Everyday terror: the bomb-making factory set up by 7/7 bombers in a council flat bedroom in Leeds. Photo: July 7 Inquests/PA
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David Selbourne: The challenge of Islam

The author was asked by John Kerry to write a briefing paper on the Islamist threat. He explains here what he told the US secretary of state and why he feels progressives have allowed themselves to be silenced by frightened self-censorship and the stifling of debate. Read Mona Siddiqui’s response to the piece, The Arabisation of Islam, here.

The In Anemas gas plant, Algeria, seen from the air. It was attacked by Islamists in January 2013.

 

A beheading in Woolwich, a suicide bomb in Beijing, a blown-up marathon in Boston, a shooting in the head of a young Pakistani girl seeking education, a destroyed shopping mall in Nairobi – and so it continues, in the name of Islam, from south London to Timbuktu. It is time to take stock, especially on the left, since these things are part of the world’s daily round.

Leave aside the parrot-cry of “Islamophobia” for a moment. I will return to it. Leave aside, too, the pretences that it is all beyond comprehension. “Progressives” might ask instead: what do Kabul, Karachi, Kashmir, Kunming and a Kansas airport have in common? Is it that they all begin with “K”? Yes. But all of them have been sites of recent Islamist or, in the case of Kansas, of wannabe-Islamist, attacks; at Wichita Airport planned by a Muslim convert ready to blow himself up, and others, “in support of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. “We cannot stop lone wolves,” a British counterterrorism expert told us after Woolwich. Are they “lone”? Of course not.

A gas facility in southern Algeria, a hospital in Yemen, an Egyptian police convoy in the Sinai – it’s complex all right – a New Year’s party in the southern Philippines, a railway station in the Caucasus, a bus terminal in Nigeria’s capital, and on and on, have all been hit by jihadis, with hostages taken, suicide belts detonated, cars and trucks exploded, and bodies blown to bits. And Flight MH370? Perhaps. In other places – in Red Square and Times Square, in Jakarta and New Delhi, in Amman and who-knows-where in Britain – attacks have been thwarted. But in 2013 some 18 countries got it in the neck (so to speak) from Islam’s holy warriors.

There are battlefields and battlefields in this conflict. Some are theatres of actual or potential civil war, most often when Sunnis and Shias are at each other’s throats on behalf, respectively, of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Other battlefields are in failed or failing Muslim states, others again where the “infidel” has unwisely intruded upon and assaulted Muslim lands. At the same time, weapons and warriors are in constant movement in Islam’s cause across dis­solving national boundaries, many of them of western colonialism’s creation. And in India, with its 175 million Muslims, their mujahedin will be in action soon enough if Hindu nationalists come to power this month.

Jihadist groups, from Pakistan to the Philippines, also fight each other. But for the most part they are consolidating and expanding – often as affiliates of al-Qaeda – in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Maghreb, in Somalia and Kenya, in Iraq and Syria, in Gaza, in Bangladesh and in south-east Asia. There are separatist or secessionist Islamic insurgencies, too, from Russia’s Caucasus to north-west China, in southern Thailand, in Burma, in northern Nigeria and in divided Kashmir.

Warriors for Islam, believing that they are under “infidel” threat, today range an increasingly frontier-less world. That’s “globalisation” too. A car-bombing in New York – which failed – was planned by a Pakistani-American trained in a tribal area of northern Waziristan. Many would-be warriors from western countries learned their skills from Taliban instructors, going on to fight in Iraq as they now fight in Syria. There, ubiquitous “Bearers of the Sword” and “Defenders of the Faith” from Britain and France, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Indonesia and Kazakhstan, and even Uighurs from Chinese Xinjiang, are to be found armed to the teeth in the battle against Assad while being trained for future combat in their countries of origin.

In the Islamist merry-go-round, jihadis from Libya – after the country’s collapse – went on to Syria, Tunisian holy warriors crossed into Mali, Egyptian and Canadian Muslim fighters were among the attackers on the refinery in Algeria, and Somalis from Minnesota have returned home to join al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate that carried out the Kenyan mall attack. Ugandan Islamists are in eastern Congo, and a Malaysian army captain was linked to two of the 9/11 hijackers. Beat this? No.

It is not “Islamophobia” that registers these facts. Instead, there is an objective historical need, and duty, to record radical Islam’s many-sided and determined advance upon the “infidel” world. Most still do not know what manner of force – the millions of peaceful Muslims notwithstanding – has struck it. And, with its own arms and ethics, it will continue to do so, perhaps till kingdom come.

