Radicalised jihadists have done untold damage to Islam’s image


The destructive power of a violent fringe

Feb 14th 2019Print edition | Special report

NO PLACE IN Europe has done more to nurture Europe’s jihadists than the quaint neighbourhood of Molenbeek in Brussels. Some of its youth planned the Paris attacks in November 2015 and the suicide-bombings in Brussels five months later. Molenbeek is now quiet, but Johan Leman, a veteran social worker who knew one of the bombers, finds the lull almost more unnerving than the attacks. Since the jihadists first appeared in the 1990s, he twice thought they had gone, but they struck again years later and more violently than before. “They are incubating again,” he says.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims is law-abiding and has no truck with Islamic State (IS). Of the 30m of those who live in the West, just 7,000 joined the terrorist organisation’s battles abroad. Even fewer perpetrated violence in Europe. Yet militant groups like IS have a disproportionate influence on how the West sees Muslims. An opinion poll by Pew in 2017 found that IS caused more concern in the West than any other international issue, above climate change and the global economy. A tiny radicalised fringe group is tarring Islam in the West with an undeserved brush.

Jihadism has its origins in the liberation struggles against Western colonialism in the Middle East. Religious leaders in Algeria, Libya and Palestine waged jihads against their French, Italian and British overlords in the 19th and 20th centuries. Defence of Islam was just one of the reasons militants picked up arms to push out the West. Once the foreign armies had gone, those hostilities faded. From the 1950s onwards Western governments and Islamists had a common foe: the pro-Soviet nationalist regimes that took power in the Middle East. In the 1980s they joined forces to remove the Soviets from Afghanistan.

Back then Abdullah Azzam, the founder of al-Qaeda, an army of predominantly Arab Islamist volunteers in Afghanistan, got an American visa to tour America’s mosques to raise funds for jihad. After Osama bin Laden took the helm, many of his henchmen found asylum in Europe. But the relationship soured. Soon after the Soviets had left, American forces moved into Saudi Arabia to oust Iraq from Kuwait. Allies became enemies again, culminating in the attacks of September 11th 2001 when al-Qaeda used hijacked planes to fell the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre and part of the Pentagon in Washington, DC. America declared war on terror, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and attracted a fresh generation of recruits to confront them. Al-Qaeda spread underground.

In 2014 IS swept the heartlands of the Middle East, mesmerising Muslims and non-Muslims alike with the speed and barbarity of its victories. Al-Qaeda had been focused on getting the West out of Muslim lands and ending its support for Arab dictators it deemed apostates and stooges. IS tried to carve a “caliphate” out of the Middle East’s failed states as a base and prepared for global expansion. Its view of the world, rooted in classical texts, was beguilingly simple. Those it had conquered were dar al-Islam (the territory of Islam). Those yet to be conquered were dar al-harb (the territory of war). Through multiple channels, from pulpits to social media, it launched a worldwide call for support.

This ideological shift triggered a clear change in recruitment. Al-Qaeda had aspired to create an intellectual elite and its disciples were almost all Arabs. IS appealed to all Muslims. Their first task was to cement the caliphate. Those who could should make the hijra, or flight to the new state, emulating the followers of the Prophet Muhammad who left pagan-ruled Mecca for a new Islamic state in Medina. Those who were unable to make the journey should fight behind enemy lines.

The romance of radicalism

For a small, radicalised segment of the Muslim population, IS had a magnetic appeal. A disproportionately large number of this group came from the West. Muslims in western Europe account for only 1.5% of the world’s total Muslim population of 1.8bn, but made up more than a sixth of the 30,000 foreign fighters who joined IS after its declaration of the caliphate in 2014. Terrorism experts estimate that one-third of the total have been killed, one-third are still at large and, worryingly, one-third have returned to their home countries. Still, the vast majority of IS attacks in Europe and America were carried out by Muslims who had never been to Syria or Iraq but chose to fight from home. Of 455 jihadist terrorists, 70% were citizens of the countries where they perpetrated the attacks, and half were native-born.

Earlier jihads, in Algeria and Bosnia in the 1990s, had taken place on Europe’s doorstep. The number of supporters they attracted were smaller, but for some young Muslims they promised adventure and heroism, akin to the Spanish civil war which drew European romantics in the 1930s. “I don’t see myself as an extremist,” says Ismail Royer, an American who converted to Islam and went to fight in Bosnia and Kashmir. “I see myself as having been naive, romantic, a Don Quixote kind of guy.” He renounced violence while in jail in America and now works for a Washington-based NGO promoting religious freedom.

Mr Royer had been radicalised by jihadist preachers who were born in America but had grown up in the Middle East and later returned with a new ideology. Others were swayed by Arab veterans of the Afghan war who won asylum in the West in the 1990s. France also unwittingly played a part in disseminating the ideology. It feared that the Algerian civil war then in progress might spread to Muslims with Algerian roots in France. After two jihadist attacks, including one in Paris in 1994, it arrested many of its barbus, or beards, causing an exodus to Belgium, Germany and Britain.

