In the last few years, the global Islamist terrorism has grown disquietingly in the wake of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. President George Bush’s, and ultimately Obama’s, War on Terror that commenced following the terror attacks on US soil on September 11th 2001, has thus proved highly counterproductive. This article deals with the subject of increased Islamist terrorism in Europe, the US and elsewhere. It discusses what has caused it and which solutions there might be.
In 2015 there were two large terror attacks in Paris and in 2016 there have been large-scale attacks in Brussels and Orlando, several in Istanbul, and many more in countries in the Middle East and Asia, among them Beirut and Lahore (both in March 2016). All of these attacks have been connected to Islamic extremism, while several of them have been conducted by members or sympathizers of the powerful, Iraqi-based terror organization ISIS.
In order to understand the increased Islamist terrorism in the West, one needs to delve into the modern history of West Asia and the Middle East and examine the failed states and armed conflicts of these regions. One needs to understand the wars that have raged in Afghanistan from 1979 and onwards, the US war on terror following the terror attacks on September 11th 2001, including the US-led campaign to topple the Afghan Taliban rule, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ousting of Saddam Hussein. One needs to study the following civil war in Iraq, the Arabic Spring and the following civil war in Syria from 2011 and onwards.
The creation of ISIS
ISIS was created in the wake of the Iraq war that consequently ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, but has origins as far back as 1999 when Jordanian extremist and former Mujahedin fighter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded radical Islamist organization “The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad” (in Jordan). In the fall of 2004 he swore loyalty to Al-Qaeda and joined its armed struggle against the US provisional rule in Iraq. He was killed in a US airstrike in June 2006.
Saddam’s regime was Sunni Muslim and following his demise, elements within the former Iraqi military and security services went underground and started an armed uprising against the American occupants. Many would join Abu Musab’s terror group that later would become ISIS (with several name changes during the years). Thus, ISIS is a Sunni Salafist-jihadist rebel group that supported Al-Qaeda in the rebellion against the US occupation and that later would start striving to establish a theocratic caliphate in Iraq and the greater Middle East.
In 2013 ISIS decided to spread its activities into Syria and to fight against the secular Syrian regime in the civil war. Early in 2014 it announced plans to attack Lebanese, Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, and proclaimed a worldwide caliphate that same year. Large territories in Iraq and Syria were laid under ISIS control, as thousands of Sunnis from all over the world joined the movement, which by then seemed unstoppable. It took control of modern weapons from the fleeing Iraqi army, made huge profits from occupied oil fields and received large funds from secret sponsors, mainly likely originating from the rich Gulf states.
From 2015 and onwards, as ISIS’s power diminished due to increased military campaigns from the US and its allies, a strengthened Iraqi army and Russia, the recruitment of ISIS soldiers diminished and new tactics needed to be introduced. Those tactics include terror attacks against the societies of the West and elsewhere, where many of the organization’s followers reside, mainly consisting of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.
Scholars and security services alike think that the weakening of ISIS’s power has caused the increased number of terror attacks that have taken place foremost in Western Europe, the US, Turkey and Lebanon. So which are the root causes of the rise of Islamist rebellion and terrorism in the civil wars of the Middle East, conflicts that have spilled over to the neighboring countries as well as the heart of the western world?
Islamist terrorism in Europe and elsewhere – Causes
The main causes of the latest rise of Islamist terrorism originate from so-called failed states and armed conflicts in the Middle East. These conflicts are fought between states and armed groups as well as between armed groups, mainly following ethnic and religious lines. Furthermore, these conflicts in turn have several causes such as lack of democratic systems/institutions, lack of civil rights, economic and social inequalities between ethnic groups, and so on.
Beyond these there are historical and colonial causes concerning how the nations were formed and which elites that stepped forward and grabbed power and privileges. The armed conflicts that erupt in the wake of these faulty situations in the end create animosities due to poverty and despair, in which extremist Islamist currents get a hold and are allowed to grow. In the wake of revolution and civil war, power vacuums can occur in which these radical currents can thrive.
Underdevelopment is another indirect cause for militant Islamism, where the lack of socio-economic development and education for a majority of the population enable a culture of patriarchy, traditionalism, conservatism and religion, in which these currents can especially thrive. The concept of underdevelopment is certainly connected to the political oppression and social and economic divides discussed above, which obstruct any societal development. Furthermore, the militant Islamism is based upon highly traditional, conservative and anti-democratic values that go hand in hand with underdevelopment in combination with a lack of democratic development.
