Islamist extremism has little if any place in its thinking for nation states. In its worldview, Muslims are not citizens of countries, but members of the ummah – that’s to say, the worldwide community of Muslims.
Hence the terror attacks on Jews in, say, Paris during 2015, when Amedy Coulibaly, who had declared allegiance to ISIS, killed four hostages in a kosher supermarket; or in Mumbai in 2008, when Lashkar-e-Taiba murdered a rabbi, his wife and six others. Because their outlook allows no place for nation states, they see no difference between Jewish Israelis and other Jews.
This extremism is also sensitive to events abroad and international trends – to put it crudely, who’s up and who’s down. Nine eleven was duly followed, four years later, by 7/7, when 52 people were murdered by Al Qaeda operatives in London. Young Muslims from Britain travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight or work for ISIS, of whom the best-known in Shamima Begum.
Western foreign policy can raise or lower the level of threat, but it can’t eliminate it altogether. On the one hand, the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in France had nothing to do with foreign policy: it was a bloody demonstration of how Islamist extremism worldwide has no means of separating the sacred and secular: satirical cartoons of Islam’s prophet carry a death penalty for their creators.
On the other, foreign policy blunders can undoubtedly raise the prospects of terror. Which takes us to the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The consensus view the best part of 20 years is that nation-building in both, in the form of attempts to create liberal democracies aligned to western interests, have failed.
There is less agreement about whether the original 2001 mission to destroy Al Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan was a mistake – a venture that had nothing to do with nation-building, though the United Nations then authorised an International Security Assistance Force with a mandate to help the Afghans maintain security in Kabul and surrounding areas.
This site’s best guess is that most people in Britain, if asked whether we should strike back militarily at extremist organisations that launch terror attacks from Afghanistan on our country, would say that we should – and draw a distinction between counter-terror operations and nation-building.
During the recent Commons debate on Afghanistan, Julian Lewis, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and a former Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, argued for air-supported special forces operations if Islamist fanatics bent on terror attacks in western Europe re-establish themselves.
Writing today in the wake of the collapse of western power in Afghanistan, we can’t know whether such reprisals will be required: what will happen in the struggle between the Taliban and ISIS-K; indeed, what will happen within the Taliban itself – how its relationship with the Al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network will settle down, and so on.
But the history of the last 25 years or so is not encouraging. The focus of Government security policy during the past few years has been, first, on Russia, in the aftermath of the Salisbury chemical attack, and then on China, as it tightened the screw on Hong Kong and committed atrocities against the Uighars.
MPs began to protest about Chinese penetration of our infrastructure: the formation of the China Research Group was a sign of growing concern. However, no-one has ever formed an Islamism Research Group in the Commons, and no wonder. China is a long way away. Islamist extremism has a presence in some constituencies.
When Boris Johnson spoke earlier this year at the Munich Security Conference – the venue for David Cameron’s contentious but correct speech ten years ago – Islamist extremism wasn’t even mentioned, an omission which this site called attention to at the time. “Fox hunting may be banned but its political equivalent goes on still,” we wrote.
“The pack is in full cry as it pursues China over the Uighars and atrocities (and showing Britain’s Muslims that others care about it is a useful counter to claims of anti-Muslim prejudice). Over the horizan it vanishes in pursuit of the prey. As it does so, do other foxes hear the hoofbeats vanish, stir in their lairs, and cock an ear?”
“We can’t assume that this isn’t happening. No-one much saw Al Qaeda in the undergrowth before 2001. Nine-eleven came out out of a clear blue sky.” So for western governments did the sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s Government, though America’s departure from the country, negotiated by Donald Trump and implemented by Joe Biden, was well-signalled.
The recently-published Integrated Strategic Review recognises the threat of asymetic terror, and the link between strife abroad and terror here. But the neglect of the Islamist threat in the Prime Minister’s speech suggests that government’s focus has been elsewhere recently – which isn’t surprising, given recent events.
China is described in the review as a “systemic competitor”; Russia as an “acute and direct threat”. The Government now needs to prepare itself, first, for the smaller flow of British Muslims to Afghan terror organisations as the greater one of Afghan refugees to the West gathers pace and, second, for a raised terror threat here.
Government has pulled at every lever since 7/7 to counter the menace: the Prevent programme; supporting moderate groups against the extremists; the Research, Communications and Information Unit – and, not least, all the work by the security services that we necessarily can’t see.
We hope that Julian Lewis-type special operations in Afghanistan won’t be necessary, but hope is not the same thing as certainty, or even likelihood. But whether they are or not, the main means of preventing terror attacks in Britain lie here, not abroad. As this site has said many times, we need a big network of spies and informers.