After the return of the Taliban, the West fears that it will again become the target of Islamist attacks. But those who look at the tensions in Afghanistan or Mali solely from the perspective of international terrorism fail to recognize the complexity of local conflicts.
By Olivier Roy
Today everything that happens in the Islamic world is very quickly linked to the problem of terrorism: after the fall of Kabul on August 15, the media and many observers repeatedly asked whether the Taliban returned to power Now more and more Islamist attacks in the world can be expected again.
Two other questions, however, only a few asked themselves: How could the Taliban bring the Afghan capital under their control without firing a single shot? And: Were the Taliban ever directly involved in an act of violence outside the country?
They did offer shelter to Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 2001, for which they paid after a war that lasted a few weeks with their disempowerment. But they were never accused by the Americans of having been privy to the preparations for the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.
This focus on armed violence makes it difficult to understand the phenomenon of radicalization, as well as the processes that lead to a terrorist really taking action. For it assumes a continuity from religious radicalization through the proclamation of jihad to international terrorism – as if these were steps that must necessarily follow one another.
Anyone who thinks this way suspects that every reference to Sharia law and every call to holy war is a harbinger of attacks on a global scale.
The only criterion for the West’s political dealings with Islamist movements is the alleged proximity of these movements to terrorism. And this closeness, in turn, is defined according to the “degree of intensity” of the religious frame of reference – perhaps to an even greater extent than according to the actual extent of the use of force.
Lessons from Syria, Mali and Chechnya
The rule of thumb is: the more an Islamist group speaks of Sharia, the more it questions the policies of the great powers and the greater the terrorist threat it poses. The principle of preventive war is derived from this: You attack the Islamists before they take action.
Anyone who deals more thoroughly with jihadist movements will realize: Firstly, this supposed continuity is implausible and, secondly, leads to slipping into territorial wars, which in the best case are futile and in the worst case result in local conflicts becoming internationalized manifest in forms of global jihadism.
Such an analytical framework also blocks any political approach that would make it possible to circumvent the dead end of terrorism and reintegrate the armed groups into the game. The answer to the question of why such a reintegration should be necessary is simple: Islamist movements that have a base in society and the power to mobilize will not allow themselves to be weakened by counter-terrorism and military operations alone.
Afghanistan and Mali provide evidence that a counterinsurgency that relies solely on armed violence does not work. The same applies to the strategy of keeping the radical forces in check until a stable, democratic and rule-of-law state capable of good governance is established. All attempts in this direction have failed.
And hardly anyone asks about the reasons for these disappointing experiences. At best, culturalist arguments are used: the rule of law, it is said, is a Western model that is not suitable for Muslim societies. What is overlooked is the fact that many of these societies – including the Afghan one – have their own state tradition, which could well pave the way for a constitutional state.
Terrorism is of course a reality. Al-Qaeda has made it their sole reason for existence, and the Islamic State (IS) has systematically linked it to jihad. Jihad, however, is not inextricably linked to terrorism – neither theologically (there is an Islamic legal tradition governing the use of force) nor politically (the Afghan mujahideen have never attempted to carry out international acts of terrorism against Soviet targets).
The notion that terrorism is a reaction against Western armed interventionism in the Middle East (as al-Qaeda has always argued) is not wrong, but it falls short. It does not explain why different wars provoked very different reactions – why, for example, the war in Chechnya, where the West was not involved, and the Bosnian war, in which NATO fought alongside the Muslims, increased solidarity among young radicalized Europeans caused the war in the Sahel, where the French army has been deployed since 2012.
So you have to take a closer look. There is no automatic link between local jihad and international terrorism. The Taliban, for example, never exported violence from Afghanistan to other countries, and most of the indiscriminate attacks against civilians or Shiites in Kabul during the US’s 20-year presence were committed to jihadist groups, most recently the local offshoot of the IS after the attack on August 26th at Kabul airport.
