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Open Essay

Nothing Medieval About Them

Jason Burke is the South Asia correspondent of The Guardian and the author of The 9/11 Wars. His latest book is The New Threat from Islamic Militancy (Bodley Head, Rs 599, 288 pages)
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Are Islamic terrorists, executioners of the digital age, ahead of the curve?

The seizure of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, in June 2014 by the Islamic State was the most significant single event involving Muslim militants anywhere in the world since the attacks on New York City and Washington DC 13 years before. The strikes of 9/11 brought a new type of terrorism to the world’s attention, one that had in fact been emerging, largely unremarked outside of specialist circles, during the 1990s. The fall of Mosul revealed that an equally dramatic transformation of Islamic extremism had been taking place since 2001. The Islamic State’s success, broadcast by social and mainstream media, galvanised aspirant extremists in a way not seen since the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, or even the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It prompted thousands of young men and women from around the Islamic world and the West to leave their homes and travel to Syria. Leaders from Algeria to Pakistan pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, declaring pockets of territory ‘liberated land’.

Simultaneously, other groups, including al-Qaeda, appeared to be intensifying their activities. In one month alone, November 2014, around 5,000 people died in violence linked to Islamic militants worldwide. In December, a group killed 132 children aged between eight and 18 in an attack on a military school in Pakistan. A month later in Paris, three gunmen shot dead 17 people, including eight members of the editorial staff of a satirical magazine that had printed cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. The killers claimed allegiance to an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen and the Islamic State. That same week several hundred died in a raid on a village in north-eastern Nigeria by the movement known as Boko Haram, a name which roughly translates as ‘No to Western Education’.

Every incident underlined that, despite the death of Osama bin Laden in a US special forces raid in Pakistan in May 2011, despite huge expenditure of blood and treasure, and despite new laws and enhanced powers for security services, Islamic militancy has not been beaten. Instead, a threat faced by the world for more than 20 years had entered an alarming new phase. If anything, it now appears more frightening than ever. Why? Why does Islamic extremism not only endure but seem to be spreading? Why does its violence and utopian message appeal to so many? How real is the danger it poses? Why is the phenomenon so extraordinarily resilient? How will it evolve in the decades to come?

These questions are important. The answers are complicated. But one guiding principle should condition our response. One particular misconception is perhaps the biggest obstacle to a genuine understanding of the problem, and therefore an effective response. Many believe that Islamic militancy represents some kind of regressive historical riptide that is in opposition to the onward march of human progress. This is wrong-headed, complacent and dangerous. Extremism is not ‘medieval’, as politicians often say, echoing the dismissive, uncomprehending ignorance of their 19th-century predecessors when confronted with a similar wave of violence. Nor are its leaders ‘temporally perverse’, as one commentator memorably described Osama bin Laden. They may be distant in terms of morality or values, but they are not distant in time or place. They do not exist in some kind of other world. Rather, Islamic militancy is fundamentally, profoundly contemporary, a product of the same global interaction of politics, economics, culture, technology and social organisation that affects us all. It is of its time, which is now, created and shaped by its environment, which is here.

Take, for example, the executions that have rightly horrified many. These images of men kneeling before killers armed with knives do indeed recall those that we associate with bygone eras. But this is wrong on various counts. The first, clearly, is that executions still occur all over the world. In Saudi Arabia, capital punishment is carried out by a man with a sword in public. This may appear to be ‘medieval’ but is in fact contemporary, and, given the heavy influence of strands of observance from the Gulf on the Islamic State, it seems reasonable to assume that Abu Bakr al’Baghdadi, the self-appointed Caliph, is as influenced by the current practices in Riyadh as he is by what he imagines to have been practices in Mecca or Medina in the 7th century.

But more significant than the act of execution itself is the fact that we can see it. And that is all to do with the very contemporary phenomenon of social media and the digital revolution.

