EER convened its eighth webinar to look at the threat picture from the spread of radical ideologies, which is most acutely expressed when it leads to terrorism, though manifests in many other deleterious ways, including various forms of anti-social harm.
Over the last year, we have seen the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban/Al-Qaeda, emboldening the jihadist movement. There remains the unresolved issue of Western Islamic State foreign fighters in camps in Syria, an issue likely to become more salient as the group escalates its jail-break campaign, and the foreign fighter issue more broadly seems likely to intensify as South Asia once again becomes an attractive venue for jihadi travellers.
While Islamism remains the predominant problem for now, the threat picture is diversifying. Three years into a pandemic there has been a major rise of organised anti-vaccination movements and more generally of conspiracy theories, creating security challenges as diverse as the attack on the U.S. Capitol a year ago and the besiegement of the Canadian government this week. These movements often overlap with far-Right and extreme nationalist milieus, and the fact that these forces have entered some political systems even in democratic countries suggests an issue that will grow and metastasise if left unattended.
To unpack these issues, our expert panel consisted of:
Dr. Zahid Ahmed: A research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Ahmed is from Pakistan and brings a citizen’s perspective to the issues of sectarianism, jihadist violence, and regional security in South Asia that he studies and writes widely upon.
Abdul Basit: An Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Focused on religious extremism, terrorism, and the security environment in South Asia, he is the co-author of a book entitled, Dynamics of Taliban Insurgency in FATA.
Wasiq Wasiq: Currently working to finish a PhD in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, Wasiq is a founder and ongoing advisor to the charity group Muslims Against Antisemitism (MAAS) and is an Associate Fellow at Henry Jackson Society. Writing with a focus on law, Islamist ideology, and the structure of terrorist groups, Wasiq’s work is published widely.
- Panellists discussed the effect the Taliban victory in Afghanistan has had on the jihadist movement, emboldening it with a narrative in which the patience of the Islamic militants has (again) defeated a superpower. Within the jihadist world, however, the Al-Qaeda-oriented groups are being challenged by the Islamic State; the Taliban has been unable to suppress the Islamic State within Afghanistan and the intra-jihadist competition could incite attacks outside Afghanistan.
- Discussing whether it is necessary to engage with the Taliban regime, panellists generally felt this was an inevitability and was probably more likely to lead to positive outcomes than trying to coerce the regime. A danger some panellists highlighted was that if the Taliban regime implodes, it could open the way to even worse forces like the Islamic State.
- The interaction between jihadism and the European far-Right was a subject the panellists looked at, particularly the way these two trends feed off one-another, a process known as reciprocal radicalization.
- Of the emerging extremism trends, pro-Palestinian extremism and antisemitism was one that panellists picked up on. It was noted that this form of extremism had found a place within the culture wars, and within the ideological commitments of parts of the Western political Left, which is allowing to be mainstreamed in a worrying way.
- An issue that is going to be a continued threat, the panellists noted, was the Islamic State’s Western foreign fighters, whose return to their home countries might provide opportunities for radicalism and terrorism.
Dr. Ahmed said that even some of those who initially celebrated the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan have had second thoughts, and this was most evident in the “sudden change of narrative coming out of Islamabad”, Pakistan.
Ahmed sketched out the history of the Taliban’s time in power last time. The group implemented the shari’a, forbidding television and films; restricting women’s rights, throwing at least 50,000 women out of work and forcing them to be veiled; banning football and even chess. Perhaps the most alarming aspect, Ahmed noted, were the attacks on religious minorities, the Hazara Shi’is above all, who were persecuted and them massacred. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was another infamous example of this intolerance.
“So, what is going to change now?” Ahmed asks. The Taliban have played a “smart game”, says Ahmed, because they are struggling with an economic and food crisis. “They want [diplomatic] recognition and humanitarian support”, says Ahmed, and are presenting in such a way to make this possible.
Ahmed says that the Taliban is restricted in its operations to Afghanistan because “Pashtun nationalism plays a huge role in how the Taliban operates”, alongside the Deobandism. Still, even if the Taliban directly remains in Afghanistan, the “most important” is the “indirect impact” the Taliban victory will have on jihadists beyond the country, and this is already “very concerning”. Ahmed gave the example of the Red Mosque in Pakistan where the imam raised the Taliban flag and got into a struggle with the Pakistani government over it.
This morale boost for jihadism after the fall of Kabul is “more dangerous” than what the Taliban is doing in Afghanistan, says Ahmed, with the narrative that jihadists defeated the sole remaining superpower fuelling radicalization throughout South and South East Asia. This fact plays off other regional dynamics, including the harsh conditions for Muslims in parts of India and in Myanmar, grievances jihadists can use to mobilize others, and the competition between Taliban/Al-Qaeda-aligned jihadists and the Islamic State (ISIS).
Ahmed sees the only option as engaging the Taliban. Without engagement, the international community will have “no leverage to impact anything that happens on the ground”, says Ahmed. This can works, says Ahmed, because “there is willingness as far as the Taliban is concerned because they want to gain something they didn’t have in the past: recognition and legitimacy with the international community … They learned this lesson from the past, that they need a greater form of international recognition”, and “if the international community is willing to negotiate with them and engaging them there is a possibility of influencing them”. This would not only help to deal with the issues of extremism and terrorism, says Ahmed, but “other transnational crimes” like drug and weapons smuggling that threaten peace and security not only in South Asia but Central Asia. Ahmed says that Pakistan has already found this route helpful in having the Taliban deal with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or “Pakistani Taliban”) after direct Pakistan-TTP negotiations “didn’t go very well”.
