HCDC INQUIRY – GLOBAL ISLAMIST TERRORISM [EXTRACTS] – 29 January 2019
Q60 John Spellar: When you talk about Islamism, are you saying in that context that that is basically just a Sunni phenomenon, or is it also a Shia phenomenon? In which case, would you describe the ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran as Islamist, and in which case, given what you have said about the Russian position, why do the Russians tolerate that Islamist philosophy coming from Tehran, whereas they are more critical of it from elsewhere?
Dr Afzal Ashraf [Nottingham University]: The definition of Islamism is the French definition of the political version of Islam. In that context, the Shia version of Islamism and the Sunni version of Islamism join together along that definition. There are two differences between the strands. One is at the political, theological level: the Sunni version of Islamism talks about establishing a system of governance based on the sharia of Islam. The word “sharia” means the law – so when people talk about “sharia law”, that is tautologous. The sharia of Islam implies direct conversion of law, textually from the scripture. The Shia Islamists have a system that they describe as “Velayat-e faqih”, where “velayat-e” means governance and “faqih” means jurisprudence. It is governance through jurisprudence, which implies an element of interpretation of text. The significant difference is that when, as in the case of Iran, they discovered that their religious laws on divorce led them to have one of the largest populations of single mothers, they changed their law. In an equivalent Sunni Islamist environment, you cannot change the law because it is God’s law, so you get a very unstable system. That is one of the reasons why many people have said it is a great pity that the Islamist party, democratically elected in the ‘90s in Algeria, was not given the opportunity to come to power and fail, because intrinsic in that is instability.
The other difference between the two systems of Islamism is that the Shia Islamists are very much part of a Church system, because the Shia have a clergy system in a much more Christian sense than any clergy that exists in the Sunni sense. So you have state control, centralised control of theology, ideology and politics. Iran only represents a threat in the sense that it has supported other groups, such as Hezbollah. It doesn’t represent a threat in terms of what might be described as franchised groups of Islamists, operating under this amorphous Sunni version. I don’t know if that explains the situation.
I have a little humorous anecdote. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it has come from a very good friend of mine – a reasonably reliable source – who wrote one of the first books on Hezbollah. They tell me that on the day after 9/11, the Head of State in Iran rang Nasrallah in Lebanon and the conversation began with words along the lines of:
“Now, tell me you had nothing to do with this.”
How true that is, I don’t know, but knowing the person I am confident that it is likely to have more than a grain of truth in it. The point is that there is control. Those people will not do things that harm the direct interests of their states, as they see it.
Those other groups are fighting one another. Daesh came from al-Qaeda and has killed al-Qaeda members. That is the difference, in essence. The Russians are pragmatic realists. With Iran, their interests coincide, because they are both in competition with the West and feel that the West is a threat to them. For those reasons, they feel that there is an opportunity for an alliance on a number of issues.
Q61 Chair [Dr Julian Lewis]: Are we flattering ourselves that these organisations regard us as a target and that they would want to pose an existential threat to us? After 9/11, it was said that we shouldn’t be under any illusions that although that had been carried out against a western target, the real target of al-Qaeda was the Islamic world and they were hoping primarily to seize power and pose, if you like, an existential threat to the Governments of middle eastern countries, not least Saudi Arabia itself. To what extent are there central guiding brains behind what these organisations are doing, particularly the Sunni ones, which are the ones that concern us most directly in the UK? Do they really have an aim to overthrow western Governments, or rather to provoke western Governments to do things that will help to solidify their position, in the vanguard of an Islamist revolution, in their own countries?
Nikita Malik [Henry Jackson Society]: That is a very interesting and important question. It can be approached both by the factors that are happening on the ground, which are causing these issues, but also – irrespective of the role that the online space plays – one of the greatest assets in research is the ability to look at the propaganda that they put out on these issues. In my opinion, there is definitely a distinction between the near enemy and the far enemy. As you stated at the beginning, Julian, probably the primary concern of many al-Qaeda organisations and their affiliates, is for the near enemy. One could argue that some of the concerns of Islamic State were about the near enemy, and the situation that was happening in Iraq and Syria.
However, researching and examining Islamic State propaganda shows that they are massively interested and concerned with the West: in the coalition, in the role that the West plays in interference and in its military presence. When you dig deeper into the propaganda that is released to a western audience, which is in English, it is unlike that in Arabic and other languages. It is hatred for the West and what it represents, such as its treatment of women and Muslims who live in these countries. When we go back to ideology and we talk about Islamism, it is very much about the incompatibility between being a Muslim and being able to live in a western country. This is precisely the kind of mood music that is set in the propaganda that is used to incentivise many foreign fighters to go and join a group like the Islamic State which, as we all know, was the first group really to have its own physical territory, and very much based its propaganda on the idea of a state-building project that it had created, with a governance system and a schooling system for its children – a superior state to any other in the world, including many of the Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, which it saw as inferior to what it represented, which was the Islamic state.
