x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Birth of the new jihadists

Experts say the Mumbai and Lahore atrocities represent a new face of terrorism - small, well-armed groups of angry young men.

Two gunmen are captured on CCTV walking through the streets of Lahore after the ambush of a bus carrying Sri Lanka's cricketers.
Two gunmen are captured on CCTV walking through the streets of Lahore after the ambush of a bus carrying Sri Lanka's cricketers.

Fourteen anonymous gunmen armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades breached security last Tuesday to ambush a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team to Lahore's Qadafi Stadium. After a 30-minute shoot out, which left six policemen and a driver dead, they simply melted away. No one claimed responsibility, no motive was given. There have been no statements on websites and no videotaped testimony justifying the killings. The violence was reminiscent of November's carnage in Mumbai. Then 10 terrorists with backpacks and automatic rifles strolled through the city streets making their way to haunts popular with westerners where they opened fire. In the bloodbath that ensued 190 people died. The sole surviving gunman said they had hoped to kill 5,000. The mission, he said, had been devised simply as a revenge attack for the deaths of Palestinians. Similar acts of violence, albeit on a smaller scale, have erupted in other countries - Yemen, Algeria, Egypt, Somalia and Afghanistan. Experts say the Mumbai and Lahore atrocities represent a new face of terrorism. These are the new jihadists - small, well-armed groups of angry young men bringing devastation and capturing international headlines through highly co-ordinated, commando-style attacks. They are changing the way Islamist extremists are perceived. They are not necessarily indoctrinated in the al Qa'eda creed and the invisible hand of Osama bin Laden no longer guides their every move. As support for al Qa'eda appears to be waning in the Muslim world, this new generation of extremists is more likely to lash out in response to local grievances. So what will this change mean for the future? "What we're going to see are amateur attacks here and there that express rage and the feelings of injustice perpetrated on the community but don't tell us much about the goals of what they want," said Fawaz Gerges, a Lebanese-born professor at Sarah Lawrence College, New York. "The classic system is finished," said Amr el Shobaki from the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies, Cairo, who specialises in Islamist movements. "But small groups wanting revenge for suffering, that is possible." Egypt has already seen such eruptions. On Feb 22 a bomb was thrown into a crowd of French teenagers visiting a popular market, killing one and injuring dozens of others. A few days later, an anonymous attacker threw a firebomb at a crowded metro rail station in the capital, but no one was hurt. The new breed heralds a change in jihadist violence and shows that al Qa'eda's brand of terror may have come to an end. "Al Qa'eda has lost big," said Mr Gerges. "It is facing a massive crisis of authority and legitimacy, in particular in the Arab part of the Muslim world." Its campaign of bombing mosques and markets resulted in the deaths of Muslim civilians and that has turned public opinion against it. This was borne out by a survey of nearly 7,000 people in eight Islamic countries published last month by worldopinion.org, based at the University of Maryland in the United States. Some 84 per cent of Egyptians and 73 per cent of Indonesians strongly disapproved of attacks on American civilians. Al Qa'eda's leaders are on the back foot. Last year, Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qa'eda's deputy leader, tried to counter mounting criticism by soliciting questions from the public in an online discussion. One participant asked: "Excuse me Mr Zawahiri but who is it who is killing with your excellency's blessing the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria? Do you consider the killing of women and children to be jihad?" Zawahiri answered: "If there is any innocents who was killed in the mujahideen's operations, then it was an unintentional error." The fortunes of al Qa'eda fluctuate from country to country. In Egypt, the spiritual homeland of jihadist thinking, al Qa'eda is facing an internal revolt from its intellectual leaders. The most vocal is Sayyid Imam al Sharif, better known as Dr Fadl, who in the 1980s wrote two books justifying suicide bombings which have remained at the top of al Qa'eda's reading list. Confined to a Cairo jail cell, Dr Fadl now spends most of his time denouncing the strategy of his old associates. But do these intellectual debates have any impact on the new generation of young jihadists? Mr al Shobaki doesn't think so. "Now these new groups, they don't really have solid foundations in jurisprudence, that is the older generation of Dr Fadl, Zawahiri who write 1,000 pages. The new generation, they are recruited on the internet, they don't even read 100 pages. Al Qa'eda is now McDonald's, like a franchise. They don't prepare for an attack, it is just revenge or vengeance." Others disagree. One is Ed Husain, 33, a former Islamist who wrote a book about his experiences in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a British-based organisation which states that one of its goals is to fly the flag of Islam over Downing Street. He thinks Dr Fadl's attacks will eventually weaken al Qa'eda. "Before Dr Fadl made a multi-volumed argument against al Qa'eda there was no argument from the inside," he said in an interview from London. "There will be no immediate impact but it speaks to millions of Arabs and Muslims who haven't seen renunciation of these ideas before. They have been called to arms, but people like Dr Fadl have been there, done it, got