It was never supposed to be like this. For a period, in late 2011, it seemed as if the so-called war on terror was won. The United States had killed two of al-Qaeda’s most important figureheads: Osama Bin Laden and the American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. Peaceful uprisings across North Africa suggested that a new, more democratic era was emerging in the region. Respectable commentators, who do not ordinarily lean towards hyperbole, regarded the decade-long struggle against that most ambiguous of abstract nouns – “terrorism” – as being over. “Al-Qaeda played no role in the Arab spring,” wrote Peter Bergen, a contributing editor of the New Republic, “and hasn’t been able to exploit in any meaningful way the most significant development in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman empire.”
The Syrian jihad has changed all that. The threat now emerging from Islamic State in the new Middle East is unprecedented for two reasons. The first relates to the sheer scale of mobilisation in Syria and Iraq. What IS has achieved is remarkable. Not only has it carved out a proxy state but it has mobilised the largest volunteer army of Sunni foreign fighters in recent history. Consequently, the threat facing Britain and the West is not just that much broader than previous iterations, but it has also been extended by at least a generation.
The second reason is the creation of newly ungoverned spaces in which individuals can learn bomb-making skills and also acquire combat experience. This is significant when analysing the number of failed plots in and against Britain over the past 14 years. Just two weeks after the London bombings of 7 July 2005, another series of bombs was placed on transport networks but failed to explode. Nearly two years later, on 29 June 2007, bombs were placed outside a nightclub in the Leicester Square area of central London; the next day, an explosive-laden Jeep was driven into Glasgow Airport. The following year, an attempt was made to bomb a family restaurant in Exeter.
In each of those instances terrorists had evaded the security services and placed explosive devices in public areas. Only good fortune born of incompetence saved lives. Back then terrorists were mostly unable to visit hot spots such as Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan’s tribal areas in order to learn their trade undetected. Instead, they relied largely on the internet to make crude and improvised devices. But in June 2012, with political unrest on Europe’s doorstep, Jonathan Evans, the then director general of Britain’s Security Service, baldly noted, “parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissive environment for al-Qaeda”.
Evans was speaking before IS morphed into the beast it has become today, the datedness of his remarks demonstrating just how fast events in the region have spiralled out of control. To appreciate just how grave the situation has become, consider Nasser Muthana, the young British fighter with IS who in July 2014 tweeted a picture of a bomb-making factory with the caption: “So the UK is afraid I come back [sic] with the skills I’ve gained.”
It was precisely this threat that Andrew Parker, who succeeded Evans as the head of the Security Service, spoke about last month in his Lord Mayor’s Defence and Security Lecture.
“The threat we are facing today is on a scale and at a tempo that I have not seen before in my career,” Parker said. In the past year the Security Service has thwarted six attacks in the UK and several more overseas. The attack on a Tunisian beach in June killed 30 British holidaymakers, demonstrating just how diversified the threat to both our citizens and our interests is becoming. This will only intensify in the coming years.
It now looks increasingly likely that IS has also carried out its first act of international terrorism by bombing a Metrojet flight en route from Sharm el-Sheikh in the Egyptian Sinai to St Petersburg in Russia. IS’s Sinai branch claimed responsibility for the atrocity, although its claims have not yet been categorically proven. If true, however, there are profound implications, not least that IS will have demonstrated its ability to bypass airport security procedures, whether for passengers or for staff.
Western airlines have long been an obsession of jihadists. Last Christmas, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula issued a call for attacks on British Airways and easyJet in response to what it described as the British government’s “arrogance”. American and French airliners were also identified as potential targets.
A senior official told me that in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, British intelligence officers assured the Prime Minister that the Games would be free from terrorism. Were Britain to host the 2016 Games the intelligence assessment would be very different. This is telling – the Syrian civil war was already in full swing by the time of the London Games, but it did not, at that stage, pose a significant threat to our national security.
In the early phases of the war, the terrorist threat to the West appeared to be in decline as jihadists made their way to Syria to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. There was little interest in carrying out attacks at home. A naive romanticism surrounded these early fighters. The Guardian’s George Monbiot compared them to volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. British fighters I was interviewing at the time seemed to appreciate this. One man from London with whom I developed a long-standing relationship even asked me to thank Monbiot on his behalf. “It really helped the mujahedin,” he said. This man epitomised the optimism of the early wave of fighters, who could not understand why they were considered a security threat. “Why is the gov [sic] calling us security threat and terrorists akhi [brother]?” he asked. He was sincerely bemused.