Going back to your question about the role, and whether we flatter ourselves by thinking that it is all about the west, I do not think that we do, because so much of what the Islamic State produces is centred on the destruction of western countries, and so much of the home-grown threat that we are facing now, or that has been amplified now, is based on putting out this propaganda that individuals who live in these countries, if they cannot travel to join the Islamic State, should be basically destroying what they can here.
Q62 Dr Lewis: But do they actually think that they will succeed in overthrowing Governments in western societies by these means?
Ms Malik: Absolutely. If you look at the violence and what they are saying in their propaganda, it is based on this ideology that if they provoke the West enough there will be a war, and the war will happen in Dabiq – hence the name of their magazine “Dabiq”, which is where they will meet. That is when they will be able to completely destroy these western civilisations and be the inherent rulers of the world, so to speak.
When looking through this propaganda online, or even what is sometimes passed in universities and prisons in the UK, one can see that narrative – that there will be an ultimate war and they will meet us in Dabiq, where they will destroy us. It is based on that kind of ideology.
Dr Lewis: An Armageddon scenario.
Ms Malik: Exactly, yes.
Q63 Dr Lewis: Can I ask Afzal, before you come in on that, do you think that the ISIL/Daesh group are rather untypical of Islamist terror groups, in that they, in a relatively early stage of their revolution, went for the physical seizure and holding of territory, thus in some ways propelling themselves to the centre of attention, but on the other hand giving up the great asset that terrorist groups normally have, which is invisibility?
Dr Ashraf: That question falls very much at the end of the answer to the previous question. I think Nikita has given a very good explanation. Bin Laden was directly asked this very question:
“Are you going to attack and try to destroy the West?”
“No. Who are we going to sell the oil to?”
That was his response, so the idea of the near enemy and far enemy evolved simply because, as you have said, they wanted to establish what they considered to be just Islamic Governments, because they see the Governments in Muslim countries as being unjust and tools of the West that are actually harming the interests of Muslim people.
Bin Laden’s strategic reasoning was:
“Look at Vietnam. Look at Beirut. Look at Somalia. Every time the West was attacked, it ran away.”
Those were virtually his words. Based on that reasoning, the attacks in the twin embassies in east Africa, USS Cole and, ultimately, 9/11 happened. That strategy was flawed, for reasons that we can discuss in detail if you like. It has not worked.
Now the targeting of the West is simply to stop it spoiling their project. What has been happening is that you have this usurper organisation, Daesh/ISIS, taking the shortcut to establish an Islamic state, rather than making the West withdraw and then having internal revolutions in the states, and occupying them with their version of government. All along, Zawahiri and others were saying:
“This is not the right thing to do”.
Their plan was originally to fall under the caliphate of Mullah Omar, who was anointed the Amir al-Mu'minin – the Commander of the Faithful – but would be promoted to caliph once they had an Islamic state in Afghanistan that they could perpetuate, and from there the revolution would be exported to different countries. What has happened to Daesh and ISIL has basically strengthened the rhetorical arguments of Zawahiri, and he is basically saying:
“See? I told you so. You’re not ready. Let’s do this thing properly.”
So the threat is transforming.
Is it targeting the West? Yes, it is targeting the West to stop the West interfering and targeting it, but within the West we have ideologues who, for their own purposes, are spreading their own version of propaganda. For example, we have people like Anjem Choudary deliberately provoking the thought among the people here that there is going to be a Daesh flag or an ISIL flag flying over Downing Street. Their objective is to replace the government system in Britain with their version of an Islamist system. Most of them realise that this is not going to happen, but it is a good tool of provocation and a good tool of recruitment.
[ … ]
Q74 Dr Lewis: Thank you very much indeed. Now we are on our last topic, but it is a big one: how our military forces should be employed to counter a geographically dispersed Islamist terrorist threat. We have learned the hard way, both in Iraq and in Libya.
In the case of Iraq, we intervened and then, as a result of having removed one power structure, found ourselves sucked in and, effectively, having to support the whole basis of the Iraqi state if we were to get, after about 15 years, to some sort of acceptable and semi-stable outcome. In Libya, we intervened again – more decisively, it must be said, than Parliament had been led to expect when we voted on the subject. We did not allow ourselves to get sucked in militarily. So in the one case, we broke it and it took us a very long time to fix. In the other case, we broke it and we haven’t fixed it.
