The forms of violence which we witness today - global jihad and terrorism - are novel in their conceptualization, ideologization and aesthetization, not in their defining terms: jihad is in fact a term as ancient as Islam itself.
However, aside from the ideological writings of Sayyid Qutb and Muhamman Abd al-Salam Faraj , the very first to attempt to instill a global and globalized idea of jihad was by Abdallah ‘Azzam (1941-1989). A Palestinian with a Jordanian passport and a teacher in Saudi Arabia, ‘Azzam, in the early 80s, called on young Muslims from all over the world to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. His theory on jihad is in sharp contrast with the popular jurist tradition: according to ‘Azzam in fact jihad is far from being a collective requirement, it is, rather, an individual duty. In other words, the fact that there are militants involved in the jihad, does not mean that the other Muslims are somehow relived of their duties.
A new notion of jihad
‘Azzam therefore distanced himself from classical Islamic law, according to which jihad is limited to specific time and space and can be proclaimed only by the suitable religious authorities. Moreover, minors need their parents’ consent to take part in it.
Certain jihadist thinkers even reached the point of proclaiming that a woman has no need to ask her husband permission in order to join the jihad, something that is evidently at a breaking point in Muslim culture.
‘Azzam went on to add that it is not necessary for a Muslim to be directly and personally interested in the enemy’s attack: he does not need to wait for a threat to fall upon his territory, but rather he is called upon to defend any Muslim country that finds itself in danger. Moreover, for ‘Azzam the jihad is not simply a struggle to preserve Muslim territories, but it is also a form of asceticism, a spiritual act during which the jihadist has to first and foremost learn to detach himself from personal property, from his family, from his country, from his ethnicity and his tribe. The idea is therefore to form a body of warriors of the faith which could at any time be moved to another part of the world, kept together by a spirit of flesh and bones and without any attachment to any society.
Azzam’s project was not therefore to create an Islamic state. He made it clear to the volunteers on their way to Afghanistan, to whom he said not to interfere with Afghan political life. After winning the war – he added – volunteers will leave the country and go fight elsewhere. Finally, it is important to emphasize how this concept of jihad is not terrorist by nature. In the 1980s, international jihadists were not attacking Soviet civilians, airliners, diplomats... Their jihad was purely military.
’Abdallah’ Azzam was assassinated in 1989 by unknown assailants and the organization he founded was taken over by Osama bin Laden, which introduced terrorism as a method of action. The link between Azzam and Bin Laden is that this terrorism has a global purpose and at the same time is led by militants who are also globalized themselves. Whatever their origins are, they are not related to a specific country or a national struggle. The first attempt by these international fighters was the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. During the 1990s, many other attacks followed, such as the attacks to U.S. embassies in eastern Africa or the USS Cole Guided Missile Destroyer Warship in Yemen in 2000.
Constants and questions
What is new is the emergence, since 1995, of a new type of terrorism, the homegrown terrorism, which recruits educated young people in Europe. This phenomenon became dominant starting with September 11, 2001. Secondly, all attacks became suicide attacks. This dual evolution explains the existence of similar trajectories in the attacks of the last twenty years. Let’s take the example of Khaled Kelkal of the Algerian GIA, who opened the series of French attacks in 1995 in Lyon, France.
He committed attacks against French public transports and died, guns blazing, in front of the gendarmerie.
It is possible to find a line of continuity between Kelkal and the Bataclan attack. During these twenty years, the vast majority of terrorists is effectively divided into two groups: the second generation, i.e. young people born to immigrant parents in Europe, and converts. Second generations account for roughly 65 percent, while converts are more or less 20 percent, obviously with some variations.
Thus, a question arises: why has the percentage of second generation been constant for twenty-two years? Twenty-two years is the time of a new generation. By now we would expect a third generation, but on the field. While sometimes we notice the presence of the first generation in the jihadist ranks, the third generation is pretty much absent. It is indeed an intriguing phenomenon: the second generation seems to be a constant.
For what concerns converts, they represent 20 percent, 25 percent, or even 30 percent of extremists almost everywhere. The figure is similar in France, Germany, the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark. If we were dealing with a rebellion of Muslim populations that feel oppressed by neocolonial imperialism or racism and islamophobia, why would the percentage of converts be around 25 percent for twenty years?
