The September 11 attacks were now more than 15 years ago, but given the spate of spectacular terrorist attacks across five continents during the past two years, the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon are feeling less exceptional, and worryingly more normal.
In the past 72 hours alone, we have seen terrorist attacks carried out in Berlin, and Turkey, alongside foiled plots in Melbourne, Australia, and Jakarta, Indonesia — with seven and six individuals arrested, respectively.
Since the Christmas bombings throughout multiple Indonesian cities in 2000, allegedly carried out by then al-Qaeda affiliate Jemmah Islamiyah, the central Christian holiday has been the favorite date on the calendar for “gangster jihadists.”
But this doesn’t mean we should lose our shit, despite it feeling like everyone is losing his shit.
By best guess estimates, defeating gangster jihadism will take 10–30 years. We need to accept this reality. Accepting this helps all of us build a resilient society, and counterterrorism officials identify resilience and social cohesion as key components of overall counterterrorism strategy.
We can defeat gangster jihadism, and we will defeat gangster jihadism thanks to those who have dedicated their lives to understanding and defeating gangster jihadism.
Over the course of the past decade, these individuals — academics and researchers — have compiled a trove of empirical data that is rooted in quantitative and qualitative analysis, of which not only provides explanatory reasons for why some are attracted to gangster jihadism, but also provides a blueprint for how to defeat it.
I know this, because I’m their student. In pursuing an advanced degree in terrorism, I spend everyday poring over their exhaustive work. These academics and researchers are the unsung heroes of the counterterrorism universe. They’re doing the thankless and unrecognized task of compiling biographies of every known jihadist, foreign fighter, and terrorist. Significantly, they don’t just rely on open source enquiry; they actually speak with the jihadists, foreign fighters, and terrorists themselves. In turn, this data provides recommendations for counter terrorism (CT) policy for it provides CT practitioners insight into why some are push/pulled into violent extremism.
For instance, Amarnath Amarasingam, a fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, has interviewed more than 30 self-described jihadists, while compiling biographies for another 70. Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a historian and Arabist, has compiled a biographical database of all 500 fighters who have traveled from Belgium to Iraq and Syria. Mubin Shaikh, a former jihadist cum de-radicalization expert and author of The Undercover Jihadist, is also at the coalface of deep terrorism research. J.M. Berger, a fellow at the International Center for Counter Terrorism, has compiled a biographical database of every self-declared jihadist who has carried out an attack on US soil, and American citizens who have traveled to Iraq and Syria.
There are literally dozens of terrorism scholars I’m overlooking here for the sake of brevity, but the point here is that their work and deep insight continues to be ignored by mainstream media outlets, and this is a critical oversight given it’s media portrayed narratives that often dominates counterterrorism policy.
But ignorant know-nothings, self-aggrandizers, and political opportunists who espouse the kind of counterterrorism policy that sends chills down the spines of those who study terrorism dominate the media landscape. In other words, the prescriptions for defeating gangster jihadism your hearing in the media is ass-backwards.
Both Trump and his National Security Advisor, General. Michael Flynn, continue to thrust forward the idea that defeating terrorism is an ideological struggle. Their cues are taken from rabid and discredited anti-Muslim bigots such as Frank Gaffney, who remains an advisor to the Trump transition team, and from opportunistic NGOs such as the Quilliam Foundation, whose managing director continues to propagate the widely debunked idea that gangster jihadism is rooted in scripture.
Contrary to the wrong-headed ideas thrust forth by this cadre of bigots, political opportunists, and media hucksters — “reforming” Islam, counter-Islam narratives, or any other one magic bullet cannot defeat gangster jihadism. The socio-economic-political drivers of gangster jihadism are far too broad, and well out of any one state’s control. Moreover, counter terrorism policy that is rooted in a cultural reformist framework has been proven to be self-defeating.
Defeating gangster jihadism requires an unimaginable lift. To put this effort into some kind of perspective, even if you dropped a nuclear bomb on ISIS strongholds Mosul and Raqqa (not unthinkable now we have a US president-elect who nonchalantly tweets about the possibility of using nuke warheads), there would remain enough high production value gangster jihadist propaganda on the Internet.
Even if you rid the Internet of gangster jihadist propaganda, there would remain conflict zones where a majority of the world’s Muslims live. Violence attracts violence. Jihadist groups emerge from areas that are embroiled in civil war and wars of foreign intervention. These groups will continue to attract those outside these conflict zones thanks to social media, charismatic recruiters, and personal networks.
When I interviewed Lydia Wilson, who is one of the very few academics to do face-to-face interviews with actual Iraqi ISIS fighters, she explained how war, security, and unemployment were the primary drivers. “They wouldn’t care if they were fighting for a caliph, prime minister, president, or parliament — they just want security, job, and a wife.”
Now, even if you end these conflicts, there would remain weak and failing states in the Middle East. The 2016 Fragile States Index identifies Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Mali as the four states that have deteriorated the most over the past several years. The link between weak/failing states and insurgent groups, terrorist organizations, and criminal organizations is well documented in academic literature. Where states are unable to provide security or support economies, violent non-state actors fill the vacuum.
Ok, so even if we were able to help these weak and failing states with state building or state reformation efforts, there would remain the very socioeconomic conditions that drive gangster jihadists in the West and elsewhere.
Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, identifies three factors for why Muslims remain the most economically disadvantaged minority in Europe: “First, that many Muslim immigrants arrived with low education; second, that social mobility in the EU is generally mediocre (except in Scandinavia); and third, that there is documented anti-Muslim discrimination in the labor market.”
While economic disadvantage on its own does not translate into acts of violence, what’s important is that gangster jihadist recruiters prey on the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Thus to state the obvious, gangster jihadism will persist while Western governments continue to ignore redressing structural poverty and structural racism.
In the Middle East, trending socioeconomic conditions are creating fertile soil for further jihadist groups. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Tunisia, in particular, are experiencing a “youth bulge.” A study into the future of jihadism observes that the “world’s highest youth unemployment rates are in areas where jihadism has taken the deepest root,” and noting, “Unemployment and civil war go hand-in-hand.”
An interesting point of comparison is a study conducted by the US Department of Homeland Security (2016) into recruitment and radicalization of right wing terrorists. The researchers found right wing ideology had little or nothing to with why some turn to right wing violence, and that a combination of socioeconomic conditions (environment) coupled with individual risk factors (low school achievement, risk-taking, and anti-social behavior) has much explanatory power.
All in all, this complex web of terrorism drivers cannot be defeated by self-defeating ideas that promise a ban Muslims and/or a tough stance on Islam. Academics have identified these drivers; so it’s time to develop a holistic policy approach that addresses each. “Bombing the shit out of ISIS” or assassinating the next in-line gangster jihadist leader only creates the next ISIS while giving the next in-line a job promotion.
And you are very much a part of this holistic counterterrorism policy. Choosing not to share “Ban the Burqa” or “Ban Sharia Law” posts on Facebook is a small but vitally important contribution you can make. These posts are designed by nationalistic political forces who gain political capital by casting suspicion on peaceful Muslim communities. We weren’t talking about Muslims as a threat 15 years ago, and we won’t be talking about them in such a way 10–30 years from now. Thus we must treat gangster jihadism as a now phenomena that borne of a confluence of geopolitical factors that have nothing to do with any one minority or culture.
P.S: In this new era of fake news, crowd source journalism is more vital than ever. You can support my work for as little as $1 per month: https://www.patreon.com/cjwerleman