Nearly two decades on, the war on terrorism continues without respite or resolution. The momentous question posed by General David Petraeus on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq—“How does this end?”—has yet to be answered. Meanwhile, violent extremism and radicalisation efforts have both increased and intensified. More than 120 violently inclined Islamist extremist groups are active throughout the world today. In manpower terms, this means that about 230,000 fighters—almost four times the number on 11 September 2001—are enmeshed in conflicts affecting some 70 countries. During 2017 alone, 84,000 people perished as a result of this problem.
Clearly, government policies and initiatives have failed to address the extremism and sectarianism that fuels this violence. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has therefore convened a group of leading experts and practitioners to think about how to tackle the urgent policy problem of countering extremism. Their contributions address the most critical, yet still poorly understood, dimensions of this issue: the ideological and historical foundations of contemporary extremism; the rise and pervasive use of online propaganda; the crucial links between culture, youth and extremism; the proliferation of fragile states and increasing extremist safe havens; the challenge of countering radicalisation in prisons; and the offline networks between jihadi hubs in the West and conflict zones.
The Centrality of Ideology
A common thread that emerges across these essays is the limited utility of military force in fighting ideology. Over a decade ago, when the war on terrorism was in its infancy, Professor Sir Michael Howard, a preeminent military historian and strategist, warned about this singularly misplaced preoccupation. “We are not faced with a finite adversary who can be appeased by political concessions or destroyed by military victories,” he observed. “We are dealing with a state of mind that has to be transformed; a task demanding skill, sagacity, determination, empathy, and above all patience.” Indeed, the blood and treasure expended over the past 17 years has demonstrated the inability of even the most technologically advanced militaries to suppress, much less defeat, the fervent beliefs underpinning this violence.
The inescapable conclusion is that violence driven by ideology can be effectively countered only by more powerful ideological arguments. Yet, the counter-terrorism spending priorities of governments throughout the world continue to reflect an overwhelming reliance on kinetic efforts rather than ideological ones. Britain, to cite one example, devotes just 1 per cent of its counter-terrorism budget to countering the ideology that drives Islamist extremism and violence.
Violence driven by ideology can be effectively countered only by more powerful ideological arguments.”
The essays in this series thus attempt to answer General Petraeus’s question, providing the essentials to reconceptualise one of the most pressing policy issues of our time. This contribution to the debate aims to shed new light on one of the key dimensions of domestic and international security that will continue to capture the attention of policymakers in 2019. To do so, the series provides a much-needed ideological and historical context to these formidable challenges.
Three signal events that occurred within months of one another in 1979 still exert a commanding influence in regions on the fault lines of today’s most consequential ideological and sectarian conflicts. The Iranian Revolution, the siege of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, and the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan have each affected contemporary Shia and Sunni militancy. As 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of these watersheds in the evolution of Islamist extremism, it is an opportune moment to reflect on their legacy and implications, to reinvigorate the search for new policies and approaches through a better understanding of their historical antecedents and ideological foundations.
A Shia Theocracy Flexes Its Muscles
The revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran, and brought to power a theocracy of Shia clerics led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, heralded a new, more muscular and expansive interpretation of this faith. In a landmark speech in 1980 celebrating the revolutionary government’s first year in power, Khomeini explained,
We must strive to export our Revolution throughout the world and abandon all idea of not doing so, for not only does Islam refuse to recognize any difference between Muslim countries, it is the champion of all oppressed people . . . We must make plain our stance toward all powers and superpowers and demonstrate to them that despite the arduous problems that burden us. Our attitude to the world is dictated by our beliefs.
The Ayatollah’s bold proclamation left no doubt about the ideological foundation of the regime’s policies. The revolution, he decreed, would serve as a clarion call to Muslims throughout the world to declare their fidelity to Islam and actively resist Western intervention. The need for continuous and intensive struggle was thus embraced as one of the central objectives of Iran’s foreign policy.
Iraq’s invasion of Iran later that year, coupled with the sanctions imposed by the United States over the hostage crisis involving American diplomats in the US Embassy in Tehran, heightened the Shia perception of a persecuted and besieged people. The Iranian-backed terrorist campaign that began with the 1981 suicide bombing of the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut, followed by many similar attacks and kidnappings, was a manifestation of escalating sectarian conflicts that have destabilised the Levant, the Gulf, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula ever since.
Sunni Ideologues on the Rise
Meanwhile, the same heady currents of uncompromising religious militancy based on an austere and extremist interpretation of scripture had a similar impact on Sunni Islam. On 20 November 1979, approximately 500 religious fanatics seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque. For two weeks, the rebels defied attempts by Saudi military and security forces to dislodge them until, with the help of foreign commandos, the uprising was suppressed.
Confronted by determined, internal dissidents, whose piety challenged the authority of the country’s ruling al-Saud dynasty, the regime decided to redirect this fervour outwards. In exchange for the rebels ceasing their efforts to undermine the monarchy, the kingdom agreed to bankroll the export of Wahhabi ideology to the rest of the Muslim world. Saudi largesse thereafter enabled the construction of mosques, creation of madrasas and deployment of clerics to spread this extremist interpretation of Islam globally. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the following month and the harsh military occupation it entailed provided an additional compelling focus for these activities.