Is there some other way of dealing with this matter? Dr Ashraf, our first contact was as a result a few years ago of me hearing you on a radio broadcast talking about a concept of what you called “Boots with wings” and what I have subsequently called “Swoop-in, swoop out”. That is, the idea that you do intervene militarily but you do not get sucked in. You do what you have to do. You then withdraw, but you make it abundantly clear that, if there is any sign of a friendly Government being overthrown, you will intervene again on a time-limited basis as often as it takes.
Has that theory been adopted anywhere and has it stood up to the passage of time since you first put it forward, or have you modified your views?
Dr Ashraf: The answer is no on all those areas. The reason is that I was talking about an operational methodology. What I think is required is a different strategic approach to accommodate that operational methodology. The points you mentioned: effectively, you talk about stopping regime change. Once you have regime change – and we have never had a successful enforced regime change – you create ungoverned space where these organisations can flourish and it is much harder to deal with them then. It is much easier, no matter how despicable a regime may be, to contain the security of those people.
In a wider sense, coming back to both ethics and radicalisation, if you look at these “monsters”, as we like to call them, these dictators, and the brutality they have inflicted, and we then look at the number of people who have died or suffered injury as a consequence of liberation, I am afraid there is a very uncomfortable truth. That is, it is better for more people if they live under a regime that is not to our liking than if we liberate them and cause the chaos and mayhem that we have seen.
The other thing we must not do is empower groups that might help us with our global politics. This is where I think the Saudi Arabia issue comes in. Both Saudi Arabia and another Gulf country have accused each other of supporting Daesh. One of them at least – if not both – is telling the truth. The point is, in Syria the priority was regime change and they empowered these extremists, either directly or indirectly. They now have the weapons and know-how that is going to cause us harm for a long period.
Now we see the US embarking on a different version of that project with the YPG. They are, just like the mujaheddin were in Afghanistan, very cuddly, very nice – that is the way they have been presented. But they are a group that has used terrorist tactics, or their parent organisation has. They are a group that is going to leave a residue of instability there, because they have territorial claims around the sovereign state.
Those two things – no regime change, no proxy warfare – are the strategic environment in which the operational aspect that I was talking about would work. What I was talking about, for those who don’t know, is essentially that we should not have expeditionary forces that are inefficient, because about only 20% of our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq actually do the fighting. The rest are supporting them. All of them are nothing more than target practice for the insurgents for a lot of their time. They have failed to deliver success.
Our strength lies in our mobility as conventional forces. The strength of conventional forces lies in power projection. As you have described: find a target, deal with the target, walk away. In warfare, there are two elements that work. One is coercion and the other is deterrence. Both of them are psychological. Both are about making the other believe that there are consequences and that they have no resort to your power.
What we have done is deliver the opposite. We have made people in these terrorist organisations believe that they can defeat the West: that they can defeat superpowers, as they believe they defeated the USSR. In order to reverse that, I suggest that we use our forces – to some degree we are, I would guess – covertly. We have an enormous capability, both overt and covert, to find targets throughout the globe, identify them, hit them, walk away. Psychologically, that leaves a greater impact than any invasion would.
Q75 Dr Lewis: Would either of you comment on some of the other specific scenarios? For example, there is Boko Haram. Is there any way in which we could apply that technique in African countries, for example, to try to prevent weak states from being captured by radical movements, but without our getting sucked in? Nikita, do you have a view on that?
Ms Malik: Sure. I am not an expert on warfare, so the techniques to be employed would probably not be my area; I am sure Dr Ashraf would be better versed on that. There are specific risk areas where, with the decline and reduction of power of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, we have a stronger presence in the Middle East. One could argue it is reducing.
Several experts have argued that we should now pay more attention to South Asia and the rise of particular groups there. In the written evidence that was submitted, there were a few other areas where I felt that perhaps UK Defence could pay greater attention.
The first was the Philippines. One of the groups in the Philippines that could potentially offer shelter to Islamic State is Abu Sayyaf. They have had many kidnap-for-ransom activities and they have also welcomed many foreign terrorists.
The second is Singapore. We have seen old Islamist groups, such as Jemaah Islamiyah, taking on new significance. Al-Qaeda are regrouping and continuing to attract supporters online. Of course, we also have Afghanistan and central Asia. In Afghanistan, we have al-Qaeda – and in the Indian subcontinent, as we know, which could be taking more prominence. Its system for attracting support is very different from Islamic State in the Khorasan province. That should also have particular attention.
We talked at the beginning of the evidence session about Central Asia. There are areas there where Islamic State, in very recent times – July last year – claimed responsibility for killing foreigners in Tajikistan, and it continues to target those areas; it is also including Rohingya Muslims in refugee camps in Bangladesh. They have been targeting them as potential new recruits.
