In dark times, prominent American journalists and scholars can always be relied on to obscure troublesome realities with hope-based theories. On February 28, a leading Washington Post columnist published the results of his interview with a prominent U.S. social scientist/terrorism expert and came to the conclusion that jihadism is fading. He wrote: “We have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorist threat”; al-Qaeda leaders are “down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan”; and current Islamists are “more about hero worship than about religion” (Washington Post, February 28). In short, based on the social scientist’s careful study of a sample of 500 Islamists—from among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims—Americans should adopt the old attitude of don’t worry, be happy, and hope for the best.
One might wonder how a sample of 500 makes irrelevant Director of National Intelligence Admiral McConnell’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded al-Qaeda was refitted and as strong as on 9/11, or CIA Director General Michael Hayden’s statement on the March 30 edition of “Meet the Press” that al-Qaeda “presents a clear and present danger to Afghanistan, to Pakistan and to the West in general and to the United States in particular.” But let us leave such quibbles aside—after all, these men could be among those the Washington Post columnist suggests are “exaggerating” the terrorist threat—and look elsewhere, say in the foreign media, for evidence so far in 2008 of the phenomenon of fading jihadis. True, such a survey will not be as scientific as the 500-Islamists survey, but at least it will provide points with which to test the fading-jihadis thesis.
In Europe: Growing not ebbing
While looking for the withering jihadis, the British Security Service has instead found that four police officers in London’s Metropolitan police force (MET) are “working as al-Qaeda spies.” The four are of Asian origin, and “are feared to have links both with Islamic extremists in Britain and worldwide terror groups—including al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan” (Daily Mail, March 9). MI5 also is investigating attempts by British Islamists to infiltrate UK research laboratories working with deadly viruses (Daily Mail, March 29). London’s al-Hayat threw a clinker into the fading-jihadi thesis by noting that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are thriving in Pakistan’s “Pashtun belt”—the precise area where the alleged al-Qaeda spies in the MET are said to have contacts (al-Hayat, January 3). Likewise finding sparse evidence of fading, The Economist reported this month that there are now 2,000 known jihadis loose in the UK, that the number is growing, and that these individuals are usually found among well-integrated British Muslims who are likely to have university degrees. Britain, The Economist claimed, is “a Petri dish for radical Islam” (The Economist, March 18-24).
Across the English Channel, too, fading is not apparent. Last week, for example, Der Spiegel reported that a German-born Turk with a wife and two children may have committed a suicide attack in Afghanistan on March 3. While a definite identification has not been made, German authorities have said it is plausible that the attacker was a German citizen they call “Cuneyt C. from Bavaria” (Der Spiegel, March 15). Last week, moreover, Ernst Uhrlau, the president of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, publicly stated that there were “up to 700 [jihadis] under various levels of observation by German intelligence and security agencies” and that some proportion of that number appear to have been trained in an assortment of skills—combat, explosives, media, etc.—by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan (Der Spiegel, March 28). Simultaneously with Uhrlau’s statement, French prosecutors were trying a cell of French nationals—some of Arab extraction—which assisted French Muslims to travel for training at camps in Iraq run by al-Qaeda. In addition, French authorities believe at least seven French Muslims have died fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, some of them in suicide attacks (AP, March 31).
In Italy, the Vatican is increasingly at the center of the world’s sharpening confrontation between Christianity and Islam. With the republication of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in Europe in late 2007 and last week’s release of a stridently anti-Islamic film produced by conservative Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, the West’s allegiance to free speech is again being seen by Muslims as an attack on their faith (al-Jazeera TV, February 18; Shumukh al-Islam Network Forum, February 19; Der Spiegel, March 20). The denigration of Islam by non-Muslims has long been a prime motivator of jihadis and a central theme of Osama bin Laden’s rhetorical attacks on the West, in which he describes these acts as worse than killing Muslims (As-Sahab Media, March 19). The impact of the caricatures and the film were greatly sharpened on Easter Sunday when Pope Benedict XVI baptized an Egyptian Muslim into the Catholic faith in a televised ceremony from St. Peter’s Square in Rome. While it might be argued the Pope was only doing his job, the net impact will be to encourage anti-Christian animosities among Muslims and the proliferation of jihadis, not their fading away (The Times, March 24; Catholic Online, April 1). An example of increasing Muslim animosity toward Christianity can be seen in the Algerian government’s recent conviction of three Algerian Christians for “insulting Islam” and its decision to close 13 Protestant churches in that country for evangelist activities (News24, March 24; El-Khabar, March 19; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 28).
Elsewhere – Little sign of fading
Outside Europe, there also seems to be no evidence that jihadis are fading away, taking the threat they pose with them. Indeed, the actions and policies of many governments suggest that the threat is growing.
Several regimes have released prominent Islamists from prison because of their fear of jihadis, or their fear of alienating populations which sympathize with the jihadis. Yemen, for example, allowed a Yemeni-American—wanted by the U.S. government for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole—to walk free from court in the wake of several attacks by al-Qaeda in Yemen on the country’s economically vital tourist industry. In Jordan, authorities faced with continuing Islamist unrest released Shaykh Abu-Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a renowned Salafist theologian and the former mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Reuters, February 27; Daily Mail, March 13; al-Jazeera TV, March 12).
Pakistan’s newly elected government has said that it is willing to begin talks with the Islamist groups—Pakistani and foreign—that its predecessor has been fighting in the country’s tribal regions. The new regime’s initiative to negotiate with the mujahideen will be seen as a sign of weakness by the Islamists, but it will be protected and strengthened by UK Defense Minister Des Browne’s statement that “Britain must be willing to talk to the Taliban and other extremist groups to try to stabilize the world” (OpEd News, March 27; Reuters, March 31; Daily Telegraph, March 29).
In Afghanistan, Gulab Mangal, the new governor of Helmand Province, vowed to seek face-to-face meetings with the leaders of the region’s accelerating Taliban-led insurgency. President Karzai had opposed such meetings as recently as last December—expelling two foreign diplomats seeking reconciliation—but he appointed Mangal and supports his initiative. Apparently rejecting this offer, the Taliban have pledged greater military activity across Afghanistan when spring arrives (Financial Times, March 19).
The foregoing, very non-comprehensive sample of foreign media reporting over the past 90 days strongly suggests that the chance of the West seeing any near-term fading away of jihadism is remote at best. A broader review of media reporting seems likely to reinforce this finding, given the Islamist insurgencies ongoing in Algeria, Somalia, southern Thailand, Palestine, Iraq, and the North Caucasus, and the growth of Sunni Islamist political movements in Bangladesh, Lebanon and Malaysia. Western-trained journalists and social scientists surely have important insights to bring to the strategy-planning table in the war against Islamist mujahideen, but sophisticated insights and theories are no substitute for seeing the world as it is. And the world that is now on offer to the West is clearly one in which jihadism is expanding in most parts of the globe.