INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
The rise, decline and fragmentation of the radical Islamists
, April 11, 2015
It was notable that two of the heroes of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris last January 7 were themselves Muslims.
They were police officer Ahmed Merabet, who was killed when he confronted the terrorists at the Charlie Hebdo office, and 24-year old grocery assistant Lassana Bathily, who sheltered Jewish shoppers at the kosher grocery store where he worked.
Just as they defied the Islamic State terrorists, one paying the ultimate price, millions of French citizens marched across the country in a defiant statement that they would not succumb to Islamic State’s stated intention of using terrorism to cause widespread fear, division and conflict between Europeans and their Muslim neighbours.
One of the world’s handful of leading authorities on political Islam, Gilles Kepel, points out that, just as previous forms of Islamic terrorism failed since the 1990s, today’s latest generation terrorism is also likely to fail.
Kepel could be right, as long as Europeans stand against the terrorists and in solidarity with local Muslims, and so long as international forces pursue the war against Islamic State.
Terrorism is not a sign of strength. Rather, often terrorism has been used as a last ditch attempt by radical ideologues to ignite revolutions when their ideologies alone have failed to attract widespread political support.
In his seminal work of 2002, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel chronicled how, long before 9/11, radical Islamist ideology gained momentum in the ’70s and peaked in 1989, then declined, with the Sunni Islamists particularly degenerating into successive, failed terrorist movements.
While this may seem counter-intuitive to many, in reality most Westerners have become acquainted with political Islam only after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. Those attacks are burnt into the American and Australian psyches, just as the World War I Battle of the Somme is horrifically burnt into the minds of most Britons.
Many have come to regard the attack on America, and subsequent terrorist attacks such as Charlie Hebdo, as confirmation that radicalised Islamists have gained increasing support among the world’s 1.5 billion Muslim world since 9/11.
In fact, just the opposite has been happening.
It is a mistake to focus on political Islam since 9/11, without putting it into the context of a particular radical Islamist ideology that had failed to rally popular support and failed to create Islamist states in the Muslim world.
Kepel’s life-long study of political Islam has made him one of the very few authorities on the subject, and in particular of the “Salafi jihadists”. He coined the term.
Salafist jihadists distinguish themselves from Saudi Wahhabists, whom they call “sheikist”, so named because they had (according to the jihadists) forsaken adoration of God for adoration of “the oil sheiks of the Arabian peninsula, with the Al Saud family at their head”, says Kepel.
Kepel says that in its first phase, the Islamist movements emerged as a potent political force following the 1973 Arab-Israel war. After the Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) forced up the price of oil, Arab states became fabulously wealthy, but they also suffered from huge inequalities and corruption, which created resentments that fed into Islamist movements.
In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran. The Ayatollah, like all Shia and Sunni Islamists, held out a utopian vision, giving expression to the populace’s visceral hostility towards regimes gnawed by corruption, moral and economic bankruptcy, and authoritarianism.
Khomeini managed to isolate the Shah by winning over and uniting the mullahs, the poor, merchants and even the secular middle class.
The success of the Iranian revolution convinced both Sunni and Shia Islamists that they could overthrow other post-colonial, authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes and create fundamentalist Islamic states.
Alarmed that these Islamist movements were threatening their power, Saudi Arabia’s sheiks became the arch opponents of Iran and radical Islam in the 1980s. The Saudis, custodians of Sunni Wahhabist orthodoxy, and other Muslim states concentrated their efforts on dividing the various components of the Islamist movements.
At the same time in the ’80s, the U.S. and the Saudis jointly supported the mujahidin struggle against the Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan. Their support included weapons and funds supplied to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda foreign fighters, who made up part of the Afghan mujahidin forces.
The year 1989 was the peak of the Islamist movement’s success. The Soviets were forced out of Afghanistan, bolstering the confidence of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban; Hamas began to replace the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in the Palestinian struggle with Israel; Algerian Islamists won power in the first free election since independence; and Islamists took power in the Sudan.