Although al-Qaeda had little interest in Western Muslims, other Islamist groups courted them. Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Liberation Party, was born in Palestine in the 1950s, but acquired a mass following in Britain and Denmark with its call to restore a global caliphate. An offshoot, al-Muhajiroun, more openly espoused violence. Its charismatic preachers packed London’s 8,000-seat Wembley Arena, urging followers to boycott Western democracies and eschew secular lifestyles as a manifestation of kufr (unbelief). Other conservative schools, such as the Salafists, were less political and mostly rejected violence, but advocated keeping away from non-Muslims. Some Salafist scholars spread hate of non-Muslims of all kinds.

In some parts of Europe such teaching dovetailed with an already divided society. But it had broader reach, too. Unlike the foreign-run mosques of the first generation, it packaged Islam in the vernacular. On the pretext of recovering the pristine faith of the Prophet, Salafists purged the first generation’s traditional customs that second-generation Muslims, and converts raised in the West, found so alienating.

“They offered Islam for those who had no tradition,” says Azhar Majothi, a British Muslim scholar of Salafism at Nottingham University. Kubra Gumusay, a German Muslim writer, concurs. “Religious identity was often used by native-born Muslims as a tool to dissociate themselves from the ethnic identities of their parents,” she notes. In particular, it liberated girls constrained by their parents’ traditions. Many teenage girls were driven to IS’s caliphate abroad by dreams of female activism, as well as the desire to escape arranged marriages. Some 17% of Europe’s foreign fighters were women.

An assertive Islamic identity particularly appealed to second-generation Muslims who did not feel quite at home with Western ways. “They were rebelling against both their parents and society,” says M’hammed Henniche, a communal leader in Saint Denis, a suburb of Paris.

Not many preachers openly advocated violence in the West, and many Salafists opposed breaking the law. But when IS surfaced, it found a constituency whose ear could be tuned to their message. Second-generation migrants had already perpetrated several attacks. In 2004 Mohammad Bouyeri, a Dutch-born Berber Islamist, killed Theo van Gogh, a film-maker who produced documentaries criticising Islam. The note left on his body read, “Europe, you’re next.” In 2005 three second-generation British Muslims and a convert blew themselves up on London’s public-transport system, killing 52.

Half of the jihadists who carried out attacks in the West since 9/11 were radicalised online, according to New America, a think-tank based in Washington, DC. Some preachers streamed self-erasing lectures on Snapchat. Their messages were particularly lethal in America, given the ready availability of weapons. Since 2013, 87 people have been killed in terrorist attacks there. “We’re bigger than ever,” insists a Danish organiser of Hizb ut-Tahrir. “You just can’t see us.” Germany’s spy agency agrees. It estimates that the number of Salafists providing a pool of recruits for jihadists has increased from under 4,000 in 2013 to more than 10,000 today.

Preachers ousted from their pulpits whispered invitations to meet privately to worshippers at Friday prayers. And increasingly gyms and schools became recruitment centres. Friends plotted their hijra from gritty estates and stifling parental control in the schoolyard. A dozen left one summer holiday from Campus de Brug high school in a Brussels suburb. In Dinslaken, a working-class town in Germany’s Rhineland, Lamya Kaddor, a high-school teacher of Islamic studies, discovered one day that her pupils had gone. “They knew nothing about Islam,” she says. “They took drugs, went to parties, had girlfriends.”

Europe’s prisons provided another source of recruits. They contained large numbers of Muslim inmates convicted for criminal offences who were already well-versed in skills like smuggling and gun-running. Two-thirds of foreign fighters in Germany and the Netherlands had a criminal record. Jihadism and petty crime were so intertwined that some used the term “gangster Islam”. Muslim chaplains found themselves being turned away when they tried to visit prisoners of their faith.

The suspension of Saudi funding, under Western pressure, also encouraged some Salafist groups to find less legitimate sources of finance. IS had a particular knack for penetrating the underworld and giving criminals a cause. Infidel assets, explained IS’s leader in Germany, were ghanima, or spoils of war. Khalid Zerkani, an IS recruiter from Morocco, followed the hashish trail from farms deep in the country’s Rif mountains to the waystations in Europe where many of the Rif’s Berbers lived, and eventually settled in Belgium’s Molenbeek. “He was a father figure,” says a local social worker. “He would ask about your future and explain how you could find a better job, a better salary and a just society under the sharia. And your sins would be forgiven.” Mr Zerkani was arrested in 2014.

One of his recruits, Ibrahim Abdeslam, owned Les Béguines, a gay bar in Molenbeek that was repeatedly raided for drugs. He sold it six weeks before donning a suicide-vest and blowing himself up in a bar during the Paris attacks in November 2015 that killed 130. When his brother, Salah, who planned the getaway, was eventually captured in March 2016, his friends retaliated four days later with attacks on the Brussels metro and airport, killing 32.

Les Béguines was shut down soon after the Brussels attack, but would-be jihadists can easily find other places to meet. For some, the gangsters still carry street-cred. At L’Epicerie, a Molenbeek warehouse turned into a theatre by locals of Moroccan origin, teenagers offer their rendition of a parents’ evening. “You’ve been playing truant. Why?” asks the teacher in the play. “I went to Afghanistan,” shrugs the boy. The audience laughs.

For most Western Muslims the appeal of jihadism reassuringly tails off after two generations. Only 7% of attacks in the West were perpetrated by grandchildren of immigrants. But police fear a new wave of violence when the current crop of radicalised prisoners are released. If places like Molenbeek are to break the cycle of jihad, young Muslims will need to feel properly at home in the West.

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