Among the foremost exponents of this ideology was a charismatic preacher named Abdullah Azzam. While a student at Egypt’s al-Azhar University, one of the most renowned Islamic institutions of higher education, Azzam became acquainted with the family of Sayyid Qutb. Executed in 1966, allegedly for plotting to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Qutb was a leading advocate of modern, radical Islam. He argued that jihad was a personal, individual responsibility, and it was therefore incumbent on all Muslims to establish true Islamic rule in their own countries—with violence, if necessary.
Qutb decried Western concepts of secularism and democracy as anathema to Islam and branded the US and the West as the religion’s enemies. Azzam adopted many of Qutb’s views as his own and, in the wake of the Red Army’s brutal repression of the Afghan people, declared that it was an obligation of Muslims everywhere to defend their brethren wherever they were threatened. Among the faithful who heeded his call was a feckless young Saudi from a prominent family: Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden, the son of one of the wealthiest men in Saudi Arabia, established himself as a patron of jihad and, with Azzam, founded the Office of Services to raise funds and recruit foreign fighters. After nearly a decade of unrelenting guerrilla warfare, in 1989 the Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan. Bin Laden became convinced that this defeat had set in motion the chain of events leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism. He concluded that confronting the world’s remaining superpower, the United States, would produce a similar result and thus end America’s support of Israel and the corrupt, pro-Western, apostate regimes in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere.
In 1996 and 1998, Bin Laden declared war on the US. His bellicose statements attracted little notice until the terrorist movement he had created a decade earlier, al-Qaeda, simultaneously bombed the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. From the start, Bin Laden emphasised the ideological foundations and theological justifications behind this terrorist campaign, which culminated in the attacks on 11 September 2001. “There is no way to forget the hostility between us and the infidels,” he explained a few weeks later. “It is ideological, so Muslims have to ally themselves with Muslims.”
Policymakers’ long-standing failure to fully engage al-Qaeda in ideological terms arguably laid the groundwork for the emergence of an even more extreme variant, ISIS, in 2014. Its short-lived caliphate represented ISIS’s bid to resurrect an Islamic empire, governed by a strictly literal interpretation of Islamic law. This rigid, uncompromising ideology justified the unmitigated violence visited on Shias, various minority sects of Islam, Christians, Westerners and others derided as non-believers. ISIS proved particularly adept at exploiting the Internet and social media to speak to a global audience, attracting at least 40,000 fighters from some 120 countries.
In this critical respect, any terrorist movement’s survival depends on its ability to recruit new members and appeal to an expanding pool of active supporters and passive sympathisers. The role of effective communication in this process is pivotal: ensuring the continued flow of fighters into the movement, binding supporters more tightly to it and drawing sympathisers more deeply into its orbit. ISIS’s innovative use of social media has enabled this process in previously unimaginable ways and ensures the movement’s ideological vitality and longevity—despite the loss of its physical caliphate.
The war on terrorism has now lasted longer than last century’s two world wars.”
Breaking the Stasis
The war on terrorism has now lasted longer than last century’s two world wars. Islamist extremists have succeeded in locking the West into a militarily enervating war of attrition—the preferred strategy of terrorists and guerrillas since time immemorial. They seek to undermine national political will, corrode internal popular support and demoralise the societies they have targeted through a prolonged, spasmodic and diffuse campaign of terrorism and violence. Most dangerously, they pursue a deliberate strategy of provocation: seeking to push Western, liberal democracies to embrace increasingly illiberal security solutions that compromise civil liberties, demonise immigrants, threaten core liberal values and thus validate the extremists’ self-fulfilling narrative of a clash of civilisations.
In his last publicly released video statement, Bin Laden revealed precisely this strategy on the eve of the 2004 US presidential election:
So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah. . . . This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.
Decisively breaking this stasis by better understanding, engaging and countering the ideology that has animated extremist violence must always be among policymakers’ highest priorities. Simply killing or detaining terrorists and other violent militants, whose ranks in any event seem to be continually replenished, will not end the threats posed by highly dynamic, PR-savvy and technologically adept movements.
Simply killing or detaining terrorists will not end the threats posed by highly dynamic, PR-savvy movements.”
The nugatory results of current approaches are proof of a failure to get to grips with viscerally powerful forces that challenge domestic and international security, the tenets of Western liberalism and global stability. This collection of essays provides a starting point for a fresh discussion of new directions and novel approaches to countering ideological bases of contemporary violent extremism.
The views of the author do not necessarily represent those of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
Download all the essays in this collection as a PDF or read them online:
Extremism in 2019: New Approaches to Facing the Threat
Why 2019 Will Be the Year of the Online Extremist, and What to Do About It
Talking to Terrorists: The Key to Solving Prison Radicalisation
The Challenge of Failed Cities for Countering Violent Extremism
Integration, Identity and Extremism: Why We Need to Renew the Conversation