The Gray Zone and the Clash of Barbarisms

Recent attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, California have led to some unduly assessments of terrorist threats faced by Western societies. British Home Secretary Theresa May was quick to label Islamist militancy the greatest terrorist threat in British history. Referring to the Islamic State, former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel confessed to Foreign Policy that he believed the United States was “up against something … we had never seen before.” US Senator Lindsey Graham was much more apocalyptic, telling an interviewer that the Islamic State “will open the gates of hell to spill out on the world.”

That these exaggerated appraisals have become common among politicians is unfortunately no surprise given the irrational fear of terrorism prevalent in the West. Each new attack serves only to compound this fear and leaves even less room for sober analysis. Politicians attempt to outdo each other with hawkish proposals to defeat one or other extremist group and an accurate diagnosis of the problem falls to the wayside.

Jason Burke’s book The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy is a welcome antidote to contemporary hysteria about terrorism as well as an insightful account of the history and evolution of Islamist militancy. Throughout the past decade and a half, Burke has remained an indispensable guide to various strands of political Islam and what he now characterizes as the “monumentally misconceived” War on Terror. His previous books Al-Qaeda and The 9/11 Wars are essential readings for anyone wishing to understand the nature of al-Qaeda and the foundering responses to Islamist militancy which exacerbated the very problems they were supposed to solve. In his new book, Burke turns his focus to the threat Islamist extremism poses to the West.

Enemies, Near and Far

Far too often journalist forgo the historical background necessary to understand the origins and evolution of Islamist militancy as well as the political strategies they adopt to pursue their objectives. This is Burke’s starting point. He briefly discusses religious revivalism in the Islamic world as a response to colonialism and the movements which emerged out of it: Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood which sought to appropriate the state through peaceful means and militant movements which waged an armed struggle against corrupt governments. The early Islamist militants, it is often forgotten, were not at all interested in attacking the United States or Europe, focused as they were on the Near Enemy. Their aim was to topple local governments and take state power, not wage a global war against the West.

The growing influence of Islamists was only made possible by the lack of any ideological alternatives. The brutal suppression of socialist and labor movements in Muslim-majority states, often by US-backed regimes but also by self-proclaimed socialist leaders like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, left an ideological vacuum Islamist organizations deftly filled. This is worth mentioning given Islamist movements often exploit traditionally leftist concerns to bolster their own popularity and ranks. In Pakistan’s Swat region, for example, the Taliban “organized peasants into armed gangs that became their shock troops” and forced out around four dozen landlords. Siraj-ul-Haq, the chief of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, once told his followers that the “elite class has taken control of 95% of the resources of the country” and presumably only his party could take on the elites. Islamists also exhibit a crude anti-Americanism which, in the absence any anti-imperialist movement, attracts the support of those disgruntled by US military interventions.

None of this is to suggest that Islamist movements only opportunistically seize upon traditionally leftist concerns. Islamism offers a diagnosis of the problem—no matter how inaccurate—and a political response—no matter how misguided—for those seeking both. In the absence of any ideological alternatives, the playing field was left open for Islamists.

They would soon turn their attention to the Far Enemy.

Islamists against the West

Three major factors contributed to the militants’ shift of focus to the West according to Burke: (1) the failure of the Islamist movement to appropriate the state and establish an Islamic government; (2) Western support for non-Islamic regimes in Muslim-majority countries; and (3) Saudi proselytization of “literalist strands of Islam” which, in Burke’s telling, “greatly facilitate[d]” violence even if they did not directly encourage it.

The war against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan played a catalyzing role for Islamist movements. As Burke writes, “the war mobilized support from governments, official clerics, dissident religious networks, the Muslim Brotherhood, neighbourhood mosques and many tens of millions of ordinary worshippers, creating a vast international network of donors, supporters and activists.” It is this network that allowed Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to undertake the 9/11 attacks and for al-Qaeda to survive the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. By attacking the United States, al-Qaeda sought to draw the West into increasingly unsustainable military engagements. This, the logic went, would “force the West … to cease its interventions in the Muslim world.”

A decade and a half later, al-Qaeda’s core group is significantly less capable than it once was and yet the War on Terror has led to the creation of half a dozen affiliates. The Islamic State grew out of the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, benefiting from the US occupation, the sectarianism of Nouri al-Maliki’s government, and the civil war in Syria. In contrast to al-Qaeda’s long-term ambitions to establish a caliphate, the Islamic State has already declared a caliphate on its seized territories.

Burke identifies four distinct threats to the West in the current configuration of Islamist militancy. The ongoing rivalry between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State may propel the former to carry out “a spectacular international operation” like 9/11. The Islamic State itself may directly pursue attacks in Europe and the United States. Various independent groups like the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba may become interested in striking the West, even though this is not their current focus. Lastly, there is the threat of returning veterans from Syria and other regions propagating extremist ideas among others. While all of these threats are “enough to be worrying,” concludes Burke, they can hardly “be termed ‘existential.’”

The Islamic State may have seemed unstoppable at one point but it is worth remembering that the group lost 14% of its captured territories in 2015. Burke cautions that the organization “is economically fragile, lacks skilled workers, has problems providing basic services to its population, and suffers from both massive underinvestment in infrastructure and a prodigiously unequal distribution of wealth.” Al-Qaeda and other Islamist organizations have a “patchy” record of holding on to territory, often eliciting local resentment and resistance. This may end up being the undoing of the Islamic State’s “remain and expand” strategy, as it has depended crucially on local tribal support in many areas of Iraq. As its recent loss of the Iraqi city of Ramadi also shows, the organization benefitted less from its own military prowess than from the lack of any serious opposition.

“A Subculture of Extremism”

The most probable threat, however, stems not from organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State but radicalized individuals undertaking attacks on their own. While much of the media reporting focuses on “lone wolves,” Burke explains that radicalization is very much a social process. The Toulouse shooter Mohamed Merah and the Tsarnaev brothers were steeped in “an entire culture of extremist activism.” This global network of Islamist extremists shares the same vocabulary and voices the “same set of imprecations, complaints, justifications and invocations.”

This is perhaps the one weak point of Burke’s book. He does not seem too interested in investigating why the Islamist worldview may appeal to someone. Ideologies are only powerful after all if they are able to make some sense of people’s experience of the world. It is not sufficient that Islamist extremism offers “sexual opportunity, status and adventure” along with a sense of empowerment for bored and alienated men. Much of this can be secured in ways that require far less sacrifice.

The ideology derives its power from providing a thorough diagnosis of what afflicts Muslims and proposing a way to change things for the better. It offers a way to fight back against the oppression of Muslims, a concern that has animated most of the “homegrown” terrorists. As Guardian’s Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov writes, the Islamic State’s message to the Sunni Muslim world is that “it is defying injustice and aggression to champion their cause when the regional political system and global powers have failed to do so.” This is how it is able to secure the support of disgruntled Muslims.

The Gray Zone

Attacks in Europe and the United States may appear sporadic but they in fact follow a well-established strategy of destroying the Gray Zone. According to the Islamic State, this is the space between “a camp of Islam and a camp of kufr.” The strategy relies on violence in the West forcing people to choose between the two opposing camps. President Bush articulated much the same idea when he announced to the world “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” As the preceding years of the War on Terror have confirmed, “the terrorists” may be capable of extreme violence but so is the West. The Gray Zone is threatened not just by the brutality of the Islamic State but also by the endless US-led War on Terror, a conflict Gilbert Achcar aptly termed “the clash of barbarisms.”

The crimes of the former cannot be allowed to overshadow those of the latter. If the past decade and a half of the War on Terror is any guide, defending the Gray Zone requires a clear rejection of both.