Here US and western defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq – what else were they? – weigh heavily in the scale of things. In Afghanistan, despite the loss of many thousands of lives and at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, with huge waste and corruption by military contractors and with reliance on unsavoury local satraps, the Taliban remain active throughout the land. Even the US-trained Afghan army is riddled with their supporters. Yet American illusion has seen victory in the coming retreat, and in defeat a “mission accomplished”, in David Cameron’s absurd judgement.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan, set to recover from yet another western incursion into its land, has entered a long-term security pact with Iran. Similarly in Iraq, years of death and destruction and billions in reconstruction grants mostly lost to local and US corruption have left no stable government nor a reliable western ally. Instead, there is an intensifying Shia-Sunni civil war, with thousands of dead in 2013, while al-Qaeda insurgents have reconquered areas in western Iraq previously “captured” – another illusion – by US marines.

The complexities (and double-games) of the Islamic world are a labyrinth for the “infidel”. It is a labyrinth that western reason, such as it now is, has never mastered, and that it cannot master now with hellfire missiles and unmanned drones.

After all, the political wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood calls itself the “Freedom and Justice” party – well, yes and no, and it certainly offers little freedom or justice to women. Again, some of the Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia included, pose as western allies and host US air and naval bases but give covert support to selected jihadist groups. And what does the western illus­ionist make of the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and are said to have had covert financial and logistical support from Saudi diplomats and intelligence officials?

The labyrinth of nuclear-armed Pakistan is denser. Struggling with its own jihadist insurgency in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, it is attempting peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, yet there is growing Islamist radicalism in the ranks of the Pakistani army itself. The Pakistani intelligence agencies also play their own games – and are accused of sheltering some of the Afghan Taliban – while Pakistan’s parliament condemned the US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. In this labyrinth, there are other elements that will for ever be beyond US and western mastery now; the influence of China – the main source of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – is growing in the region.

There is little in all this for “progressives” to cheer. Yet the left continues covertly to celebrate US foreign policy blunders and defeats, while the naive see jihadists as a minority of “fanatics”. It is not so simple. To add to the confusion, President Obama’s stances, however well intentioned, have made their own contribution to the Islamic renaissance. Or as he expressed it in a speech in Cairo in June 2009, America and Islam “share common principles . . . of justice and progress, tolerance” – tolerance? – “and the dignity of all human beings”.

 

Everyday terror: the bomb-making factory set up by 7/7 bombers in a council flat bedroom in Leeds. Photo: July 7 Inquests/PA

 

The west and the US, frightened by their defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, have lost their way in Assad’s Syria. Here the Muslim labyrinth is particularly dense. For Syria is an Iranian client state, backed by Russia and even North Korea, which is trying to fight off al-Qaeda-linked holy warriors from every corner of the Muslim (and non-Muslim) world, while a political alliance opposed to Bashar al-Assad tries to make its voice heard amid the carnage.

All the while, less-than-notable “world statesmen” have dithered over what aid to give to the anti-Assad forces, and wavered over whether to launch a military strike against Syria’s ruler. Between them, they have surrendered influence (as in Egypt) to Russia, able by skilful manoeuvre simultaneously to support Assad while moving to relieve him of his chemical weapons. As the Syrian civil war deepens, with over 150,000 dead and more than two million refugees, there have even been incoherent western attempts to treat secretly both with Assad over security co-operation and with the jihadist gangs, as heads roll in radical Islamic style and peace talks fail.

Wearied or sickened by all this? Yes. But it is the fate of the impotent western powers that is being determined by it. For the “jihad” is advancing in Syria to the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, while the muez­zin’s call to an increasingly ardent faith grows more insistent throughout the Islamic world.

In Shia Iran, memories of the historic Persian empire are quickening as Tehran’s foes flail around in the face of its ayatollahs’ ambitions and wiles. Above all, Iran has got the west on the ropes with its nuclear programme. The interim “freeze” to its uranium enrichment activities was not what it seemed; on Iranian TV on 21 February Behrouz Kamalvandi, of the national Atomic Energy Organisation, declared that the country’s nuclear commitments were “temporary and non-obligatory”. Iran still has a stockpile of enriched uranium, and still has tens of thousands of centrifuges, with nuclear research continuing, including on new advanced centrifuges. A “freeze” on further enrichment up to weapons grade, and a “downgrading” of some of its existing stockpile to less potent levels, were more tokens than substance. It left Iran usefully on the cusp of producing a nuclear weapon within a very short time, if (or when) it chooses, while it can continue to develop and test ballistic missiles.