Scholars have long recognised the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the development of mass media. The first major waves of terrorism in the modern age coincided with the spread of mass printing techniques and the mass consumption of news in the 1860s and 70s. There was never any doubt about the connection. In 1880, a German anarchist called Johannes Most wrote a pamphlet called ‘Philosophy of the Bomb’. ‘Outrageous violence,’ he said, ‘will seize the imagination of the public and awaken its audience to political issues.’ In the same period, the phrase ‘propaganda by deed’ began to be widely used. Nearly a century later, as TV sets began to make their appearance in US and European homes, those fighting colonial regimes immediately recognised the implications of the screen now appearing in living rooms across the developed world. In 1956, Ramdane Abane, the strategist credited with turning round the independence struggle in Algeria, asked rhetorically if it was better to kill ten enemies in a remote gully ‘when no one will talk of it’ or ‘a single man in Algiers which will be noted the next day’ by the new media. The extraordinary attention focused on terrorists during the 1970s was partly due to a series of technological innovations which allowed American TV networks to broadcast their acts cheaply and quickly all over the world.

However, for most of the 1980s and 90s, the means of mass communication were still dominated by states and large corporations. Only they could afford the infrastructure required to produce material and broadcast it to millions of people. Islamic extremists had to make do with pamphlets, audio cassettes and, eventually, videos. Passed from hand to hand, they reached few in comparison to television or even newspapers. There was still no effective way for militants to reach a bigger audience in the US, let alone the Middle East, where the media was tightly controlled by governments, without somehow convincing mediaexecutives or officials to broadcast their statements or news of their violent acts. The former was inconceivable. The latter, though fraught with difficulty, at least allowed them to get some kind of message across to millions.

But this began to change in the middle of the 1990s, at exactly the time the various local struggles around the Islamic world launched over the previous decade or so descended into bloody stalemate or outright failure. The biggest single development was the arrival of local-language satellite TV channels prepared to screen material that regimes would never show. They swiftly became hugely popular, with a new audience measured in tens of millions. They were also prepared to broadcast material that others would have dumped or censored.

But coverage of the acts and statements of militant groups was still determined by editors. They decided what was broadcast and what was not. With the 9/11 strikes, after repeated attempts over previous years, Osama bin Laden finally succeeded, unequivocally, where so many other terrorists had failed, to capture the undivided attention of the entire planet—and in real time.

But over the next decade came a major shift. Emerging digital technologies meant extremists could control the production and dissemination of images themselves. They had no need to create content deemed newsworthy by media professionals if they wanted to communicate with ‘the masses’ either. They could produce the most atrocious images with cheap and easy to acquire equipment and broadcast their visual creations over the internet. By the next decade, smartphones and email were widespread enough for the potential audience for such material to be enormous—and impossible to police. This was a brave new world of terrorist propaganda—and activity. Without these very contemporary technological developments, no one would have seen the executions that have received so much attention over the last 18 months. So if, yes, the visuals of the execution may, to some, recall previous eras, their reality is utterly part of our modern world.

There are other examples. Take the vision of the caliphate and governance model of the Islamic State. Despite its many innovations, the Islamic State may be considerably less revolutionary than it likes to pretend and observers often claim. In many respects its emerging form does not recall the community in the earliest decades of the faith, or that ruled by the four ‘rightly guided’ successors of Muhammad in the 7th century, or the state constructed by the magnificent potentates of the Umayyads or Abbasids in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, as its leaders imagine. Nor does it present as radical an alternative to modern nation states in terms of governance or administration as may seem the case at first sight. The Islamic State rules a frightened, fragmented populace through a mix of blackmail, bribes, paternalism and terror. It seeks to bind inhabitants together with an ideology based on a selective reading of specific texts, a hate-filled sectarian agenda, paranoia about the designs of external actors and deep-rooted anti-Western sentiment fused with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Capital punishment, sometimes in public, is common. Violence is systematically employed to intimidate and terrorise entire communities. It develops and sustains a cult of martyrdom and suicide attacks, jealously controls the basic means of subsistence for millions of people, runs a semi-command economy with widespread use of price-capping, subsidies and other measures that interfere with the functioning of the free market. Its tax system is extractive, predatory and often arbitrary. Divisions between traditional communities such as tribes are exacerbated and exploited. Prominent families are co-opted or coerced. Dissent in any form is savagely punished, religious minorities are systematically persecuted, while education and information are seen only as means to reinforce its leaders’ own position through the eradication of any ways of thinking that might allow a cowed population to imagine alternatives to their continued rule. It is economically fragile, lacks skilled workers, has problems providing basic services to its population, and suffers both from massive underinvestment in infrastructure and a prodigiously unequal distribution of wealth. Despite huge expenditure on security forces, law-and-order is in reality patchy, and it is detested and feared by all its neighbours. None of these problems are exactly unfamiliar in the region. Indeed, they could even be said to characterise many nations within it. In this sense, the IS is, despite its own rhetoric, an entirely contemporary phenomenon, its emergence and its form determined by a specific environment at a very specific time. It is not ‘medieval’. It is contemporary and dynamic. This is why Islamic extremism endures and appeals. And why it will be with us for many decades to come.

