Profile: The role of ideology in creating Islamic State terrorists

Safya Khan-Ruf - 23 06 17
Earlier this month, political scientist Olivier Roy told Safya Khan-Ruf that young extremists are not inspired by Islam, but rather are radical nihilists who adopt the Islamic State narrative. Kepel, an academic rival and fellow political scientist, disagrees. The two have a long and well-documented feud on the origins and future of jihadism.

The professor at Sciences Po, the prestigious political science institute, believes jihadism is the result of the slow creeping of Islamist radicalisation that grew out of a failure to integrate by Muslim communities in France.

In his book, Terror in France: The rise of Jihad in the West – a translation of his French bestseller – Kepel argues that the ideology of the jihadists plays an important role in creating Islamic State terrorists. He believes a new wave of jihadism has Europe as its main target and aims to divide European societies from within by creating fear and backlash against the European Muslim population. 

The Interview

I’ve read you don’t like the terms radicalisation and Islamophobia?

Radicalisation is something that allows you to not analyse the phenomena in its particularities. It’s an all-encompassing term that puts everything under the same hat. It does not take the specifics of ideologies in consideration.

For instance, my famous opponent in French academia, Olivier Roy, considers radicalisation to be the essential ‘bit’. That it is a phenomenon that transcends history, that there is no history! He thinks that the Red Brigades in Italy and the Red Army faction in Germany were radicals and that at the time they used leftist vocabulary because it was in the toolbox.

Now you have a green brigade, they use Islamist vocabulary because it’s available. And tomorrow you will have the brown brigade or whatever, that may use another toolbox. I don’t believe in that.

So what do you believe?

There are issues like people feeling alienated from the majority of society, of course. But you know, the Red Brigades did not search for martyrdom, they did not look for their own death. They did not believe in paradise and they did not divide the world between good Muslims, apostates and infidels.

In Arabic, Murtad means apostate and Kafir means infidel. Theirs is a completely different worldview and it takes place in a different environment. It is shaped by a different relationship with societies, with the issue of immigration, with the colonial past and events in the Middle East and North Africa.

You have to take all this into consideration along with the specificities of the jihadist ideology, particularly the ideology which is based on Salafist underpinnings.

But what is irrelevant is just taking the Red Brigade model and re-using it for jihadi organisations. That doesn’t allow you to get deep into the phenomenon, and usually happens because you don’t understand Arabic so you don’t have access to the texts and you say it is irrelevant because you can’t read them. That is just ignorance.

It was exactly one year ago, 14 June 2016, when I learnt I had been sentenced to death by jihadists 

How do you define Islamists?

Islamists are movements that have a conception of Islam, which is not only linked to faith and transcendence, but rather considers that society should be organised according the injunctions contained in the Islamic scriptures. That is to say, Shariah and the like.

Examples of Islamist movements are the Muslim Brotherhood, or by other standards, the Salafists or jihadists. People who have a political understanding of religion and want to implement this political understanding so as to organise social and political relations not in the hereafter, but here.

They want to impose their religion on others?

Well, they want to mould society according to those standards. Some of them would like to impose it on everybody, others don’t. They come in different shapes but the difference between Islamists and Muslims is such.

Someone who is Muslim is not necessarily interested in implementing Shariah. There are many ways of being Muslims just like there are many ways of being Christian or Jewish.

What term would you use instead of radicalisation then?

Well, what we have to deal with today is ‘jihadism’. We have to understand the characteristics of present day jihadism and this is why in my books, I put jihadism into a historical perspective.

You say radicalism is too broad, but doesn’t jihadism also have multiple interpretations and definitions?

Well it depends on how you define it, but the way I define it is I believe functional. I have defined it in precise historical terms; I have identified the methods of implementation and identified the ideologues behind it.

Now we are in the third phase that started in 2005, which I call third-generation jihadism 

How do you describe it in your book?

I distinguish between three phases of jihadism. The first one started in 1979 with the invasion of Afghanistan and ended in 1997 with the failure of Jihadi mobilisation in Algeria and Egypt. That was focused against the nearby enemy i.e. apostate regimes.

This happened in Afghanistan with the help of Americans and Saudis but failed in Algeria and Egypt. The ideologue behind the first phase was a Palestinian called Abdullah Azzam and the manifesto was titled “Join the Caravan”.

Then there was the second phase from 1998 to around 2005, which was the Al-Qaida phase. It focused against the far away enemy such as America and culminated with 9/11. This was a top-down phenomenon with a central command, Al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, and with spectacular operations like 9/11, which aimed to capture the attention of TV viewers.

