“Islamic extremism is a Middle East problem but it is quickly becoming the world’s problem too. It is a transnational challenge, the most destabilizing and dangerous global force since fascism. For certain, the United States and the West have a big interest in this battle. Now is the time to act.
Any action must begin with a clear plan for direct intervention against ISIS but must address the other dangerous extremist groups in the region. It is also critical to tackle the support networks, the entire militant ideological and financial complex that is the lifeblood of extremism.”
Who uttered these words? President Obama, PM Cameron or President Hollande? Actually, none of them; it was the UAE Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, speaking in September 2014.
From 2001 and a time when Al-Qaeda (AQ) was perceived as our main enemy, the jihadist movement has grown in strength and in numbers. The violent jihad groups we now face include the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al Shabaab, Ansar al Sharia, al Murabitun, Ansar al Dine and AQ itself, which has expanded significantly with franchises in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), East Asia, and now the new Indian franchise as well.
Nor is the threat limited to Sunni groups but includes Shia terror outfits such as Hezbollah that, under Iranian sponsorship, are still very much active on an international scale and will stop at nothing to strike terror against the West. Geographically, the threat has grown from an Afghanistan-centered one to one that spans the globe, with a jihadist presence on nearly every continent.
The Global Jihad should be viewed from two different, but related perspectives: first, the most obvious is the doctrinally-mandated conquest of physical territory in all theaters of war; second, and just as important, is the conquest of our societies from within by way of the civilizational jihad challenges that we face. Therefore, it’s not enough to merely look at terrorist groups, because the role of intellectuals, propaganda operatives, and recruiters is actually at the root of the problem. Jihad groups should be viewed and approached through that prism.
Fighting against the global jihad cannot be effective if focused only on the “armies” but must also confront the “brains” behind them: let’s not forget that inciting terrorism has a multiplying effect.
The Islamic State
Surging to power across national borders in 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has become a household name and supplanted al-Qaeda (AQ) as the vanguard of the global jihadist movement. ISIS announced in June 2014 the establishment of a new Caliphate in Syria and Iraq and changed its name to the “Islamic State (IS)” to signify its global ambitions, claim the allegiance of Muslims everywhere, and emphasize its non-recognition of Western-drawn political boundaries. It also seeks allegiance from jihadist group worldwide and rapidly is winning support from Muslim followers and recruits from over 80 countries around the world.
IS victories in Syria and its spectacular advances in Iraq from Mosul to the fringes of Baghdad, and even advancing to the Saudi and Jordanian borders, have made IS the new “kid on the block”. In mid-September 2014, its Chechen members threatened to march on Amman, Jordan’s capital, while Saudi’s military forces are on high alert for advances toward Mecca and Medina.
By calling itself the Islamic State with no mention of countries, IS leader al-Baghdadi is seeking to bring to his fold all groups that view al-Zawahiri’s brand as passé and see al-Baghdadi as the true inheritor of Osama Bin Laden’s global vision. This is why in the past months, thousands of jihadists around the world announced they were switching allegiances to the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s fighters are young, fluent on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, and, unlike al-Qaeda, they are actually setting up the Caliphate and governing captured territory.
2014 saw a dramatic increase in jihadist activity across Africa, from Algeria to Tunisia, Mali, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, and Somalia, just to name a few. The emergence of additional al-Qaeda affiliates points to continuing security concerns throughout the continent.
There are a number of offshoots of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that could pull off spectacular and deadly attacks, ranging from Ansar al Dine to Ansar al Sharia to Al Murabitun (a merger from Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Mulathameen (Masked Men Brigade) of Mokhtar bel Mokhtar. The latter might be the most dangerous because of Belmokhtar’s experience and sophistication. These groups co-operate and share common objectives including ridding Africa of Western influence, the overthrowing of apostate ‘unbeliever’ governments and the installing of Islamic regimes based on Sharia Law.
Further south, both Boko Haram in the west and al-Shabaab in the east are also potentially thinking of internationalizing their cause, especially in light of the “success” of the Westgate attack as well as AQIM’s fundraising successes through ransom money from kidnappings. Targeting Western interests or citizens might be something of a priority for these two groups.
The situation in Libya is so dire that neighboring countries are preparing for a tsunami of terror coming from post-Qaddafi Libya.
The recent events in Libya are tilting the balance in the jihadists’ favor. Tripoli’s airport fell into the hands of jihadist militias in early September 2014. Two air raids against Tripoli in mid-August 2014 allegedly were carried out by the UAE and Egypt. This only proves that regional powers are not going to remain complacent as jihadist threats gather nearby. The larger issue that looms presently is how Libya’s disintegration, instigated by the U.S. and NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, is turning the country into one of the most dangerous places in the world, not only for North Africa but also for Europe. Libya currently has the largest mass of loose weapons in the world, comprising more than the entire arsenal of the British Army. The likelihood that such weapons will end up in the hands of terror groups such as AQIM, Mokhtar bel Mokhtar’s al Murabitun (that controls large swaths of territory in the south of the country), Ansar al Sharia in the East or Libyan Dawn (that took control of the US Embassy grounds in Tripoli) is a security nightmare that’s already coming to pass. The worsening situation within Libya may eventually even warrant a new international military intervention, something that has been called for by some inside Libya and its neighbors in order at least to prevent further terror attacks emanating from within this failed state.
