The recent outrage in Brussels, Belgium, should finally jolt world leaders to the true motivations, methods and ultimate goal of jihadist terrorism. The twin attacks on the Zaventem Airport and at the city’s metro hub claimed 35 lives and left about 200 others injured. With fear and near panic pervading Europe’s cities, it is time decision-makers confronted the reality of the threat posed to civilisation by a fanatical movement.
Sadly, the capacity and will to undertake an accurate diagnosis of Islamic terrorism are still not widely in evidence. Even as the body bags were being moved to Brussels’ morgue, the United States President, Barack Obama, was describing it as the handiwork of few misguided people acting wrongly “in the name of a great religion.” His views were roughly the same with Belgium’s Prime Minister, Charles Michel, and with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, as well as with most mainstream political parties across the West and among its intellectuals and liberals. At home, President Muhammadu Buhari has said of ISIS, which masterminded the Brussels attacks, and of Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group; “they are not Muslims!”
As well-meaning as these views may be, they are so dangerously wrong. By de-coupling deranged fanatics from their faith, such views exclude the mainstream clerical leadership from being central to deradicalising deviants. First, terrorists are often not common criminals, but are ferocious, though misguided idealists. Second, as a former Speaker of the United States Congress, Newt Gingrich, declared, take them for what they say they are! The founder of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was a pious Saudi of Yemeni origins. His deputy and successor, Ayman Zawahiri, is an eye surgeon and Islamic scholar while the head of ISIS, one of the world’s most deadly terror groups, Abu Bakr el-Baghdadi, has a doctoral degree in Islamic law. The groups and individuals that have inflicted so much cruelty and violence on civilisation may be deviant, but they are certainly motivated by a warped interpretation of their religious beliefs. The executors of the 9/11, Paris and Brussels attacks were religious zealots, as were the Boston Marathon bombers and Nigeria’s Farouk Abudulmuttalab, who attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit, Michigan. This compels the need for strong counter-action by senior clerics to debunk the false utopia of the blood-thirsty zealots.
While terrorist attacks have been carried out by groups and individuals of diverse political and religious persuasions, the world needs to deal with Salafi jihadism, not only because its actors have destabilised Syria, Iraq, Libya and parts of West Africa, among others, but because they have spread terror to virtually all continents. According to TROP, a non-profit that tracks jihadism, 28,052 deadly attacks had by last month been carried out by jihadists since the September 11, 2011 attacks on the US. In the last one month, 136 attacks have occurred spanning 25 countries; 31 of these being suicide blasts, with 1,009 persons killed and 2,996 others injured. According to the Clarion Project, a think tank, the most notorious of the Islamic State’s vassals is Boko Haram, now styling itself the Islamic State in West Africa. Boko Haram reportedly has a higher body count than the Islamic State’s main army in Syria and Iraq.
Most of the world prefers appeasement of fanatics, instead of constructive, workable engagement. It is only when you correctly diagnose an ailment that you can confront and then cure it. Jihadist terrorism is not borne out of poverty or unemployment or alienation from the rest of society as Western liberals posit. In Nigeria, they even proffer the laughable one that Boko Haram is fighting on behalf of a mythical segment of the society excluded from oil wealth!
Rather, Salafi jihadism is a transnational ideology rooted in nostalgia for seventh century puritanism. The ultra-conservative reform movement rejects innovation and insists on imposing its narrow interpretation of Sharia law on the earth by force. The motivation for jihadism is primarily ideological; it is an interpretation rejected by a majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Dealing with the threat, therefore, should entail deradicalisation and a reformist agenda as suggested by Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has urged clerics around the world to properly educate their youths and seek a Reformation within Islam. This call had been taken up by leading clerics in the Middle East and the West, including Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, and other senior clerics at the 1,046-year-old Al-Azhar University, Cairo, regarded as Sunni Islam’s most prestigious educational institution. They have also condemned terrorism as a perversion of faith.
To combat this threat, the world must pull together, end the prevailing culture of living in denial and enact strong measures to stamp out terrorism. Australian think-tank, the Institute for Economics and Peace, in its Global Terrorism Index 2015, said terrorism cost the world $52.9 billion in 2014, resulting in 32,700 deaths and affecting 93 countries. Global Risk Insights cites lower consumption, price volatility, reduced productivity and infrastructure degradation as short and long term effects of terrorism.
Intelligence-sharing and swift response to red flags should be accompanied by tighter immigration laws that restrict would-be terrorists to their own homelands where security forces can effectively monitor them. The West, China and Russia need to invest more in military and intelligence assistance to West Africa, North Africa and Asia to prevent local jihadists from spreading further afield.
Nigeria should reject the West’s false narrative of poverty, injustice and joblessness as reasons for the Boko Haram madness. The group has never made such claims, but anchors its bloody quest solely on the desire to enthrone its warped vision of Sharia law and end Western influences. Pervasive poverty and illiteracy among the Northern youths may make some easy targets for recruitment and indoctrination, but it is only when the clerical and political leadership rises to guide its youths that the religious basis for terror can be neutralised. The federal and state governments should accord priority to mass education, provision of basic health care and job creation.
President Buhari should continue to constructively engage world leaders to unite in the war against terror and religious extremism.