The journey from jihad to Islamist terrorism

Brussels remains on high alert as raids continue. Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

The twin bomb attacks in Brussels mark a new chapter in the unfinished book on the history of Islamist terrorism.

To understand the terrorist attacks we must examine the wider circumstances. These include the hypothesis that many of the terrorists – including the Algerian Muhammad Belkaid killed in a Brussels raid earlier in March – have been involved in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and as a result have become radicalised. But as the investigation continues, questions will be asked about where the radicalisation of those involved took place: in Syria or Iraq, or in the back streets of the Molenbeek quarter of Brussels.

It is important, however, to note that while the terrorists appear to be Muslims, this does not equate to a relationship between the attacks and Islam. It is like equating the 1980s IRA attacks on the UK mainland to Christianity (despite the sectarian nature of that conflict, it was a political struggle). Let’s not forget that the residents of Molenbeek publicly mourned the Paris attacks.

The Syria connection

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has undoubtedly contributed to the spread of Islamist terrorism both in the Middle East and wider world. The foreign participants in this conflict have gained experienced in a violent landscape where the ostensibly noble idea of a classical style of defensive jihad in support of the Syrian people against Bashar Al-Assad, has morphed into nihilistic Islamist terrorism.

This in turn has radicalised many individuals, who on their return home, have difficulty readjusting. They return with some additional “street credibility” and may subsequently become both potential terrorists or trainers and ideologues. One man wanted by police in connection with the Brussels attack, Najim Laachraoui, is believed to have travelled to Syria in 2013.

A key point here to understand is that many individuals, both Arabs and Westerners, who go to Syria to join Islamic State are not necessarily radicalised already (in the sense of holding extreme political or religious beliefs), but that fighting and socialisation among Islamist fighters in Syria can radicalise them.

Complex routes to radicalisation

A recently published trove of Islamic State documents gave an insight into the many individuals who go to Syria and don’t join Islamic State immediately, but join other (perhaps more moderate) groups initially. To support the point that many of those travelling to Syria are not necessarily radical, a recent report was published of US citizens who went to Syria to fight against (not alongside) Islamic State. Reading their narratives confirms that they too were not considered radical.

The notion of radicalisation is complex and contested. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London argues that radicalisation is a combination of grievances, ideology, and socialisation. Given that, and with the backdrop to the Syrian conflict, these factors appear to change over time.

Those who may have had initial grievances against the Assad regime in Syria, may later embrace a more extreme ideology, perhaps due to their socialisation with more extreme fighters in Syria. This transformation from fighting a classical jihad (against Syrian combatants) to one of terrorism (against civilians and non-combatants) is a much understudied phenomenon.

In this context, classical jihad is a fight to defend fellow Muslims against those who are persecuting them. The same logic was applied during the 1980s Afghan jihad, against the Soviets who were persecuting fellow Muslims in Afghanistan. This classical jihad had the full support of the United States as noted in a recent book about the war.

Syrian troops in al-Jbail Mountain, eastern Syria in March. SANA/EPA

The attacks in Brussels were largely, but regrettably, to be expected. One report noted that “one in nine foreign fighters returned to perpetrate attacks in the West”. With this in mind, and aware that at least 553 Belgians (many from the group Sharia4Belgium) have been active in Syria or Iraq, such attacks should not come as a surprise.

Islamic State, through its news agency Amaq, admitted responsibility for the Brussels attacks, perpetrated by “soldiers of the caliphate”. So the attacks in Brussels must be seen in the light of the geo-political events playing out in Syria and Iraq. They are not born out of a sectarian issue of Muslim versus Christian; but stem from groups and individuals who have been radicalised, beyond the point of involvement in defending their fellow Muslims through classical jihad, to one of Islamist terrorism.