Considered by some as the “dean of terrorism studies “, Walter Laqueur offered insights of rare acuity. Perhaps he found such impressive lucidity because he lost a little of himself in the upheavals of our recent history as a German Jew who had fled the horror of Hitler’s genocide but lost his parents in the Holocaust. He was also broadminded, being a historian of Zionism, Nazism and the Russian far-right as well as terrorism.
Laqueur leaves us as his legacy ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Alt-Right – The Future of Terrorism, a book published just a few months before his death in September. It was co-written with Christopher Wall, a counter-insurgency instructor, notably for the US Navy.
The presence of the American alt-right alongside the two poles of the jihadist movement in the book’s title may spark curiosity. We will come back to this point.
This book is organized in three main parts. It begins with a review of the history of terrorism, moves on to a descriptive overview of contemporary terrorism, and ends with the authors’ reflections on terrorism.
This book was written with wisdom. Facing the surge of violent attacks, which brings fear into our familiar environments, Laqueur and Walls tirelessly remind us of the need to give meaning to a phenomenon that is too often misunderstood because of the easy reflexes of self-protection.
This passage, for example, is striking: “The scary truth, despite what the media suggests, is that terrorism is not the product of psychosis or irrationality; if anything, it is an extremely logical and reasonable form of political violence that produces results. Yet, despite this and the way the terrorists portray themselves to the world, in the final analysis, they are nonstate actors that commit violence against non-military target outside of war zones to fuel an emotional response that will affect the politics of a group, society, nation, or even continent.”
Terrorist groups are by definition in a position of inferiority, condemned to constantly seeking ways to manage the asymmetry of their relationship with their targets. Hence a race ensues, which is very well described in the book, where terrorist organizations seek to innovate, find loopholes, and make moves in order to obtain short-term successes that will allow them to be seen as victorious and compensate for their intrinsic weakness in the face of the countries they are fighting.
Above all, as Laqueur and Wall point out, we must not think that terrorism is an ideology. “Terrorism is a mean. It is the instrument of insurrectionists and the politician alike. Its employment is found across the political spectrum. Yet the employment of terrorism is not merely a tactic. Those who wield it have something in common. Whether they emerge from the extremes of the right or the left, whether they are nationalists or populists or even internationalists, they nonetheless have, as evidenced by their actions, reached the conclusion that, for them, an act of terror is the best idea they can think of to achieve their goals. Moreover, even if they have nothing else in common, terrorists are frequently more often connected to other terrorists than they are willing or able to confess to themselves.”
This can be seen in the deep historical roots. The word terrorism was invented by the French. It appeared at the end of the revolutionary sequence opened by the capture of the Bastille in 1789. By 1798 it appeared in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, described as “system, regime of terror”. The Terreur was a deadly rush that seized the revolutionaries a few years earlier and ended with the fall of Robespierre. Around half a million people were imprisoned and about 100,000 executed in the maelstrom.
The account of the anarchist origins of terrorism at the end of the 19th century, while not original, remains a necessary prerequisite for understanding the principles of action of terrorism, starting with French socialist leader Paul Brousse’s idea of propaganda of the deed. This concept was developed by the Italian anarchist Carlo Pisacane, who sought to exploit the dissatisfaction born of the 1848 revolution. “Propaganda of the deed meant to commit a political action, such an assassination, that was intended to serve as a catalyst for others to emulate towards the realization of a political goal”, the authors write.
Almost a century and a half after Brousse popularized the term, this principle stills explain contemporary terrorist attacks. These attacks are not simple military operations aimed at causing death, injury or destruction. Instead, they are primarily a propaganda operation that aims to convey several messages. They include spreading fear in such a way as to weaken the target society and creating or strengthening divisions within the society in order to make it more vulnerable. It is also a human resources operation – a way to recruit new supporters, sympathizers, activists, or future terrorists.
Chapter 7, under the title “The New Face of Terrorism”, recounts the rise of self-styled Islamic State (IS). It succumbs to a frequently seen bias of American observers, who consider IS as a fundamentally Iraqi group, training a distorting prism on episodes in Iraq from January 2014 (the fall of Falluja) and neglecting a large number of Syrian developments.
This leads a little further to this questionable analysis: “IS, in its current manifestation, is primarily an Iraqi group that uses foreigners.” In the authors’ defense, it should be recalled that European scholars tend to have an opposing bias, overestimating the Syrian component of this terror group.
We would have appreciated a longer description of how IS was virtually defeated in the late 2010’s, thanks to a combination of an elimination of its leadership on the battlefield, which actually began with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006, and an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy focused on the population. This history arguably deserved a longer analysis, even if the conclusion is sound: “the seeds of IS were planted, though.”
Laqueur and Wall then ask the crucial question – “why was IS successful?” – but are unfortunately unable to answer it convincingly. They do not seem to grasp the importance of the “dynamics of globalization of resentment”, so well described by François Burgat in 2016. It pushed large numbers of Sunnis from the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere to discover improbable common affinities. They miss the power of the propaganda developed by the organization, particularly in the staging of its dramatic actions, such as the proclamation of the caliphate or attacks in the West. They conclude with a warning about the continuing danger of al Qaeda (AQ), which will persist “once the IS is no longer a danger”, while not much seems to suggest that IS is likely to be completely defeated before AQ, or even in any foreseeable future.
