Deadly Duet: Islamists and the Far Right

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by Neil Godfrey

Scott Atran

I like Scott Atran‘s work on terrorism so was looking for his viewpoint after Christchurch and Colombo. I just hope to hell that what he had published in The GuardianFrom Christchurch to Colombo, Islamists and the far right are playing a deadly duet — will be proven wrong:

How should we make sense of the Easter Sunday church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people and wounded 500? Now that Islamic State appears to have claimed responsibility for the attacks, the question arises: is this merely the latest symptom of an epidemic of Islamist violence, motivated by a belief in offensive jihad (“holy war”)?

The answer is complex and not necessarily in line with public perceptions. Islamist terrorism has been decreasing globally, and particularly in the west, since its peak in 2014-15 when Isis established its caliphate. In recent years, however, far-right supremacist terrorism has risen sharply, to more than one-third of terror attacks globally, even accounting for every extremist killing in the US in 2018. Yet it was more likely to be overlooked or tolerated by western polities, because of cultural history, familiarity and legal protections extended to domestic groups (such as US constitutional safeguards for freedom of speech and the right to bear arms). Thus, attacks by Muslims between 2006 and 2015 received 4.6 times more coverage in US media than other terrorist attacks (controlling for target type, fatalities, arrests).

Further along, Atran’s comment reminds me of the “manifestos” like Naji’s Management of Savagery.

The spread of this transnational terrorism, whether Islamist revivalism or resurgent ethno-nationalism, is fragmenting the social and political consensus globally. That is precisely its aim: to create the void that will usher in a new world, with no room for innocents on the other side, and no “grey zone” in between.

Now it’s the Right’s turn, and they have learned from the Islamists:

Far-right terrorism has increasingly co-opted key jihadist precepts and tactics (although it tends to involve lone actors linked mainly through social media). In 2007, the supremacist group Aryan Nations proclaimed an “Aryan jihad” to destroy the “Judaic-tyrannical” system of “so-called western democratic states”. Dylann Roof, who in 2015 killed nine African-American churchgoers in South Carolina, made his own link. Responding to a court examiner, he said he was “like a Palestinian in an Israeli jail after killing nine people … the Palestinian would not be upset or have any regret”. As a prelude to the Christchurch attack, the suspect posted a manifesto citing Roof and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed scores of leftist youth in 2011, as inspirations. It adopts a version of the jihadists’ reasoning to justify mass killing as moral virtue: appealing to a transnational brotherhood in a clash of civilisations that pits one global identity (the white race) against another (Islam) in a fight to the death for survival, with no place for bystanders or fence-sitters.

We hear of relief and jubilation in areas that have been liberated from the Isis Calipate in Iraq-Syria but depressingly Atran’s research suggests that that is not the whole story.

The question, after Sri Lanka, is how an ostensibly weakened Isis has found itself able to respond. In a 2017-18 study of young men emerging from Isis rule in the Mosul region, my research team found that most Sunni Arabs we interviewed and tested had initially embraced Isis as “the revolution” (al-Thawra). Although many came to reject Isis’s brutality, the group had imbued them with two of its most cherished values: strict belief in sharia, and belief in a Sunni Arab homeland as opposed to a unified Iraq. Moreover, those who believe in these values expressed significantly greater willingness to fight and die than supporters of a unified Iraq. Isis may have lost its state but not necessarily the allegiance of people in the region to its core values.

In a follow-up study in 2018-19, most of those surveyed said Isis couldn’t be eliminated as a belief system or expunged physically without changing the disadvantaged religious, social and economic pre-Isis conditions under which Sunni Arabs still see themselves living. Indeed, over the past week, Isis has been able to retake Syrian territory in the mountains near Raqqa and the eastern desert; and in several Sunni areas of Iraq (Makhmour, Kirkuk, the Anbar desert) Isis bands attack government forces by day and take over villages at night at a pace similar to that seen just before the caliphate’s creation.

How Isis continues to work:

As the caliphate was being crushed by a coalition of powerful nations, Isis media declared the group’s intention to step up external operations. The Sri Lanka bombings show many of the features that Isis’s external operations branch, known in Arabic as Emni, developed in Europe to enlist local sympathisers, culminating with the November 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks. In 2014, at least 21 Isis operatives were sent back from Syria into Europe to attack soft targets. All the plots except one were foiled owing to a failure to cultivate local facilitation networks. In contrast, the “success” of the Paris and Brussels attacks owes largely to Isis engaging an extensive network of overlapping and preexisting local social ties among families, friends, workmates and petty criminal bands clustered in particular neighbourhoods.

And the solution is. . . .?

The world’s postwar trend toward greater tolerance and less violence relative to the past – including democracy’s spread to a majority of the world’s nations – risks being thrown into reverse, spurred by varieties of transnational terrorism that provoke and intensify one another. Constraining these radical forces demands more than countering their violent expression. Maintaining a more tolerant, less violent world requires dealing squarely with the underlying causes of these emerging forces. Chief among these is the failure of the global market economy to sustain cultures and communities that provide identity, meaning and purpose in life even when people’s material conditions are wanting. Terrorism is one response to this failure; the rise of authoritarian regimes that give a parochial sense of community is another. The complex and onerous task of liberal societies is to make the space for a third.

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Neil Godfrey

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