It was also the year that the weakened Khomeini regime was forced to seek peace with Iraq after years of bloody war. In an attempt to cast his flagging religious power beyond Iran into the West, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his book, Satanic Verses, to rally Iranians behind him.
In the 1990s, the second phase saw the Islamists fail to live up to their promises and expectations. Deep divisions and disintegration characterised the Islamist movements.
Mustafa Setmariam Nasar
The 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army was the detonator for the collapse of these movements. Humiliated, Saudi Arabia was forced to rely on U.S. forces for protection against Saddam Hussein. Outraged radical Islamists considered it a sacrilege that U.S. troops were housed on Saudi soil.
The radical fringe of the Islamist movements, headed by Osama bin Laden, turned against their Saudi and U.S. paymasters, who had funded their operations in Afghanistan.
These fringe Islamists believed that they alone had forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan. In their state of delusion, they convinced themselves that they could bring down other infidel powers and create Islamic states across the Middle East and North Africa.
Al Qaeda veterans of the Afghan conflict with the Soviets spread out to inject their radical ideology into Bosnia, Algeria, Egypt and Chechnya, with the aim of overthrowing pro-Western and pro-Russian regimes.
Their strategy failed.
In Algeria their extreme ideology and violence cut them off from their closest Islamist base.
The signing of the 1995 Dayton Accords, shortly after the Balkans war, demonstrated the failure of this plan in Bosnia.
Egyptians had reacted strongly against the ruthless Islamist assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, to the point where Egyptians could not identify with the doctrines and violent methods developed by radical jihadists in Afghanistan.
As Kepel notes, “A gulf had opened between the aims of the 1990s jihadist extremists and the social, political and cultural aspirations of Muslims during the 1980s, and it brought the Islamist movement to a standstill.”
Osama bin Laden — yet to become U.S. public enemy number one — had come to be an embarrassment to the Saudis because of his jihad in Africa and condemnation of Saudi sheiks. In 1996, the Saudis let him flee Sudan for Afghanistan, where the Taliban had just taken power.
Then, in 1997, President Mohammed Khatami was elected in Iran — in opposition to the clerical establishment of the Islamic Republic, but with the overwhelming support of the urban middle classes and young people born after the 1979 revolution.
Winning 70 per cent of the vote, Khatami’s election reflected the search for a new social compact with the formerly despised secular middle class. This compact was based on a respect for human rights and an aspiration for a Muslim version of democracy — a Western concept that had generally been taboo in Islamist circles.
Khatami served two terms until 2005.
Khatami’s election was the most striking symbol of a yearning for modernisation and change from the Islamist state previously dominated by the Ayatollahs.
The 1990s saw many Middle Eastern Islamist leaders, ideologues and intellectuals advocate a clean break with armed struggle and sought ways of integrating the Muslim cultural heritage with democratic values, in opposition to the authoritarian behaviour of regional regimes.
Kepel says: “The extremist wing of the movement found itself facing a political impasse. It rejected democratic references invoked by the moderates; and, as a result, raw terrorism in its most spectacular and destructive form became its main option for reviving armed struggle in the new millennium.”
Kepel’s analysis was published in 2000 in French. Al Qaeda’s chief ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri, who now heads Al Qaeda, confirmed Kepel’s analysis in December 2001 when he published Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner. Al-Zawahiri admitted that the Islamist movements had been a failure. They had failed to mobilise the Muslim masses to create radical Islamist-run states.
Instead, Al-Zawahiri advocated a new strategy based on the suicide martyrdom attacks that had driven the U.S. and French forces out of Lebanon in 1982 and eventually the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
Consequently, the third phase of the radical Islamists saw Al Qaeda launch the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., followed by other terrorist strikes in London, Madrid, Bali, Tunisia, Casablanca and elsewhere.
Al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden believed that these attacks would ignite the rage of Muslims, leading to the revolutionary overthrow of Middle Eastern governments and the establishment of Islamist states.
