The Resurgence of Terror

Counter-extremism Initiatives Are the Key to Eliminate Jihadist Groups

An Afghan security personnel gestures as he stands guard at the site a day after a car bomb explosion in Kabul on August 4, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)
An Afghan security personnel gestures as he stands guard at the site a day after a car bomb explosion in Kabul on August 4, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

The Resurgence of Terror

Terrorism, be it in South Asia, the Middle East, or West Africa, is regrettably enjoying a resurgence. The US decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan has, as anticipated, only emboldened the Taliban, who are exploiting the withdrawal to advance on critical cities and seize vast swathes of Afghan territory, terrorizing and murdering civilians in the process.

The US has had a military presence in Afghanistan for twenty years with very little to show for it. The Taliban are stronger than ever, Afghan citizens, especially women, are as disempowered as they were two decades ago, and to add insult to injury, al Qaeda are still operating in Afghanistan. Indeed, in order to fight off the US-backed, already-in-retreat Afghan military, the Taliban are predictably turning to al Qaeda for support. The Pentagon has issued a warning that within two years of the US withdrawal, other terrorist groups, namely al Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS), are likely to regenerate in Afghanistan. This would enable them to expand their networks and ideological reach, and to launch attacks from within new territory. Afghanistan’s neighbors are already frightened at the prospect of the escalating terror threat seeping into their countries.

The reality of contemporary terrorism is that it is a phenomenon that can no longer be contained in a single country or region, certainly not in the long-term. Given the opportunity, terrorists opt to expand their operations. Cross-border terrorism, amplified by technology and cyber warfare, is the name of the game.

People walk among shelters at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Islamic State (ISIS) group fighters, in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh governorate on August 2, 2021. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

Last month, ISIS, a terrorist group allegedly ‘defeated’ in 2019, declared it was responsible for a suicide bombing in a market in Baghdad that left thirty Iraqi civilians dead and dozens wounded. In the last year, there’s been a dramatic resurgence of terrorism in the Middle East. Global economic devastation, brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, has meant that the governments of Iraq and Syria, whose economies were already in tatters, were forced to devote whatever resources remained at their disposal towards mitigating the ensuing economic, health, political crises. The wider international community, grappling with the pandemic, also had to deprioritize its counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East. Dormant terrorist groups such as ISIS saw the global distraction as an opportunity to re-emerge.

However, the region that is perhaps most afflicted with terrorist violence, and that is arguably getting the least amount of media coverage, is West Africa, where various ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates such as Boko Haram, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin in the Sahel and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara are gaining power. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, the growing terror threat is fueling the global refugee crisis as people flee the violence and instability, often flocking to neighboring, equally poor states, who are struggling to care for their own populations, let alone refugees.

In truth, groups like ISIS were never really defeated and won’t be defeated in the near future. When ISIS lost its remaining territory in Iraq and Syria in 2019, the group’s senior leaders reassured their followers that, in time, they would regroup and re-establish their caliphate. The temporary loss of territory, though certainly a setback, is a minor one to an organization that relies on ideology rather than any geographical base. That is the root of the problem.

Regardless of the group in question, so long as the Islamist ideology they propagate resonates with certain Muslims, so long as it has appeal, the terrorism threat won’t be eliminated. It is precisely why policymakers seeking to strengthen national and international security should arguably devote more effort into counter-extremism initiatives rather than counter-terrorism. Radicalization occurs in the mind long before it translates into violence. It is often the case that those who are radicalized never physically commit any violent acts themselves. Nonetheless, their tacit approval of the violence carried out by a tiny minority of terrorists, is vital to the terrorists’ success.

A resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle waves an Islamist flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city, Syria August 24, 2014. (Photo by Stringer /REUTERS)

The remnants of ISIS

So, the question is, how is it that ISIS retained a presence in Syria and Iraq, despite the deaths of many of their fighters, the death of their caliph, the loss of their territory, and the disintegration of their physical caliphate? One reason is that their ideology thrived in Syrian refugee camps wherein ISIS women and children were held following their ‘defeat’. Manned by the Syrian Democratic Forces - YPG and other Kurdish forces that effectively fought ISIS but were subsequently abandoned by the US – the refugee camps remained breeding grounds for radicalization, from which female followers could indoctrinate their children and impose their extremist interpretation of Islamic law. There are numerous reports of women in these camps attacking Kurdish guards, chastising, torturing, and even murdering women and children who sought to escape or deviated from their form of Islam. That many of these female followers remained fiercely loyal to ISIS serves as a reminder that the role of women in abetting terrorism is underexplored and dismissed. These women are vital to the survival of ISIS ideology and in ensuring that it lives on in the next generation of extremists. 


The ideology that all these groups have in common, is often referred to as Islamism, jihadism, or political Islam. At its core, it is a political ideology centered around the imposition of a warped and violent interpretation of the Islamic faith on state and society. It glorifies martyrdom, the creation of a borderless Islamic state, and the punishment of those who oppose their version of Islam as heretics. Though no two groups are exactly the same, as each one is influenced by its cultural, ethnic, and geographic context, at their core is the same ideology. One of the most alarming aspects of this ideology is that it seeks the erosion of national borders and undermines the nation-state. This is precisely what transpired in Iraq and Syria, two states that had their sovereignty violated to such extremities that they no longer resemble states.

It is imperative to point out that most Muslims deplore this distortion of their religion and the acts of violence that are perpetrated in the name of their god. Yet part of the problem stems from what I see is a sort of cultural resignation. In too many Muslim nations, a culture, forged over decades if not centuries, has cemented itself in our world, one that has made us complacent, unambitious, averse to progress, and content with ignorance. It is true that there is no singular Muslim culture and it is reductive to state otherwise. But the reality is there are certain issues plaguing the Muslim world that transcend our ethnic, cultural, and geographic diversity.

It is this cultural resignation that Islamists feed off of. The kind that harkens back to the Islamic world’s glorious past without striving to improve its dismal present. The kind that discourages Muslims from looking inward, from reflecting on their own piety and how they might better themselves, but instead encourages them to look outward, to condemn others and dictate how they should live and, more importantly, how they should be Muslim. It is this mentality that stifles intellectual discourse on faith and modernity and has allowed a corrosive ideology to fester in our countries and communities and shape our image to the rest of the world.


Read more:


10 Years of Syrian War – ISIS Exploiting Covid-19 to Restore Activities

Europe Seeks to Combat "Political Islam"

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