the T-shirt and are now saying it is wrong." In Jordan, al Qa'eda scored an own goal in Nov 2005 with the triple bombing of Amman hotels. One exploded during a wedding party killing 57 people. The bride and groom each lost a parent. The next day, hundreds of outraged Jordanians carrying placards that read "Jordan's 9/11" protested on the streets. Since the September 11 attacks on New York's Twin Towers, al Qa'eda and its network of organisations have tried to incite Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia to wage war on the "infidel" by linking local grievances to a single narrative against the oppression of the West. This message no longer seems to resonate. Mr Gerges said America and its allies needed to realise that the global struggle between the West and Islam is no longer the issue. Local conflicts are now the root of the problem. The attacks on Lahore and Mumbai were almost certainly about Kashmir. In Afghanistan, which Zawahiri once called an "incubator" for global jihad, the Taliban are not universally popular - their suicide bombs and explosives were responsible for 55 per cent of civilian deaths last year, according to UN figures. The interior minister of Afghanistan, Hanif Atmar, this week said there were between 10,000 to 15,000 Taliban fighters. Most were motivated by money: insurgents are paid up to US$700 a month compared with the $50 a law-abiding Afghan can expect to earn. The Taliban's hardcore supporters want to oust President Hamid Karzai and all foreign forces from Afghanistan but the foot soldiers are drawn from disaffected Pashtun tribes who have seen few tangible benefits from the billions of dollars poured into the country. In Taliban-controlled areas, insurgents send gruesome messages to those who consider siding with Kabul. In one incident five young men sent to work on an agricultural project in Helmand province were shot dead. Later their coffins were opened and the corpses were shot through the eyes. Al Qa'eda-style brutal tactics are unpopular but many people still support their goals, said Steven Kull, the director of Publicopinion.org. In Egypt, for example, 87 per cent agreed with al Qa'eda's goal to get the US to withdraw from Islamic countries and a majority in all the countries surveyed believe America's aim is to weaken the Muslim world. "There is a fear of being overwhelmed by the West and so there is resistance to western influence," said Mr Kull. "Where al Qa'eda comes into the picture [is when] governments are dominated by the US. They say the US military bases in the region are a threat to you. Those messages do resonate with people. Those military forces are seen as hostile and a threat." He added: "There is support for Islamic democracy but the model of secular democracy where religion is a private matter is not popular. People believe the US is pushing that model and it intensifies that feeling." Mr Husain said al Qa'eda's popularity now depended on regional events. "During the Gaza crisis ? without a doubt there was support for anyone who fought back against Israel and it was seen as good. But where we see al Qa'eda killing in Jordan, or Iraq, killing people at weddings or elections, you see a big backlash when they make those blunders. Al Qa'eda as an organisation, yes, there is decreased support but al Qa'eda as an idea, I'm sorry but there is a lot of support." Al Qa'eda in Iraq which enjoyed huge support after the American invasion, has been discredited because of its attempts to foment sectarian warfare and its bombing of mosques and markets. Mr Gerges said mainstream Muslim public opinion is the most powerful weapon in the "fight against terror groups". "The loss of Muslim public support has direct consequences on al Qa'eda's reach and operational capabilities. That means fewer recruits, fewer shelters, and fewer opportunities to strike at enemies." The group has now turned its attention to another conflict-ridden place, Somalia where the south is under the control of al Shabaab, a violent Islamist organisation with ideological links to al Qa'eda. When 11 Burundian peacekeepers in the capital Mogadishu were killed by al Shabaab suicide bombers on Feb 22, Zawahiri released a video praising the attackers and urging Somalians to overthrow the moderate Islamist government. In Pakistan's Swat valley where the Pakistan government agreed to impose Sharia law, its residents in the last election overwhelmingly voted for the secular Awami party whose politicians were promptly targeted by suicide bombers and assassins. "The government decided to give in. It's beyond comprehension," said Waseem Mahmood, the project co-ordinator of Ye Hum Naheen, a grassroots campaign in Pakistan which has received 62.8 million signatures from people saying they do not support terrorism. Mr Mahmood began his campaign against extremist thinking in England after his teenage son was told by friends that eating pasta was not Islamic. "In areas like Peshawar which are in the heart of the North-West Frontier Province we got more support than in other areas, which means the people in areas where they are directly affected are more likely to support what we do more than in other areas." But he adds, it doesn't mean Pakistanis all want a secular society. "People in Karachi are extremists but don't necessarily advocate violence. We got a lot of flak from people that singing is anti-Muslim. They empathise with the end results, but not the means al Qa'eda uses." The conflicting feelings among Arabs and Muslims towards al Qa'eda are rooted in the fact that these societies are struggling to find their footing in the modern world, Mr Kull said. "People are grasping for something and they haven't found it yet. I hear this all the time. They are frustrated, they feel like it has not had a chance to emerge but they believe Islam and human rights and democracy are compatible." hgarfour@thenational.ae