “man-made law” are “kufr” and are illegitimate entities that must be fought, which in turn makes it increasingly more difficult to contain. Add to this the growing accessibility of extremist material on the internet you have a volatile cocktail of radical preaching that can be rapidly circulated and remain undetected.
To those who adhere to this ideology, anyone who does not come under their definition of righteous Muslim, or any way of life that is perceived as challenging the Isis ideal, is a valid target. Perhaps this explains the recent attacks in countries such as Sweden that have no involvement in the affairs of the Middle East and aren’t even part of NATO or any other such alliance. On the contrary, Sweden, a country of 9.5 million people has taken in as many as 190,000 refugees, 2% of its entire population, and more refugees per capita than any other country in Europe. It could be argued that the reason for this attack was to underline Sweden’s policy Syrian refugees. But as times goes on, the lines between strategic targets and ideological targets will become more blurred. Worryingly, in the future we are likely to see more terrorist attacks in countries that traditionally have not been targets.
With the growing ease of access to increasingly gruesome arms, such as drones and chemical weapons (that are already in play in Syria), it won’t be long before more sophisticated artillery reaches the hands of Isis. It is not inconceivable to see high-tech – high-impact attacks come in the form of drone attacks combined with chemical weapons at the hands of Islamist terrorists. This will worryingly be the most effective method for terrorists as it results in no causalities on their side.
Understanding the evolution of the Islamist terror threat, from Al-Qaeda to Isis and to Meta-Jihad (hyper-ideological struggle) is crucial if we are to take on the challenge of Islamist extremism. Those that deny or down play that ideology is the defining feature of Isis inspired terror attacks and blame “foreign policy” still have their minds stuck in the Bin laden era. Their assessment is simply out of date, and hence completely mischaracterises the Islamist terrorist threat. With the emergence of this new type of terrorist threat and its undetectable nature, it is more important than ever before to focus our efforts, energies, and resources on primary prevention.