They also believed that once the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for 9/11, that the Taliban and Al Qaeda would bog down U.S. forces, just as the mujahidin had bogged down and eventually defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan.
On both counts, Al Qaeda’s second strategy failed.
When the Americans attacked in 2001, the Taliban regime quickly collapsed and Al Qaeda leaders fled into the wilds of north-western Pakistan.
Moreover, Islamist revolutions did not occur anywhere after 9/11. The Islamists didn’t have the social relay points of a well-entrenched movement capable of translating such emotion into civil disobedience and revolution in Muslim countries — unlike the mobilisations achieved by Russia’s vanguard Leninist party in 1917 and the Iranian clergy led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
Kepel says that this is not the first time extremist movements have failed when they used terrorism to try and ignite revolutions. In the 1970s, Marxist terrorist cells proliferated as the communist parties lost their grip on the Western working class, who were turning away from communism in disgust.
As Kepel observes: “A number of armed groups (the most extreme being the Red Brigades in Italy, the Germany Red Army Faction, and the Carlos network) … seized terrorism as the ideal way to inflict spectacular damage on the enemy. It was their vain hope that the revolutionary consciousness of the masses could be revived and mobilised, through a cycle of provocation, repression and solidarity.”
Just as communist terrorist groups failed to ignite revolutions to overthrow Western democracies during the Cold War, Al Qaeda’s 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. failed to ignite popular revolutions to overthrow the corrupt, authoritarian ancien régimes in the Middle East and Africa.
By the time of Bin Laden’s death, 30 per cent of the Middle East and North Africa was under the age of 30, about 100 million people. Official statistics put this region’s unemployment rate of 15 to 24-year-olds at 27 per cent, twice the global average. In reality it is much higher because the youth workforce participation rate is much lower than in other nations and official statistics poorly measure unemployment outside the large urban areas of many Middle Eastern and North African countries.
From the 1960s onwards, investment in health slashed the infant mortality rate, leading to a youth bulge in the population. Investment in education resulted in young Muslims leaving their ancestral farmlands and villages for large urban centres. Oil money provided health and education, but the corrupt ancien régimes of the Middle East could not provide jobs for the educated youth.
Instead of Islamist revolutions, the Arab Spring was a yearning for all those things that the Islamists opposed — a new social compact to include democracy, respect for human rights, market economies and new employment opportunities that allowed young people to buy a house and get married.
But, as the history of Europe and America demonstrates, the transition from ancien régimes to modern states can be a protracted and sometimes violent process taking decades, and sometimes centuries.
As Kepel pointed out in a 2014 lecture to the London School of Economics, the Arab Spring saw ancien régime leaders and dictators toppled in North Africa. In some states, like Morocco and Tunisia, fledgling democracies were created.
In Bahrain, Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, former dictators were replaced, without being killed or exiled.
In Syria, the revolutionary process was hijacked by radical Islamists and degenerated into interdenominational conflict.
The Muslim Brotherhood reached its peak, winning elections in Egypt, only to be ousted by massive public protests. Now the Brotherhood has been banned.
Indeed, as Kepel told Israeli newspaper Haaret (January 28, 2014), the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is indicative of a prolonged, evolving political process underway across the Middle East and North Africa.
He says that the Arab Spring was probably deferred by about a decade, even though the ferment for change was well underway. Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation, had transitioned from the Suharto regime into a democracy in 1998; but change in the Middle East and North Africa was delayed because of the fall out from the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Lacking political organisation, the restless younger generations feared that Islamist extremists like Al Qaeda would hijack their revolutions.
A decade later the situation had changed. By the time the U.S. military hunted down Osama bin Laden in May 2011, his passing was reported once in the back pages of Arab newspapers, then his name vanished. The threat of Al Qaeda in the region had been diminished by the U.S.-led “war on terror”.
At the same time, renewed pressures for political change were being resisted by many dictators who increasingly used their police forces to repress rising levels of dissent.
Eventually, these pressures could not be contained.
By December 2010, the Arab Spring was underway across the Middle East and North Africa.
