By Peter Knoope
This year, 9/11 passed with little attention; almost unnoticed. However, twelve years on it still stands out as a turning point in history. Two years ago, we looked back at ten years of the Al Qaida threat. There was an optimistic tone in the commemorations at the time. With Osama Bin Laden dead and the “Arab spring” alive, we were convinced that we had seen the worst of it. AQ was history.
Today the tide has changed. The Al Qaida brand has reinvented itself and has established a stronger basis than before. We are aware of the position and threat of Al Qaida from Yemen, nobody doubts that Al Qaida related actors like Al Nusra are relevant actors in Syria and there is a an increasing number of “Ansar Al Sharia” movements popping up in different countries including the North African post-Arab spring countries like Tunisia.
The question “what has happened?” comes to mind and a number of observations are relevant here. The initial blow of the decapitation of Al Qaida and the fact that the organization had no mobilizing power amongst youths – the youngsters that were the engine behind the Arab popular civil uprisings – had a paralyzing impact on the groups’ organizational and operational capacities. But the breeding ground did not disappear. On the contrary, the element of victimization, perceptions of exclusion, the feelings of alienation and collective deprivation were not addressed.
These emotions are important elements in the mobilizing power of Al Qaida and the group’s appeal to their interpretation of the need for Jihad. The picture becomes even clearer when you add to this the fact that there was, at least an initial, vacuum in the security sector in post-conflict environments that permit the space for violent organizations to invade. But there is more.
We have seen a rise of foreign fighters flocking into Syria over the last year that is unprecedented. Many young people from Northern Africa and Europe, but also from Asia and the Middle East continue to join the armed struggle in Syria. For many young people this has meant that the Al Qaida narrative has been extended into real action. From a talk-shop into an active contribution. It offers an alternative to many that have no perspective in life and believe their future prospects are minimal.. This is no longer about theorizing and long discussions in “Tupperware” like gatherings. No, there is a whole new dimension. In Syria you can prove your manhood, your solidarity, your determination and contribute to the Jihad.
We will have to accept that decapitation of terrorist organizations that are rooted in a popular support base either found in local grievances or in international solidarity with the suffering of brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Bosnia or elsewhere, in itself does not work.
We will draw lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq where the military approach to the issue that underpins this attractiveness of the Al Qiada ideology and thinking is not the answer. Al Qaida has been attacked and survived. It has reinvented itself and come back stronger. It is indicative of this reinvention that the Al Nusra movement in Syria does not operate under the AQ brand name.
The movement has developed from a military organization with affiliates to a school of thought with groups that adhere to the ideology and the thinking but operate under different names. Drone strikes will not help to diminish the thinking and the feelings of victimization and humiliation that form the basis of these internationally connected and locally rooted groups. We should – after twelve years of looking for the right answer – be aware of this and draw the conclusion that there is a need for a new approach. Based on understanding and empathy of the local and international drivers for radical groups and political violence. These may vary in different places. At the same time there is an international element to all this that connects the dots. There is a strong collective identity, based invariably on religion, which transcends national borders.
That faith binds individuals together and determines part of the identity and the outlook in life. If the international community does not master the deeply rooted meaning of that collectivity, it will not be able to solve this issue, neither locally nor internationally. Because, if we keep thinking that decapitation alone will give us the answer, the Al Qaida brand will go from 3.0 to 4.0 and beyond.