As ISIS has trademarked self-radicalised do-it-yourself jihad, it places maximum emphasis on drilling Islamist passion and commitment.
The ghastly terrorist attacks in Spain last week, which killed 14 people and injured over 100 others, are painful reminders that the Islamic State is succeeding in its violent global mission even as its self-declared caliphate is being snuffed out in Iraq and Syria.
Europe is the ground zero of this worldwide menace. After Paris, Brussels, London, Berlin, Nice and Stockholm, the virus has reached Barcelona and Cambrils. It is a serialised horror show with blood-spattered and shell-shocked Europeans and visiting foreigners lying dazed in various tourist paradises after being subjected to what was unimaginable a few years ago — mass attacks occurring so routinely that the entire continent has turned into a war zone.
The modus operandi of these repetitive attacks is predictable. The Moroccan-origin terrorists, who ploughed automobiles into unsuspecting crowds in Spain, did nothing out-of-the-box. They simply replayed the phenomenon of automobile rampage strikes, which has recurred contagiously at least eight times in Europe since July 2016.
By turning everyday means of transportation into deadly weapons to petrify Europeans, ISIS-inspired and ISIS-coordinated terrorists are winning psychologically. ISIS’ Rumiyah magazine advised its faithful in 2016 to steal vehicles for attacks and urged them to kill “infidels” randomly.
Unlike the infrequent, ultra-sophisticated and spectacular terrorism targeting carefully chosen high-profile locations that used to be the hallmark of Al Qaeda, ISIS has ushered in a revolution in banality. The latter has moved away from the former’s model of trained elite cells of terrorists who operate like commandos. In its place has come a democratised and decentralised form of terror that empowers any Muslim who is angry and who believes in Salafi doctrines to take up the mantle and mow down “Crusaders”.
The jihad is now down-to-earth and the plotting is short, if not instantaneous. To ISIS’ theologians and recruiters, who justify killing Europeans and Westerners wherever possible, the key is ideological motivation and hatred for non-Sunnis and non-Muslims. The stronger the feeling for jihad and martyrdom, the better for ISIS because the fervour compensates for lack of proper training and preparation.
As ISIS has trademarked self-radicalised do-it-yourself jihad, it places maximum emphasis on drilling Islamist passion and commitment. Brainwashing alienated Muslims in Europe through fanatical preachers and online and social media platforms is a cinch in the digital communications era.
Owing to geography and history, Europe has a much higher proportion of Muslim immigrants than North America. Although far-right extremists and populists in the West associate all immigrants with terrorism, the factual evidence shows that most attackers in Europe are second, third or fourth generation children of migrants — citizens of Western countries rather than recently arrived fresh-off-the-boat migrants from Syria, Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan.
ISIS is the magnet for disaffected Muslim minorities who are born and brought up in Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Britain et al, but who despair as second-class citizens lacking in respect and dignity. Despite talk of integration of these stepchildren into the mainstream of Western societies and economies, colonial-era attitudes of inbuilt European racism against non-white people and, in some cases iniquitous state policies, fuel resentment.
ISIS resonates to these Muslim youth by taking them back to a supposed golden era when Islam was politically dominant and where non-Muslims were inferior in status. This is where Spain is central to the jihadist lore.
Since the 2004 Madrid train bombings by Al Qaeda, Spain has been a reluctant and minor player in the US-led military coalitions waging war on jihadists in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Presently, Spain has a small contingent of military trainers in the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq. And yet, Barcelona and Cambrils happened.
Spain is not the object of jihadi ire due to its current policies in West Asia, but because of its symbolic legacy as the European space that had been conquered and ruled by Muslim caliphs for seven centuries. From AD 711 to 1492, parts of Spain, Portugal and France were under Islamic occupation. ISIS reminisces about this age and exhorts its Spanish adherents as descendants of yesteryear “Moors” to fight for re-establishing Islamic control over the Iberian Peninsula.
By definition, terrorism is deliberate violence against civilians with a political motive. ISIS’ political purpose is to erase modern nation-state barriers and return the world to what it considers to be the most glorious period when Islam had a global empire.
Territories like Spain (Al Andalus) are described in ISIS propaganda videos as “land of our forefathers and ancestors” that “we will open with the power of Allah”. ISIS’ aspirational caliphate has a map showing various non-Muslim regions as rightful Islamic provinces. Apart from Andalus, it claims Orobpa (the Balkans), Habasha (Ethiopia), and Khorasan (Central and South Asia, including India).
Such “revanchism” is fantastic pie in the sky, but even if it is unattainable, visions of bygone Islamist grandeur and political power are spurs to ignite attacks like the ones in Spain. We must be cognisant of such historical hallucination and nostalgia in designing counter-terrorism strategies, which tend to be heavy in military components but light on psychology.
Spain has, in fact, relatively better policing, intelligence and foiling capabilities than Belgium, Germany or France. Still, attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils could not be averted because of the compelling attraction of the Andalus metaphor in the mythology propagated by jihadists.
A sustained re-education campaign in schools and homes across Europe where Muslim minorities are concentrated, often in ghettoised communities, plus equitable social and urban policies towards them will be required to vanquish the jihadist scourge in the medium to long terms.
The Crusades between Muslim and Christian kingdoms did happen and they were barbaric. But it is the duty of progressive educators and parents to coach young and impressionable minds that historical conflicts should not be transposed on to a very different and transformed modern template of life where interdependence is the only path to salvation.
The war on ISIS is not going to be won in Mosul or Raqqa, but in classrooms and households, specially in non-Muslim majority regions of the world where barriers and prejudices are festering among Muslim minorities. Unless we tackle the cancer at its root, it will never stop spreading.
The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs.