In the classical European tradition, a question, and the words used to formulate it, are as important – if not more important – as the answer.
Following this tradition, I have a double problem with the formula “War on Terror” itself. I understand that “War on Terror” is foremost a striking propaganda formula fit for TV screens – but it is more than just that : words do have a meaning and using them creates representations in the human mind. These representations then model the attitudes and actions of those which use them. Saying “war” silently implies that you confront a military-type enemy ; that this enemy looks like, is organized like, an army. The word “war” unconsciously tends to pre-define the question of the nature of the enemy and dictate as an answer : the Pentagon is the solution. And of course, “al-Qaida” is not an army – more like a nebula or a swarm, but an army, certainly not – and would you declare war to a swarm of mosquitoes, or bees ?
Second problem, this time with the word “Terror”. Terror is an abstraction, like happiness or hunger. You see happy or hungry people, but hunger itself, never. Also, since ancient Egypt and probably even before, war is a prosaic activity between two groups of human beings, neither between two abstractions, nor between human beings on one side, and abstractions on the other.
Thus, as soon as you use the formula “War on Terror”, your whole project, or plan, is intellectually engaged in a predetermined, and wrong, direction, as :
1°) maybe an army is not the best tool to fight a de-territorialized, trans-national and frequently mutating terrorist group, and even if it is,
2°) no army can fight and defeat an abstraction.
QUESTION 2 – Will the greatest threat of Islamic extremism emanate in the future from authoritarian societies in the Middle East, from ungoverned territories of weak or failed states, or from a restive Islamic Diaspora in the West ?
Fact N° 1 – The expression “islamic extremism” includes in fact two different set of entities :
a) Radical political entities or parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) ; other ikhwani parties as the Hamas in Palestine or the Islamic Action Front in Jordan ; dissidents from the Ikhwan as the transnational and underground Hizbut Tahrir ; or the hezbollahi parties in the shia world.
b) Terrorist groups from the salafi-jihadi nebula (following ben Laden or not) ; or other salafi ultra extremists, as the constellation of takfiri groups (named after an original Egyptian terrorist group, nicknamed “Takfir wa’l Hijra” by the Egyptian authorities) .
One has to understand that a strong and permanent multilevel interaction exists between radical political Islam and Islamic terrorist groups, even if, frequently, political radicals pretend to reject terrorism. For example , in June 2006 some leaders of the (supposedly moderate) Jordanian Islamic Action Front visited Zarqawi’s family after his death, to offer condolences and prayers.
FACT N° 2 – No islamic activist group is ever mono-national. Its mujahideen are united, not by nationalist motivation, but by fanatical faith. As a result, another interaction also exists, now at the geographical level.
Studying the “biology” of these groups (political or terrorist) as a whole demonstrates that they are not rigid or solid entities, but on the contrary are fluid, organisms and thus the danger lies in their capacity to disappear from here and resurface there ; to move, sometimes as quickly as would a disease, from the suburbs of Paris, or Tirana, to shantytowns around Mogadiscio, or Gaza.
In such cases, the danger cannot be defined by asking “either/or” questions. It must be considered as a whole, as a living system. One has to analyze and really understand how the system works as a whole, before beginning to fight it. Otherwise, the system as a whole survives by these interactions and gets stronger instead of being destroyed.
QUESTION 5 – Given our broad mission to protect ourselves from terror, where is the largest, most important gap between what we need to do and what we’re currently doing ?
This is by far the most important question, with the deepest consequences for the future. And with our European experience, answering this question is easy. Today, as far as terrorism is concerned, the US government and all its departments and agencies seem obsessed (understandably so) by Ben laden and the salafi-jihadi nebula. When reading US official declarations and reports, the terrorist threat is seen as coming only from these individuals and groups.
This obsession is dangerous and counter-productive, as the Spanish British and French examples show.
For many years, the British and Spanish security services and polices have been obsessed, respectively by the IRA and by ETA ; it was very difficult for experts and officials from other countries to raise with them the problem of salafi-jihadi terrorism, as these services and police forces thought, in both countries, that this sort of terrorism was not really their problem. That the only real danger came from the IRA and ETA. Such an obsession clearly facilitated the attacks in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005.
A few years before, France had a similar problem, being first attacked by hezbollahi terrorists in 1985 & 1986 (Lebanese shias, see below). Then, a decade later, when we were attacked again, this time by salafi-jihadi Sunni Algerians, we reacted slowly and belatedly as we were still mainly protecting ourselves, and thus gathering intelligence, etc. on shia terrorists – fighting yesterday’s war.
At present, given the dangerous situation in the Gulf, with Iran, etc. the US should be (so I think) more aware of three forms of terrorism, not very visible, but very dangerous.