The Arab Spring was a defiant rejection both of the region’s dictatorial ancien régimes and of extremists wanting to establish fundamentalist Islamic states.
Al Qaeda’s successor is Islamic State. Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a former public relations officer for Osama bin Laden, developed its terrorist strategy.
In a 2004 pamphlet, Nasar prophesised Al Qaeda’s own demise, saying that bin Laden’s strategy of attacking America would prove a fatal mistake. He argued for a new strategy that involved recruiting from the poorly integrated marginalised Muslim youth in Europe.
Indoctrinated and militarily trained, they could carry out spectacular attacks on soft civilian targets in Europe.
Nasar’s aim was to use terror attacks to widen the cultural gaps between Muslims and the majority of Europeans.
In recent weeks, Islamic State forces have widened their attacks to include Tunisia, aiming to derail its path to democracy that has been a model for its troubled neighbours. According to Olivier Roy, while many Islamists are being forced into the democratic process to remain relevant (Foreign Affairs, April 16, 2012), Islamic State is hostile to any democratic process.
Today, Syria and Iraq have become the training ground for young Islamic State recruits, and the Charlie Hebdo attack was one of their major European operations.
A warning of Nasar’s strategy was contained in Kepel’s 2010 book, Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, in which he translated extracts of the Nasar pamphlet.
However, it was deemed “irrelevant” by many analysts. They mistakenly believed that the weakening of Al Qaeda meant jihadism was coming to an end and that the Arab Spring of 2011 would see Western-style democracy suddenly appear across the Middle East.
“In fact, the chaos resulting from these events — notably unrest in Syria, Nasar’s homeland — created the material conditions for the implementation of Nasar’s theory,” wrote Kepel in a recent article in the New York Times.
Kepel also suggests that, just as Al Qaeda’s strategy of attacking America was fundamentally flawed, the strategy of Nasar and Islamic State is also fundamentally flawed.
Addicted to social media, the young recruits to Islamic State post thousands of messages and videos daily, exposing themselves and IS to Western intelligence agencies far more than Al Qaeda ever revealed.
Further, their extreme violence and acts of cruelty are creating a widespread backlash in the Islamic world and alienating potential recruits. Muslim states around the world have condemned IS, and some Middle Eastern states such as Jordan have joined the war against Islamic State forces in Iraq.
Most importantly for Europe, Kepel says that when several million citizens marched in cities across France on January 11 in defiance of the Charlie Hebdo attack, they “reasserted the cornerstone values of the republic, including both secularism and Muslims’ rightful place in French society”.
Kepel concludes: “Both [as] an act of defiance and a gesture to ward off interconfessional strife — the trap laid out by Nasar — the rally was a harbinger that this third generation of jihadism may fare no better than its predecessors.”
Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.
About Professor Gilles Kepel
Gilles Kepel is professor of political science at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, known as Sciences Po, which specialises in educating France’s political elites and is considered one of the world’s leading schools for the social sciences.
Kepel is recognised, in both the West and Islamic worlds, as one of the few eminent authorities on political Islam, and in particular Salafi Islam, alongside Reinhard Schultz and Olivier Roy.
His Jihad: the Trail of Political Islam (2000 in French, 2002 in English, and in 2006 a revised English edition) is regarded as the defining text on the rise of radical Islamic movements since the decolonisation of the Arab world, and their decline and fragmentation into al Qaeda, which is now being overtaken by Islamic State.
Kepel’s other major works include Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: The Future of the Middle East (2008); Al Qaeda in its Own Words, editors G. Kepel and J-P Milelli (2010); The Roots of Radical Islam (2005); The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (2004); Bad Moon Rising: A Chronicle of the Middle East Today (2003) and many earlier groundbreaking studies. His most recent work, Passion Arabe: Journal 2011-13, was published in 2013.
 Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), p.220.
 Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), p.18.
 Navtej Dhillon and Tarik Yousef (eds), Generation in Waiting: The Unfulfilled Promise of Young People in the Middle East (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institute, 2009), p.11.