I cannot answer the question of the kind of strategy we should be employing in these areas and whether one specific strategy would be better than another, but given the reduction in power of the group that we have been focusing on very much for the last few years, it is of critical importance that we focus on new or newly emerging threats, or the resurgence of old groups, in areas where we could perhaps play a role.
Dr Ashraf: Nikita has given you a broad spectrum of possibilities, but sadly we have to recognise the limitations of resources. Our military is overstretched as it is. Places like Nigeria with Boko Haram and East Africa with al-Shabaab might be areas of priority for the UK, however, in which case our capability in terms of intelligence fusion and using specialist units to interdict and take out particular individuals and groups is something that we could teach and share with those Governments to empower them. We could also offer some assistance in the planning of operations and by way of our capabilities in technology.
One solution is to encourage those countries at the governmental level to accept British expertise. There are a lot of companies in the UK with retired intelligence and special operations specialists who can offer that capability. That is not just against the groups; it could be against maritime terrorism as well, where we have particular expertise.
That is an area well worth exploring. By working with Governments such as Nigeria, who want to deal with the problem, with the right level and blend of expertise and the right individuals, we can probably demonstrate some significant successes that will encourage an indigenous capability to overcome them.
Q76 Dr Lewis: In the end, we are always reliant on local or indigenous forces on the ground.
Dr Ashraf: Absolutely, and we would be wrong to do it otherwise.
Q77 Dr Lewis: That was our problem in Syria, because there was a lack of acceptable local forces on the ground. Unless my colleagues have a final point, I will ask one last question. We have heard about Saudi Arabia, with which we are supposed to have an important strategic relationship. Are you worried about our other allies, Pakistan and Turkey?
Ms Malik: Certainly, when we go back to the idea of extremism and the importing of extremism and extremist thought, Pakistan has played a huge role in doing that. Having said that, I may be wrong, but there is also the massive presence of Deobandi and extremist speakers in India. There is a huge area for us to continue to foster those relationships with India and Pakistan to ensure that there is not only stability in those countries, but key intelligence that we could benefit from.
On Turkey, again I go back to the idea of foreign fighters and their capturing and prosecution, and the way that many foreign fighters and their wives and children are essentially waiting to come back to the UK, because many have not actually been granted refuge in Turkey. It will be key for us to continue to work with Turkey in the way that they monitor their borders and provide us with information on those individuals who are now there from Syria and Iraq and who originally reached Syria and Iraq through Turkey.
Dr Ashraf: Pakistan is a very worrying case in some respects, because it has legalised the means for its own downfall by introducing concepts into its constitution that encourage the discrimination of people it considers not to be Muslims. Ironically, that was not produced by religious fanatics but by arch-secularists such as Bhutto.
I could be wrong, but I understand that the current Government were brought into power by a very clever deal that meant that Maulana Rizvi, who was a bit of a troublemaker, was encouraged to sit for elections in 500-odd seats. That split the vote between Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan’s party and allowed Imran Khan’s party to come to power. The big problem is that when you empower these people, they become emboldened.
It is no surprise that a few weeks ago, this organisation, which ironically includes a deputy called Afzal, declared the Government to be apostate. They openly called for a rebellion by the chiefs of the army against the head of the army and the judiciary. They have been put into prison. They did that because they are confident they have power in the streets and popular power behind them. Given its nuclear weapons, its division of power between the army and civilian networks and the very loose-form criminal networks within the country, there is no central control, so I am afraid that Pakistan could flip at any time. That is a source of worry. One hopes that it does not happen.
With Turkey, it is very difficult to tell except that Mr Erdoğan, so far as I can tell, is the most agile world leader around. He can flip alliances overnight to suit his interests. If he does that, he will be active in the best interests of Turkey, which is what we would expect any head of state to do. He is not – so far as I can tell, and certainly up to now – aligned with any particular ideology, although he does subscribe to some form of Islamism, according to some people. He is very much a realist politician. He will fall out with the Israelis one minute and be friends with them the next. He will fall out with the Russians one minute and be friends with them the next.
Mr Erdoğan has a very particular concern. It seems to me that he is in strong conversations with President Trump over what for him is a very serious threat, which is the threat of a pseudo-Kurdish state around his southern border. That to him is unacceptable, and we will see the transformation of the conflict in Syria to an insurgency-versus-state affair. If it is done with co-ordination with the Russians, it may well be successful, but if the Russians or others get involved against the Turks, it could lead to some major problems, given that Turkey is a member of NATO.
Dr Lewis: On that sombre note, we have to bring matters to a conclusion, which is unfortunate, because I would have loved to have kept you here another hour, although I think I would have had a mutiny on my hands. I thank you both very much indeed for your excellent testimony, which will greatly help us in the preparation of our further hearings and our ultimate report. We are most grateful to you both for coming today.