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We have arrived at the intersection between apocalyptic terror and the digital age

Hisham Melhem on the lessons that history provides us with when countering terrorism

Only unity and humanity will defeat terror. Lluis Gene / AFP
Only unity and humanity will defeat terror. Lluis Gene / AFP

The recent terror attack in Barcelona has led some analysts to judge the continuing violence in the streets of western capitals and cities as the "new normal" that democracies have to adjust to. This dangerous attitude betrays a lack of understanding of the nihilistic nature of this brand of sacred terror, practised by the foot soldiers of ISIL and Al Qaeda, and more importantly the total absence of historical perspective, including the complex evolution of absolutist terror in Europe in modern times. European states prevailed against the secularist anarchist terror of the 19th century, just as they prevailed against the terror of leftist radicals in the 1960s and 1970s, by a combination of resilient resistance and by showing no quarter to the violent primitive impulses of these modern day marauders. The recent “sacred” terror, animated by similar and more primitive impulses by the Islamist butchers of ISIL and Al Qaeda, or inspired by them, can only be confronted by uncompromising force.


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It was uplifting to see hundreds of thousands of Catalans and Spaniards marching in the streets of this jewel of a city days later in defiance of terrorism. This scene was a replay of the huge demonstrations that swept Spain’s cities following the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history, when on March 11, 2004, 10 bombs exploded on board four commuter trains in Madrid three days before national elections. The attacks which were later claimed by Al Qaeda killed 191 people and wounded 1,841. The attacks, which were seen as retaliation for Spain’s participation in the war in Iraq, may have helped elect the anti-war Socialist party, which withdrew the 1,400 Spanish soldiers from Iraq by the end of May, 2004. This outcome was seen by some inside and outside Spain as a victory of terrorism against a democratic country.

Although terrorists live, and many would like to die by the sword, not all extremists are alike, since their motives and goals vary widely. However, we can see two discernible major currents of terrorism in history. One that is rooted in history and used on occasions by political movements to achieve political, sometimes legitimate ends, such as resisting foreign occupation, albeit by illegitimate, immoral means. The other is the absolutist terrorism that is rooted in nihilistic impulses, apocalyptic visions, secular utopias and practised by revolutionary or religious cults led by charismatic leaders. In the second half of the last century European capitals experienced both kinds of terrorism. Algerians seeking independence from France took their terror in the early 1960s to the streets of Paris, which was met with greater French violence, just as the IRA would visit the streets of London with a protracted terror campaign. Both conflicts were eventually settled through negotiations.

But there were no political horizons to resolve the terror wars waged by the radical leftist terrorist groups like the Red Brigades in Italy and the Red Army Faction in Germany that rocked these two nations in the 1970s and 1980s. The leftist pretensions of these gangs did not hide their criminal anarchism, since they engaged in random bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and bank robberies. These isolated terrorists that were crushed later by force, had their more dangerous and admittedly more fascinating antecedents deep in the soil and history of Europe.

The scourge of terrorism in Europe in the second half of the 19th and the first years of the 20th centuries was so ubiquitous it left its deep impact on the politics, literature, philosophy and art of the whole continent. In fact that brand of anarchism reached the US too. In 1901, an American anarchist assassinated president William McKinley. From Madrid in the West to Moscow in the East violent men armed with pistols and bombs and helped by revolutionaries and intellectuals publishing pamphleteers and manifestos justifying the anarchist’s secular utopia, terrorised their way into the hearts and minds of millions of Europeans, assassinating members of the nobility and commoners alike, and turning the streets of European cities into bloody confrontations with the police, thus creating and relishing total anarchy. The foot soldiers of ISIL and Al Qaeda have been spreading the same terror and anarchy in some of the same cities and they are also supported by their own theoreticians posting their online apocalyptic manifestos, peddling the coming of the end time visions and justifying and marketing the allure of the Islamist utopia they call the caliphate.


