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Musings on London Bridge: Combating the New Range Of Threats Posed By the IS Will Require Political Settlements in Syria and Iraq

By Mohamad Bazzi

June 15, 2017

On the evening of June 3, three men unleashed terror in the heart of London, killing eight people and wounding dozens, in the third major terrorist attack in Britain in three months.

The assailants sped across London Bridge in a white van, ramming into pedestrians. They later emerged from the van with hunting knives and began stabbing people in Borough Market, a nearby nightspot. The attackers were quickly chased down and killed by British police.

On May 22, a suicide bomber attacked a concert arena in the city of Manchester, killing 22 people. Two months earlier, a driver mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London, and tried to break into Parliament before being shot and killed by security forces.

The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for all of these attacks, and it now seems that the terrorist group will be quick to adopt nearly every attack on civilians, especially in the West. These claims of responsibility tend to be somewhat generic — they don’t show the IS’s involvement in the planning or execution of attacks — but they do help the group in its propaganda efforts.

A Decentralised Jihadism

These self-directed and “lone wolf” attacks are not an accident. They are the result of an organised, decade-old movement within Islamic Jihadism to decentralise attacks and make them more diffuse. This trend predated the emergence of the IS — it can be traced back to al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

While al-Qaeda was a hierarchical organisation, its leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy and eventual successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, realised that maintaining training camps and central control was not going to work after the group was forced out of its base in Afghanistan under U.S. bombing. Before the September 11 attacks, bin Laden had relied on recruits trained at Afghan camps, and many had personally pledged allegiance to him.

But even while in hiding, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri frequently addressed their supporters through dozens of videos, audiotapes and Internet statements. They encouraged new recruits to act autonomously under al-Qaeda’s banner, and they helped inspire hundreds of young men to carry out suicide or conventional bombings in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Spain, Britain and elsewhere.

After a large number of al-Qaeda’s leaders were killed, captured or forced to flee, one of bin Laden’s former bodyguards in Afghanistan described the group’s revamped operations to an Arabic newspaper. “Every element of al-Qaeda is self-activated,” he said. “Whoever finds a chance to attack simply goes ahead. The decision is theirs alone.”

The Rapid Rise of the ISIS

Today, the IS has expanded and perfected this concept of the “leaderless jihad.” And it is now wreaking havoc and spreading fear, both in the West and in West Asia.

The latest wave of attacks fits into a series of appeals by IS leaders for their supporters to carry out self-directed assaults that use any means necessary to kill civilians, especially in the West. As the group continues to face a U.S.-led bombing campaign against its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, it is losing the territory and fighters that make up the backbone of its self-declared caliphate. As a result, the ISIS is turning towards both centrally organised plots and individual attacks carried out by sympathisers to reassert its claim as the world’s leading jihadist movement.

One of the major inspirations for this strategy is Abu Musab al-Suri, a veteran jihadist ideologue and an al-Qaeda leader who worked with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri in the 1990s. After he became disillusioned with al-Qaeda’s leaders and direction following the September 11 attacks, Suri published a 1,600-page manifesto titled, “A Call to a Global Islamic Resistance”, on the Internet in 2005.

In the document, which is still widely shared in jihadist circles, Suri calls for a wave of “individual jihad” in which independent operatives — sometimes self-radicalised and other times assisted by recruiters on the Internet — would target Western civilians in an effort to sow chaos and terror. Suri described his jihadist philosophy as “no organizations, just principles”.

With a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, Suri was captured by Pakistan’s security services in late 2005. He was reportedly turned over to the Central Intelligence Agency and was then sent to his native Syria, where he was wanted by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. After the Syrian war began in 2011, there were reports that Suri was among hundreds of al-Qaeda and other militant operatives freed by the Assad regime. Many of those operatives went on to become leaders of IS and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. But other reports, including statements by jihadist leaders, say that Suri is still being held by Assad’s regime.

Lone Wolf as a Strategy

Regardless of his status, Suri’s conception of the individual, or leaderless, jihad continues to resonate. In relying on lone wolf attacks by individuals who are self-radicalised and have only a tangential understanding of jihadist ideology — and, in some cases, are mentally disturbed — the ISIS is able to project a greater reach than it actually has.

In September 2014, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, the leading IS spokesman, issued an audio-taped appeal that reflected Suri’s tactics. Adnani (who was killed two years later in a U.S. air strike in Syria) urged the group’s sympathisers to use whatever means at their disposal to attack American and French citizens, and virtually any other Western civilians. “If you are not able to find an IED [improvised explosive device] or a bullet, single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies,” he said. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”

For several years, the IS and al-Qaeda have been competing for funding, recruits and prestige. The two groups often disagree over tactics: to avoid a backlash similar to the one they faced during Iraq’s civil war, al-Qaeda’s leaders have urged their followers to avoid targeting Muslims. But IS leaders endorse the wholesale slaughter of civilians, including many Muslims that they regard as infidels, as epitomised by the spate of attacks on Muslim countries during Ramazan in recent years.

By mid-2014, the IS seized large chunks of Syria and Iraq. The group then proclaimed a caliphate in the territory under its control, and named its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph and “leader of Muslims everywhere”.

Looking For Real Solutions

Over the past three years, the IS displaced al-Qaeda as the dominant force in international Jihadism. Baghdadi’s group had been more successful in its strategy, which relies on capturing and holding territory. But after its recent losses in Iraq and Syria, the group has reverted to its roots as a jihadist insurgency, bent on large-scale attacks that instil fear but achieve few tangible gains.

In doing so, IS leaders realise that they are on the verge of losing their self-declared capitals in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq. That means the group would squander the caliphate that has distinguished it from other jihadist movements, and helped it attract new recruits.

To combat this new and more complex range of threats posed by the IS and its sympathisers, governments in the West and throughout the world will need to do more than simply continue military strikes against targets in Iraq and Syria. Deterring new attacks against civilians will require working towards political settlements in Syria and Iraq. It will also mean greater vigilance in monitoring clandestine networks set up by IS operatives — and adjusting to a new enemy that knows no limits.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday. He is writing a book on the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran