Saturday, October 10, 2015


Business Standard
Saturday, 10 October 2015

Global jihad and its discontents
By Talmiz Ahmed 
Global jihad and its discontents

Talmiz Ahmed examines two authoritative new books that explain the wellsprings and proliferation of radical Islam
Talmiz Ahmed  October 10, 2015

The dramatic capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS) a little over a year ago, the lurid beheadings of Western and Arab hostages widely disseminated on social media, the extraordinary allure the movement seems to have for young people in different parts of the world, and the consolidation of the "caliphate" as a state, all these developments have led to a significant increase in literature relating to that organisation. The two books reviewed here are the latest in the series.

Jason Burke, the distinguished Guardian journalist, with a long stint in South Asia behind him, already has a high reputation for his earlier works on Al Qaeda and The 9/11 Wars. This book updates the jihad narrative. Burke divides contemporary jihad into three categories: two major organised groups, Al Qaeda and ISIS, with a regional presence and global reach and aspirations; a wide range of local groups operating in specific locales, with some contact with the two larger groups and with each other, and radicalised individuals, referred to as "inspired warriors", who act on their own, but are influenced by jihadi propaganda on the internet and obtain some training from established groups, mainly in Pakistan.

Burke notes that jihadi violence received a great fillip from the US-led "global war on terror", with radical groups leading the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. This confrontation created fatalities in the thousands: in 2001-11, about 250,000 were killed in the "9/11 wars"; in 2014, at least 180,000 were killed in jihad-related violence, mainly in the Muslim world. Burke notes that jihadis see their violence as a "cosmic struggle" against the evil West and seek to restore the lost glory of Islam and the Muslim people. However, beyond this, Islamic militancy is "diverse, dynamic, fragmented and chaotic", and is, at the same time, "profoundly contemporary", resulting from the political, economic, cultural and technological influences that resonate in our times.

Burke's book is comprehensive and written with balance, understanding and lucidity. There are just a few points on which I disagree with him. In regard to the "global jihad" organised in Afghanistan in the 1980s, I wish he had clearly stated that this was the initiative of three state powers - the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - that organised it for short-term political advantage without understanding the full implications of what they had created.

In regard to encouraging the sectarian divide in Iraq, it is hard to believe, as Burke says, that the US administrators "appeared largely unaware" of Iraq's history, demographics and sectarian competition in the country; this was clearly a well-thought plan based on the time-honoured 'divide-and-rule' principle. Again, Burke says that in 2014, around 200 volunteers from India left their homes to join the ISIS in Syria, perhaps based on information provided by Indian officials at that time; the number even now does not seem to be more than five or six.

Burke devotes considerable space to Pakistani-origin UK nationals who were attracted to jihad in the 1990s and early 2000s, paid frequent visits to Pakistan and in some cases even participated in the violence in Kashmir. He, however, fails to note that, during this period, the mindset of jihad centred on the Kashmir issue permeated the Pakistan-origin community in the UK. This was well known to the British political and security authorities, who turned a blind eye to it and perhaps even rejoiced at India's discomfiture. (Recall here the several Amnesty reports in the 1990s castigating India for human rights abuses in Kashmir and elsewhere.) The radicalism of the UK-based Pakistani youth at that time and later should be traced to this accommodation of jihad by the British authorities.

I agree with Burke on the threat he sees from the various jihadi groups combining forces. Operational cooperation is already taking place and a number of factions of local jihadi groups have started expressing support for ISIS. The possibility of all these groups coming together under the umbrella of the Caliphate while retaining operational autonomy is not far-fetched. The political situation in West Asia is particularly propitious in this regard. This is an aspect that Jean-Pierre Filiu examines in his book.

Filiu, a well-known writer on Arab affairs, finds the wellsprings of jihad in the Arab political order. He sees the Arab Spring as a "revolution" constituting the "Arab struggle for collective emancipation". This aspiration, in his view, has been thwarted by the "deep state" structures of the despotic Arab states - an alliance of state intelligence, military, judiciary and organised crime - that has prevented the full expression of the aspirations for democracy of the Arab people. Thus, the Arab despots have been the principal beneficiaries of the events of 9/11: they were able to project to their western allies that they faced a threat from jihad, and worked closely with the West in the "global war on terror" by collaborating in renditions and "torture by proxy". As allies of western countries, they could also resist all demands for reform.

But the Arab despots also worked with jihadis: Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen actively collaborated with Al Qaeda, while obtaining increasing American largesse to boost his forces against the jihadi threat! Assad in Syria happily allowed jihadis to enter Iraq from his territory as part of the Sunni uprising in the early 2000s, and today refers to them as terrorists when they have initiated a rebellion against him. In August 2013, the cohorts of General Abdul Fattah al Sisi in Egypt massacred Brotherhood members who represented the country's popular politics; now, the country faces a jihadi threat in the Sinai, with regular reports of killings of army personnel. Though neither Burke nor Filiu have noted this, Saudi Arabia is said to be cooperating with Al Qaeda in its conflicts in Syria and Yemen today.

Filiu's book is a polemical work. Written with strong conviction, it is nevertheless supported by a deep knowledge of Arab history. Where his account is weak is in explaining how Arab despotism has encouraged the proliferation of jihad, particularly after the collapse of the Arab Spring. What is heartening, though, is that, in spite of the bleak scenario, the author asserts that the Arab revolution is not over and that the next generation of activists will be better prepared when it confronts the despots.

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