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The anarchists saw the state as the embodiment of evil, precisely because of what Max Weber would write later that only the state should claim “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force”. For Max Sterner, the young theoretician of anarchism at that time, the enmity between the state and the individual cannot be reconciled. “Every state is a tyranny, be it the tyranny of a single man or a group”. And since “the state calls its own violence law, but that of the individual, crime”, therefore, the state should be demolished. The terrorists of ISIL, in particular, are animated by the same self-righteous rage against all “corrupt” states. In these apocalyptic encounters neither the anarchists of yesteryear, nor today’s army of the Caliphate with their black banners would give any quarter.

While the anarchists have waged terror campaigns across two centuries, the impact of their violence is vastly different. A terror bombing in Paris in the 1870s would remain a local event until it is reported in the newspapers the following day. Today, a few terrorists could paralyse a European capital with their violent deeds being streamlined live for an audience of countless millions. We have finally arrived at the fateful intersection between apocalyptic terror and the digital age.

It is true that European liberal democracies have been active in the US-led coalitions fighting in Afghanistan and in Iraq and Syria, it is also true that most European countries with the exception of France are not willing to go it alone or with other EU states to fight jihadist groups in Europe’s wider periphery, as we have seen in France’s military intervention in Mali. Until recently, the trend in the EU was to reduce military budgets and Nato members were "free riding" off US protection. Opinion polls show a disturbing decline in the number of Europeans willing to fight even to defend their own countries. These trends can only encourage more aggressive moves by Russia, which has been supporting the rising right-wing and xenophobic, political movement in France and Greece. There are signs of European fatalism and pacifism in the war ISIL, Al Qaeda and other Islamists are waging against civilians in European cities. Following the Paris bombings in November 2015, this fatalism was expressed by French prime minister Manuel Valls, who told reporters to brace themselves for more attacks: “we have forgotten that history is fundamentally tragic.” In recent years, Europe was beset with a huge migrant and refugee problem, the likes of which the continent never experienced since 1945. Millions of refugees and migrants form the civil wars of the Middle East; the poor economies of Africa and South Asia have presented the EU with social and economic challenges that are threatening its very foundations. With the defeat of ISIL as an organised military force imminent in Iraq and Syria, one could only expect more terrorism in Europe with the return of those European citizens who joined the fight on behalf of the caliphate.


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The European states should adopt a more robust counter-terrorism strategy, hopefully with the collaboration of the US, but they should be willing to take the fight to the ungovernable badlands where the new barbarians roam. As long as there are ungoverned spaces in the periphery of Europe, where the preachers of hate can reach alienated youthful Muslim communities, the scourge of terrorism will continue to hover over Europe, and one day the victims will not be in single and double digits. One could make the case that because the US and its international allies opted to conduct an air campaign against ISIL after its stunning victories in 2014, without a land component, and waiting for formation of local allies, the war dragged on for more than three years, resulting in more casualties and the deepening of political grievances.

It is commendable that Europeans want to seek the consent of the countries where they have to intervene militarily, as well as the blessing of the United Nation Security Council; however, it is practically impossible to get the consent from any central entity, if such a thing exists say in Yemen, Libya, or Somalia. With Russia and China brandishing their veto power, Western intervention in states like these will not be blessed by the UN.

This means that the EU states should increase their collaboration with states and non-state actors in the Middle East that are willing to fight the terrorists in their domain before they knock on Europe’s gates. History is instructive here. In June 1881, a religious leader named Muhammad Ahmad Ibn Abdallah proclaimed himself the Mahdi (the guided one) and established the Mahdiyya state in parts of Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. The Mahdiyya state terrorised the Nile Valley region, for 20 years, until the renowned British general, Horatio Kitchener, leading an expeditionary British force of 8,000 soldiers joined a combined Egyptian and Sudanese force of 17,000 soldiers, and dispatched a larger Mahdist army of 60,000 thus destroying the Mahdiyya state at the battle of Omdurman in 1898. The leaders of ISIL are fond of saying that victory can only be achieved by the “clanging of the swords.” They are right, and that should be battle cry of liberal democracies and their allies.

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Updated: September 7, 2017 07:54 PM



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