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Islamist Terror - 2

Islamist Terror - 2

Continued from Previous week… My contention that terrorism will be with us for some time yet is not intended to suggest that the fight against terrorism is failing. Rather I would say that while we have had some big wins it is perhaps premature to declare victory. Many terrorist leaders and planners have been killed or captured around the world. Crucial middlemen have been arrested, such as Hambali who was a link between Al Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah, as have skilled planners such as Khalid Sheykh Muhammad, the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 attack. The invasion of Afghanistan shut down Al Qaida and other groups’ training camps there.

Al Qaida’s core leadership has been driven underground. Multilateral conventions have made the transfer of terrorist funds more difficult. Terrorists have been forced to limit their use of electronic communication and fall back upon couriers. Improved border security and more secure travel documentation have made travel more difficult. We have seen unprecedented co-operation at the bilateral and multilateral level among security forces and intelligence agencies. As a result plots have been disrupted and many terrorists have been captured.

These global efforts underline the global nature of the threat. Those waging the jihad certainly see it as a global struggle as events in Iraq demonstrate. There, Jihadists see an environment rich in both targets and propaganda opportunities. Iraq is being used as a rhetorical rallying point by Jihadist groups around the world. Jihadists see in Iraq an opportunity to attack the far enemy, the United States. Their target is also what they regard as the near enemy: the democratically elected government of Iraq which they portray as an American puppet. And in Iraq, as elsewhere, Jihadists have also been quite adept at exploiting communal and regional tensions. Videos of attacks on Coalition forces appear within hours on the internet and we know that such material is manipulated in the radicalization and recruitment process. Propagandists use the war to reinforce their narrative of Muslim victim hood, of the clash of civilizations and of cosmic war between Islam and the crusading West.

Also, terrorist networks and cells have formed to supply recruits, funds, and the everyday equipment of the bomber to the Iraq jihad. These facilitation networks extend throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Western Europe. It would however be a mistake to see the insurgency in Iraq as essentially a jihad campaign. Foreign Jihadists are responsible for a disproportionate number of the suicide bombings targeted at the coalition and Iraqi forces. But the foreign Jihadists in fact comprise only a small fraction of the overall insurgency which is more about Iraqi Sunni resentment at the loss of power than jihad against the west. And importantly the global threat from Islamist terrorism would exist irrespective of what has happened in Iraq.

Nor is Iraq in the same league as pre-9/11 Afghanistan as a base for global Islamist terrorism. So far terrorist groups have not been able to establish training camps in Iraq on the scale of Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s.
Also, most insurgents in Iraq are locals, and many will not want to extend their jihad outside of Iraq. There is a concern about the potential for a terrorist bleed out from Iraq — the Amman hotel bombings, for example, were planned in Iraq and carried out primarily by Iraqis under the direction of Zarqawi’s network. Zarqawi, having been imprisoned in Jordan, has a particular grudge against that country. But a key point here is that the scale and nature of the Jihadists groups in Iraq are quite different to what we faced in Afghanistan.

Let me turn now to the importance of the internet for terrorists. Just like everybody else in our digital age, terrorists use the internet for many purposes. They use it to communicate and transfer funds, although counter-terrorism efforts have had some effect in restricting both. And they use it to raise funds — videotapes of attacks in places like Iraq and elsewhere are used to encourage further donations. But probably the most important use of the internet for Islamist terrorists is the creation of a virtual ‘Ummah’, or community of believers. Islamists are at the forefront of those recognizing the net’s full potential to promote a virtual community. There are literally thousands of websites with chat rooms and bulletin boards where extremists can meet like-minded people. While such people are a small minority of the general population, the internet allows them to form a community of their own, reinforcing and radicalizing their views. It also provides a forum in which the merely curious, or disgruntled, can be exposed to extremist views. And while governments around the world can shut down extremist mosques, or deport radical imams, or even use new technology to increase their control of the internet, it is impossible to shut down the internet or deport firebrands to a place where they cannot access the internet and continue to preach in cyberspace.

But while the internet is important to the tactics of terrorism its role should not be exaggerated. Documents and videos posted on the internet can certainly be used for training. But despite the massive amounts of information on the internet, it augmented, not replaced, real world training in camps. The information on the internet is most useful to someone who has already received terrorist training. For example, the mere fact that there are recipes, of varying degrees of completeness, for chemical and biological weapons on the internet does not mean terrorists are successfully producing them. Nor has Islamist cyber-terrorism been a major problem so far. Whatever their wishes, Islamist terrorists currently have low capability to attack the internet itself or the infrastructure it supports. There are many states and
criminal groups that have a greater capacity. To be continued.