Nasser Muthana, the fighter who later boasted about his bomb-making skills, was also keen to reassure the government that Islamic State posed no threat. “Mi6 believe 300 Brits have returned to the UK . . . and how many terror attacks have they done? 0!!” he wrote. “We aren’t interested in you. We want Khilafa [the caliphate].”
The change in IS’s posturing towards the West came after the declaration of the caliphate in late June 2014. From that point the group adopted a more belligerent and expansionist policy, with the first edition of its English-language magazine promising to conquer Rome and defeat “crusaders” around the world.
Its fighters became more brazen. They cheered the beheading of western hostages and boasted of planning attacks in the West. There is a rationale for this: the caliphate cannot have static borders and must be territorially expansionist. Its duty is to confront the West and subjugate it to Islam.
Jihadist fighters believe they need a state ruled by a religiously sanctioned amir (leader) before waging wars of conquest. Without such an authority in place, offensive jihad cannot take place, because the group’s primary aim is to acquire and then amalgamate new territory under Islamic rule.
By contrast, defensive jihad requires no official sanction. Instead, jihad in this instance arises naturally, in response to external events such as invasion or occupation. Indeed, the Syrian jihad grew out of precisely these circumstances – an inevitable response to months of brutal repression after Bashar al-Assad tried forcibly to suppress peaceful protesters.
The distinction between offensive and defensive forms of jihad was popularised in the early modern era by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a Palestinian warrior-scholar who led the Arab contingent of mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Azzam argued that offensive wars are of less importance than defensive ones. The latter, he insisted, are fard al-ayn (an individual obligation), under which every Muslim is personally obliged to remove the source of belligerence. Wars of conquest are only fard al-kifayah (collective responsibility): an obligation that is communally satisfied provided someone undertakes it.
“It is a duty of the amir to assemble and send out an army unit into the land of war once or twice every year,” Azzam wrote. “Moreover, it is the responsibility of the Muslim population to assist him, and if he does not send an army he is in sin.”
For the members of IS, this, as much as anything else, explains their change in approach from June 2014 onwards.
One of the main problems for Islamic State at present is how to project power while trying to fight offensively. Like any military force, the group wants to achieve a competitive edge over its adversaries but realises it cannot achieve this technologically. Consequently IS has developed another approach – an asymmetry of fear – through which it has cultivated a reputation for brutality and barbarism that it hopes will act as a deterrent.
To achieve this, the group releases films of its acts of extreme violence, presented to the world as if each were a new offering from Stanley Kubrick or Quentin Tarantino. The strategy has proved remarkably effective. Shortly after the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh was captured in December last year (the following month, he was filmed being burned to death in a cage) the United Arab Emirates withdrew from coalition air raids against IS targets. The corollary was clear: the UAE would not expose its pilots to the risk of capture.
The Kurds have so far proved highly resilient against the advance of IS. As a result, the level of violence perpetrated against captured Peshmerga fighters has slowly increased as IS tries to intimidate its soldiers into acquiescence. One recent release is among its most barbarous yet. It begins with the (by now sadly) familiar scene of captured men, all wearing matching overalls, being forced to kneel in a line. A knife-wielding executioner delivers his message of foreboding before the captives are pushed to the floor and beheaded.
The depressing familiarity of these videos has eroded their potency. Not so for the Kurds. To restate IS’s nihilistic relentlessness, this video was intended to shock more than any other that had come before. The captured Kurds had their throats only partially cut by the executioners, who then used this opening physically to rip their heads off. The agonised captives are seen writhing in agony as their heads are yanked in tearing, jerking motions.
The violence spawned by Islamic State is not whimsical: there is always an underlying message or a rationale behind it. Tactics such as the horrific treatment of captured fighters has produced results in the past, as in 2014 when IS marched on Mosul. The Iraqi army melted away, abandoning posts and fleeing for refuge. Quite simply, no one was prepared to risk capture.
This approach derives from a well-established strategy first pursued by al-Qaeda in Iraq – from which IS grew. In the years immediately after the 11 September 2001 attacks, senior al-Qaeda theorists debated how the movement could endure the “war on terror” and emerge victorious. Two divergent views emerged.
The first came from Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian who argued that the global jihad movement would find it difficult to secure the kind of political sanctuary it had enjoyed under the Taliban. This would make it harder to maintain a centralised command-and-control structure, or to run training camps. Instead, he argued for a more diffuse approach, through which al-Qaeda would inspire individuals in the West to conduct random acts of terrorism: “lone-wolf” or “self-starter” terrorism.
