It’s been a while since Isis staged a major attack on the West. Occasionally the group’s degraded propaganda organs will try and claim one, but even that is less common nowadays. Still, just because Isis central isn’t orchestrating mass murder in Europe, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still people killing in the name of jihad — if anything, the Islamist terror threat is still claiming many more lives and much more frequently than we realise.
The overwhelming focus from authorities, political leaders and the press has become the personal and psychological dramas of the perpetrators. After every incident, the attackers’ pasts are combed and every twist and turn in their tangled biographies is retrospectively injected with significance and relevance to their (often much later) decision to kill.
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Of course, the personal profiles of perpetrators are important, but the resultant disconnection of the spate of stabbings, vehicular attacks and, less frequently, shootings and bombings across Europe leaves us in danger of prematurely writing off the lingering jihadist threat.
We should know by now that militant Islamism in the West has long horizons. It was eight years between the 7/7 bombings and the murder of Lee Rigby; the following year, Isis proclaimed itself a “Caliphate” and instructed Muslims worldwide to migrate to their bloody utopia — at least 6,000 from Europe answered the call. France and Belgium suffered terribly in the years to follow, while Britain saw a wave of jihadist attacks three years later.
There is no reason that lulls should be interpreted as a waning threat, yet today attention seems elsewhere. Last October, political leaders in Britain greeted what looks like the jihadist assassination of one of their colleagues with a very serious debate on online anonymity. And only this month, thanks in part to the Americanisation of political discourse, the bloated cottage industry of which I am a part was more comfortable gorging on year-old events 3,600 miles away at the US Capitol building than discussing threats closer to home.
In the wake of America’s withdrawal from the region, much has been made of the danger of Afghanistan once again becoming a terrorist safe haven threatening the West. Such concerns are certainly legitimate. Whenever they have controlled territory, jihadists have made the West pay: from the archipelago of training camps in Afghanistan which churned out the “Magnificent 19” hijackers, to the commandos dispatched from the Isis caliphate to gun down revellers and commuters in Paris and Brussels.
The more urgent concern, however, should be on Europe, and how the jihadist movement reconstitutes itself inside the continents borders after the Islamic State. The principal concern for security services has been the threat posed by Isis returnees, and with good reason. There is nothing new about Europeans travelling to jihadist conflict zones, but more travelled to Syria and Iraq for jihad than every previous jihadist insurgency combined. Not all made it home, but many did or will in future.
Available evidence does suggest that only a minority of foreign fighter returnees attack at home, but this should not necessarily be a cause for complacency. The statistics alone do not account for the constant ideological transformation and evolution of militant Islamism in the West: when commuters were murdered in London in 2005, or when Mohammed Merah executed Jewish schoolchildren and soldiers in France in 2012, these acts sparked internal debates on legitimacy within salafi-jihadist circles. Today, thanks to the work of salafi-jihadist scholars, there would be no such debate.
Nor do low rates of attack tell the whole story of the impact of returnees. Each generation of returnees from conflict overseas has successfully helped to cultivate a new and larger generation of extremists. Isis hotspots in Europe often directly overlap with recruitment hotspots for jihadist insurgencies from decades ago. If the Isis generation is able to socialise a new, more violent, more extreme generation of salafi-jihadists then it may be years, or even decades, until we feel the full force of the most recent returnee wave.
That isn’t to say these jihadis are driven by pure rage and bloodlust, reflexively likely to slaughter the first infidel they see. Like any terrorist group or movement, jihadists learn from their tactical and strategic mistakes, and some believe they overplayed their hand with the attacks of 2015-17. Many believed a tipping point had been reached, and that such bloodletting would spark the civil conflict on the continent they desired, in doing so drastically and disgracefully overestimating their support within Western Muslim communities. Meanwhile, the attacks on the West also served to accelerate the aerial bombardment of the “caliphate” on the ground, only hastening its demise. This helps explain why the main jihadist groups are no longer claiming or orchestrating major attacks in the West: it isn’t only a sign of weakness, but of the movement adapting to realities.
Hakim el-Karoui and Benjamin Hodayé’s recent extensive study of European militants suggested two possible scenarios for the future of jihadism in the West: the first, as hinted at above, sees the veterans of the Syrian jihad and their future cohorts turn their crosshairs primarily towards Europe, rather than some distant war zone.
The second, arguably more unsettling, prospect, is the jihadist population in Europe reconstitutes into a social movement, accelerating what European governments term separatism. At the very least, it’s possible a faction of Europe’s salafi-jihadis remain committed to mass casualty violence against civilians and their dreams of a caliphate. Recognising the shortcomings of ISIS need not lessen commitment to the utopian ideology: “real communism has never been tried.”
In this scenario, salafi-jihadis would establish closed communities withdrawn from and hostile towards the ignorance and sin of wider society. Perhaps they would only occasionally lash out, but more people would certainly die in Europe over ‘blasphemy’ and cartoons. There is precedent here in the monastic communities established in some of the global jihadi hotspots, from Toulouse and the surrounding countryside to the isolated salafi-jihadi communes in the Caribbean.
Another French academic, Hugo Micheron, recently spoke to dozens of imprisoned jihadis and some hinted at this change in strategy. Instead of simply radicalising others for attacks, their aim is rather the total homogenisation of Western Muslim belief under their interpretation (the only true Islam, as they see it), before encouraging or enforcing separation and withdrawal from the surrounding unbelief. The objective, according to the incarcerated extremists, is to insert a salafi-jihadist project at the heart of Europe instead of a faraway battlefield. If this strain of thought becomes dominant then, as Micheron writes, jihadism becomes a social, intellectual and political challenge “before it ever picks up a Kalashnikov”.
For now, Western Jihadis have gone quiet. But it could prove a major miscalculation to interpret this lull as jihadism finally on the wane, to be usurped by some other ideological challenge. As expert Suzanne Raine recently warned, when terrorists have gone quiet in the past, it usually means they are planning. The challenge is syncing the terrorist planning cycle with the resource and short attention cycle of Western governments and publics.
Perhaps we’re lucky that many of Europe’s most committed jihadis and thinkers — ones with real experience and connections — are in prison, or stranded in Syria. Thus the residual attacks are perpetrated by losers and the misfits without links to formal cells or networks, so we put it down to mental health and soothe ourselves into believing this is all that is left of Western jihad. But those in prison will soon get out and others will make it back from Syria. They now know better than to blunder into more confrontations with Western states from a position of weakness. A movement that thinks in centuries will not rush into its next move.
Of course, the jihadist movement could collapse or fade into irrelevance. It’s just that there’s no reason to think it will, and that all the indicators — mostly from historical precedent — point the other way. Jihadis are not some nightmarish omnipotent force as they were too often portrayed during the Isis years. But while there is no call for alarmism, there may well be cause for pessimism.