As noted above, things do not happen in a vacuum and more often than not expanding Islamic fervor leads to Jihadism. By early 2013, the continuing expansion of jihadist and Salafist groups in the northern part of the country had transformed Mali into “Malistan” and pushed France to intervene militarily to root out AQIM. This was a surprise for many because Mali previously had been seen as a model of democracy and moderation on the continent.
But what analysts have overlooked is that Mali has undergone a major shift towards Islamic radicalization. In fact, starting as far back as the 1950’s, Saudi Arabia began investing in the country, building madrasas and cultural centers as well as clinics and pharmacies.
To this day, Saudi funding helps build prayer halls, orphanages, bridges and roads in northern Mali. For instance, these clinics are popular because of their low-cost fees. In a poor country where this kind of infrastructure was lacking, the Wahhabi investment exerts an important effect.
In Bamako alone, there are over 3,000 madrassas and between 25-40 percent of Malian children attend them, where the teaching is done in Arabic rather than in the usual French. What is concerning about this phenomenon is that madrassas are out of reach of the government’s control and free to teach whatever they deem advisable. In this way, little by little, they are turning out generations of Wahhabis.
At the same time, Wahhabis went on a mosque-building spree to the point that Mali, a country of 13 million people, 90 percent of whom are Muslims, now counts 17,500 registered mosques.
Hundreds of Malians have been invited to pursue their religious education in the Gulf: some of them return home radicalized and ready to convert their fellow Muslims to their own Wahhabi views. Since 2001, worrying signs are emerging as increasingly jihadist Islam is making inroads like never before in a formerly moderate country such as Mali.
Photos of Osama Bin Laden are flourishing in stalls at the Bamako market and the number of radio stations preaching radical Islam is exploding. At this point, secularists are complaining that this phenomenon is pushing religious conservatism within Malian society.
The Islamist example: The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood, still the most influential Islamist movement in the world, yet wrongly considered by many as a moderate group, succeeded in taking over two countries after the Arab Spring.
In Egypt, since Morsi’s ouster on July 3, 2013, terrorism in the Sinai has skyrocketed. Perhaps alluding to its involvement, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Beltagy stated in July 2013 that terrorist attacks in Sinai will stop as soon as Morsi is reinstated as president. A 26 April 2014 statement of apparent support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood came from al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, when he expressed support for the incarcerated members of the Egyptian Brotherhood and called for the kidnapping of non-Muslims all over the world. Furthermore, Egyptian intelligence alleges that the MB may be supplying intelligence, information, and money to the new IS franchisee Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and AQ’s affiliate, Ajnad Misr. If true, this could spell trouble for foreign nationals residing in Egypt.
In Tunisia, Ennahda—the Muslim Brotherhood party that was in power from October 2011 to January 2014— has a lot to answer for. On national security, a Tunisie Sondage poll conducted in August 2013 found that 65 percent of Tunisians considered the terrorist threat high, and 74 percent blamed it on Ennahda’s lenience towards jihadists. Until a recent falling out, Ennahda maintained close relations with Salafi-jihadi groups, notably Ansar al Sharia. In addition, the Ennahda government has ceded control of dozens of mosques to jihadists, who have used them to recruit extensively.
Alaya Allani, a leading historian of Islamism and professor at Manouba University near Tunis, estimates that the number of jihadists in the country has rocketed from 800 last year ago to some 3,000-4,000 today. The Salafist wing of Ennahda has steadily reached out to jihadists for both ideological and opportunistic reasons. As long ago as October 2012, AQIM, the leading terrorist organization in the region, embraced Ennahda’s goal of implementing sharia in Tunisia. In 26 October 2014 parliamentary elections, however, Ennahda candidates won only 69 out of 217 seats and accepted its defeat by the relatively secular Nida Tounes party, which garnered 85 seats.
But the MB presence is far from being limited to the Muslim world and we need to recognize that the West is the real prize for the global jihad movement.
Legally-guaranteed freedoms enjoyed by individuals and organizations in the West give the Brotherhood’s thousands of affiliates significant advantages in societies that prohibit governments from restricting proselytizing and speech activities that too often skirt perilously close to sedition.
Because the Brotherhood has not conducted violent attacks in Europe, the U.S., or the West and its primary threat to the West is subversion rather than kinetic terrorism, the overall security threat posed by Brotherhood operatives is sometimes difficult to convey. Laws crafted to identify kinetic terrorist threats fall short when it comes to civilizational threats to Western society that are insidious rather than kinetic, but far more dangerous to our freedoms in the long term.
This global jihad trend poses threats to the West and its allies throughout the world that are at once ancient and new. The sheer number of Western citizens joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq is enough to keep our security services awake at night. European-passport-holding jihadis could receive the logistical support of the Islamic State or any of its new affiliates and perpetrate a terror attack in the streets in London or Paris or New York or Abuja or Jakarta – or traveling freely with their Western documents, launch more individual jihad attacks of the sort already committed by Maj. Nidal Hassan, the Boston Marathon bombers, or the two recent terrorist attacks in Canada. The training grounds of Syria and Iraq and the hundreds of millions of dollars in the coffers of the Islamic State will no doubt provide jihadists the tools they need to launch a new wave of attacks and accelerate Bin Laden’s global jihad.
Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical risk consultant to corporations and governments. He tweets@OlivierGuitta.