In another chapter, the authors make an important point on repositioning the place of Islam in the jihadist phenomenon, a bias that keeps distorting the threat assessment grids of some Western intelligence services. “Religiosity is a poor indicator for why people turn towards violence. Multiple security agencies from both continents have noted that religiosity is oftentimes a spurious indicator of when someone is evolving into a terrorist (…) the fluidity in radicalization pathways makes it impossible to place the blame on religion alone, making it a non-binary variable.” The book recalls the distinction defined by many researchers, including Lorenzo Vidino, “between cognitive radicalization, which is the process of adopting the beliefs that go against the mainstream, and violent radicalization, which is the belief that one must commit violence to advance the cause of those views.”
The description of the differential use of violence by IS and AQ is relevant: AQ “has learned how to use violence more selectively to enable alliance formation and the establishment of governance. Although it opposes the Westphalian state system and the world it created, it has learned the secrets of the rule of law and how service provision goes a long way towards earning a community’s trust.” The book ends with the conclusion that this restraint in the use of violence has allowed AQ to poach IS fighters in several theaters, including Afghanistan, where it seems that IS mostly a threatening challenger.
The authors may be criticized for devoting an entire passage to the study of the “lone-wolf phenomenon”, despite the efforts of leading scientists, starting with Raffaelo Pantucci, to banish a term borrowed from the far-right (Louis Beam’s “Leaderless resistance”, 1962) from the scientific literature. However, the jihadist movement was happy to hijack the term and old habits are hard to break. We see how difficult it is to get a successful expression out of our minds once the public and the media too have taken hold of it.
The Future of Terrorism develops the promise of the book’s subtitle to articulate the threat from the alternative right as well as jihadist movements. “The alt-right represents the rebirth of the country’s most toxic, illiberal, and racist ideologies, but crafted to appeal to a younger generation. How the alt-right communicates is different from its predecessors: it relies on online platforms such as Twitter or forums like Reddit, where the alt-right shares memes (or jokes, often laid over images) that convey their ideologies in a supposed humorous fashion that allows the alt-right to claim they are only engaging in an innocuous banter. And when people criticize alt-rights for their jokes, the common retort is that their critics are being politically correct or are too unsophisticated to understand their humor, and therefore warrant attacks in retaliation. This trolling often generates an online mob mentality where thousands harass prominent critics of the alt-right, and often occurs when leading alt-rightists identify prominent minorities in the media and attack them.”
However, this description of the phenomenon misses the specificity of alt-right violence since the election of Donald Trump. While terrorism traditionally attacks the government in place, denigrating it as tyrannical, we find ourselves in the new and incongruous situation of having Donald Trump as a promoter of alternative discourse from inside the White House. This type of discourse can inspire a terrorist actor, as the MAGABomber parcel bomb attack wave shows.
It should be noted that alt-right discourse continues without too much difficulty to present itself as the voice of the oppressed facing a totalitarian system, even though it is partly promoted by a man who has immense power.
In their afterword, the authors do say that “trying to predict the future of terrorism under Trump is difficult beyond stating that it carries the potential to make things easier for extremists to thrive.”
Far-right terrorism in the United States is probably a bigger threat than in Europe, and undoubtedly more worrying than it is in the Middle East, Africa or Asia, where jihadist-inspired terrorism remains the main concern.
In 2017, the United States faced thirteen terrorist attacks. Jihadists were responsible for only two of them – the vehicle ramming attack in Manhattan in October and the failed suicide bombing in the Port Authority of New York in December. The remaining eleven were all committed by persons belonging to or linked to the far-right. One important point to note is that, at least until now, “there is no alt-right terrorist group, but there have been terrorist incidents by alt-rightists.”
The authors draw interesting parallels in radicalization patterns, noting that “The alt-right can radicalize individuals into violence. Much like Salafists, the alt-right advocates a homogeneous society that absolutely rejects outsiders. The alt-right is more extreme, however, because whereas Salafism castigates nonbelievers, the alt-right rejects billions on the basis of their physical attributes.”
The section on the culture of modern terrorism is probably the weakest one in the book. It makes assertions such as “IS probably never heard of Adolf Hitler”. Similarly, it is probably incorrect to argue that ”the use of nasheeds as an educational and propagandistic means is further evidence that the jihadists are by no means the most pious of Muslims.” The usage of poetry, war songs, still or video pictures has always been of primary importance in the jihadist movement, as Thomas Hegghammer and his co-authors (Jihadi culture, 2017) have demonstrated, and this should not be seen as a challenge to their obsessive observation of sharia law.
The book concludes with some very wise considerations, including “the importance of maintaining the terrorism threat in perspective. Governments across the world should do their outmost to protect their citizens from terrorism, but within the framework of the rule of law. Because if terrorism does not generally pose an existential threat to a country or government, a state’s response to terrorism, on the other hand, can pose an existential threat to itself.”