By Jason Burke
19 August 2015
Fourteen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a series of misconceptions about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida became widely accepted. Some focused on the person of Bin Laden himself – his wealth, health and history. The group that he led, until then relatively marginal with no real support base and only a few hundred members, was portrayed as a sprawling global terrorist organisation, with obedient “operatives” and “sleeper cells” on every continent, and an ability to mobilise, radicalise and attack far beyond its real capacities. Historic incidents with no connection to the group or its leader were suddenly recast as “al-Qaida operations”. Any incident, anywhere in the world, could become an al-Qaida attack.
This had an impact on the western reaction to the events of 11 September 2001. The threat posed by al-Qaida was described in apocalyptic terms, and a response of an equally massive scale was seen as necessary. The group’s ideological motivations were ignored, while the individual agency of its leaders was emphasised. If they were killed, the logic went, the problem would disappear. Al-Qaida’s links with other terrorist or extremist organisations were distorted, often by political leaders who hoped for domestic gain and international support. So too were supposed links – all imaginary – to the governments of several states. One result was the “global war on terror”, a monumentally misconceived strategy that is in part to blame for the spread of radical Islamic militancy over the past decade.
Despite the lessons learned over the years, and the very different approach of political leaders in the US and Europe, there is a danger that at least some of those mistakes will be repeated with Islamic State. Already there are parallels. The emergence of Isis in 2013 prompted reactions that resemble those in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and that, despite the generally sensible analysis of the administration of Barack Obama, risk influencing policy. Isis, despite no real evidence, has, like al-Qaida, been linked to plans to acquire weapons of mass destruction, as well as, ludicrously, to send Ebola-infected “operatives” against its enemies. Media in the US reported a network of Isis “sleeper cells” in the “homeland”, and “sleeper agents” in Europe, exactly as they had with al-Qaida in 2002. These claims were, at best, a gross misrepresentation of how either organisation operates and how individuals are radicalised. The atmosphere in Europe following the attacks in Paris of January 2015, only indirectly connected with Isis, also recalled that of a decade earlier, with US commentators making the same hysterical claims of “no-go zones” in European cities where Islamic law had supposedly been imposed.
Isis has also been linked, and sometimes deliberately conflated, with an extraordinary range of global “bad guys”, from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic extremist organisation, to Mexican drug cartels. If the importance of the ideas of al-Qaida in the Islamic world was ignored, current analysis misses the resonance of the Isis bid to restore the lost power and glory of Islamic empires. Obama, explaining how his administration would “degrade and ultimately destroy” Isis, described the enemy as “a terrorist organisation, pure and simple”. This is not true. Isis is a hybrid of insurgency, separatism, terrorism and criminality, with deep roots in its immediate local environment, in broader regional conflicts and in geopolitical battles that link what happens in Raqqa or Mosul to chancelleries in capitals across Asia and the west.
In 2015, governments rushed to stiffen counter-terrorist legislation and increase police powers, just as they had in 2002. Then and now, the efforts to reinforce legal powers of security agencies and curtail the freedoms of citizens were accompanied by statements from policymakers describing the threat in blood-curdling terms. Theresa May, the British home secretary, said in November 2014 that “the threat we face is now more dangerous than at any time before or since 9/11”. This was an extraordinary and misleading statement. As with al-Qaida, successive leaders around the world have systematically exaggerated the involvement of Isis in local violence in their own countries to obscure their own failings, or those of their forebears, and to obtain material, diplomatic and moral support in Washington.
