January 8, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Ideology Over Affiliation: A War of Global Terrorism

• The January 7 terrorist attack on the Parisian offices of a French magazine is not only that country’s deadliest terrorist attack in several decades but also the clearest example of how the threat posed by foreign fighters and persistent conflict in the Middle East is far-reaching

• The attack is the latest in what is emerging as the next stage of terrorism, in which disparate conflicts and groups—al-Qaeda or other similarly inspired groups, the names matter less now than the ideology—are merging into a panoply of small-scale/high-impact violent acts against soft targets

• From Yemen to Syria, Afghanistan to Nigeria, there are far more terrorist sanctuaries and training opportunities now than there were on September 11, 2001; from a global war on terrorism, countries now face individual battles with what is increasingly a war of global terrorism

• These persistent conflicts and sanctuaries, combined with ubiquitous social media and indirect hate and incitement therein, have resulted in a situation where no conflict is truly local and no community is immune.


While many facts are still uncertain about the January 7 terrorist attack on the Parisian offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the event is a tragically clear example of how the threat of foreign fighters and the persistent conflicts in the Middle East have a deadly reach into Europe and beyond. Everything about the attack is significant, from the target to the tactics, and to the reaction and repercussions. It remains unknown as to which specific terrorist group—if any—the three suspects aligned themselves with, but that is increasingly less important. Affiliation with a specific group is being supplanted by affiliation with an ideology. The specific grievances of groups such as the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda Central, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Boko Haram, while still immensely important for conflict resolution, are merging into what can accurately be called a global terrorism of violence against all.

Early reports that two of the three suspects in the Paris attack traveled to Syria—possibly returning this summer—add credence to warnings that this generation of foreign fighters can’t be lumped into previous generations, in that the ferocity of today’s fighting, the toxicity of the ideology, and the advancements in weapons, travel, and communications render meaningless comparisons of Syria and Iraq to the 1930s Spanish Civil War or the 1980s Afghan jihad.

Unfortunately for all governments, the situation will likely deteriorate in 2015 and 2016. This is not to say that each country faces an existential threat from terrorism but that many countries, including those long assumed immune, will face increasing risk of relatively small-scale/high-impact attacks along the lines of the Paris attack. Some will involve explosives, others will involve dramatic standoffs, but all will involve the ideology of bin Ladinism that continues to unite actors under a common script. The ideology feeds the ‘wolf pack’ tactics that are perfectly suited for small unit actions that require planning but not too much skill to succeed. There might indeed still be ‘spectacular’ attacks but the cumulative effect of wolf-pack attacks might be just as harmful.

It is important to note that while the risk of unknown actors will increase given the persistent nature of regional conflicts and online incitement, the perpetrators of these recent attacks—from Boston to Ottawa, Sydney to Paris—were not unknown to local security services. All of them had long histories of extremist behavior and associations, reaching back years. The same actors tend to reappear again and again in violent situations. One of the alleged perpetrators of the Paris attacks, Cherif Kouachi, had been convicted of terrorism charges in 2008 related to foreign fighters in Iraq. Of note, Cherif had said he was motivated, in part, by the images of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, which highlights the incredibly long half-life of the acts and imagery of prisoner mistreatment by governments as it relates to the inflated grievances of extremists. Ironically, both governments and extremists have issues with offensive images, with each side saying the images incite or demand violence.

The end of the so-called global war on terrorism is now a country-by-country battle against what is increasingly a global terrorism, with each country left to determine the most effective response against a widespread ideology. Defending vital societal freedoms while not providing the heavy-handed excess that feeds into an ideology of displacement and hate will be the struggle for every country. The conflicts and the ideology that feed off of them are merging, and what was once a global war on terrorism is now a war of global terrorism.


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