Beware of Homegrown Terrorists

In his recent book about the origins of the World War I, The Sleepwalkers, Hpw Europe went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark describes the major protagonists in 1914 as sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, stumbling into the catastrophe of the Great War after an act of terrorism by a Serbian nationalist. Taking a crucial lesson from this analysis, contemporary policymakers must be both watchful and insightful in relation to groups and individuals engaged in Islamist terrorism. A premeditated strategy is essential to respond effectively to that terrorism wherever it occurs.

A complex issue is at stake, how to assess the divergent views of the 1.6 billion believers in the religion of Islam. Most Muslims profess to view their religion as personal and peaceful, but a vociferous minority of Islamist extremists embodies religious views that stem from the fundamentalist brand of Islam, Salafism or Wahhabism, that regards Shiites as heretics and fuses religion and politics. Everyone is now aware of the emergence and the actions of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) that exemplifies the latter. That group, militarily successful and aggressive, challenges the people of the world, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, with its extreme version of jihad and its creation of a Caliphate.

Extreme Islamist rhetoric, with its military and missionary aspects, must be taken seriously. Militarily, the stated objectives are not only to capture the Middle East but also to reconquer Andalusia (Spain). The failure of the Ottoman Empire to take Vienna in 1683 put an end to the objective of Islamizing the whole of Europe, and extreme Islamists want this defeat rectified. Missionary Islam proselytizes peacefully through social media websites, sermons in mosques, and conversions.  In both cases, coupled with religious ideology are secular slogans of the victim status of Muslims, opposition to globalization, resentment towards supposed American and sometimes Jewish domination of the world, and a version of multiculturalism that holds that European culture is not superior to other cultures.

Arab terrorist actions stem from religious extremism. Though Arab entities, particularly Palestinians, cling to the status of victims and claim discrimination, the facts are otherwise, especially when compared with other countries. One relevant statistic is that international aid to the Palestinians per capita is vastly higher than to African countries. An estimate made by the World Bank is that the average Palestinian receives fifteen times more aid than the average citizen in Ethiopia with its 94 million people. The GDP per capita in Ethiopia is $500 while the GDP for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is $2,800.

A significant recent development is the recognition by Arab states, above all by Saudi Arabia, of the danger posed by the extremist form of Islam. That danger partly results from the funding and encouragement given the terrorists by some of those states, particularly Qatar and Kuwait. The Arab states now understand the danger to their very existence, as well as to the rest of the world, by the creation of the Islamic State.

The IS has been highly successful both in capturing and administering territory and in drawing more than 10,000 foreign Muslims to its cause. The leaders of the IS are unexpectedly gifted in their command of public relations and in attracting foreign adherents, including at least ten per cent women, through social media networks. Young Muslims may increasingly see IS in a personal way as a version of paradise and an end to their feeling of alienation, and in a political way as replacement of the failed politically unstable Muslim states that suffer from military dictators, corrupt elites, religious differences, tribal divisions, conflicting loyalties, and personal rivalries and ambitions.

It is important that the U.S. is conducting air strikes against IS and sending military advisers to help the Iraqi forces. Military and political problems exist. Twenty-four  of the 50 brigades of those forces are regarded as deficient because of the poor quality of Iraqi commanders. In addition, some of the Sunni tribal leaders are reluctant to help the Shiite majority political leaders of the country. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that five Arab nations, as well as Britain and France, have contributed to the air campaign against IS.

However, an equally important campaign must be waged against Islamist extremists in Arab countries and would-be jihadists in the democratic West. The West is responding to the terrorists in Iraq and Syria, but it must also be conscious of the influence of Islamist ideology and the possible action in their own countries of “lone wolves,” some of whom fought for the jihadists and want to return home and conduct attacks. This form of action has already been shown in Brussels, in Ottawa, in London, and in several cities of France.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a courageous and decisive leader, immediately recognized the reality of terrorism. He reacted forcefully to the two terrorist attacks in Quebec and in Ottawa commenting that the killers, both converts to Islam, were "Islamic Republic inspired terrorists.” An immediate issue is that neither of the two murderers was on U.S. terror watch lists or in the database of security threats, a deficiency that is of concern both to Canada and the U.S. Both countries now recognize the importance of sharing information about suspected individuals.

France is a microcosm of the general problem of Islam and the dilemma facing the non-Muslim world of how to separate terrorist Islam from peaceful religious pursuit. A recent book, Passion Française by the French political scientist Gilles Kepel, makes the case that some Muslim areas in France are controlled by drug lords or by Islamist religious police, both hostile to traditional French behavior. French authorities have been faced with violence from immigrants of their children. But violence does not come from the Chinese, Vietnamese, or Portuguese immigrants, but only from Muslims. The violence in the so called banlieues has accelerated since the riots by Arabs in October 2005 starting in Clichy-sous-Bois during which 9000 cars were burned, along with public buildings. These riots may partly be due to the high level of Arab youth unemployment, poor housing, discrimination and general lack of opportunity, but the Islamist rhetoric and the intensification of Muslim identity have been more important.

The French government attempted to deal with the growing problem. In 2003 Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, created the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFGCM), a body elected by Muslims, which is intended to provide a setting for Muslims to discuss religious problems with French officials and to participate in activity of public institutions.

That participation is shown in at least two significant cases concerning women. The Vice-President of the French Senate is Bariza Khiari, a Socialist representing a district in Paris, who was born in Algeria. The current Minister of Education, and formerly Minister for Women’s Rights, is Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Muslim born in Morocco. At the last parliamentary election, 400 Muslims, mostly women and Socialists, of whom six won, were candidates, out of a total of 6000. Almost 90 per cent of Muslims voted for François Hollande in the presidential election. At present 4 Muslims are mayors in cities with more than 30,000 inhabitants.

But the problem remains, particularly in regard to young people faced with the question of whether to identify themselves as Muslim or French. Will the majority of Muslims in France integrate into the general French society and abide by the republican model of shared values? To what degree is belonging to the Islamic group, or wearing headscarves and veils in schools and in the street, more meaningful than adherence to the secular tradition of France? Peace and stability in the Western world depend on the actions of Muslim communities and Western reactions to them.