Third element: practically none of these young people can claim to have a religious past, virtually none of them attended a madrasa, and none has a degree in religious sciences. Most often, religious radicalization and the decision to turn to political violence occurred simultaneously. Half of the jihadists in France, Germany and the UK are criminals. The percentage is lower in Belgium. Their crimes are not related to Islam: drugs and robberies in banks are what have led them to jail, where they have become radicalized. Prisons, as we know, are the place of radicalization par excellence.
Also, why is there an overrepresentation of Maghrebis (North Africans)? This statement has been contested. But the fact is that in Germany, where Turks far outnumber Maghrebis, the radicalized Turks are not even 10 percent. Why? Why are those responsible for the attacks in the Netherlands and Belgium Moroccan and not Turks? In the attacks in Britain in the spring of 2017, out of five terrorists who blew themselves up only one was Indo-Pakistani: this percentage does not match the demographics of Muslims in the United Kingdom.
Another observation, another question: why are there brothers in almost all terrorist cells? Half of the twenty members of the Bataclan-Zaventem group are brothers. It would be tempting to say that the cause is to be sought in the family, but there is no family: fathers and uncles are absent, there are only brothers. And why does a considerable number of jihadists, about 20 percent of the men, conceive a son with their wives before killing themselves? For those who go to Syria this is a systematic procedure: they all have a son before killing themselves, and the organization pushes them in this direction. It is quite amazing: these young men decide to have children despite knowing that they will not get to educate them.
The relationship with their parents is equally interesting: in general, parents do not understand why their child turns to violence. A large number of young people, such as the brothers Abaoud and Abdeslam involved in the 2015 attacks in France, write a will. In such will, almost all of them speak to their mother, not their father. They often express their hope that the mother will be allowed in heaven, even though she is a bad Muslim, thanks to her son’s martyrdom. In other words, they overturn the generational relationship, becoming their parents’ spiritual guides and refusing parental care since they refuse to raise their children.
Why do all terrorists of the last few years die in action? The man who committed the attack at the Manchester Arena on May 23, 2017 could have slipped his backpack under his seat and left the arena before the bomb exploded. But he chose to die. Likewise, whoever attacks a member of the police with a knife is sure to die. There is only one possible conclusion: death is at the center of the jihadist project. What attracts jihadists is not the construction of a society or of an Islamic state; it is death.
The aesthetic result is an Islamization of contemporary Western youth culture
One last important element is iconoclasm. The jihadists destroy everything that is cultural, not just the expressions of pagan or Christian culture: during the fall of Mosul in June 2017, they destroyed the al-Nuri historical mosque, where by the way al-Baghdadi had proclaimed the caliphate’s return in 2014. The aesthetics of violence must also be taken into account. Isis’ decapitation videos, which are horrifying for us, are prepared according to aesthetic codes borrowed from Mexican drug lords. It is well known that Isis’ propaganda plays on the aesthetics of contemporary youth culture (not of all young people, clearly), the culture of video games, extremely violent movies ... The aesthetic result is an Islamization of contemporary Western youth culture. To make an example, the procedure followed by a Saudi executioner is different from that of a jihadist one. Between the two there is a common element, the decapitation, but the staging, the justification and the aesthetics are completely different.
All these elements lead me to say, as I have already said repeatedly, that there is a kind of nihilism at the center of the jihadist project. The term may not be well-chosen since these militants believe that they are going to heaven. Since they are sincere believers, talking about nihilism is not appropriate in this regard. The fact is, however, that they have no project for their earthly life. They kill themselves in killing as many people as possible, in cold blood, without emotion. The great genius of al-Qaeda first, and Isis afterwards, has been to allow nihilistic, macabre and deadly feelings to fit into a great heroic Islamic narrative. When they act, in fact, they are Muslims.
However, in their actions there is something incomprehensible from a rational point of view. Isis’ strategy leads to Isis’ death, and everything that has been done since the beginning leads to its disappearance. Isis’ victory is impossible unless Isis does not think that Western societies will collapse under the weight of their fears through an astounding effect. By the way, this was Bin Laden’s illusion, but things went very differently.
