Book Review: Seeking ‘nuanced view’ of jihadist threat
An era sometimes called the age of jihad could equally be termed the “age of books about the age of jihad” but Peter Neumann’s historical approach in Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West and first-hand experience makes his book more than just a “good-guy, bad-guy” analysis of the Islamist movement.
“I wanted to create a little bit of nuance because, for a long time, people talked about [Islamic State] ISIS recruits as basically all being monsters and there wasn’t a real attempt to make sense of why they ended up where they ended up,” Neumann said.
Neumann said there are three types of radicalised foreign fighters joining ISIS: Defenders, Seekers and Hangers-on.
Defenders are devout Muslims who identify strongly with Sunni suffering in the Syrian war. Syrian President Bashar Assad leads minority-dominated forces, whose wrath is felt indiscriminately by the Sunni opposition. Most arrived in the region along with aid convoys initially and generally do not share socio-economic characteristics. For example, defenders from Germany are likely to be products of impoverished backgrounds as opposed to their British counterparts, who are relatively educated.
Seekers are in search of meaning. Often theologically illiterate, they are ostracised from their societies, have criminal records and low prospects of finding a job. Syria appeals to them as a place where masculinity, power and, most important, acceptance await.
Hangers-on are also from precarious backgrounds but, rather than going on their own accord, they follow the example of Islamic community leaders, often without much idea of the consequences.
“With ISIS, a lot of people are Seekers,” Neumann said. “They are lost, looking for a strong identity; looking for an empowering experience where they can be heroes. They come from marginalised backgrounds where they don’t see the opportunity to achieve this.”
“The theology provides them with an anchor but that comes later. The fundamental drivers are other things: personal, emotional needs,” he said.
Beginning with an examination of terrorism’s history in its leftist, anarchist, anti-colonial and religious forms, the book incrementally focuses on Islamism and the common beliefs of jihadists.
Drawing parallels with past terrorist movements serves to detach the reader momentarily from current affairs, seeing the jihadist wave for what it is: An exhibition of action when diplomacy is deemed to have failed.
Despite taking care to differentiate Islam from Islamism, the book does not shy from the fact that since the escalation of religiously motivated terrorism in the 1970s (in 1968 there were no listed religiously motivated terrorist groups, 25 years later they made up 20%), terrorist activity has been predominantly Islamic.
Neumann associates this trend with the fall of the Islamic empire and the resulting colonisation of its people. Cultural collision bred varying results in different places: from total assimilation into the Western way of life to outright resistance against it.
Most important, however, this period left in some Muslim scholars the irredeemable feeling of societal moral decay, caused by a shift from original Islamic principles. Rather than being anti-colonial, the rise of Islamic terrorism was an effort to “rediscover the essence of their own identity” in a period of rapid change.
By the second half of the 19th century, groups preaching puritan Islam (Salafists) had surfaced in many countries, manifested perhaps most importantly in the 1920s by the pragmatic and political Muslim Brotherhood.
Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood’s ideologue, sought more violent revolution, as did the “godfather of modern jihad” and former Brotherhood member Abdullah Azzam, who spent his life advocating jihad in Afghanistan. Both gained legions of followers, who carried forth their jihadist ideals after their death.
The role of political and social strife cannot be underestimated in Qutb’s and Azzam’s success. Qutb’s popularity grew within a decolonised Egypt; Azzam had genuine grievances against the invading Soviet “atheists” in Afghanistan. This greatly increased their appeal. Despite this, Neumann articulately maintains the importance of the Islamic identity crisis at the core of consequent terrorism.
In essence, the wave of Islamism engulfing the Middle East and North Africa is not unlike prior terrorist movements. Strategies of provocation, the concept of the “lone wolf” and Carlo Pisacane’s anarchic “propaganda of the deed” are all recycled ideas.
What is unique about this trend is its global appeal, highlighted by the UN Security Council’s resolution 2178, obliging all members to prevent “terrorist foreign fighters”.
Of the disillusioned and traumatised who decide to return to life in the West, only a small minority poses a threat. Statistics show that those who do wish to continue waging jihad and return desensitised by war and well connected are more likely to plan larger scale attacks and succeed. This problem, Neumann said, will “occupy European security services for a generation”.
Effective counterterrorism begins with processes of prevention within harsh socio-political environments that cultivate dangerous ideas among their disillusioned populations.
National prevention programmes can be costly, ineffective and impractical: “De-radicalisation programmes don’t always work. There isn’t a 100% success rate and that’s a problem. Second, you can’t deradicalise everyone,” Neumann warned. “They work when people already have doubts, which you try to leverage and then facilitate some type of exit.
“I think this will preoccupy us for a long time to come; it’s important to develop a nuanced view of what’s going on.”