1°) Shia terrorism
In Lebanon as well now as in Iraq, the various groups carrying the name of “Party of God” or Hezbollah (opposed to Hezbal Shaitan, party of the devil) remain extremely dangerous terrorist organizations – perhaps, collectively, the most sophisticated terrorist apparatus in the world, with a long and murderous practice of trans-national operations. As no important attack (outside of the “battlefields” of Lebanon, Iraq and Pakistan) by the hezbollahi terrorists has happened since a decade, it should be useful to start by reminding two of these operations, both of them in march 1992
- March 7, 1992 : murder of the security officer of Israel’s embassy in Ankara, Turkey,
- March 17, 1992 : Spectacular attack of Israel’s embassy in Buenos-Aires, Argentina.
The second operation was more sensational, but the first one really worried Turkey’s security officials, as well as other experts : the detonator used to rig the car was not connected to the ignition system of the engine, as it usually is. The terrorists knew that the security officer had a special remote-control device that not only opened the doors, but also started the engine from a distance. The bomb was thus connected to the clutch pedal and exploded only when the driver entered the car and pressed it. Connecting the bomb took more than one hour ; not to mention several weeks of observation and surveillance of the security officer, the car, its parking places etc.
This type of operations demands structured networks, of course, plus logistics from a state (today Iran, but maybe also tomorrow, Iraq ?) but this is not enough. It also demands a strong culture in conspiracy and clandestinity. And no terrorist entity in the world has a deeper secrecy culture than the shias.
Indeed, the hezbollahi is the heir of :
a) A millenium of shi’ite extremism, of struggles against a wordly power by definition always illegitimate and unjust. Its doctrine is one of protest for all the discontented, the downtrodden in the Arabic and Muslim world ;
b) A tradition of secrecy, conspiracy and deceit as old as Shi’ism itself. Within the Islamic world, from the very beginning and most of the time, the Shi’ites were persecuted, martyred and reduced to clandestine activities. To survive 12 centuries of riots and massacres, persecution and conquests requires a formidable ability to adapt and retaliate. These communities faced what is probably the longest struggle for survival in history and consequently developed an unequalled practice of mystery and conspiracy. Just imagine that in the sole domain of terrorism, the shi’ites have an incredibly rich collective history going back a millenium. In Europe, the very oldest forms of clandestine armed struggle, whether nationalist or revolutionary date back to the end of the 19 th. century…
From these ancient experiences, Shi’ism crafted its modus operandi which is that of a cult. It is composed of many aspects (theological, legal, ritual, etc.) but above all it trains the novice in the practice of an extraordinary set of skills of mental discipline, dissimulation and devious maneuvers, which have been given the general name of “taqiya” (the precaution). Takiya is both an order for caution in the face of danger and a method for not revealing esoteric secrets. It arose at the time when the Umayyad caliphs invented a test to detect the Shi’ites : people were forced to insult Ali and his family, and anyone who objected was put to death.
Since then, when required, the Shi’ite behaves externally like a Sunni, while preserving his original beliefs and allegiances, which require him to struggle against and to reverse the existing power. In a non-Shi’ite territory — and that includes Sunni states — the Shi’ite has for 12 centuries led the life of a conspirator, scorning in private what he praises publicly, and he only applies the moral laws within his community. The takiya becomes compulsory “when human life is in danger without an equivalent prospective gain.” This prohibits a believer from stupidly committing suicide in a moment of exaltation, but authorizes any sacrifices profitable to the community.
c) Last, but not least, a long tradition of voluntary sacrifice for the benefit of the community (“Shahadat”) and a marked taste for martyrdom. About this concept, one of the tapes recorded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978, for his followers in Iran, gives a exact definition of the clear thinking, voluntary martyrdom :
“People say sometimes that the hero is the engine of history. This is wrong. The soul of history is the martyr. So bare your chests to the army, for the Shah will make use of the army, and it will obey him. We are told that the soldiers are troubled, that they do not know what to do, but they will obey orders. How could they disobey when they are bound by military discipline ? One day, they will rid themselves of the devil’s discipline, and will adopt that of God. In the meantime, if the order is given and they fire on you, bare your chests. Your blood, and the love that you will bring to them in dying, will convince them. The blood of each martyr is like the sound of a bell that will awaken a thousand living beings.”
“Takiya” and “chahadat”… plus the proven art of manipulating the major modern media, all of this gives shia terrorism a style and a flavour all of its own. These actions are always conceived theatrically and dramatically, in three acts : (a) warning ; (b) impressive strike ; (c) reverberation effect.
- The target is specifically warned and threatened, at times by high-ranking officials, and in a dramatic manner ;
- The act is carried out with an overwhelming violence ;
- Immediately afterwards, when public opinion and the media are still shocked, a psychological campaign of deception and demoralization is triggered, as an echo, designed to increase tenfold the effect of terror.
2°) Takfiri terrorism
The original “Takfir wa’l Hijra” (Anathema and emigration) was founded in Egypt during the in 1971 by Shukri Mustapha, who became the “amir al-mumineen” (commander of the believers) of the group. From the origin totally underground, and even more sectarian and puritanical than the salafi, the group believes all ordinary Muslims to be apostates (anathema) the true believers having the obligation to quit the corrupt society (Emigration, Hegira) and live among themselves, in secret and closely knit cells. In 1977, the Egyptian takfiris kidnapped a former minister for religious affairs, and then killed him. A few months later about 400 takfiris were arrested and Shukri Mustapha and four of his followers were hanged in March 1978.
Then everyone in the Middle East thought this was the end of the Takfir wa’l Hijra. But in 1995, videos of takfiri propaganda surfaced in several Middle Eastern countries, Egypt included. Subsequent investigations showed that the Takfir had re-created huge networks in the whole region, and even controlled several illegal mosques in shantytowns around Cairo. In March 1996, the new takfiri “amir al-Mumineen”, named Abdel Fattah, was arrested in Amman (Jordan) with 245 of his followers. Since then, takfiri networks and even guerrilla groups (Algeria) have been spotted, or dismantled, from Central Asia to the Maghreb.
3°) Hybrid forms of terrorism
Between the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996, the north of France (in the area of the city of Roubaix) witnessed several bloody, messy “hold ups” showing a great amateurism. The investigations revealed that those guilty of these armed robberies were young Frenchmen who had converted to Islam. In conjunction with re islamisized “French born North Africans”, they thus financed the Islamist cause, more specifically the Bosnian “Jihad”. In fact, the mentors of the Roubaix “gangsterrorists” were some extremist Bosnian Imams close to the Egyptian Jama’a islamiya. In March 1997, two members of the group, Lionel Dumont and Mouloud Boughelane, were arrested in Zenica, in Bosnia itself, for a series of local hold ups between November 1996 and February 1997.
At that time, French officials and journalists greatly hesitated before acknowledging the real origin of these “gangsterrorists” action : Islamist fanaticism. In February 1996, a newspaper spoke of the ” bandits of the North”, whilst in April 1997, a newsmagazine remained evasive : “For certain police and magistrates, the series of hold ups in the North and the shooting in Roubaix would be the work of gangsters. But, in the rubble of the criminal’s house, the investigators found important clues leading to a terrorist trail.” In both cases, there was a difficulty in accepting new concepts, in understanding that it really was a question of hybrids by construction, of mutants being simultaneously terrorists and gangsters.
Between June 9 and 17, 2006, such a “gangsterrorist” group has been dismantled in France and its Switzerland. Its leader, Belkacem Kermas organized “hold-ups” and then transmited the money to mujahideen of the GSPC ( Salafi Group for Predication and Combat), in Algeria.
QUESTION 7 – How important are safe heavens in increasing terrorist capabilities ? Do we have an efficient strategy for monitoring and eliminating safe heavens ? and also QUESTION 13 – What are the likely consequences of the war in Iraq in future years ? These two question being the same, formulated differently.
It is a common perception now in official circles in the United States, that danger often comes from rogue states. Following the 9/11 events, the United States reacted to terrorism by a strong military operation against Afghanistan, as a rogue state. The plan – a state to state issue – was to “find and punish culprit states behind 9/11”. First of all, it was a military reply to the “Taliban regime”.
But if you look at the maps, from the Golden Triangle and drugs, to Waziristan and the afghani/pakistani “tribal territories” with bin Laden and co, to the Triborder area (Brazil, Uruguay, etc.) with contraband and money laundering, to Kosovo and Western Macedonia with mafias and traffics, you clearly see the problem arising not from whole states, but from spaces where no nation-state exerts a firm control ; from anarchic areas (the slums and shantytowns around Mogadiscio, for example) where, among others, the islamic terrorists actually prosper, and from where they can launch their attacks. The real danger is not in terrorist states, as in the cold war, but in specific zones (gray areas) inside weak, if not hollow, states ; or more frequently even, between them.
In the long run this problem of criminal/terrorist enclaves should be one of the deepest and more dangerous for Iraq, which has already become a major hub for huge criminal traffics (human beings, drugs, false drugs or spare parts, etc.).
Finally, eliminating these anarchic areas is not a military, or law and order, problem, it is a fully political and diplomatic problem ; not at a bi-lateral and local level, but usually at a multi-lateral and continental one.