Isis’plan to create a caliph with no frontier is obviously impractical because it would put everyone against it. Therefore, this is a suicidal project that is hidden behind a great apocalyptic narrative. We are facing an apocalyptic construction of Islamic religion.
Between anguish and deculturalization
The jihadists expose a lack of spirituality, a great anguish. These young people do not fight for the utopia of a new society. Although there are some cases, even though dubious, of young people who left to devote themselves to Islamic humanitarianism, practically none who goes to Iraq or Syria does so in order to take care of people. Their goal is to fight. If they are in complete disruption with society, they are so also with the Muslim community: there are no examples of young jihadists with a pro-Palestinian militant past. In Europe, none of them has been part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The only exception is Hizb ut-Tahrir, the first organization that in the 1990s put on the market, if we can say so, the notion of immediate global caliphate. This movement that promotes a deterritorialized global caliphate, after having gained great influence in the 2000s among young British second-generation students, came to a decline because it refused armed violence. With al-Qaeda and Isis’ rise, young people have more or less abandoned Hizb ut-Tahrir, and a split happened which led to the formation of the so-called Islam4UK, also involved in the latest attacks. But this is the exception, not the norm.
The gap between the Muslim populations in Europe and these extremist groups is absolute. The latter always live at the margins of Muslim populations, sociologically, culturally and even religiously. No mainstream Muslim organization can claim 25 percent of converts, except perhaps some neo-Sufi confraternities. The high percentage of converts is, in my opinion, an important fact insofar as the point of convergence between second generations and converts is precisely the break with their parents’ culture or, more precisely, breaking the bond between religion and culture that was present in their parents’ world.
Generally speaking, the first generations of immigrants in Europe have not been able to pass down Islamic culture, their “national Islam”, except for the Turks, and in my opinion this is what explains the small percentage of Turks among extremists. In the Turkish population, for various reasons, language and culture have been passed down, in particular thanks to the action of the Ankara government, something that is not free of negative effects. This deculturalization of what is religious leads to a kind of exacerbation of religious purity that cannot be linked to a culture nor to a specific social life. Moreover, it is a desocialized Islam.
Breaking through this impasse
Therefore, there is much work to be done on re-culturalization, the re-socialization of the religious figure. Obviously, the methods would change if we are dealing with a country of Muslim majority as opposed to a country where the Muslim component is made up of immigrants. It is in fact of crucial importance to remember that the religious crisis has not spared traditionally Muslim countries and it is expressed in the success of Salafism, which by definition is the proclamation of a religious figure that lies outside of any cultural context. In this sense, Salafism, although certainly it is not the cause of terrorism, shares a lot with the latter in the way it conceives the relationship between culture and religion. Therefore, the priority is the social and cultural reconnection of what is religious, both in Europe and in Muslim countries.
Some Christians are beginning to experience the same phenomenon of deculturalization in countries where secularization is such that communities feel marginalized in their own society. In France, they tend to rebuild themselves as a community of faith and live a relationship of tension and conflict with the dominant society.
Deculturalization, in fact, involves all religions, but lives an exacerbated version in Islam, given the conflicts in the Middle East and the migrations, as well as the presence of extremist Islamic organizations preaching worldwide the total break with the existent global order. If you are a young man seeking radicalization because you are globalized, there is only one cause now, Isis, and the genius of Isis has been to be able to play on that.
Yet, Isis will disappear in the Middle East. What will remain next? What will happen to young people returning from Syria and Iraq? What will these young people, with the same feeling of rebellion towards the world and society, do? Where will they go? Will they re-invoke an Islamic cause or something completely different? These are the long-term challenges we must think about, challenges that far outweigh the short-term issue of security and terrorism.
Transcript of Olivier Roy’s speech at the Oasis Scientific Committee, Villa Cagnola, on June 29, 2017. Text translated from French.
 Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), after having been part of the Muslim Brotherhood, took on some increasingly extremist position to the point of theorizing on the legitimacy of an armed attack again the Egyptian government that had been accused of apostasy. He was hanged by Nasser. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj (1954-1982), disciple of Sayyid Qutb, and is mostly renowned for writing the The Absent Obligation pamphlet (al-Farīda al-ghā’iba), in which he highlights the importance of the jihad. He was killed in 1982 due to his role in the murder of Egyptian President Sadat (NdR).