In Iraq, Saddam’s dictatorship gave huge political, economic and social privileges to the Sunni minority. Following Saddams downfall and later the installation of a Shia dominated government created the same kind of animosities, but the other way around. The US provisional government’s decision to dismantle the Iraqi armed forces, leaving thousands of soldiers frustrated and unemployed certainly added dangerous fuel to the fire. Among others, Abu Musab’s Sunni terror group (that would become ISIS) executed a series of suicide bombings against Shiite targets to spark a civil war along sectarian lines in order to disrupt and destroy the US plans, and he succeeded. Furthermore, the failed, misjudged US policy of occupation created animosity amongst Muslims across the whole region and drew rebel fighters into Iraq from all over the Muslim world.
Another example is Syria, where harsh dictatorship has ruled constantly since independence in 1946. The Assad family has ruled with an iron fist since 1970 and has systematically favoured its own ethnic group, the Shiite Alawites. Despite the massive oppression with the instrument of horrific torture chambers, Hafez Al-Assad (the current president’s father) succeeded in keeping the Sunni majority in check, for example by allowing them a free market in which to work and do business.
With Bashar Al-Assad’s takeover following his father’s death in 2000, however, the Alawite elites started to grab more economic gains through downright mafia measures, and this created widespread discontent among the Sunni majority. Inspired by the Arabic spring also the Syrian people rose against its government, and through the dictatorship’s bans to utter discontent with other means, revolution became a fact. The counter reaction was extremely violent.
The Syrian government was one of the world’s most repressive also before the protests and the limitless response with extreme violations against its own people radicalized the resistance and inevitably led to an unparalleled spiral of violence. Ultimately the chaos attracted armed elements from abroad to fight on either side, Sunni extremists such as ISIS against the Shiite regime and Shiite groups like Hezbollah (and Iranian armed forces)against the Sunni rebels.
Except for the above mentioned outer factors to European terrorism there are also factors within Europe itself, such as unproportunately high unemployment rates within non-European immigrant groups (foremost Muslims), which have led to alienation and social exclusion, in turn leading to radicalization of foremost young men originated from the Middle East and North Africa. Many within these under-privileged groups are thus drawn into organizations such as ISIS where they possibly reach a sense of meaning and importance.
A final solution to Islamist terrorism in the Western world and beyond would require several extensive, far-reaching and coordinated measures in Europe/Western nations as well as in the Middle East. To halt the ongoing armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq would recuire an enormous international military operation including the Muslim states in the Middle East, the Gulf states, the big powers of Europe, the US and possibly Russia. This should be sanctioned by a resolution in the UN Security Council to give it proper judicial bearing.
In order to reach a lasting peace, huge diplomatic efforts are needed in addition to military action, from the big powers as well as from the warring parties. Since we know today that all parties are not receptive to negotiated settlements, a combination of diplomacy and forced peace-making through military campaigns is crucial.
A military operation would be hugely extensive and expensive and would probably require 100 000 troops or perhaps even more. Above this, large-scale civilian campaigns operated by the different UN bodies as well as international NGO:s would be needed to get to the fundamental causes of conflict, to keep the peace and to build democratic institutions, or in the short run functioning and non-corrupt institutions. All these measures would require colossal political will (and funds) from the big powers of Europe/the US as well as from the regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
A peace agreement between the parties must include security guarantees, amnesties and inclusion in a political process, and all must be overseen by the UN with the support from peacekeeping troops with an adequate mandate to interfere. Also, there need to be incentives for economic growth and for people to find work and an income. Without this, a lasting peace will not likely succeed.
Moreover, fundamental reforms of the Western societies are needed in order to prevent radicalization of under-privileged groups, which in turn require broad agreements between different political parties, from left to right, regarding job-creation, social inclusion, hindrance of ethnic conflict, and etcetera.
Adequate political will is thus the key; nationally, regionally and globally, with military, diplomatic and society-building measures from the international community. Does it exist? Definitely not today and not likely in a near future. This is however the only way to stop the kind of international terrorism that has struck the world in recent time, and that with all certainty will strike again.