It was also, yet again, a “deal” obtained from western weakness, not strength. After all, the alternative was an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, some now buried too deep for aerial assault, and a new war to be lost after those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Iran, the “deal” was rightly hailed by the regime as “a victory over the west”. Or as Iran’s “moderate” president, Hassan Rowhani put it on Twitter on 14 January, “the world powers surrendered to the Iranian nation’s will”. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s “supreme leader”, did not hide the Iranian position. “I am in favour of showing a champion’s leniency,” he declared of the western willingness to compromise with Iran as the Pax Americana wanes in the world.

Nothing could have been lamer than US Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion during the negotiations that the Iranians had a “choice”: to treat with the world, or to “leave themselves more isolated”. Instead, the US was once more acting in fear and in the impotent name of “outreach” to a foe. But Iran will never be the “strategic partner”of the US as some wishful thinkers hope.

With more than 500 executions, including for “waging war on God”, since the “moderate” Rowhani came to office – more per capita, one might say, than any other country – with its new pact with Afghanistan, its joint naval manoeuvres with Pakistan, its growing influence in Iraq, its behind-the-scenes accords with Russia, its improving relations with Islamising Turkey (and even with Jordan and Morocco), its dominance over Damascus, its ambitions to rule the Gulf and with two warships despatched in January to the Atlantic, Iran’s present course is clear. Moreover, the true secret of the nuclear “deal” was that Iran does not yet need a nuclear weapon, but it did urgently need sanctions relief. With its Revolutionary Guard shipping arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza, it will move on to nuclear weapons in its own good time.

As for Israel, its mere existence, threatened by both Shia and Sunni jihadists, is ready-made to serve radical Islam’s cause. Neither Israel’s belligerence on the one hand nor its seeming desire for a political settlement on the other can abate the proclaimed intent of Hamas, which is funded not only by Iran but also by Turkey and others, to “eliminate” it. Such intransigence is matched by insensate Israeli colonisation, giving further aid to the jihadis’ cause. At the same time, the truth of the Jews’ multi-millennial association – long pre-dating the existence of Islam – with Jerusalem and the “land of Israel” is flatly denied, with Palestinian militants laying claim to the same land as “our land by right”.

Nothing, it seems, can halt the will among some for the extinction of Israel, while Iran’s Khamenei could describe it in November 2013 as the “rabid dog” of the region.

A “Jewish state” is also seen by the holy warrior (and others) as by definition “racist”; with some reason in the case of Jewish zealots. Yet some of us take the notion of a theocratic “Muslim state” governed by Islamic sharia – there are many such states – in our stride. With Israeli security and Palestinian aspiration seemingly irreconcilable, this conflict appears beyond resolution, whether by John Kerry or by any other representative of America’s fading imperium.

After the publication in the US in 2005 of my book The Losing Battle With Islam, Kerry rang me to discuss the arguments in it. When he became secretary of state I told him (with some presumption) that the non-Muslim world is too unaware of what is afoot, hobbled by its wishful thinking and lack of knowledge, and whistling in the dark. In a position paper I wrote for him, I set out a list of the failures that the west, and especially the US, has on its hands. Among them are the failure to recognise the ambition of radical Islam; the failure to condemn the silence of most Muslims at the crimes committed in their names; the failure to respond adequately to the persecution of Christians in many Muslim lands; the failure to grasp the nature of the non-military skills that are being deployed against the non-Muslim world – skills of manoeuvre, skills in deceiving the gullible, skills in making temporary truces in order to gain time (as in Iran); and, perhaps above all, the failure to realise the scale and speed of Islam’s advance.

“If things continue like this,” I told friend Kerry, “the history of our age may one day be written under a caliphate’s supervision.” I added brashly: “Get your aides to read the Quran. Keep political correctors at bay,” and “stop looking for the emergence of Jeffersonian democracies in Muslim lands”. “It has gotten me thinking,” he replied; and after further exchanges, “I agree with a great deal of what you’ve said.”

But in the rising swirl of events, the secretary of state can no more control the incoming tide than could Canute. In perpetual motion, Kerry is disabled by the chaos of indecision and interference in Obama’s White House. He is handicapped by having to make near-simultaneous moves on dozens of Muslim chessboards against generally more cunning opponents.

In the chaos, and like others in the US administration, Kerry called for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down and thus helped open the way for the Muslim Brotherhood before complaining that it had “stolen” the Egyptian election (by ballot-rigging and intimidation). Naivety, masquerading as diplomacy, also led him to compliment Pakistan for its help in tracking down al-Qaeda’s leader. Yet Bin Laden had been protected for years by Pakistan’s own security apparatus. Kerry even “pleaded” with the Iranians to sign up to a nuclear deal.

The word “plead” tells us all we need to know about America’s failing powers. But Kerry has also been buffeted to and fro by vacillation in the White House, excluded from its inner councils – an alternative state department of the mediocre whom Obama prefers to have around him – and has been briefed against to the US press.