There is another problem that is resurfacing: a danger that Isis begins to be seen as encompassing every Islamic militant group, as al-Qaida was once thought to do. Isis may have inspired other organisations, re-energised the global militant movement and pioneered new strategies and tactics, but there are still many other important players. In the 18 months or so before the summer of 2014, when Isis captured the world’s attention by seizing Mosul and declaring a caliphate, extremists had raided a western-run gas refinery in Algeria, captured and briefly held Timbuktu, bombed the Boston Marathon, beheaded an off-duty soldier on the streets of London, killed scores in an upmarket shopping mall in Kenya and kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria. Each of these attacks was dramatically different. If two involved so-called “lone wolves”, three were the work of a major organisation; if some were clearly aimed at capturing global attention, others were driven primarily by a local agenda. The group behind the Kenya attack was under huge pressure; those behind the Nigeria kidnapping and the seizure of Timbuktu were surging to prominence. And these were just the most spectacular operations. Many others received little global attention. A significant number of these took place in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two theatres of violent activism that are being rapidly consigned to the margins of world affairs, as international troops moved out of one and policymakers’ attention moved away from the other. In Syria, of course, Isis has no monopoly on Islamic extremist violence, though it would like to establish one. The conclusion is simple: Islamic militancy remains a very diverse phenomenon that will not be destroyed by the elimination of a single group, still less an individual. The idea that some kind of silver bullet exists is attractive, and deeply reassuring, but sadly without foundation.
Isis is innovative. So far it has not directly targeted the west, as al-Qaida continues to do, but instead calls for individuals to act themselves in Europe and the US, or against tourists or other westerners overseas. Some respond to this summons to action. And, instead of spectacular attacks such as 9/11, Isis has its horrific videos. These do not have the same impact, but are considerably easier to organise. One important reason for this is that the digital revolution has made the necessary production and broadcast technology cheap and simple, while removing filters once imposed by repressive regimes in the Islamic world and mainstream TV networks in the west. When Bin Laden’s associates made a film of the killing of the journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, it was viewed by very few people. Five years later, the small number of videos made by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. Now Isis propaganda clips are released almost weekly, and are viewed by many more.
The 9/11 attacks were aimed at reaching a vast audience across the world. But a mass-casualty operation against a high-profile target is resource-intensive and risky. Many onlookers, particularly those crucial undecided “swing voters” in what Isis has called the “grey zone” between “the camps of belief and unbelief”, will be definitively turned against the terrorists. The terrorist group’s “brand” might be irredeemably tarnished, as happened with al-Qaida. But new technology allows carefully targeted communications, designed to appeal specifically to a given audience reached directly online, or as peers share carefully prepared propaganda products. Attackers in the most high-profile incidents in France in recent years have worn or carried GoPro cameras, allowing them to film their violence like extreme sportsmen. The next stage will be a live stream of point-of-view images of a terrorist attack. TV networks will have to decide if they use any of such footage, while all of us will be forced to answer a simple question: will we watch?
The propaganda by film and the propaganda by deed aims to do the same thing to the terrorists’ enemies: terrorise, or provoke irrational fear. Take the risk of a major attack using some kind of biological or chemical agent, which we have apparently convinced ourselves, or been convinced, is real. Bin Laden did describe the obtaining of chemical weapons as a religious duty, and al-Qaida and offshoots did make desultory efforts to build laboratories in Afghanistan and in northern Iraq. I visited these and found basic huts equipped like school science labs. Repeated scares in the west – in 2002 in London over ricin, a poison made from castor beans; in 2003 in New York over a supposed plot to release cyanide gas on the New York subway system; in 2004 in Jordan – proved to be unfounded. Little has emerged in recent years to counter the conclusion that the fear of chemical or biological weapons is unjustified.
Such materials are, after all, extremely difficult to produce, store, weaponise and use effectively. They are almost certainly beyond the capabilities of any extant Islamic militant group. The Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan was able to manufacture sarin gas and release it on the metro in Tokyo in 1995. But it had a billion dollars in assets, state-of-the-art scientific facilities, highly qualified experts and political connections within the Japanese establishment. Even Isis has nothing approaching these resources today. The group has reportedly inserted chlorine into mortar bombs to make chlorine gas. But this first world war technology is very far from being a genuine weapon of mass destruction. On the other hand, the Syrian regime, though almost all of its nastiest weapons have been destroyed, has repeatedly used chemical arms, killing hundreds at least and neatly demonstrating that it is really only states that have the wherewithal to manufacture and deploy even basic versions of these arms locally, let alone thousands of miles away. True, a state may one day pass such a weapon to a militant group, but if all policy decisions were made on the basis of what could conceivably occur, rather than what will probably occur, government would be impossible. No state has previously transferred such technology to terrorists, nor does any state appear likely to in the short- or mid-term. There is much that can be done, and should be done, to reduce that possibility, but it should be seen for what it is: extremely unlikely.
