Nice, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Ankara, Baghdad, Lahore, Dakka and Orlando are just a few of the cities worldwide that have in 2016 been at the receiving end of violent extremist attacks. The list could be extended and made more dramatic, which would include several hideous attacks in Iraq and Turkey which have taken place in the last couple months. One feature that connects these attacks is terrorism, and to the now officially classified as terrorist, Islamic State in the Levant and Iraq (IS). In Europe, the EU and its member-states are on high alert, allocating large amounts of resources to combatting terrorism. Increased prison sentences, infringing surveillance and measures such as the removal of citizenship and the instigation of a state of emergency have been implemented across the continent. It is a situation Europe is trying to grapple with. However, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current situation, we must take a step back and discuss what exactly is being combatted- what is terrorism? We must also ask how IS – the group currently seen as the most prominent terrorist organisation active in Europe and the Middle East– ended up where they are today.
When discussing terrorism there are two main points which are crucial to its understanding. That is, that terrorism itself is a method, and that its ideological foundation may differ over time. Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading terrorist researchers and his definition of terrorism relies heavily on the methods executed by a group or an organization. Hoffman’s definition of terrorism is as a method of which the main practice is the deliberate use of non-democratic means to obtain political power. The most common type of non-democratic means is the use of violence to spread an ideological message, whereas in democracies the state maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. By attacking vulnerable groups, such as civilians, the aim of such attacks is to spread fear amongst its victims and the political leadership of a country by causing uncertainty and unrest. The second point is terrorism’s capacity to change over time. David Rapoport’s terrorist wave theory highlights the violent method’s evolving character, dividing modern terrorism into four specific eras. Each era has unique characteristics.
The first era developed as a response to the Russian Czar’s inability to instigate political and economic reforms leading to internal dissent and the rise of anti-government movements. The second wave, which lasted from the 1920’s to the early 1960’s had its ideological foundation in national self-determination, and included such groups as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Basque independence organisation, ETA. The third wave was social revolutionary in goal and included various socialist extremist organisations in Europe, such as the Red Army Faction in Germany. Within this third wave (1960’s to 1979) the methodological base of modern day terrorism was laid by the adoption by terrorist organisations of techniques such as sustained bombing campaigns. Today’s era, also known as the fourth or religious wave is characterised by its adaptable usage of different techniques and the ease of transmission of propaganda. This enables groups in this contemporary wave to remain active and more effective compared to the groups in previous waves.
A quick historical overview of Al Qaeda’s development reveals some of these traits. As a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a global mujahedeen movement grew out of the Afghani resistance movement. Following the Soviet’s withdrawal in 1989, one of the movement’s key members would gain further influence, Osama Bin Laden. Fast forward fifteen years and the Iraqi war is at a worst, and as a response to the US led invasion, Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda establishes an Iraqi branch through a local insurgence group. This new Al Qaeda branch came under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and was to be known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. AQI would continue to develop during the American led occupation and with the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s new leader after Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike in 2008, the Islamic State was born. There is obviously much more to IS’s development than just Al Qaeda’s decentralization, such as the Shiite majority government’s treatment of the country’s Sunni Muslim’s, but what their development highlights is how groups within the religious wave are able to evolve past there parent organizations to adapt to new situations while maintaining the momentum of the ideological base.
IS in itself represents an interesting case study when discussing terrorism, returning us to the first theme of terrorism as a method. When the group proclaimed its Caliphate in 2014 much of the western world’s response focused on denouncing the group as a terrorist organisation, while IS developed its own propaganda aimed at emphasizing the group’s aim of establishing an Islamic nation. IS did so by emphasizing the everyday aspects of life within the Islamic State through its different media outlets such as its online magazine Dabiq, which is translated into seven languages and well worth a read for those interested in IS rhetoric. In the early days of the Islamic State, the group would embrace modern methods of terror such as suicide bombings and kidnappings. However, rather than directing such attacks towards citizens, such methods where used for military means. An example of such a tactic is how IS would pack armour-plated trucks with explosives that would then be driven into a military checkpoint and detonated. This combination of military and terrorist tactics was a crucial element in the rapid expansion of the group across Iraq and Syria, at a time when the militaries of these countries were divided and weakened by war. However, since IS has suffered military setbacks at the hand of coalition forces and the Iraqi army, it is possible to identify a change in tactics. The planned attacks in Paris, Brussels, Turkey and across Iraq followed by the continuous onslaught of lone-wolf attacks such as those in San Bernardino and Orlando highlight this change in tactics. Today IS is, by Hoffman’s definition, deploying the full arsenal of terrorism, targeting civilians in order to spread fear.
Today’s religious wave of terrorism has long surpassed the life expectancy of Rapoport’s previous eras, challenging previous research and methods in combatting terrorism. However, today new innovative measures are being examined to combat this wave of terrorism from a non-militarized perspective, in the hopes of treating the problem at its source. At Uppsala University an international and interdisciplinary team led by Professor Isak Svensson of the Department of Peace and Conflict aims at exploring contemporary peaceful means for resolving conflicts with at least one self-proclaimed jihadist actor. Although not directly applicable to the attacks in Europe over the past years, the research project aims at revealing the potential or limitations of peaceful means in resolving local conflicts such as those in Nigeria with the Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, Afghanistan with the Taliban and in Syria and Iraq with IS. What connects these groups is their self-proclaimed ideological bases within the religious wave of terrorism. These groups, along with the likes of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines all hold geographical territories under their control and claim to be committed to an Islamic jihadist ideology, however to date it is only IS who has conducted, and claimed connection to, attacks in Europe. The response resonating from western states has to date been tough. However, more and more states are adopting the “softer” approaches to counter-terrorism, pushing the envelop for new ways to prevent individuals from radicalizing, rather than solely focusing on preventing or responding to attacks. In the end, the phenomenon known as terrorism is unlikely to disappear in any foreseeable future. It is easy to forget in today’s jihadist dominated terrorism discourse that left- and right-wing extremist groups have made their presence felt in the not to distant past and may do so again. In Sweden alone, over thirty planned housing facilities for asylum seekers have been burnt by a group of sympathisers of the far right agenda.
Although the near future may seem bleak there are several initiatives pointing in the right direction. In Århus, Denmark, the local counter-radicalization model – a co-operation between the municipality, regional police force and local mosque – has set the precedent for the soft method approach, valuing integration and participation over punishment and exclusion. In Sweden, a national coordinator to defend democracy against violent extremism is pushing for preventative measures such as developing the critical analytical skills of youths regarding the internet and within the new strategy (July 2016) the government encourages local initiatives of cooperation between the religious communities, municipalities, authorities and police. In complete opposition to such initiatives, the current debate regarding the so called burkini is doing nothing but adding flame to fire which is the ISIS propaganda and recruitment machine. Nevertheless, with the amount of foreign fighters traveling from Europe to join IS falling, along with the groups geographical area, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The question is not if the fourth wave of terrorism will end but when.
The Euroculturer Recommends:
For more on the burkini ban, read Julia Mason’s fascinating discussion of the topic here.
For more on right-wing extremism in Europe, read Sabine Volk’s dissection of European identity groups here.