Terrorism is a bigger threat than war

International security policy

Guido Steinberg

Dr. Guido Steinberg is a scientist in the Near / Middle East and Africa research group at the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin. He is considered one of the leading experts in the field of Salafism. His main research interests are the Arabian Peninsula, Kurds in the Middle East, Near / Middle East, Jihadism, Political Islam / Islamism and Terrorism.
Contact: [email protected]

A characteristic of transnational terrorism is the transnational networking of terrorist groups at the sub-state level. In the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Islamist terrorism emerged, which is not only directed against the prevailing conditions in the Arab world and in South Asia, but also fights the West and its values.

As of 2013, the Islamic State organization will compete with al-Qaeda, taking advantage of the disintegration of state structures in the Middle East to establish a new "caliphate" there. Battle for Kobane, a Syrian city on the border with Turkey in November 2014. (& copy Picture alliance / AP Photo / Vadim Ghirda)

From international to transnational terrorism

With the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 at the latest, transnational terrorism became one of the most important issues in international politics. Its forerunner was international terrorism, the most significant characteristic of which was numerous cross-border actions, in which completely uninvolved citizens of foreign countries were often harmed. The main difference between transnational terrorism and international terrorism is the sharply decreasing importance of state supporters. It is "transnational" because the terrorist groups network with each other on a sub-state level and are accordingly made up of members of different nationalities. The transnational terrorists usually obtain weapons and money through private support or through the establishment of their own sub-state financing and logistics networks.

The transition from international to transnational terrorism is fluid. The hijacking of an aircraft of the Israeli airline El Al from Rome to Tel Aviv by the Palestinian "Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine" (PFLP) on July 22, 1968 is considered the epoch of international terrorism. Since then, mainly Palestinian terrorists have carried out numerous cross-border actions. Attacks on Western targets should draw as much attention as possible to the concerns of their people. This was mainly achieved with the hostage-taking and murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich by Palestinian terrorists in September 1972.

State support for numerous terrorist groups was an important characteristic of international terrorism. As a rule, the supporting states were allies of the Soviet Union such as Iraq, Libya, Syria and the socialist South Yemen, which did not have to fear any sanctions from the USA and its allies as long as the USSR existed. This protection ceased to exist as early as the second half of the 1980s, so that terrorist groups had to forego state support and increasingly rely on transnational forms of organization and support from private individuals.

Internationaler Terrorismus (& copy Bergmoser + Höller Verlag AG, numbers picture, 621 191; Source: National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START))

Afghan War and Jihadist Movement

The Soviet war in Afghanistan triggered this transnationalization, which primarily affected Islamist-motivated terrorism in the Arab world and in South Asia. The Red Army marched into the neighboring country in December 1979 to save the pro-Soviet government there from overthrow. Afghan resistance groups immediately formed and fought from Pakistan with US, Saudi and Pakistani support. From 1985 onwards, they were joined by numerous Arab Islamists who had come to escape the repression in their home countries and to support their beleaguered fellow believers. The Pakistani-Afghan border area quickly became a meeting point for Arab volunteers, who for the first time managed to establish contact with like-minded people without being disturbed by the strong security apparatus in their home countries. Although the fighters came from all Arab countries, Egyptians, Saudi Arabians and Yemenis were particularly well represented. At that time the most important schools of thought of the transnational Islamist terrorists, now also often called "jihadists" - the "classic internationalist", the "nationalist" and the "new internationalist" were formed.

The "classical internationalist" school of thought was founded by the Palestinian Abdallah Azzam (1941–1989). The religious scholar Azzam quickly established himself as the leader of the "Arab Afghans" and shaped their worldview. In his writings he propagated "jihad" as an individual duty of faith for every Muslim as soon as non-Muslims occupied Muslim territory. On this basis, he called for armed struggle in Afghanistan, but made it clear that in the next step he was particularly interested in the "liberation" of Palestine, but also Kashmir, Chechnya, the southern Philippines, East Timor and Islamic Spain (al -Andalus) went.

From the mid-1980s, the number of nationalist-minded Egyptians in Afghanistan rose rapidly, who, unlike Azzam, were aiming for a revolution in their home country. Its most important thought leader was Muhammad Abd al-Salam Farag (1952–1982), the chief ideologist of the group that murdered Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat on October 6, 1981. Farag was of the opinion that the fight against the "close enemy", that is, the authoritarian government of the homeland, should have priority over the fight against "distant enemies" such as the Soviet Union, the USA and Israel. His ideas shaped the strategies of Egyptian Islamists until the mid-1990s. Since Azzam, unlike the Egyptians, vehemently opposed the fight against Muslim regimes in the Arab world, the conflicts among the "Arab Afghans" increased. The Egyptian national jihadists are often even suspected of being responsible for the murder of Azzam in Peshawar, Pakistan in November 1989.

The "new internationalist" school began parallel to the two dominant currents at the time. Its most important representative was the Saudi Arabian Osama Bin Laden (1957–2011), who slowly broke away from his mentor Azzam in the mid-1980s. The new internationalists concentrate on the fight against the "distant enemy" without losing sight of the "enemy close by". This tendency developed after the Kuwait War of 1990/91 when a US-led coalition liberated Kuwait, which was occupied by Iraqi troops, and stationed around 500,000 soldiers in the Arab Gulf states for this purpose. The US presence in Saudi Arabia prompted many young Saudis, Kuwaitis and Yemenis to take up the armed struggle against the US. In the 1990s, these fighters from the Arabian Peninsula became the most dynamic subgroup in transnational terrorism.

Pakistan, Kashmir and the Taliban

The Afghan war had a parallel direct impact on the development of transnational terrorism in South Asia. Many Pakistani Islamists had supported the struggle of their fellow believers in Afghanistan and were looking for a new field of activity in the 1990s. They found this in Kashmir, where an uprising of local Muslim groups against Indian rule broke out in 1989. As early as the first half of the 1990s, Pakistan's influence on the uprising increased, so that the groups supported by Islamabad quickly took the lead. The most important one was the "Excellent Army" (Lashkar-e Tayyiba) founded in 1993, which extended the armed struggle from Kashmir to the Indian province of Punjab to the south. The involvement of Pakistani jihadists led to increasingly brutal attacks, including on the civilian population in northern India.

However, Lashkar-e Tayyiba broke out of tight controls by the Pakistani military and developed goals that went well beyond conquering Kashmir. From the turn of the millennium at the latest, the organization made the reconquest of all Muslim-settled parts of India part of its program and increasingly became a transnational organization. It showed its reach for the first time in an attack on the Indian parliament in the capital New Delhi on December 13, 2001, which it carried out together with the smaller "army of Muhammad" (Jaish Muhammad). The fire attack with attempted hostage-taking was the first attack in what was later to be called the Mumbai style. The name goes back to the most momentous attack by Lashkar-e Tayyiba in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. Ten of its members combed the center of the Indian metropolis, took hostages in international hotels, restaurants, an important railway station, a hospital and a Jewish cultural center and killed 166 people. One goal must have been to exacerbate the latent conflict between Pakistan and India to the point of armed conflict and to benefit from the weakening of the two states that this entails.