Understanding what drives terror
5 Jun 2018|

Defeating groups such as al-Qaeda (AQ) and Daesh cannot be done through military means alone, but will require a much more detailed understanding of the ideology and theology driving them and encouraging their recruits.

A deeper understanding of those groups’ belief systems will also help us understand why, despite the removal of Daesh’s ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, these groups will not be defeated overnight.

My new report, A primer on the ideological and theological drivers of AQ and Daesh, says that the ideological precepts and beliefs that drive al-Qaeda and Daesh—which I call ‘al-Qaedaism’—facilitate a narrative based on ‘them’ and ‘us’, and on righting historical wrongs. This narrative holds ‘them’—the West—responsible for the suffering of ‘us’—defined as ‘all true Muslims’. The ideology also provides ‘us’ with an identity and a justification for the plan of action aimed at addressing wrongs.

We need to recognise that for those attracted to these extremist groups, al-Qaedaism provides a coping mechanism because it presents the world and issues through a simplified, binary lens of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the exploited and the exploiter. In response, we need to come up with better ideas if we are to win the ideological war.

Al‑Qaedaists recognise that across the world many people, often in their teens and 20s, are angry and want to blame someone or something for the injustice that they see all around. Al‑Qaedaism explains why they aren’t benefiting from globalisation, why they’re experiencing discrimination and hardship, and why there’s no justice.

The al‑Qaedaist ideology draws on a distinct interpretation of Islam and of Islamic history, emphasising that Muslims empires and dynasties dominated the Middle East from 632 to 1923: the Rashidun Caliphate (632–661), the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258), and the Ottomans (1258–1923). Beyond the Middle East, there were also Muslim empires, among them the Songhai Empire (1340–1591) in Central Africa, the Almoravid dynasty (1040–1147) in North Africa, the Mughal Empire in India (1526–1857), the Mamluk dynasty of Delhi (1206–1290) and the Sultanate of Aceh (1496–1903).

Accordingly, al-Qaedaism accepts (and even embraces) the existence of a clash of civilisations in which Western civilisation is seen not only as corrupt and lacking moral authority, but also unjust. Notably, Islam isn’t merely a religion but a way of life that covers the political, social, cultural, economic and spiritual aspects. The issue of justice preys heavily on al‑Qaedaists, who assert that Muslims don’t get any justice in the contemporary world.

Al‑Qaedaism is seen as a revolutionary ideology and its adherents as members of the vanguard—they’re the enlightened ones, having shed their false consciousness. The vanguards are the ones willing to die for the cause, the martyrs.

The ideology is eschatological, apocalyptic, conspiratorial and hagiographical, characteristics that feed into the glocalist agenda of al-Qaeda and Daesh. These elements make al‑Qaedaism a primarily millenarianist movement.

Millenarianism is highly attractive to those with little faith in the contemporary world order because it feeds into the narrative of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ while promising the emergence of a perfect world for those who believed in and fought for it. The nature of the al-Qaeda ideology explains why its defeat may not happen quickly. It also defends changes in strategy, supports sacrifice and underlines what adherents see as the evil nature of those who oppose the al-Qaedaist mantra.

By understanding al-Qaedaism, we could better counter the violence that it perpetrates, inspires and advocates by appreciating why individuals are attracted to these movements. That may also help us to understand that we’re engaging in a cosmic, generational conflict, led by individuals who corrupt the key tenets of Islam. There’s a need to think not only of the now, but of tomorrow because al-Qaedaism constantly proselytises, reaching out to the disenchanted, the angry and the disillusioned, which is why President Barack Obama was correct when he said, ‘This is not simply a military effort. Ideologies are not defeated by guns. They’re defeated with better ideas.’

While the animosity between AQ and Daesh is well documented, it’s clear that some move almost seamlessly between AQ and the Daesh camp. For example, al-Shabaab used to be in the AQ space, before shifting to Daesh, before switching back to AQ. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Pakistan-based group, at one point declared allegiance to Daesh, only to change later as it began cooperating with the Taliban.

Now that the caliphate has disbanded, a key difference between the two groups—the ability to claim the presence of an Islamic state and Daesh’s use of and commitment to indiscriminate terror as a way to govern—means that they may find that they have more in common. This doesn’t suggest a merger, but rather the possibility that the two will concentrate more on achieving their goal of bringing forth their idealised version of an Islamic state, especially since they share an ideology.

My report builds on the work of Western scholars such as Bruce Hoffman, Daniel Byman and others who point out that AQ and Daesh may have differences but also have a lot in common, and Daesh often develops AQ’s ideas.

Much of Daesh’s ideology is based on ideas and views promulgated by such men as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Musab al-Suri, Abu Yahya al-Libi, Abu Bakr Naji, Abu Khayr al-Masri and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, added to by others over time as Daesh and AQ have sought new recruits.

As AQ and Daesh transform, there’s a need for a recognition that hard power has limited value and efficacy. Because al-Qaedaism exploits grievances, encourages social divisions through overreaction and unrealistic demands, and provides a program of action, policymakers must become more conscious that their actions and words will become tools in the radicalisation process. We need to recognise that AQ and Daesh present many people with an ideology that explains to them why they aren’t benefiting from globalisation or why they’re experiencing discrimination and hardship.

As Professor Peter Neumann notes, there is no one counter-narrative and no one counter-narrator. Effective counter-messaging campaigns must be loud, voluminous and international.