To be a terrorist now

The who, what and why of terrorism are not easy to grasp. But in today's ISIS-centred war, enough is known to map the interests and choices involved.

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
16 December 2015

When writing about terrorism it is difficult to avoid biases, cliches, or moral judgments. Among the traps is to blame religions (Islam in particular) and to fantasise about a "conflict of civilisations" without realising that, for example, so-called "radical Islamists" kill more Muslims than Christians.

If anything, terrorism in the 21st century seems to be void of any ideas, be they political, religious, or other; in the late 20th century, by contrast, ideas played a role, if often questionable (in Europe, examples include the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, and pro-independence movements). Today's highly materialist world is challenged by a highly materialist form of terrorism – brutal, mercenary, and not by chance, nihilistic and suicidal.

Much talk about "terrorism" is unavoidably generic. Clarity may be gained by identifying three levels of involvement in it: governments, leaders, and fighters.

The key agents

It might be assumed that governments are terrorists’ main enemies. In a sense, this is correct, but often terrorists act on behalf of other governments; or they are protected, supported, even created by governments. They can act as "fifth columns" or "proxies"; or they can be used as scapegoats, in sometimes complex political games. At other times governments simply close their eyes. Russia (and Iran) claim to have exposed the links of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's family with the oil trade involving ISIS, something Turkey contests; but it would be naïve to assume that cooperation with ISIS on oil does not involve regional governments. 

After all, who bought that oil: western companies, by any chance? Even without moving far from Syria and Iraq, other donors "beyond suspicion" might be found. The Wikileaks files found that Hillary Clinton (not an outspoken critic of the Gulf monarchies) once said: "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." She continued: "More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar e Taiba] and other terrorist groups." It is now widely acknowledged that in the 1980s - the height of the "second cold war" - Saudi Arabia, with the support of Pakistani intelligence, helped the rise of fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But what kind of war is now unfolding? Is it a Saudi-Iranian contest for supremacy in the Middle East, in which ISIS would be a Sunni proxy against Iran, Iraq, and Syria’s Assad? What role is played by the other Gulf monarchies - such as Qatar, the Emirates, and Kuwait - which have massive investments in western capitals and thus enjoy high power of blackmail? Patrick Cockburn, in his book The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, goes much further: "The 9/11 Commission report identified Saudi Arabia as the main source of al-Qaida financing but no action was taken on the basis of it". In military terms, ISIS grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). But whoever helped its rise and for whatever reasons, it is now time to cut the movement's financing as well to understand who its leaders are.

Terrorist leaders are usually political entrepreneurs. In many ways they resemble businessmen, intelligence chiefs or the heads of organised crime - in, for example, their use of the media, ability to shape opinions and provide rewards to followers, and facility in switching from one allegiance to another. Terrorist "warlords" such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (a Sunni Iraqi) or Doka Umarov (a Chechen) had a criminal past. Afghan mujahideen leaders included warlords, mercenary fighters, and smugglers.

Overall, it is striking that the "lords of terror" are rational and pragmatic, far from the previlaing caricature of dogmatism and fundamentalist "irrationality". ISIS’s magazine, Dabiq, is designed as an elegant, full-colour, modern, and functional instrument - a clever piece of propaganda whose primary aim is to entice young followers to join the fight in Iraq and Syria.

Who then are the followers, the "rank-and-file" of terrorist organisations? Very often they have little to do with a religious or any other big "cause". Sometimes they are petty criminals, sometimes unemployed (the Provisional IRA recruited in Belfast’s deprived districts); they might come from the ranks of football hooliganism (as happened in Serbia and Ukraine) as well as from among the angry and disaffected. Detecting a common pattern is difficult. Alan B Krueger, among other authors, has shown that "terrorists" are usually better educated than is often assumed. The point also fits the Red Brigades and many of al-Qaida’s recruits.

About Islamic State’s cadres and fighters, less is known. The majority may come from the Middle East or other Muslim-majority countries; but thousands (perhaps, 25,000, according to a United Nations report of a May 2015) have travelled from western Europe, and even as far as Chile. There might be myriad reasons why people from all over the world have chosen to join ISIS. It might be the resentment of Muslims in France's banlieues, the anger of those in the region against corrupt rulers (who maintain friendly relations with western leaders), or simply the opportunity for a better or more exciting life.

Time to change

A successful response to terrorism has to address all three levels. Cutting ties with governments that finance terrorism, and enforcing law against leaders, are a part of the solution. Western capitals, which have contributed to the growth of terrorism, seem now unable to agree on a strategy against it. Russia has taken the lead against ISIS in Syria and unveiled the Turkish leadership’s double-dealing. Perhaps the real winner will be China, which is silently opening a naval base in Djibouti, very close to crucial areas (for terror as well as for oil) such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan

The west, however, has also to change at a "micro" level. Unemployment and disaffection with politics are at a high pitch in Europe and America, where younger generations lack either inspiring political values or (in many cases) reasonably paid jobs. It is perhaps no wonder that some flee to a horrific adventure of destruction and self-destruction. Western governments should reflect and ultimately act on this. 

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