Remember, this was in the pre-digital age. The ideologue behind it was Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s then-right hand man and now his successor. His manifesto was called “Knights under the Prophet’s Banner.”

Now we are in the third phase that started in 2005, which I call third-generation jihadism – it is not top down, it’s bottom up.

It is network-based and focuses first and foremost on Europe as the soft underbelly of the West. It sees young European Muslims as the so-called soldiers of the caliphate. This ideology was defined by a Syrian engineer trained in France by the name of Abu Musab al-Suri in a book posted online in 2005 that is titled “Global Islamic Resistance Call”.

Are the recent attacks explained by your phases?

I believe this is the way to understand the phenomenon which is taking place and which is influenced by [Al-Suri’s] book. It has been broadly seen from January 2015 with the killings at Charlie Hebdo, then the killing of Catholic father Jacques Hamel [in Normandy], the stabbings and lorry attack in Germany and more recently the attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge.

They were all low-cost attacks, nothing in comparison to 9/11, but were aimed at provoking retaliation from the majority of society. This was so jihadists could tell their co-religionists: ‘You see, people are racist, they are Islamophobic, therefore you shouldn’t blend with the majority of society in Europe, on the contrary you should retain your peculiarity, your specificity, your ascribed identity which is Islamic, the way we jihadists define it’.

The attackers are third-generation jihadists that fit the profile perfectly. If we go in detail on, for example, the bomber in Manchester: He was Libyan, his family belonged or was close to the Libyan fighting group which was a jihadist organisation under Gaddafi. Many members were given political refugee status in Britain. This sort of created a community there.

Some of the kids went into gang culture in south Manchester and blended with the social issues of Britain. When Gaddafi was being ousted they were sent back there, they fought but instead of joining the sort of special forces of the West, they would go and fight in the jihadist groups in Libya.

Some came back like Salman Abedi and sort of blended jihad combat culture with the local gang culture. His father stayed in Libya so he was absent. So you have someone taken in by his peer culture, which is jihadism, and who then performed the Manchester attack.

The attack of course resembles the Bataclan musical attack in Paris, except at the time we had a very strong IS [Islamic State] in Raqqa and Mosul out of which people could coordinate strikes. So you could have 10 people travel from Raqqa to Paris via Brussels. Now it’s far more difficult because the IS is being bombed and it is weak. Therefore we have those people acting as loners. But they are not lone wolves. They are socialised by a peer group and by a shared digital culture. A sort of cyber-jihad culture.

Some came back like Salman Abedi and sort of blended jihad combat culture with the local gang culture. 

How do you think further attacks can be prevented?

Well the preventing issue is not my job. I am just trying to make the best possible diagnosis based on the social sciences, humanities and on my knowledge of the language.

However, I believe that prevention is two-fold. On the one hand, there is a need to be very strong on security issues. If there is no security, people are frightened and this leads to a surge in extreme right votes which is what jihadists want. In France they wanted Marine Le Pen to win because they thought this would fracture the society on issues such as security.

But this is not enough ­– the social and moral dimension is also extremely important. They go to schools that provide no know-how, therefore the values that are correlated with schools are thrown out likes a baby with the bath’s dirty water. Improving the schooling system will also lead to a better labour market. That is a long-term measure.

How did you get interested in this field of research?

Well, over the last 35 years, my research has focused on contemporary forms of Islamist mobilisations. I began with the Muslim radical groups in Egypt who happened to kill Anwar Sadat when I was in the country. It became the topic of my PhD thesis in 1981. Since then I’ve been following Islamist movements on and off and more specifically, I have tried to understand the ideological dimension of Jihadism.

I was interested in what would make people become Islamists and revolt against society using the language of political Islam. This was when I was young and a leftist. I did not understand how people, students my age, became Islamists. I was curious so I decided to research it from a social scientist point of view. Then it became a job because there was an important social and academic demand and I was a trained Arabist, and few people who are political scientists knew the language. So there I was.

Are you still a leftist?

Not by the standards of my youth.

What is the most surprising fact you’ve discovered in researching this topic for 35 years?

Well, it was exactly one year ago, 14 June 2016, when I learnt I had been sentenced to death by jihadists – not for my views but for my books and my teachings. It was as if my object of study had turned against me and therefore since then, I have lived under police protection, which is a strange thing for an academic.

It changed my life. This is why I have to leave you. My police escort is waiting for me, to take me back home. I can’t even walk home from my office.

This is how an academic who works on those issues from a sort of non-partisan scholarly perspective is now compelled to live in the West.

Giles Kepel’s book Terror in France: The Rise of Jihadism in the West can be bought here.


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