26 January 2018

We Need to Bring History Back into the Study of Terrorism

Just back from Davos Economic Forum, Professor Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou presents the conclusions of his latest book, “A Theory of ISIS: Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order” (Pluto Press), and emphasises the importance of rigorous historical analysis for understanding a phenomenon that is more social than religious. Interview.

Why is it important to locate the Islamic State (ISIS) in its historical context? What are the main conceptual shortcomings usually displayed in journalism and by other analysts?

Above and beyond this specific entity, the Islamic State that is, and before it Al Qaeda, the whole discussion on terrorism has been problematically de-historicised ever since 9/11, and arguably a bit earlier as a more specialised discussion on Al Qaeda had been initiated in the mid-to-late 1990s. This type of violence, as it emerges with more lethality, on a larger scale and, importantly, on a wider spatial platform has been presented as almost a sui generis manifestation – and therefore one that calls for “special” measures, indeed “extraordinary” ones. Bringing back history into the terrorism discussion allows for a more discerning and more in-depth examination of the problem. Specifically, it helps us both identify those elements of continuity (there are plenty) as regards the actors involved (in the South and in the North) and equally register with more acuity the qualitative differences that are emerging as indicators of a new historical phase, namely the unfolding patterns (transnationalisation, militarisation, hybridity) we need to identity, test, question, revisit, compare, test anew and ultimately potentially modestly use as analytical signposts of this type of violence in our times, but always against a deeper background. Mainstream media, self-proclaimed terrorism expertise and most academic works on Al Qaeda and the Islamic State can and must be faulted for being a-historical, Orientalist and technocratic. In lieu of history, we were served current affairs; instead of universal categories, we were offered examinations of a given religion and region; and micro-narratives about this or that operator or so-called profile were put forth when meaning – political, social, indeed philosophical – was needed.

In spite of regular references to a glorified past era, ISIS is, however, rather modern in its outlook, notably as regards its use of the Internet. You note that the group’s videos “individualise the [Jihadi] narrative” and, thus, attract young Westerners in search for meaning…

Like any other armed group, ISIS’s references, whatever they may be, are not to be taken at face-value. Merely indicative of that which matters most to them, they provide the analyst with a baseline of the organisation’s ideals and referentials. To remain wedded to their stereophonic phraseology and calculated choreography is to be intellectually complacent and academically lazy. One needs to go beyond and unearth that which characterises the entity more systematically and more profoundly. In the case at hand, ISIS’ alleged religiosity is certainly more pronounced than Al Qaeda. Whereas Osama Bin Laden’s organisation sought to establish a military “base” (qaeda), Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s group wanted to build an “Islamic” “state” (dawla islamiya). Yet the state-building project of ISIS is embedded in a more determinant logic of modernity. Modernity itself suffuses everything ISIS did and drives not only its modus operandi but its very essence. ISIS is the embodiment of early twenty-first century, postmodern, globalised, individualised, socioeconomic and political violence, one that is underwritten by geopolitics and couched in Hollywoodised imagery. Inevitably, such language, which indeed the group modulated and beamed quite efficiently on all new media platforms, strikes the minds of those motley crew Clockwork Orange youth lost amidst the anomie and apathy of the Blade Runnerish over-tribalised modern metropolis.

You argue that ISIS is the heir of Al Qaeda but that it also partakes of a “colonial boomerang”. What do you mean?

Going then beyond the simplistic, one-dimensional and politically self-serving narrative of ISIS as mad-terrorist-group-bent-on-destroying-the-West-and-establishing-a-caliphate-right-now, we can bring out the historicity that has been buried as regards the why and how of this political violence, and most importantly its deeper lineage. That is the wider discussion that has not been tapped into and was kept at bay when it comes to understanding the origins of the contemporary transnational violence. The indelible memory of the earlier British and French colonial violence visited upon the lands from which the group emerged combined with the large-scale more recent US imperial military violence to give birth to a milieu – informed too and deformed by the authoritarian violence of the postcolonial state – wherein such degenerated violence became almost inevitable, notably in the post-9/11 era and the 2003 US and UK invasion of Iraq. “Return to sender” is in effect the motto of the violence counter-produced, remixed and shipped back by ISIS to the imperial centres but also to the group’s immediate domestic and regional contexts of states it sought to reconfigure. The subaltern has re-strategised his and her violence. This transformation reveals a matrix of the new groups round the world increasingly behaving in such a mode, now local, now transnational, all the time repositioning and adapting. The sum total of this construction yields a group that must be understood first and foremost at different levels and in relation to different epochs.

And so, though coloured by a Salafi ideology, the “success” of ISIS is, according to you, not linked to religion or to anything specific to Islam but rather the product of social and geopolitical dynamics. You would therefore be closer to the work of Olivier Roy rather than Gilles Kepel.

If you are keeping to Frenchmen, do not forget the important work of François Burgat. Still, “St.Germainising ISIS” unhelpfully shifts the focus from that which needs to be studied to the student. In Contre-Croisade (2004), Understanding Al Qaeda (2011) and A Theory of ISIS (2017), I argued indeed that Al Qaeda and ISIS are not religious entities but demonstrably political ones.

The grand caliphate project harboured by ISIS appears to have come to an end, just as the group seems to be losing the war in Iraq and in Syria. Can the struggle be pursued elsewhere and, if so, why?

We have been served the “Al Qaeda is an open-and-shut matter case” once before – as ISIS was indeed preparing to storm the world stage – and so one should be wary of amnesic triumphalism, whether expressed in Baghdad or Washington. What we can register is this: ISIS lost territory it should not have acquired in the first place and controlled for too long (three years); the conflicts in Iraq and Syria persist and the social milieu (insurgent, tribal, radical Islamist, former Ba’athi, etc.) from which the group emerged will not disappear overnight; a mutated, reformed entity (Ansar this or Junud that) can always reappear sporting the same flag of sorts. However, more importantly, ISIS has evolved rapidly, much more than Al Qaeda as it were, and so the future of ISIS will be as much Levantine as it can be Sahelian, West-African or indeed Western.

You were recently at the Davos meeting (January 2018) where debates revolved around the question of the limits to globalisation. How does such a dynamic play out as regards terrorist movements?

It is striking to see how much the securitisation turn has mesmerised many a policy organisation. The uncritical mobilisation of pantomime expertise on terror has today become a process featuring officialdom, journalism and commercial networks – and academe cannot be allowed to replay that in its midst as it produces knowledge and gives meaning to the world we live in. Transnational non-state armed groups have it easy with globalisation. They do not suffer its limitations, regulatory or otherwise, and ride it all the time more conveniently; whether it is the goods they capture in Palmyra and sell on the black market, the weapons they acquire too easily, the oil and drugs they traffic, the ideas they counterfeit, the videos they beam or, as noted, the intangible imprint they have on the minds of individuals they can then attract and fold in their operational mould.

Full citation of Prof. Mohamedou’s latest book:
Mohamedou, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould. A Theory of ISIS: Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order. London: Pluto Press. 2017.

Interview by Marc Galvin, Research Office.