The case of Mali is even more astonishing. Although France is at the forefront against the terrorist groups in the Sahel and its army loudly celebrates its own hunting successes against the terrorists – as recently after the killing of Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the emir of the Islamic State in the Great Sahara (État islamique dans le Grand Sahara, EIGS) -; Although the Malian state is kept afloat by Paris and there is also a colonial history: So far, no terrorist has felt motivated by the French presence. How can that be?
When it came to their motivation, almost all of the perpetrators spoke of either Syria or Iraq (like Salah Abdeslam, who has been on trial since September 8, 2015, as the prime suspect in the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015). Or the backing of the French authorities for the weekly Charlie Hebdo and its publication of the Mohammed cartoons.
Malian immigrants in France are few in number and they belong to ethnic groups that do not participate in jihad. And there is also no major terrorist mobilization among immigrants from Iraqi cities such as Fallujah or Mosul.
But why are so many young people from the second Maghreb generation of immigrants active for Syria and Iraq and not for the Sahel, even though it is geographically closer to their parents’ homeland? Why do converts from Normandy, Brittany or Reunion Island never refer to Mali, but always to Iraq or Syria, where the French armed forces played a minor role? So far, the French war in Mali has not motivated a terrorist to attack French territory.
The solution to the riddle becomes clear when one differentiates between local and global jihad, although there can be overlaps between the two levels. A local jihad means that a group wants to establish an Islamic emirate on a certain territory, in which the Sharia applies and in which an emir is at the head. The only group that recently proclaimed a caliph – a leader of the Ummah, the world community of Muslims – is IS.
These local organizations develop their activities mainly in tribal areas in a broader sense. 1 They are the product of local tensions and shifts in power, whereby different factors can play a role: acts of retaliation by subordinate clans against the tribal aristocracy, conflicts over water and land, the inability of the state to take action against corruption and violence and the rise of new generations, to a greater extent Are “culturally uprooted”, that is, have distanced themselves from traditional rules and customs.
Not to mention that Islam is invoked to overcome local fragmentation and deny legitimacy to the state, but also to other institutions such as clan chiefs, tribes, and religious brotherhoods.
Everywhere, from northern Nigeria to Mali, Chad and Sudan, Egyptian Sinai, Yemen, and northeast Syria to the Afghan and Pakistani tribal areas, the formation of jihadist groups always has its roots in the political anthropology of the societies concerned.
The emergence of local jihads preceded and accompanied the rise of the global organizations al-Qaeda and IS. Both groups share the same analysis: The victory can never only be local because either the liberated areas are quickly recaptured or the new state structure renounces global jihad in order to secure recognition from the great powers. First of all, the West must be brought to its knees so that there is even any chance of uniting the various emirates into one unit.
Given this logic, the local jihadists must decide whether to keep their independence (as the Taliban will do) or to join one of the two organizations by swearing allegiance to the Emir of al-Qaeda or the ISIS caliph. Such as the Algerian Salafist group AQMI or Ansar Bait al-Maqdis in Sinai.
This strategy has an advantage and a disadvantage: if they internationalize, they not only strengthen their legitimacy against possible domestic rivals, but can also accept volunteers from abroad into their ranks and thus better intimidate the rest of the population; on the other hand, internationalization brings with it the risk of military intervention from outside.
Is international terrorism at an end?
When choosing between al-Qaeda and IS, personal connections can of course play a role if, for example, local leaders have been involved in previous wars. But above all, it has to do with different ideas about the relationship between Islam and territory.
Al-Qaeda has always rejected the territorial option and viewed the Islamic Emirates merely as a place of refuge: bin Laden swore allegiance to Mullah Omar, the emir of the Taliban, and not the other way around. His organization did not interfere with the political system established by the Taliban; she even served the Taliban domestically by murdering their main opponent, Ahmed Shah Massud (September 9, 2001), also in order to have a free hand for her global terror project.
