Fifteen years after 9/11, the world is now facing the threat of systemic terrorism. Apparently mindless, random attacks are in fact part of a strategy developed over a number of years, whose origins can be traced back to three major turning points, one ideological, one political, one military, that occurred at the end of the 1970s.
Traditionally, terrorism was the work of relatively small groups with clearly identifiable political or ideological goals, ranging from national liberation to animal rights. It was used as a bargaining counter to attain a clearly defined objective such as the freeing of prisoners or the withdrawal of the army from an occupied zone, or for vengeance. Of course, there were campaigns designed simply to destabilise the political climate, but these were the minority. The terrorism of Al-Qaeda represented a radical break from this, in that its aim was sustained opposition to the entire “Western” economic, cultural, and belief system, with no negotiable end to their campaigns, and whole populations seen as legitimate targets. Attacks, and the possibility of attacks, are supposed to change enemy policy by means other than the traditional method of battlefield superiority. One of their aims is to convince public opinion that the price for supporting a particular policy is too high, as well attracting support from potential sympathisers following retaliation for the initial attack.
Conflicts are fought worldwide in a complex arena across the whole spectrum of political, social, economic, and military networks, and involve a mix of national, international, transnational, and subnational actors, motivated not only by politics or ideology, but also profit. This grey area, combining aspects of traditional warfare with organised crime, is a major aspect of 21st century terrorism. But the major way in which terrorism has evolved beyond the Al-Qaida model is the strategy of Daesh to create a state by conquering and holding territory, using traditional military confrontation in some cases, and isolated attacks far from its main bases in others. The roots of this strategy can be found in the combination of the three events mentioned in the introduction.
In November 1977, Egypt’s President Sadat travelled to Jerusalem to prove his willingness to sign a peace deal with Israel. This marked the end of pan-Arabism as a viable ideology. Sadat also broke with the USSR and encouraged the rise of the Muslim brotherhood to counter the influence of the left, especially in the universities. Shortly afterwards, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by a popular uprising that the Islamists came to dominate, eventually creating an Islamic State. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, but were defeated by a Western-backed coalition that the Taliban came to dominate.
Pan-Arabism was promoted by Nasser, and the intellectual origins of today’s Islamist terrorism can be traced back to the writings of one of his opponents, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual jailed by the regime, although his books were not banned. For Qutb, the world is living in a state of ignorance and idolatry, Jahiliyyah, a term normally reserved for pre-Islam Arabia. This includes even those who claim to be Muslims, but who are in fact apostates and thus legitimate targets: “this is not Islam and they are not Muslims”. The evil is due to the fact that men have denied God one of his attributes, Hakemeyya, divine sovereignty. Muslim scholars are scandalised by the claim that man can deprive God of anything, but Qutb’s position is echoed by Daesh’s sinister black flag, where the “Mohammed-Messenger-Allah” you would expect is replaced by “Allah-Messenger-Mohammed”, if read in the usual top-to-bottom order.
Daesh are also influenced by Qutb’s idea that divine sovereignty will be restored by a self-proclaimed elite, and that the declaration of faith is not enough to define someone as Muslim, and must be completed by jihad. The practical manual for bringing about this new, truly Islamic state, was written by Daesh in the mid-2000s. The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Umma Will Pass sets out the thinking behind the terrorist campaigns we’re seeing just now. The idea is to create such chaos, by whatever means necessary, that the jihadi are seen as the only group capable of restoring and maintaining order, similar to the initial support for the Taliban regime from Afghanis exhausted by the corruption and incompetence of the warlords.
Terrorism is one part of this strategy and Daesh have learned at least one lesson from the totalitarian regimes in Europe before and after the Second World War, namely that terror succeeds best when it is accepted on its own terms by its enemies. It’s not possible to physically terrorise everybody, but if everybody thinks they could be the next random victim, that is just as efficient.
Another major strand of Daesh’s approach is finance. The recommendations of The Management of Savagery for winning people over emphasize: “Uniting the hearts of the world’s people by means of money”. The financial power of Daesh is another significant difference with previous terrorist organisations, with some estimates putting its annual turnover at around USD 2 billion. It obtains its income through extortion, theft, and the black market – the same means described in a 2010 Rand Corporation report into Al-Qaida’s finances for the US Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Black market sales of oil probably remain Daesh’s main source of income, but as this dries up due to the success of the military forces opposing them, they will turn to other means. (Al Shabab in Somalia for instance controlled the sugar trade). Whatever it is, corruption will still be the “enabling technology” that enables the terrorists to operate. Two of the 9/11 hijackers allegedly obtained fraudulent driver’s licences from a branch of Virginia’s Division of Motor Vehicles which they used as identity cards to board the aircraft. The same branch had also sold licenses to illegal immigrants in exchange for bribes. “Nigerian troops were denied weapons to fight Boko Haram and thousands of lives were lost because of rampant fraud in the procurement process”, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared when a corrupt multi-billion dollar deal for weapons and equipment was revealed in the press in November 2015. The deal has not materialised, leaving troops without proper equipment to fight terrorist groups.
The OECD published work on the economic consequences of terrorism as long ago as 2002, and since then has examined regional, sectoral and broader aspects of the issues, for example terrorism and conflict over resources in West Africa, the implications for the transport industry, and how to help fragile states. In an analysis published earlier this year, Terrorism, corruption and the criminal exploitation of natural resources, the OECD argues that since terrorism is a multidimensional challenge, tackling it efficiently requires integrating social, economic, and political factors into the security analysis and response. Speaking personally, I would add that since the aims of Daesh include destroying democracy and dividing society along religious grounds, we should not do this for them in the name of the “war against terror”.