After Barcelona

Islamist terrorism in Europe: Besting the beast

Jihadism is the hydra of terror. Once one group has been defeated, the next will follow. This is making the fight against terrorism increasingly difficult. By Rainer Hermann

This year Islamic State will physically cease to exist as a state. Its Caliphate will be history, because a Caliph cannot exist solely underground.  The losses in Syria and Iraq are immense: its territory is shrinking and IS income is dwindling.

Now, the group can only rely on a fraction of its previous revenues from taxes and the oil industry. But as a straightforward terror group, despite – or perhaps because of – these losses, IS has increased its clout.

The attacks in Spain indicate two points: on the one hand, IS has once again shown that it can attack pretty much any target at any time.

On the other, it has been evident since this double attack that the group does not have to rely on "lone wolves" acting on their own volition to conduct its campaign of terror. At least eight people were involved in the attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils; the police also uncovered an IS site for the manufacture of explosives. IS can clearly fall back on a network of cells in Spain – and probably not just there.

Exploiting Islamic history to further its own ends

The IS propaganda machine acted early to prepare supporters for the downfall of the Caliphate. The military successes of the anti-IS coalition caused a sharp reduction in the volume of IS propaganda on social media. New recruits are no longer being sought, with more attention now being focused on upholding the morale of fighters and sympathisers.

To this end, the propaganda machine is mining early Islamic history. IS says that an analysis of this shows that the persecution suffered by the Prophet before his triumph is now being repeated; it is suggested that the current phase is a "time when we are being put to the test". According to this theory, contemporary Muslims are yet again the victims of foreign powers and IS opposes this.

Madrid′s Great Mosque (photo: picture-alliance)
In the fight against radicalisation, the state must ″permit mosques that operate within our legal framework, that are neither controlled by the state, nor aiming to create a ′preferable′ brand of Islam. Because this is not getting through to those who pose a threat,″ argues Rainer Herrmann

Failed integration enhances receptiveness

This resonates with many young Muslims across Europe with an immigrant background in the second or even third generation. Because their integration has failed, this makes them more receptive to IS propaganda. The strategic depth gained by IS in this manner makes it more dangerous than al-Qaida ever was. The willingness to carry out attacks and take revenge on the West is the second stage.

Firstly, they hold the West responsible for their failed lives: for example, the grandfather was killed in the independence war against France, the father worked on the garbage trucks in France, the son, who left school with no qualifications, became a small-time criminal. For a young man with a biography such as this, IS provides an instrument with which to seek vengeance. Television footage showing the panic caused by terror attacks gives him the satisfaction he seeks.

Cells and "provinces" becoming more important

The central organisation of IS has been massively disabled. Mosul is liberated (and in ruins), in Raqqa IS still controls a third of the city. Group leaders have withdrawn to the desert parallel with the middle reaches of the Euphrates. They evidently still maintain contact with individual cells in Europe. But this core leadership group is increasingly taking a back seat. The continued existence of IS depends more and more on the "provinces" in parts of the Islamic world and cells such as the one in Barcelona.

Cut off the head of the IS serpent and many new ones will grow back in its place. In past decades, when terrorist groups were vanquished, new ones have always appeared to replace them. Jihadism is the modern hydra of terror and an act of Islamist vigilante justice against those they claim want to stamp out Islam.

Spy agencies and mosques must recognise threats

Islam used to distinguish between the "House of Islam" (Dar al-Islam) and the "House of War" (Dar al-Harb). The two houses were separated by a clear boundary. Wars could not be waged against any nation entering into a contract with an Islamic ruler. The IS brand of jihadism dispenses with all that. It now postulates a general "territory of war" (Dar Harb), where war is no longer subject to any restrictions.

This makes our war on terror much more difficult. The decisive question is how to reach those young Muslims who are vulnerable and who may represent a potential threat.

If we want to be one step ahead of the terrorists, we need the intelligence services. As "human intelligence", infiltrated or recruited informers must learn about and report anything suspicious at an early stage in any potential plot. But this alone does not go far enough. For example, how can the young North Africans that constitute a large group in many prisons be prevented from running straight into the arms of IS once they are released?

A further key to all this is held by the mosques. A mosque means more to a Muslim than a church does to a Christian. A "djami" is the place that "brings together" and "unifies" Muslims. It is the only place where potentially dangerous individuals can be brought back into ideological line by preachers they trust.

And therein lies the challenge: to permit mosques that operate within our legal framework, that are neither controlled by the state, nor aiming to create a ′preferable′ brand of Islam. Because this is not getting through to those who pose a threat and they are increasing in number. The war against Islamist terror in Europe has only just begun.

Rainer Hermann

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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