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Between al-Andalus and a failing integration Europe’s pursuit of a long-term counterterrorism strategy in the post-al-Qaeda era

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Now, in 2004, with Al Qaeda having risen and mostly fallen, the threats that US intelligence must monitor in the current decade have in a sense returned to what existed in the early 1990s; only now the threat has many more moving parts, more geographically disparate operations, and more ideological momentum.” The author of these lines, Paul R. Pillar, former deputy chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and now at the National Intelligence Council (Washington, DC), is quite adamant about the state Osama bin Laden’s network is in today: “The disciplined, centralized organization that carried out the September 11 attacks is no more. Al Qaeda still has the capacity to inflict lethal damage, but the key challenges for current counterterrorism efforts are not as much Al Qaeda as what will follow Al Qaeda.”1 In public perception and political discourse terrorism is still widely perceived as a more or less structured international movement – an image Osama bin Laden, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and other jihadi spokespersons themselves are eager to uphold. Using century-old symbols and myths such as al-Andalus and a Caliphate reborn, portraying themselves as warriors of the global jihad, in an epochal struggle with the West, terrorist leaders are indeed hoping for this perception of a major global threat to last forever. Four years after 9/11 however, Islamist – or better: jihadi – terrorism is poles apart from what it was in 2001. The international, regional and domestic endeavours against al-Qaeda, including the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, have indeed been much more successful than most people realize. Compared to previous attempts at international cooperation to counter international terrorism, today’s international counterterrorist cooperation is a success story indeed. By historical standards, an unprecedented level of cooperation and mutual support now exists among countries, international organizations and other partners all around the world. Never before has the number of states supporting terrorism been so small.2 Recognizing that the global cooperation against terrorism has been quite successful, the Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf has warned that this is nevertheless “insufficient to ultimately win the war against it”. At the September 1. Paul R. Pillar, ‘Counterterrorism after Al Qaeda’, in: The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2004, 27:3, pp. 101-113 2. For a detailed analysis of today’s international terrorism, I refer to my: Al-Qaeda: The Myth.
The Root Causes of International Terrorism and How to Tackle Them. Ghent, Academia Press, 2005 2004 United Nations General Assembly he stressed the need for a clear, longterm strategy striking at the root of the problem: an internal socio-economic reform in the Muslim world, which is of course the responsibility of the governments in place, but also an “active support from the major powers to ensure political justice and socio-economic revival for all Islamic peoples.” Action is needed, he cautioned, before “an iron curtain finally descends between the West
and the Islamic world”. Al-Qaeda has left a heavy imprint indeed. Its main contribution has consisted in plugging into existing insurgencies, rebellions and local brands of terrorism and offering an overarching jihadi perspective to these groups, who until then merely had their own local agenda.3 Al-Qaeda stitched together local opposition groups and disenchanted youngsters in migrant communities in Europe in a shared world view of a worldwide oppressed Ummah, offering a salafist reading of the Koran as the religion of the oppressed – an ideological role once played by Marxism. Al-Qaeda has now ceased to be a formidable foe by itself, but it has become an inspiring myth to others. Local groups are being inspired by this myth, rather than being beholden to bin Laden. What is generally dubbed ‘international terrorism’ can best be compared to mercury blobs of a broken thermometer, all highly toxic, but unconnected to one another. Most of the post-9/11 attacks, such as Casablanca (May 2003), Istanbul (November 2003), Madrid (April 2004) or the brutal murder of the controversial Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh (November 2004), point in the same direction. Their perpetrators are largely locally (or regionally) organized, selfsustained with microfinancing schemes such as cloned credit cards and fake or stolen ID papers, mobile phone cards and car trafficking, or the smuggle of
precious stones or metals, operating without external support or instructions, and unaffiliated with what remains of an al-Qaeda hierarchy. Jihadi terrorism today is a ‘glocal’ phenomenon: its core is essentially local, but its appearances are global. Even if remnants of the old structured al-Qaeda network probably still remain at large, al-Qaeda has failed to gain significant traction for actions in Europe and the United States. Jihadi terrorism now basically is a cloak patched from different sources of local discontent, real and perceived, stitched together by a puritanical and radical interpretation of Islam, and thriving on an enabling global momentum. The root causes underlying this particular brand of terrorism are composed of one major global root cause and a multitude of local root causes. 3. Olivier Roy, Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, London, Hearst, 2004.
(Photo credit: marsmet548, Flickr)