Picking up where Dr. Ahmed left off, Abdul Basit started on the “transnational dimensions of the Taliban victory”. Basit reiterates that the narrative of the lone superpower being defeated by jihadists has been a major fillip to the Islamists and the fractured nature of the jihadist movement, with the challenge from ISIS, makes the situation different from last time.
ISIS is attacking the Taliban ideological from, so to say, both directions. Basit notes that ISIS is accusing the Taliban of “nationalism” because of their Afghan-centric approach, and mocking the Taliban because all of its compromises on jihadist ideology, in terms of engaging the international community, have not resulted in recognition; the current Taliban regime is as much a pariah as the one last time (in some ways more so: three countries recognized the Taliban last time; none do now).
ISIS has also been physically attacking the Taliban through its “Khorasan” branch (ISKP), Basit points out, taking advantage of the regime’s lack of capacity, and facing the international community with the possibility that a collapse of this jihadist regime could lead to an even worse one.
Basit says that the Taliban and the international community are “prisoners of their own rhetoric” in terms of engaging each other, but both sides are also stuck with each other. The Taliban has continued to place its “organizational coherence above the needs of the Afghan people”, which is destabilizing, and the Taliban has promised not to let Afghanistan be used for terrorist attacks against other states; whatever doubts there are about the Taliban’s will to do this, it clearly is incapable at the present time, with ISKP continuing to rebuild. The Taliban has also “inadvertently pushed people towards [ISIS]” by indiscriminately targeting the Salafist community.
For the international community, the risk of engagement is that it legitimizes the Taliban regime, without any guarantees on security or the humanitarian situation. If the international community does not engage, it risks feeding the ISIS narrative—and not feeding the Afghan people. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, as Basit summarizes.
“What happens in Afghanistan doesn’t stay in Afghanistan”, Basit concludes, and the “opportunities here are limited”. Nonetheless, he is convinced that engagement is the way to go, that “persuasion works better than dictation”, and that over the last six months—on issues like girl’s education and space to ethnic minorities—this path has shown some fruits. The “Taliban pragmatism is a blend of Islamism and Pashtun nationalism”, says Basit, and the ability to call on both aspects allows the Taliban—in its search for aid or anything else—to justify almost any policy they want.
Wasiq turned to the “radicalization trends in Europe and North America”.
Defining “radicalization”, Wasiq says this is the “non-linear process” people go through before being engaged in extremist activity or terrorism. There is an official British government definition of “extremism” and “terrorism”, as Wasiq notes, the former as an opposition to fundamental values of the state and the latter as the use of violence to further religious, political, or ethnic goals, whether at home or abroad.
A major emerging category of extremism, Wasiq says, is “pro-Palestinian extremism”, defined as “the act of advancing the cause of Palestine, either directly or indirectly, using intimidation, protest, and violence”. This trend has been able to advance itself by exploiting the culture wars to frame the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians as “power verses struggle”; they have understood the Western social developments and inserted themselves in with them. The “false logic” involved “power is situated with whiteness, Jews are white, therefore Jews are powerful” and pose an “existential” threat to Palestinians. Often this goes on to equate Jews with Nazis. This is “ridiculous”, but it is “becoming mainstream” and so far the West has failed to find a way of adequately countering this radicalizing rhetoric.
This circular logical loop, however, is gaining traction on the political Left as the doctrines of “whiteness” and power gain hegemony. This was most visible, says Wasiq, during the last Gaza flare-up, when Jews around the world were attacked, but the response from some on the Left was to say they deserved it because these Jews appeared to be white—which would usually be considered textbook racism, but, within this ideological universe, is not.
Having gained this legitimacy within large swathes of the political spectrum, this escalates into protest, where extremists “use the machinery of democracy to advance their cause”. Protest is a protected right in a liberal democracy, of course, but as Wasiq notes this right can be abused. In a recent case, a protester declared—in front of the police—that he was seeking “Zionist blood”, and nothing was done. The messages sent by law-enforcement not acting on this is that such things are okay.
In the final stage is violence. This has been seen with vandalism and blockading businesses dealing with Israel, and it raises the question of what will happen when there is resistance to these tactics; will it escalate further to attacks on people?
Turning to Islamist violence, Wasiq notes that this is still the primary threat to Britain. The motivating factors include Western responsibility for suffering in the Muslim world—which can be defined as intervening in Iraq or not intervening in Syria—and then perceived threats to Islam or Muslims within the West.
Wasiq explains that the jihadist challenge breaks down into “two key threats”: homegrown and international.
In terms of domestic terrorism, there have been thirty-one thwarted attacks in Britain since 2017, some of them from the far-Right but most from Islamists. More worryingly, Wasiq lays out, there are 43,000 people known to the intelligence services in Britain who pose a potential threat, with 23,000 of those having been investigated and 3,000 of them under consistent investigation. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, there has been a notable outpouring of sympathy from Islamists in Britain for the group, which presents further security risks.
In terms of foreign attacks, there are some issues with the asylum system but the threats parallel the domestic threats in being low-tech attacks, using knives or homemade explosives, rather than large-scale atrocities such as 9/11 or 7/7. This threat is going to be compounded going forward when the ISIS foreign fighters begin returning to Europe, bringing knowledge and skills that can be used either to radicalize others or to carry out attacks themselves.
In the question and answer period, the panellists handled the issues of whether the Taliban could ever be engaged while it is joined with Al-Qaeda, and the reciprocal radicalization dynamics between an energized jihadist movement and the rising far-Right in Europe.