Deconstructing Islamic Extremism over the Last Two Decades



New York: Few days back, on a chilly Manhattan evening at Bukhara restaurant on 49th street, over kababs and Chardonnay, my friend who works for Counter-Terrorism with UN informed me that whole day he was busy as the UN delegates assembled to have a consensus on the definition of terrorism. This was, when the devils of ISIS were unleashing the deadly and horrendous bloodbath of innocent civilians in Paris. Rest of the evening was drowned in the philosophical serenity which descends on you when cold Chardonnay blends with the old romantic melodies of Rafi.

In what can be termed as beginnings of apocalypse, the next morning dawned not with serenity but, with a reality of death, blood and horror in the streets of Paris. It’s a pity that whole human civilization today stands at the doorstep of annihilation and one finds the policy makers still debating over the most acceptable definition of terrorism.

What the world needs now is to keep the political baggage aside for a moment and, study the growth of religion-inspired terrorism in the last one-and a half decade (to be precise as this is the main problem at hand for now and bigger questions of religion/identity inspired violence can be dealt in a separate exercise), honestly and rationally. This essay makes an attempt to study the pattern of Islamic extremism and the violence emanating from that. While using the expression, “Islamic Extremism”, I want to make it clear that it is just a factual expression to study the organizations who address their struggle as Jihad, and it has no political, racial or religious overtones. Although, there are much deeper political and social roots of religious extremism spread over the last 1400 years of Asian and European history, but the present essay is primarily focused on the pattern of Islamic extremism since 1990s to 2015, because the analyses presented here is an attempt of explain the present day terrorist violence.

The fourth wave of terrorism which is characterized with religious extremism began in 1990s. In the fourth wave Islamic extremism is the most dominant phenomenon which needs to be studied to explain the causal factors of the terrorist violence. It can be observed that in the beginning this wave was not much different in its political agenda, strategy and modus operandi from its previous waves, besides a minor difference of seeking ideological inspiration from religion. The terrorist outfits in early 1990s like JKLF (Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front), Al Badr Mujahideen, Harkat Ul Ansar (abducted five western tourists in 1995 in Jand K), Hijbul Mujahideen, Chechen separatist groups, Hamas and Palestinian separatist groups were primarily nationalist and cultural organizations. They were fighting for the right to self-determination of Kashmir, Palestine and Chechnya and the foreign occupations forces like Russians in Afghanistan. For them Jihad was a kind of shadow-inspiration/ divine authority to inspire and mobilize people for a struggle which was primarily a political one.

The second phase which began with late 1990s was dominated by organizations like Al Qaida and Lashkar-e-toiba. These organizations were transnational in nature. The role of religion and Jihad in their political ideology, objective and theoretical foundations was far more significant and stronger. Their stated aim was to seek revenge, primarily from USA and, then with other nations like India and Israel, for the injustices done against Muslims but things like Sharia-based society and politics were also becoming very important to them.  In addition, because of the increasing role of religion, the sectarianism also became a distinct feature of them.  Al Qaida and Lashkar were avowedly anti-Shia in their proclamations and activities. Many other organizations like sipah-e-sahaba, Lashkar-e-jhangvi and the outfits led by Zarqawi, were strongly anti-Shia and one witnessed a series of anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi violence in Pakistan and Middle-east. Thirdly, these organizations were not just a pawn in the hands of intelligence agencies now. They had become like Frankenstein monsters and were coming up as strong and independent organizations, throwing a major military challenge to their own creators like ISI and CIA.

Geographically speaking, their spheres of influence were centered in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Middle-east but their activities were global i.e. the acts of terror were planned and executed far beyond their geographical locations. 9/11 was the landmark event with which the terror went global. American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq provided a much needed ideological fuel for their appeal and activities.  When I use the word “global”, I do not intend to convey the existence of a systematic organization with a chain of command like the former guerilla terrorist outfits. What I intend to say is that with the advancement in ICT, there emerged a loosely connected web of such extremist organizations. The organizations like Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Lashkar, Harkat-ul-Mujahiddin, SIMI and HuGI were basically local in terms of their cadre composition, socio-political roots and operational activity and, they enjoyed autonomy in decision-making, but because of the similar ideological roots they functioned under the over-all umbrella of Al-Qaida. In terms of strategy, there was a new addition i.e. suicide bombings, which was seen in many of their attacks.

ISIS represents a third phase in terrorism inspired from religious extremism. It functions like a state, having its control over almost two former sovereign states of Iraq and Syria and about 10 million people (by some estimates) . It is putting immense effort in building administrative, legal and financial structures. In terms of its objectives, it is not just a reactionary organization, fighting against the injustices done to Muslims or foreign occupations armies but an organization with its own vision to bring back the Islamic Caliphate not just over the Middle-Eastern nations but over the entire world. It believes in the idea that except Islam no other religion should thrive and all the non-believers must be slayed.

