Fighting the leaderless jihad

Fighting the leaderless jihad

Opinion piece (E!Sharp)
01 March 2009

The planned closure of the controversial US interrogation centre and prison at Guantánamo Bay should usher in deeper transatlantic cooperation in the fight against terrorism and other common security threats. Most expect the Europeans to help President Obama resettle former Guantánamo inmates, to work closely the Americans in the search for peace in the Middle East, and to be happier to share sensitive intelligence on terrorist threats with the US – through bilateral, EU and NATO channels.

No terrorist group has been able to carry out a major attack on European soil since the London bombings of July 2005. Most people understand the threat to the West from Islamic extremism to come from al-Qaeda, the cell-structured terrorist organisation which masterminded the attacks of September 11 2001. Yet recent evidence suggests that al- Qaeda may be in decline or at least temporarily mired in internal splits and has been forced into the background in the Muslim world by recent events like Israel’s 2008 incursion into Gaza. So does this mean that the threat of Islamic terrorism in Europe is passé?

There are at least three reasons to believe that the answer is no. First, while no recent attacks have occurred, several have been attempted. Major plots have been uncovered in Spain, Denmark and Germany since the London bombings. And security services in the Netherlands, France, and Britain still consider those countries under a high level of threat.

Second, al-Qaeda’s apparent malaise may be true only of the “al-Qaeda core”: the cells based in the Pashtun tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden has his base. Furthermore, al-Qaeda operates a sort of global terror franchisee system, loaning out its branding and ideology, sometimes to old-style terrorist groups wishing to rejuvenate their image among the local population. One of al-Qaeda’s main franchisees is Al-Qaeda-in-the-Islamic- Maghreb (AQIM), the former Algerian extremist group known as the GSPC. Other franchisees exist in Sudan and Somalia.

More worrying for EU countries are the number of homegrown extremist groups, acting on their own initiative and with varying degrees of sophistication. Such cells have carried out the majority of attacks in Europe to date. In fact, according to Marc Sageman, an influential US counter-terrorism expert, for some time there have been other organisations besides al-Qaeda carrying out or supporting terrorist atrocities, or recruiting terrorists against the West. The terrorist threat has morphed into a scattered social movement made up mostly of “auto-radicalised” young men. This movement is now more present inside Western countries than outside and is guided and inspired in internet chat rooms to undertake what Sageman calls a “leaderless jihad”.

A key priority for the future, then, is to challenge the ideology which could drive Muslim Europeans to become terrorists. Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, has asked five European governments to take a lead in figuring out how best to counter such terrorist radicalisation in key areas and to report to the rest of the EU in June 2009. Britain is working on how best to fight al-Qaeda’s core message that Islam is under attack from the West and must be defended. The Netherlands is prioritising how local authorities need to behave to prevent a ghetto mentality emerging in vulnerable Muslim communities. Spain is looking at how the state might promote the responsible training of imams, while Germany is examining how best to prevent the use of the internet for the purposes of radicalising and recruiting terrorists. Mixed with the right kind of community policing, this approach stands the best chance of helping the West to outlast a threat which is too amorphous to declare final victory over – and which must be endured until it eventually fades away.