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Experts Often Misunderstand Jihadi Tactics

October 6th 2008

Terrorism - Jihadi Salute
Jihadis in Hitler Salute

 The main finding of the last 19 years since the Soviet collapse is that Jihadi-led terrorism has become a central threat to democracies worldwide. The debate among Jihadi Salafists since the Khartoum conferences in the early 1990s wasn’t between those who advocated violent Jihad as a concept and those who rejected it, as many experts in the West continue to erroneously affirm. The gist of that Jihadi debate was between two schools, as to which enemy to target and how.

Combat-Jihad (al Jihad al Qitali) is a tool, a weapon, not a sui generis doctrine by itself. As I advanced in my first post-9/11 book, Future Jihad, the realist school—the classical Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood—advocated a reserved attitude towards engaging the West militarily before being able to achieve strategic parity with the West. Unfortunately, a number of analyses in the West confused this strategic approach with an alleged commitment to non-violent means. Hence, we’ve had a very poor understanding of Jihadi penetration for more than one decade. Today we see the emergence of a similar understanding within the Western counterterrorism community, which argues that the classical Jihadists are philosophically non-violent, thus they can be partnered with liberal democracies against the philosophically violent Jihadis such as al Qaeda.

Such a fundamental mistake in analysis and understanding can affect national security doctrines in the West and lead them into more serious and erroneous assessments in the future: for the debate among Jihadis is not about the use of violence or not. It is about when to use it, against whom and under which conditions. If that level of analysis is missing in the West, then another decade may well be lost in unsuccessful and futile attempts to find the "good Jihadists" and enlist them against the "bad Jihadists."

Jihadis split over strategies, not violence

The split within the Jihadist community is not about the philosophy of violence because Jihad is not only and always sheer military action. There are Jihadi goals to attain, and Jihadi "qital" (combat) is only one means to achieve these goals. The Salafists (Wahhabis or Muslim Brotherhood) can decide not to resort to Qital as long as they are making progress in changing the balance of power to their advantage. But as the balance is changing, they will move to the next stage and use all means at their disposal, including Jihadi Qital.

The analytical mistake committed by some is to single out a "moment" in Jihadi strategy and think it is "the" Jihadi strategy. Hence we are witnessing the proliferation of academics’ and experts’ calls to "engage" with the non-violent Jihadis as if the latter were a category in itself. In fact, this is a truncated reading of the whole process of Jihadism. Worse, it is also a maneuver by the Jihadists in their war of ideas to ignite trends within the realm of their enemies (liberal democracies) which would actually slow down the process of containment. In short, what some call "engagement" is in fact a successful move on behalf of the long term Jihadist to obstruct the West and other democracies from moving forward in their own campaign.

Penetration of Europe

From that perspective and, in view of the comprehensive monitoring of the Jihadi movement as a whole (both realists and combat Salafists), Jihadi terrorism has become a central threat to democracies at large. But that threat is even more evident and menacing with regard to Europe, i.e., the countries who are members of the European Union. The networks, both ideological and militant, have had several decades of penetration on the continent. The most affected areas are naturally the former colonial countries such as France and Great Britain, but also Spain, Holland and Italy. Germany, Scandinavia and the Benelux also absorbed a Salafi presence towards the end of the Cold War. In the big picture, Western Europe has been the recipient of significant influence and networks of Islamists from several regions of the world, particularly from the Maghreb, sub-Indian continent, and the Levant.

Central Europe and now Eastern Europe are witnessing a progression in the penetration process. But in view of the nature of Communist control for decades, the Jihadists do not yet have strongholds in cities such as Prague, Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest and beyond. From scanning the internet, however, one can see the steady expansion of Salafism, and to some extent Khomeinist influence, but mostly migrating from Western Europe. Eventually the networks will be extended from West to East, following the expansion of the European Union itself. But let’s note that an East-West Jihadi migration is also emanating from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Wahhabi-funded groups from Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Chechnya and other spots are now landing in central Europe.

Another aspect of Jihadi penetration in Europe is the financial network expanding across the continent in terms of the "high finances" of Wahhabi-supported interests as well as the "low finances" of al Qaeda-type factions, both using European banking systems. The Iranian-Hezbollah financial web is also present and is detectable in Germany and Scandinavia.

