Terrorist trees and ideological forests

I see that one of the greatest terrorism scholars alive, Bruce Hoffman, has just published a piece in Foreign Affairs predicting an eventual alliance between Al Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (IS).  I see this article as Mr. Hoffman’s attempt to remind us,  as he so often has, that AQ is not dead and cannot be forgotten, as some have maintained.  When he writes, I tend to pay attention.

Mr. Hoffman’s argument is essentially as follows (but do read the entire article).  AQ and IS are not significantly different in worldview and strategy he says: I agree and have always thought that the distinctions made by scholars were nitpicking and not substantive.  He also notes that the disagreements between the two groups are personal in nature, and can be reduced to the acrimony between AQ leader Ayman al Zawahiri and IS “Caliph” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.  Once both men are out of the way a merger would be easier to effect.

There is no question that a combined AQ-IS will be a formidable foe, as Mr. Hoffman outlines.  Pooling resources, experiences, lessons learned and capabilities will enable the new organisation to do more and to do it more lethally.  In any event, such a union will not be a good thing.

On the other hand, will this coming together really change the threat from terrorism?  Not necessarily.  Yes, more attacks are likely as well as perhaps bigger attacks, but you could argue that we will see this regardless of whether IS returns to the AQ fold (remember that it grew up as an AQ affiliate).

There are two things that bother me about this concern over an AQ-IS super terrorist group.  First I am worried that it lends unfounded weight to the “terrorism is an existential threat” view.  Surely the new AQ-IS threat is existential, no?  As I and many others have pointed out, repeatedly, terrorism is not and is never likely to be, an existential threat to us in the West (and probably not even to countries in Asia and Africa).  An alliance will take IS’s thousands and add them to AQ’s thousands and make more thousands.   Thousands, not millions.  Sure, some will join what they see as a bad-ass mega terrorist organisation, but not enough to threaten state overthrow here.  IS may talk about the upcoming Apocalypse in which is sees a starring role for itself, but that cataclysm is not happening in any realistic scenario.

Secondly the talk of AQ and IS is another example of how we focus on people and entities and forget ideology.  Groups and leaders will come and go, but the important parts are the underlying ideas.  We really need to work on showing how the ideology is false, misleading and anything but a promise for a better life.  Unfortunately we are not doing enough on that front.

When all is said and done we have to identify and neutralise terrorist groups, and a combined AQ-IS will present real challenges.  This underscores the fact that we will have to engage in kinetic action for the foreseeable future.  And yet, if we do not pay enough attention to ideas, we are destined to continue fighting the next bunch who put ideas into action.  And so on and so on.  There has to be a better way.

Mr. Hoffman has made yet another important contribution to our understanding of Islamist terrorism but I fear he is looking at the extremist trees at the expense of ignoring the ideological forest.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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