We're a year into the unofficial war against Isis with nothing to show for it
Perhaps the most familiar doomsday scenario involves fanatical terrorists in possession of a nuclear device. This is equally implausible. Claims of a supposed plot to use a low-tech device that spreads mildly radioactive material through conventional means, a so-called “dirty bomb”, in the US in 2002, have been discredited. Bin Laden held some kind of discussions in August 2001 with a Pakistani nuclear scientist who had extremist views, but otherwise there is no evidence that al-Qaida or any other Islamic militant group has even begun to seriously look for such arms. One scenario that is occasionally suggested is that Islamic militants somehow raid Pakistani nuclear facilities. But the nuclear arsenal in Pakistan is kept in numerous locations, with weapon components spread across different sites. So a militant group would have to have exact intelligence about the location of each part of a weapon, then find them, seize them and finally assemble them. All this would seem an almost impossible task for groups that so far have relied on little more sophisticated than assault rifles, grenades, box cutters, banal commercial or homemade explosives and ingenuity. If the egregious manipulation of public opinion or media sensationalism seen in the early part of the last decade is rarer now, old habits die hard. In the aftermath of Isis’s seizure of Mosul in 2014, British newspapers reported that 40kg of uranium stolen from science laboratories in the city’s university had been used by Isis to make a dirty bomb. The source was a boast by supposed militants in Syria on Twitter and was entirely uncorroborated. Almost a year later, the Australian foreign minister made a similar claim, raising the prospect of a “large and devastating” attack.
If these myths about the current threat posed by Islamic militants remain tenacious, so too do myths about the history and the nature of the phenomenon. One is the idea that Bin Laden, al-Qaida and other foreign “Mujahideen” won the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The reality is that the foreign volunteers never constituted more than a tiny minority, certainly no more than 20,000 and probably fewer, of the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of fighters who took part. Ill-equipped, ill-trained and unused to the tough conditions, these “Afghan Arabs”, as they were known, were seen more as a nuisance than an aid by the local men who constituted 95% or more of the fighters. Indeed, most were reviled for their puritanism, desire for martyrdom and contemptuous attitude to local communities. The foreigners were barely mentioned in contemporaneous accounts of the war, whether penned by Afghan, Pakistani, US or Russian authors. Most of the overseas volunteers arrived towards the end of the war; years after Soviet policymakers had already decided to withdraw their troops.
Another frequent historical error is to date the origins of the current wave of militancy to the late 1990s and underline its lethality. In the early 1990s, somewhere between 150,00 and 200,000 people may have died in a series of conflicts around the Islamic world that are now routinely ignored. Yet the failure of these local campaigns is fundamental to understanding why Bin Laden, and others, developed a global strategy towards the end of the decade. The primary reason they have been forgotten in the west – they are well remembered elsewhere – is that they killed almost no westerners. If the current wave of militancy has its origins anywhere, it is in the religious revival across the Islamic world of the 1960s and 70s, and the urbanisation, economic development, politics and wars that prompted it.
All terrorism has generated an abundance of myths and misconceptions, whether the anarchists of the late 19th century or the leftists and nationalists of the 1970s. The modern concept of terrorism has its origins in the late 18th century and “la Terreur”, a bid by the French revolutionary government to defend its radical project by intimidating all opponents through spectacular public violence. It was the fear that the guillotine inspired, rather than the number of heads in baskets, that was important. Terrorism’s greatest effects are thus achieved indirectly, through the reaction it inspires, rather than the actual destruction of life and property. This is why, in that moment when, having read of an attack or the threat of an attack, you experience a sudden pang of fear, you become a victim yourself. The fact that the number of people to have been killed in Britain in terrorist attacks by Islamic militants – 53 (52 during the 7/7 attacks, plus Lee Rigby) – is statistically negligible is irrelevant. To be afraid of terrorism is normal; to be concerned is natural. But it is better to be so in measure and in reason, not in panicked ignorance, and thus win one immediate and important victory.
The New Threat from Islamic Militancy by Jason Burke is out on 27 August (£16.99, Bodley Head