Arguing against al-Suri was Abu Bakr Naji (widely believed to be the pen name of the Egyptian jihadist Mohammad Hasan al-Hakim). Naji wanted al-Qaeda to adopt a scorched-earth policy: more brutal attacks, more nihilism, more death. He believed the jihad movement’s adversaries could be scared off by its fighters making the cost of participation unacceptably high. Jihad, he argued, “is nothing but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [others] and massacring”. He recognised that such an approach would invariably result in significant loss of Muslim life, too – the very constituency in whose name he claimed to act – but dismissed any concerns about this with blithe indifference. Yes, people would lose their parents and their children but “such is war and the masses must become accustomed to it”, he surmised.
Successful military leaders from Islamic antiquity “knew the effect of rough violence in times of need”. This shaped Naji’s views about how al-Qaeda should proceed. Islam’s historic warriors had not been harsh without reason – “How tender were their hearts!” he wrote – but they were nonetheless compelled to act with severity because they “understood the matter of violence” and “the nature of disbelief and its people”. It was this reading of Islamic history and jurisprudence that led him to conclude that “we must burn the earth under the feet of the tyrants so that it will not be suitable for them to live in”.
The strategy of deterrence was set. “It behoves us to make them think one thousand times before attacking us,” Naji said.
Abu Musab al-Suri succeeded in convincing al-Qaeda’s central leadership – then based in Afghanistan and Pakistan – to adopt his approach. This was also embraced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (based in Yemen), which then, principally through its English-language magazine Inspire, began to urge attacks in the West by “lone wolves”. Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham, was a notable victim of this strategy. In May 2010, he was stabbed in the stomach at a constituency open surgery by Roshonara Choudhry after she downloaded Inspire and decided to “punish” Timms because he had voted in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In Iraq, however, the situation was different. There, fighters relished the prospect of a direct confrontation with the US and its partners. They adopted Naji’s approach and wanted to turn the entire country into a barbaric and brutalised canvas. Under the stewardship of its first leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq pursued a bruising course of action: attacking coalition forces in Iraq, provoking a sectarian war with the Iraqi Shias, and targeting western societies through terrorism.
Unencumbered and unchecked, Islamic State has now taken Naji’s vision to its extreme extent. One of the unintended consequences of his philosophy is its ability to create powerful bonds of camaraderie and solidarity among its practitioners. Much has been written of the way IS creates a sense of brotherhood among émigrés who join the group: yet this aspect is often overlooked. The diminution of anyone external to the group as “other”, coupled with the perpetration of extreme acts, has a profoundly unifying effect for those on the inside.
As such, there is little room for empathy or compassion for their former fellow British citizens. Consider this message published on social media by Raphael Hostey, a young Mancunian who travelled to Syria in October 2013. “Today’s Jumah Khutbah [Friday sermon] was about Britain,” he wrote, “and how Dawlatul-Islam [Islamic State] will come to them and kill them, enslaving their women and children.”
Ali Kalantar, a then 18-year-old from Coventry who had been studying for his A-levels before he joined IS, expressed similar sentiments. Having told his parents he needed money to buy a laptop for school, he booked a circuitous route to the front line to evade the security services, flying from Birmingham to Frankfurt and then on to Istanbul before travelling to Syria by land. “I can’t wait for the day we fight [Americans] on the ground,” he wrote. “Kill their mens, slave their womens [sic], orphan their kids.”
It isn’t only male fighters who revel in the sadism of IS justice. Khadijah Dare, a convert from Lewisham, in south-east London, who migrated to Syria with her husband, cheered the beheading of the American journalist James Foley in August 2014. “UK must b shaking up ha ha,” she wrote on Twitter. “I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terrorist!” Dare had previously posted pictures of her infant son carrying an AK-47 assault rifle.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, western female migrants are often among the most vociferous purveyors of violent content online. Whereas their husbands are able to fight on the front lines, these women at times feel frustrated by their inability to make a direct contribution towards the war effort. Trying to radicalise others through the internet and inspire attacks at home provides one way of assuaging this need. To that end, one western female who goes under the name of “Bint Mujahid” warned: “Live in fear. Sleeper cells and lone wolves are indetectable [sic]. And they will strike again, when you least suspect it.”
Gauging the extent and potency of this kind of threat is a difficult task. The best academic literature on the security risk posed by irregular volunteer fighters returning from conflict suggests that between 11 and 25 per cent of them become terrorists. There is limited solace in this. Yes, history suggests that most of those fighting in Syria and Iraq will not become terrorists at home, but there are two important caveats to consider. The first is that most will die in combat. The second is that, given the sheer scale of mobilisation in Syria and Iraq, even if you use conservative estimates, an exceptional number will still go on to present a substantial security risk.
