March 31, 2014 Strategy Page
Europe is facing a growing problem with young Moslem men being recruited by Islamic clergy to go fight alongside (and often against) the Syrian rebels. European intelligence officials believe about 2,000 European Moslems have gone to Syria so far and about ten percent have been killed. More than ten percent have returned and these jihad veterans often seek out new recruits. These jihadis are very effective at attracting new volunteers, although so far only about 10 per 100,000 Moslems have been persuaded to go. As small as that portion is, a far larger percentage (over ten percent) of European Moslems will admit to admiring the goals and methods of Islamic terrorists. Most of those who did go to Syria are now more radicalized than when they left and police fear they may contribute to more Islamic terrorism in Europe. You can’t do much to these men unless they actually commit a crime in Europe, although in some countries it is possible to prosecute them for fighting for an Islamic terrorist organization anywhere. But you have to prove it in court and that is difficult. Nevertheless such prosecutions are underway and most countries monitor returning jihadis, ready to make arrests if any local laws are broken.
Efforts are being made to prevent more men from volunteering, but that is difficult because Moslems have not adapted well in Europe and have a lot more problems doing so than other immigrants. In part this is because European nations have a much harder time accepting and integrating migrants than the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In part that’s because these four nations are largely composed of migrants or descendants of migrants. There are still problems but as the saying goes in the U.S., “we’re all minorities here.” European nations are more touchy about outsiders and citizenship is not automatically conferred on anyone born there. Ancestry counts for much more and it is much more difficult for immigrants, even those who speak the language like natives and have absorbed the local culture. Despite that, most migrants still want to be accepted. Moslem migrants have an additional problem because their religion does not really accept being a religious minority in a nation. Moslem clerics tend to agree that non-Moslems must convert eventually and radical clergy sanction the use of force to make that happen sooner rather than later. To help this along radical clergy depict the non-Moslem majority as inherently hostile to Islam and constantly trying to get Moslems to abandon their religion. In Islamic theology this is not allowed and in some Moslem countries such conversions are forbidden, often under pain of death. This rebellious and militant attitude is particularly popular with many young Moslem men. This sense of victimhood makes it easier for young Moslem men to become criminals. Thus in France, where ten percent of the population is Moslem, over 60 percent of the prison population is Moslem. Thus efforts by parents to keep their children from joining Islamic radial or terrorist organizations tend to fail. The wayward child can justify his criminal ways by referring to Islamic scripture and Islamic clerics who preach acceptance of radical Islam. This has been a problem with Islam, even in Moslem majority nations, for centuries.
What does change the attitudes of some radicalized Moslem men is the reality of Islamic terrorism. Thus the popularity of Islamic radicalism everywhere took a big drop in 2007 when the majority of Sunni Moslems in Iraq turned against it because Islamic terrorism there was killing far more Moslems than non-Moslems. Even al Qaeda leadership noted this development and had tried to get the Islamic terrorists in Iraq to sharply reduce the number of innocent civilians they were killing. Unwilling to do so, al Qaeda was defeated in Iraq and has been rebuilding mainly because Iraqi nationalists insisted that all American troops, including the intelligence and special operations units that so effectively identified and destroyed al Qaeda leaders and specialists, leave the country in 2011. Iraq now wants some of those specialists back, but the U.S. is not eager to return.
In Syria the “Iraq problem” reappeared in 2011 after a civil war began against the secular dictatorship. The Syrian al Qaeda problems reached a crises in June 2013 when the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with the decade old Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. The reason for this was that the merger was announced by ISI without the prior agreement of the JN leadership. The merger formed a third group; Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That was the problem, as many JN members then left their JN faction to join nearby ones being formed by ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISIL and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. But ISIL was apparently just an attempt by ISI (which is having a hard time in Iraq) to grab some glory, recruits, cash and power by poaching JN members. JN appealed to Zawahiri for help and got it.
This dispute escalated in January 2014 when outright war between ISIL and other Islamic terror groups in Syria began. A month later al Qaeda declared ISIL outcasts and sanctioned the war against them. That’s not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq.
One of the major weaknesses of Islamic terror groups is that they often get into vicious and destructive feuds with each other. It should not be surprising as Islamic terrorists are motivated by religion and in particular a personal call from God to serve. Since no two people are going interpret the details of this divine summons the same way, there will be many different interpretations. These are often formed by ethnic differences. This could be seen in Mali, where three different Islamic radical groups (Ansar Dine, MUJAO and AQIM) took control of the northern portion of the country in 2012 until they were run out in early 2013 by a French-led force. Along the way the three groups were often battling each other. The same thing happened in Somalia and elsewhere. Even before the French showed up many members of these groups were disillusioned by all the infighting and simply quit. But the concept of violent jihad (“struggle”) is still popular with many Islamic clerics and young Moslem men.
For centuries the non-Moslem world ignored this problem, at least as long as it remained a dispute just among Moslems. But in the 1970s a new idea arose among radical clergy who began blaming the West for all the backwardness, bad government and general misery in Moslem nations. That’s when al Qaeda decided to take the war to the infidels (non-Moslems). This produced growing violence against Western targets in the 1990s and culminated in the September 11, 2001 attacks. The carnage of those attacks was immensely popular among Moslems, although most Moslem governments condemned it. That was in part because these attacks against infidels were an indirect effort to overthrow Moslem governments that radicals did not believe were Moslem enough. That struggle continues and while many Saudi citizens still send cash and sons to al Qaeda, Saudi Arabia is very much opposed to al Qaeda.