Failure of Expertise

Current European expertise in counterterrorism is spending serious time and heavy funding on an attempt to understand the rise of this web of Jihadism, which is coined as the "radicalization factor." Since the Madrid attacks in 2004, the European expert investigations have centered on the socio-economic and "root causes" of terrorism. But alternative findings, also emerging from European research, are increasingly demonstrating that the "non-Jihadi" root causes aren’t providing strategic answers. Rather, the expert advice provided to national governments and Europeans since 9/11 has failed to predict the rapid rise of the networks. Even more perturbing is that the advising process continues to push towards the "non-Jihadi" theories, even as they have collapsed critically.

For example, the classical school in counterterrorism alleges that the Jihadists do not have one overarching ideology across the continent, but separate and distinct doctrines related to local claims and demands. This claim has been shattered by the mountain of evidence that the grand doctrine -al Aqida al Jihadiya- is omnipresent from London’s enclaves to Marseilles’ suburbs and, more importantly, goes unchallenged on the internet.

Another example is the failure to understand the central core of the ideology, whose long range goals are not satisfied by political or socio-economic negotiations. The so-called disenfranchisement argument has also been shattered by the Jihadists themselves. One, their agenda rejects it; two, their social strata disprove it; and three, the direct causality between disenfranchisement and terrorism is simply not valid. Nevertheless, many advisors on Islamism continue to push a legless body of arguments, depriving decision-makers and the public from real solutions.

Ignoring who best to engage

On the other hand, the much-needed tactic of engaging counter-Jihadi Muslims and civil society groups in the Greater Middle East has been almost ignored by chanceries and their counterterrorism experts. Ironically, instead of focusing on engaging the dissidents, pro-democracy human rights NGOs and activists, the "advice" extended to European Governments and now to the United States as well, is to engage the Islamists, and even the Jihadists.

This tactic is the result of a systemic failure of understanding not only the Jihadist strategies and realities, but also the political sociology inside the Arab and Muslim world and the immigrant communities in the West and in Europe. Government policy makers were almost convinced by their senior advisers, themselves relying on academic and professional expertise that the road to de-radicalization goes through an engagement with the radicals, or those who are a little bit less radical. Hence the move - and the spending - to integrate the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabis and Khomeinists in a bilateral dialogue with law enforcement and higher political levels for a few years now.

Obviously, the issue is not about having or not having a dialogue with these Islamist factions. It is not about "talking." It is really about hoping that these bilateral discussions will effectively lead to de-radicalization. Undoubtedly, these engagements aren’t leading to reversing the radicalization processes, and they never will. Law enforcement and intelligence reports are clear in proving that none of this thinking has led to a reverse of Jihadization, either in Europe or in the United States.

Counter-Jihadists win

In contrast, findings show that the activities by counter-Jihadist Muslim groups and similar cadres are the leading factors to help resist the advance of radical mobilization. The equations I have tested for over twenty years are verifiable: every time Jihadists and counter-Jihadists engage in a battle of ideas, counter-Jihadists win. Every time Jihadists are alone on the scene, obviously, they win.

It is now imperative that a renewed debate about radicalization in Europe, particularly in light of an EU Czech Presidency for half a year, restructures the engagement process to include the democracy segments within Middle Eastern and Muslim communities on the continent. Czech and central European experience in dissidence-dynamics and counter totalitarian processes is a needed component in the wider European effort to contain the Salafist and Khomeinist ideological expansion.

The forthcoming Czech Presidency of the European Union must initiate a strategy on support for democracy as one of the new policies needed to win the battle of de-radicalization. Engagement must remain a solid principle, but with whom to engage strategically is the real question. Those who deserve systematic and relentless backing are those who in their communities are willing to fight for the shared values of democracy and humanism. All attempts to ignore them have led to strengthening the very forces which are spreading Jihadism. Europeans and Americans have a real choice ahead of them, they must not fail again.

Cutting Edge Terror Analyst Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy. He is the author of The war of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy.

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