His is an unenviable position, despite appearances. For the US to be without a coherent foreign policy strategy in the face of the complexities of the Islamic world’s advance is no surprise. But for it to be quite so disabled points to an unusual degree of confusion in high places.

In August 2013 a White House spokesman declared that al-Qaeda was “severely diminished”. A mere two months later, the director of the FBI announced that “the threat posed by al-Qaeda has become hydra-headed”. Which? And as the Pax Americana recedes into the past, there is always an ostrich – in this case, Obama’s lightweight national security adviser, Susan Rice – to tell the American public that “US leadership”, as it grows frailer and as cuts to its military bite deeper, will “continue to be unrivalled”, and that the US “will remain the most influential, powerful and important country in the world”. Really?

But at the heart of US weakness is Obama himself. In foreign fields, his strategies – in so far as they can be identified – have been dithering, improvised and uncertain. He deserves a measure of sympathy: today’s Islam is the most redoubtable adversary to the American imperium it has ever faced, the challenge of the Comintern included.

In many of its theatres, the complexities, skills and deceits of the Muslim world would have bewildered a Machiavelli. In others, American wishful thinking can reach comic levels. When Bin Laden was killed in May 2011 al-Qaeda, declared Obama, was now a “shadow of its former self”, near “decapacitated”. In May 2012, similar illusions told him that the Taliban’s momentum had been “broken”; in November last year, that Iran’s “most likely paths to a bomb” had been “cut off” or (in faux-macho style) “rolled back”. And so on.

It is the wishful thinking of a man who is a non-belligerent at heart. In normal times this is a virtue. But these are not normal times: the US is playing a decreasingly significant role in the world’s conflicts, even as Islamist ambition and reach – despite the internecine hatreds in Muslim ranks – break new bounds.

This ambition grows more confident by the day, taking reverses in its stride. In the face of Obama’s risk-aversion (or idleness), Islamists make no bones about their aspiration for “mastership of the world”, as Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, put it in December 2011. Muslim (and not merely Islamist) disdain for “the west” is also growing; in July 2012, the speaker of the Iranian parliament des­cribed it as a “dark spot in the present era”.

Such confidence, or arrogance, is easily understood. For these are times in which conversions to Islam in western countries are accelerating. Today, one-quarter of humanity is Muslim. It is a proportion that is rising steadily, making possible a Muslim majority in Russia, for example, by the century’s end. To the marginalised and lost in free societies, Islam increasingly offers an identity, an ethic, and a home. In the eyes of the Muslim Brotherhood, America “does not champion moral and human values” and “cannot lead humanity”. Agree or not, it is clear that “freedom ’n’ liberty”, especially in the form of the “free market” with its crazed impulse to endless “growth”, will turn out one day to have been no match for the faith. Tony Blair’s anxious speech to Bloomberg the other day suggests that the big corporate interests that he represents are beginning to be aware of it.

To the aid of Islam has also come the betrayal by much of today’s left of its notionally humane principles, as Christians are assaulted and murdered (shades of what was done to the Jews in the 1930s) and their churches desecrated and destroyed from Egypt to the Central African Republic, from Iran to Indonesia, and from Pakistan to Nigeria. Islam can kill its own apostates, too; in many Muslim countries denies reciprocity to other faiths in rights of worship; and seeks to prevent reasoned discussion about its beliefs by attempted resort to blasphemy laws.

So where is the old left’s centuries-long espousal of free speech and free thought? Where is the spirit of Tom Paine? The answer is simple. It has been curbed by frightened self-censorship and by the stifling of debate, in a betrayal of the principles for which “progressives” were once prepared to go to the stake. And just as some Jews are too quick to call anti-Zionists “anti-Semites”,
so some leftists are too quick to tar critics of Islam as “Islamophobes”.

To add to such falsehoods come the illusionists of every stripe, with their unknowing, simplistic or false descriptions of Islam as a “religion of peace”. Even today’s Pope – as the Christian faithful were being harried, persecuted or put to the sword in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and beyond – told the world in November 2013 that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence”. But read the text yourself, and you will see that jihadists can find plenty justification for the acts they commit, even if most Muslims are pacific.

Karl Marx was wiser than the Pope. In March 1854, he wrote that for “Islamism” – the word was already in use – “the Infidel is the enemy” and that the Quran “treats all foreigners as foes”.

The present renaissance of Islam, additionally provoked, as ever, by western aggressions against its lands, is an old story of swift movement and conquest, as in the 7th century. Is something like it stirring again? Perhaps; you decide. In 50 years’ time the world will know for sure.

David Selbourne is a political philosopher and commentator. “The Losing Battle With Islam” is published by Prometheus Books

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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