Graeme Wood, after his intense research which involved tracking down the world’s most influential recruiters of ISIS proves that Daesh is not just a collection of psychopaths, but a religious group, an apocalyptic creed which aims for a global jihad to establish an Islamic Caliphate that encompasses the entire humanity, and takes the world back to 7th century. He writes in ‘The Atlantic‘,  that ISIS, follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. He further informs, “In conversation, they insist that they will not–cannot–waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.”

Coming to its structure and modus-operandi, it can be argued that it is not a rag-tag army of irregular soldiers or students of religious seminaries. It is composed of professional, battle-hardened and well-trained ex-bathist Generals, who provide a strong leadership and strategic direction to the organization. In terms of weaponry and training, it is not a medieval Taliban-type organization, rather like a modern nation-state with advanced weaponry, intelligence and communication systems at its disposal, engaging global super-powers on multiple fronts. It has huge oil reserves and a terrific mechanism of illicit smuggling of its oil, for its funding which makes it an immensely rich organization.

Adam Hanieh of SOAS writes in her essay, “A Brief History of ISIS“, in Jacobin that ISIS is a modernist project and it places utmost importance on developing media and propaganda network. ISIS makes an exceptionally intelligent and professional use of social media. Unlike the previous groups which preferred to remain covert and released a few shoddy video tapes from remote mountain ranges of Hindukush, ISIS makes a humongous effort for branding itself as religiously most authentic. Most its recruitment is online through twitter and other outlets of social media. One researcher has mentioned that ISIS media unit generates just under forty unique pieces of media each day, including videos, photo essays, articles, and audio programs in many different languages. Adam Hanieh further writes that, “The decentralized network through which ISIS propaganda is disseminated is also unique, using an army of Twitter accounts and anonymous websites such as and to host their media. Abdel Bari Atwan, an Arab journalist whose account of the rise of ISIS draws upon well-placed insiders, claims that the organization controls over one hundred thousand Twitter accounts and sends a daily barrage of fifty thousand tweets. This and other forms of social media are the conduits through which ISIS both recruits and disseminates its messages.”

On a closer analysis of the brutality and violence-live decapitations, executions and their transmission on social media- it can be argued that it is strategic. It brings instant fame and instills the fear among the enemy armies, which makes it easier for ISIS to acquire more and more territorial control. In “Administration of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through which the Islamic Nation Will Pass “(AoS) (2004) which is a kind of generic world view of jihadi organizations, Abu Bakr Naji informs that ‘savage chaos’ is a phase which in a jihadi struggle which is essential for ushering in an Islamic caliphate. ‘Savage chaos’ implies dismantling of state structures and acute social insecurities where jihadi groups can fill the political vacuum and emerge as absolute masters. People have no option except to fight in the vain hope of Islamic utopia of 7th century as promised by the Jihadi groups. Thus, we see that ISIS is a step ahead and much more organized and pro-active phase of Jihadi extremism.

Moving on to the next phase, I would like to argue that recent attack in San Bernardino marks the unfolding of the next stage of Jihadi violence. Though in terms of the intensity of violence and number of casualties, it is nothing as compared to Paris attacks or Mumbai attacks, but it marks a completely different and unique style of terrorism. It’s distinct in the fact that there is no high-tech planning, no organizations and no overseas coordinators involved. It marks a stage where any jihadi sympathizer or religiously extremist lay follower can unleash violence, depending on the availability of weapons, his socio-economic conditions, political milieu and his perception of them. One resorts to violence purely under the impact of extremist ideology or the false propaganda machine of organizations like ISIS which works globally, thanks to social media. It reminds me of Vedic ages when Aryana princess  Kunti produced his son Karna and  prince Arjuna invoked lethal weapons from MantraShakti i.e. the power of words or in modern parlance the power of communications.

Well, it might be too early to regard San Bernardino as a new phase of jihadi terrorism, but if the trend continues, it will have  severe repercussions. It will result in an increased vigilance and profiling of Muslims in general, as a result of which the majority of innocent Muslims who heavy nothing to do with such outfits will suffer. It will increase the animosities between the communities and in general abate the hate crime and violence, reinforcing the cause, objective and strategy of ISIS type outfits ideologically and logistically, giving them more recruits and more following. Further, it will be a challenge for intelligence agencies to preempt such attacks.

In the end, I would like to make a case for a counter-terrorism approach that is based on nuanced understanding of the phenomenon, on the behalf of states and multilateral organizations and, a regional, decentralized and a multifaceted counter-terrorism strategy, with a special focus on communications and social media which has come up as a strongest weapon in the hands of Jihadi outfits. Detailed analysis of counter-terrorism strategy in the wake of the analysis presented above is beyond the scope of this essay, but to conclude I would like to say that Vedic people were smart guys and even we can use “Mantrashakti” to spread love and harmony on social media and in our commonplace existence.

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