From bin Laden’s point of view, global jihad was superior to territorial projects. In June 2013, his successor Aiman al-Zawahiri condemned the establishment of the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The leadership of al-Qaeda viewed territorialization as a trap that ran the risk of provoking a massive attack by professional armies with unchallenged air sovereignty. Further developments should prove them right.
IS is and will remain the only organization that has linked territorialization and globalization by, on the one hand, taking up the tradition of the local emirates and, on the other hand, taking over the legacy of al-Qaeda and committing acts of terrorism through suicide bombers. The caliphate proclaimed in June 2014 was thus a synthesis of global and local procedures: the IS combined every gain in the territory with terror campaigns in the West, also because it assumed that this would cause the public there to take a critical stance on the military intervention against the caliphate.
IS also waged a blitzkrieg in the Middle East in the hope that the regimes would collapse by themselves. However, this strategy did not prove to be viable: by expanding its territory ever further, disregarding the borders, initiating an ideological cleansing and finally turning against the local groups and above all against the tribes, who may have welcomed them at the beginning, accelerated the organization its own decline.
In addition, the long-term calculation of the IS contained an assumption that turned out to be wrong: the US army did not get bogged down as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, but withdrew as soon as the caliphate was defeated and handed over the reins of action to the Shiite militias and the Kurdish forces.
In the meantime, even if the threat of assassination remains high in the West, international terrorism seems to be running out of steam; after dominating the scenery for more than 20 years. Between 1995 and 2015, the profile of the terrorists who were active in the West did not change in any way: from Khaled Kelkal – who was involved in the series of attacks that took place in France in 1995 – to Salah Abdeslam, they were almost without exception second-generation Muslims or Muslims Converts. 2
After 2016, the profiles became more inconsistent: the attacks carried a more individual signature and looked more improvised. The motivation of the perpetrators was no longer so clearly recognizable and was decoupled from the major strategic issues of global jihad.
This development suggests that global jihad was never particularly deeply rooted in society. In France, for example, the “terrorists” have no social basis: Because of their suicidal demeanor and better police cooperation and security technology, they can be defeated fairly easily.
So one can speak of a decline in global jihad, but not of a decline in local jihad. This is shown by the Taliban’s victory, as well as by the difficulties France has to contend with in Mali. Such territorial conflicts can no longer be viewed as mere sidelines of a globalized holy war, but, on the contrary, as processes that are deeply anchored in the societies in which they take place.
The perspective of political anthropology can help: all local jihads that endure are not satisfied with killing or establishing a reign of terror. The Taliban owe their influence above all to the fact that they are able to resolve micro-conflicts (over land and water or blood revenge and so on) .3 And the jihadist back and forth in the Sahel can only be seen through if one understands that the jihadists intervene in existing conflicts that states cannot control (land, water, ethnic and social tensions).
These local conflicts attract few foreign volunteers and cannot offer what constituted the greatest force of al-Qaeda and ISIS: the creation of a grand millenarian narrative that turned young radical internationalists who have broken with society into heroes new world.
The history of the Taliban, as well as the dissident al-Qaeda branch in Syria, Hai’at Tahrir al-Sham, shows that local jihads are subject to political constraints that can lead them to negotiate and to engage in a framework acceptable to the international community ( Compliance with borders, rejection of global terrorism) to “territorialize”.
This is exactly what the Taliban did, teaching a lesson to jihadists of all stripes as well as their opponents: the lesson that there are no military victories, only political victories.
1 The starting point for our analysis of this phenomenon of the local emirates was an investigation of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State of Afghanistan”, which was founded in 1985 in Nuristan in the west of the country. See Virginie Colombier and Olivier Roy (eds), “Tribes and Global Jihadism,” Oxford (Oxford University Press) 2018.
2 See Olivier Roy, “You love life, we love death”, Munich (Siedler) 2017.
3 See Adam Baczko and Gilles Dorronsoro, “Taliban – The Unknown Enemy,” LMd, September 2021.
Translated from the French by Andreas Bredenfeld
Olivier Roy is Professor of Political Science at the European University Institute in Florence.