Distinct from Bin Laden’s al-Qaida, cash-rich Islamic insurgents mix fanaticism, violence and terrorism with territorial expansion
When earlier this year the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant changed its name to Islamic State it claimed supremacy within the fragmented, diverse and dynamic movement that is contemporary Sunni Muslim extremism. The alteration prompted anger, incredulity, fear, but little outright challenge. Only al-Qaida, after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, had been able to make such a claim with any credibility.
The debate, rather than any contempt, that greeted the creation of Islamic State (Isis) showed that Islamic militancy had entered a new phase. But there were other changes too, all indicating radical evolution. The first was territory. If the remnants of al-Qaida “central” are restricted to the Afghan-Pakistan border, many of its affiliates and other groups are better off with territory.
Al-Qaida in the Maghreb, Islamic State, the Boko Haram network of groups in Nigeria, independent clusters of militants in Libya and Egypt, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab in Somalia, non-IS militants in Syria, together occupy more physical space than at any time within living memory, possibly ever.
Another change is resources. After several years of penury, the cash has started flowing again to the militants. It is coming from wealthy donors, from extortion, from kidnapping and from seized resources such as oil fields and smuggling networks. A third shift is tactical. For a decade, from the mid-1990s, the “far enemy” (the west) was the priority target, at least in theory. Osama bin Laden’s aim was to radicalise and mobilise through spectacular violence – “propaganda by deed” – to prompt a global uprising among the world’s Muslims against unbelievers.
This is not the aim of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Islamic State, nor of many of the other militants active around the world today. Only al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group closest to the old al-Qaida leadership, still doggedly launches successive attempts to attack US interests, or even “the homeland” itself. Only 1% of attacks between 2010 and 2013, the Rand Corporation thinktank said in a recent report, were international.
The strategic principle of Islamic State has been reported as distinctly pragmatic: hold, then expand. A fourth change is a new pragmatic readiness to form coalitions with a far wider range of partners than had been the case for many years, even decades.
In Iraq, Islamic State’s summer offensive was possible only because of the active participation of groups including men once loyal to Saddam Hussein. Such an alliance would have been anathema to them 10 years earlier.
There is also a new set of relationships between the extremists and states in the Middle East. Some local powers now see Sunni militants as useful in the ongoing regional, often sectarian, proxy war that has flared over the last four years; they offer passive or active support.
So this is not simply the aftermath of the al-Qaida era. We are surveying a new landscape altogether inhabited by militants who are very different from those of a few years ago.
What should we call them? Bruce Hoffman, who is recognised as the leading scholar in the field, has defined terrorists by what they are not. Terrorists, he said, were not criminals – the latter used similar tactics of violence but their acts were for immediate personal gain and little else. Nor were terrorists in the same category as a “lunatic assassins”.
The terrorist was also not a guerrilla, said Hoffman. “Terrorists … do not function in the open as armed units, generally do not attempt to seize or hold territory, [they] deliberately avoid engaging enemy military forces in combat, and rarely exercise any direct control or sovereignty either over territory or population.”
Yet these latter qualities are exactly those that define Islamic State and an increasingly high proportion of other Sunni Muslim extremists at the moment, even if most also use tactics and techniques long associated with terrorists. The label of guerrilla, with its heavy load of technical and popular cold war baggage, does not seem appropriate however.
Islamic State are better described as insurgents, who use terrorism, of course, and do so in a systematic, abhorrent way, but do much else besides – such as capture cities and run black-market oil rackets. From the late 1990s until very recently the landscape of jihadi activism was dominated by terrorists who occasionally dabbled in insurgency, with al-Qaida the most obvious example. Now it is insurgents, using terrorism as one among many tactics, who have established a strategic supremacy.
This explains in part the attraction of such groups to some people in the west. It is the prospect of combat, adventure, camaraderie, a perception of injustice, even the fanatical certainty itself, that draws in the recruits, as guerrilla movements once did.
Joining a group is just the start, and a start rendered much easier by social networks, the media and modern transport systems than ever before. Once in however, it is very difficult to leave. The costs, both physical and psychological, of quitting are high. Interviews with former militants over recent decades have revealed that radicalisation is generally a gradual, though on occasion very rapid, process.
The environment of a group such as Islamic State, created around a cult of extreme violence and a worldview that dehumanises all outside the organisation, can quickly turn an individual from a misguided insurgent into a pitiless terrorist killer, more than happy to execute a defenceless hostage with a knife, on camera.
If the executioner in the video of the apparent beheading of a US journalist, reported on this Wednesday is indeed British, he may well have left the UK only weeks ago. This is not a reassuring thought.