By ANDREW J. BACEVICH
The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy, Jason Burke (1)
Forgive the cliché: This book is essential reading. No hyperbole required.
The New Threat—“new” in the sense that the danger posed by violent Islamism is evolving—deserves the careful attention of anyone appreciating the urgency of the West recalibrating its response to that danger. The U.S.-led Global War on Terrorism, which Jason Burke aptly characterizes as “monumentally misconceived,” has definitively failed. Indeed, in anything, it has made matters worse. Even so, more than a decade after it began, that ill-fated enterprise sputters along with no likelihood of victory anywhere in sight.
So perhaps it’s time to try a different approach. Yet doing so requires first accurately gauging the problem. This Burke, a veteran journalist who over the past 20 years has reported from virtually every corner of the Islamic world, does with impressive thoroughness and clinical dispassion. That the terrorist attack suffered by Parisians in November-—further compounded by the incident in San Bernardino—elicited a response verging on hysteria may be understandable. But anyone preferring sober calculation to emotion as the basis for policy will find here much of great value.
By no means does Burke trivialize the threat or question its existence. But he argues that to treat that threat as existential is to commit a categorical error. So too is any tendency to view Islamic militancy as monolithic or static.
During the Cold War, American political leaders propagated an erroneous conception of communism as one thing—vast, integrated, cohesive, and responding to central command. Their failure to discriminate among the several versions of communism and to appreciate the fault lines within the communist world led them to commit costly blunders, with Vietnam one notable example.
Burke cautions against making a similar mistake here. Islamic militancy, he writes, is “diverse, dynamic, fragmented and chaotic.” His own typology identifies three distinct strands: 1) organizations animated by grandiose ambitions, this group consisting of al-Qaeda central and the Islamic State; 2) lesser entities, some of them al-Qaeda affiliates but also including sundry independent actors scattered everywhere from West Africa to Central Asia and all the way to the southern Philippines; and 3) what Burke calls “the movement of Islamic militancy” consisting of radicalized individuals, many of them already residing in the West, who are engaged in waging “leaderless jihad.”
As Burke sees it, Americans and others in the West tend to misunderstand and overstate the danger posed by groups in the first category while failing to appreciate their vulnerabilities. Not unlike the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China in the old days, al-Qaeda and ISIS are competitors, not partners—which is good news for us.
The violence perpetrated by these groups is anything but random. Both adhere to a clear set of strategic principles. Osama bin Laden’s original al-Qaeda assigned priority to the “Far Enemy,” preeminently the United States. Purging the lands of Islam of foreign infidels—first drawing them further in before making their further presence unsustainable—would enable al-Qaeda later to redirect its attention to corrupt local regimes, preeminently in Saudi Arabia. Ousting those regimes formed a prerequisite to reforming Islam itself, with the creation of a pan-Islamic caliphate the ultimate goal.
Today that goal is nowhere within reach. Burke describes al-Qaeda as “tenacious and resilient, with significant powers of regeneration.” Even so, having sustained serious blows since 2001, it is today a shadow of its former self.
ISIS has emerged as its successor. In contrast to al-Qaeda, ISIS prioritizes the establishment of a territorial base. Declaring the existence of a caliphate, if only an embryonic one, figures as a first step, not a culminating one. This means going after the “Near Enemy”—weak regimes vulnerable to dismemberment. In that regard, Iraq, unable to fend for itself after years of foreign occupation, and Syria, rent by years of civil war, present inviting opportunities.
In any terrorist campaign, the image is as important as the act. As much or more than the actual doing it’s what perpetrators of terror are seen to have done—and are presumably capable of doing again—that matters. In that regard, ISIS has demonstrated a particular aptitude for staging acts of violence that strike fear into the hearts of opponents, while nudging fence-sitters into choosing sides and rallying supporters “by demonstrating the group’s power and success.” Videos, flags, music, orange jump suits, and vicious executions—the entire package is assembled with as much forethought as the Nuremburg rallies of the 1930s. For all the hype about the role played by social media, that’s merely the mode of transmission; the genius, if we can call it that, is in the content.
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With the current emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, no one is as well placed as Burke—whose previous books have been chosen as books of the year by The Economist, the Daily Telegraph, and The Independent—to explain this dramatic post–Al Qaeda phase of Islamic militancy. We are now, he argues, entering a new phase of radical violence that is very different from what has gone before, one that is going to redefine the West’s relationship with terrorism and the Middle East.
ISIS is not “medieval,” as many U.S. national security pundits claim, but, Burke explains, a group whose spectacular acts of terror are a contemporary expression of our highly digitized societies, designed to generate global publicity. In his account, radical Islamic terrorism is not an aberration or “cancer,” as some politicians assert; it is an organic part of the modern world. This book will challenge the preconceptions of many American readers and will be hotly debated in national security circles.