Finally, look at the south Asian region. The Taliban in Afghanistan were dismissed as ‘medieval’ 20 years ago. Yet they are still here, adeptly using new technology, adapting their violence to the message they want to send rather than trying to spin their violence, weathering the loss of a charismatic founder to continue a conflict against a superpower and its local auxiliaries. Or Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has also known how to manage a complex political environment to satisfy patrons within the Pakistani security establishment, maintain support among its core constituency among the country’s urban middle-class and in some rural areas, keep its overseas donors in the Gulf and elsewhere happy, and still run, or at least plug into, networks of extremists in India and elsewhere. There was nothing medieval, it is worth pointing out, about the attacks in Mumbai in 2006 or 2008, nor about the recent incursions across the LoC. In Kashmir itself, local groups are exploiting social media, and making sure they are playing down global jihadi agendas the better to appeal to the youth in the Valley itself. The result is a surge in local militant recruits, now more numerous than those from across the LoC for the first time in years.

The idea that extremists are visitors from another era, and less capable as a result, is comforting but entirely misplaced. The most recent group to emerge, the IS, is now making inroads among young, disaffected Muslims in India itself, or working in the Gulf. Here the IS is exploiting a gap in the market left by other organisations that cannot match the group’s fast-paced, gangsta-style media productions with their emphasis on violence, adventure, excitement, guns and even girls, albeit enslaved rape victim, or, as frequently seen but receiving less attention from observers, the level of government services and the degree of security found in the new ‘Caliphate’.

The truth is that when Islamic militant groups, whether in the Middle East or South Asia, do not keep pace, they fade from the scene. Those that manage the challenges and exploit the opportunities of our fast-changing world thrive. Islamic militants use social media because we all use social media; they seek resources, from money and territory to hydrocarbons and weaponry, in the way that many actors do across the world today, whether formally recognised within the international system of states and multilateral institutions or not; they multi- task as terrorists, insurgents and administrators because we all now play roles which are increasingly ill-defined; they exploit and are formed by the dramatic disruption that digital technology and the internet has brought; they ‘swarm’ people and resources rapidly and efficiently because they now can in a way that was never possible before; for many of them, financing is effectively crowd-sourced from donors, often via the internet in a way that would be recognisable to any entrepreneurial start-up anywhere in the world. The phenomenon of Islamic militancy is diverse, dynamic, fragmented and chaotic—like so many other forces which shape our lives today. The shift within the phenomenon from hierarchical structures to flatter ones, from vertical to interconnected, from top-down to ‘peer to peer’, does not simply reflect that of the wider world: it is an integral part of it. Indeed, violent extremists are not just a product of broader trends, they often anticipate them. The Islamic State’s new vision of expansion, involving ‘pop-up caliphates’ scattered across continents but all loyal to a single leader and a single political entity, appears much more ‘modern’ than the increasingly outdated idea that states are defined by the possession of contiguous territory. As successive generations of terrorists have shown, extremists are frequently ahead of the curve, not behind it. Through looking at them, we can learn something of ourselves and, for good or bad, of our future.

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