If 750 Britons have made their way to the conflict, between 83 and 187 can be expected to pose some form of security challenge when they return. This represents the threat from returnees only. Terrorist attacks such as the 2014 Sydney café siege and Ottawa shooting were carried out by individuals who had otherwise wanted to join Islamic State but had been unable to do so.
The US and UK are both increasingly looking towards drone technology to mitigate the threat from IS. It is unclear just how many western fighters have been killed in drone strikes, but the Conservative government is believed to have agreed on a “kill list” of British citizens.
Abu Rahin Aziz, a former credit controller from Luton, was killed in early July this year after being targeted by the US military. Although it is not known whether the request for the strike came from British officials, Aziz, in the hours before his death, had been using social media to make threats against US interests. Specifically, he had warned that IS would attack the United States on 4 July.
A few days before that, Aziz had been looking forward to the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London. He hoped there would be more violent incidents, and boasted that IS would attack the UK, citing Covent Garden, Territorial Army offices and MPs as potential targets. And he named Theresa May, the Home Secretary, as an “enemy of Islam”.
Yet it is not just US drones that are targeting British citizens fighting for IS. In August, David Cameron took the unprecedented decision of authorising an RAF drone strike against Reyaad Khan. The 21-year-old was once a straight-A student from Cardiff who aspired to become a politician, and even Britain’s first prime minister of south Asian ethnic origin.
Like many of the young men who join IS, Khan revelled in its sadism. He boasted about executing prisoners, claimed to have participated in beheadings and warned he would become a suicide bomber. When he later tried to direct a plot to kill the Queen, David Cameron gave the order for the first targeted strike against a British citizen. Another Briton, Ruhul Amin from Aberdeen, was killed alongside him.
At the same time as RAF drones were killing Khan, the US struck against Junaid Hussain, a Birmingham-born computer hacker previously jailed for breaking into Tony Blair’s email account. He claimed to lead Islamic State’s “cyber caliphate”, an online army of hacktivists who, among other things, had hacked the US Central Command Twitter account.
All of these men tried to inspire attacks at home using both the internet and instant messaging services on smartphones, such as WhatsApp, Kik messenger, Wickr and Surespot. These play an important role in connecting IS fighters with those who cannot physically migrate to the caliphate.
Just last month, a 15-year-old boy from Blackburn was given a life sentence after pleading guilty to terrorism offences, so becoming Britain’s youngest terrorist. He had been in frequent contact with an Australian fighter, Abu Khaled al-Cambodi, who introduced him to an IS supporter in Melbourne, Australia, called Sevdet Besim. The Blackburn boy (who cannot be named for legal reasons) then began urging the 18-year-old Besim to behead a police officer during the Anzac Day celebrations, at the military parade to commemorate the first major battle fought by Australian and New Zealand forces in the First World War.
Evidence of the plot emerged following intercepted communications between the men – an issue that came into sharp relief on 4 November when Theresa May presented a draft of the Investigatory Powers Bill to parliament. Under surveillance plans being proposed by the government, details of the internet activity of everyone in the country would be stored for a year.
Concerns persist about the proposed legislation despite the Home Secretary’s attempt to create a framework of regulatory oversight while also limiting the amount of data that is captured. Much of this boils down to a debate about precisely what kind of society we want, given the need to balance civil liberties against security. The bill has been significantly watered down since May first began to formulate it, with the provision of what the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, calls “a powerful, outward-facing super-regulator”. Judges will now have the power to block operations authorised by the Home Secretary.
Yet, for all the talk of oversight and regulation, there is much in the bill to cause alarm. One of the provisions would require companies to help the intelligence agencies hack personal devices. To that end, there has been much discussion of banning instant messaging services such as WhatsApp and iMessage, or at least the technology within them that allows for encryption.
All of this rather misses the point. Easily accessible platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were wildly popular among jihadists operating in 2013 but have since largely lost prominence. This is the result, in part, of the social media companies actively pulling terrorist content from their own platforms; however, it is far from being the chief cause. More importantly the jihadists have lost confidence in those platforms and are migrating to new services such as Telegram.
Herein lies the challenge for Theresa May: not only has the technology already moved on but, as events in the Levant demonstrate, the threat now facing the West is diversifying, deepening and becoming ever more sophisticated. It is also a threat that has proved to be resilient and committed: having endured nearly 14 years of a so-called war on terror, global jihadism is stronger than ever.
Islamic State has captured this spirit of resolute defiance perfectly. Whenever its name is called, supporters chant: “Baqiya wa tatamaddad” – “lasting and expanding”.
Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London
Now listen to Shiraz discussing this piece on the NS podcast:
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain