Terror plot linked to al-Qaeda was disrupted in Europe

See also here. How serious is this threat?

Questions:

1. Is it possible to describe how strong is the presence of al-Qaeda in Europe?

2. Who are the members of al-Qaeda in Europe in general and how successful is the group in the recruiting of new members in Europe?

Answers:

Jonathan Githens-Mazer, Senior Lecturer in Ethno-Politics, Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

1. This is a difficult question to assess. All the most reason evidence suggests that Al Qaeda has much less tactical space to operate than they used to. I saw a recent statistic that suggested that all successful Al Qaeda led or inspired attacks in Europe had at least one member of the group who had attended some form of formal training at an Al Qaeda camp abroad. Given the situation in Afghanistan, the heightened scrutiny in places like North West Pakistan, this kind of training is much more difficult to achieve. This means that whereas in the past Al Qaeda ‘presence’ would have literally meant training people how to make bombs, providing material funding and support etc. for a bomb plot. , it has generally become much more about propaganda and inspiration. It has also generally been the reason that many recent plots are amateurish and unsuccessful – almost random if you will – because the meaningful capacity of Al Qaeda to actually carry out terrorist actions has been dramatically, if not altogether, reduced.

2. Again, this is tough question to answer. 5 or 10 years ago, this kind of question was fairly straightforward, but the nature of this kind of terrorist threat has evolved significantly since then. It is more appropriate to think about Al Qaeda as a state of mind rather than as clear cut terrorist organisation a la previous experiences such as the RAF or PIRA. Al Qaeda had really been born of one set of specific experiences – a conglomeration of foreign fighters in Afghanistan who, in partnership with, and providing material support to, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, perceived it their moral duty to drive out Soviet forces. Once this task was accomplished, those who were originally espousing an Al Qaeda global jihadi point of view have became fewer in number. Many of those who had gone to Afghanistan as foreign fighters felt as though the conflict was over, and it was time to leave – they had no interest in globally exporting this particularly struggle. Al Qaeda then emerged from the recalcitrant rump of those who believed that Afghanistan was only a first step toward a wider violent struggle. There number was few to begin with – but they have gained notoriety through their effective dissemination of their message globally.

What is the effect of this? What it means is that the Al Qaeda way of thinking can now be more easily globally transmitted – and it is consumed on a global scale through the prism local or national struggles. See for example the rebranding to the Algerian GSPC as AQIM. However, what this does not inherently indicate is a strong central leadership core to Al Qaeda itself. It’s now a truism, but it does have to be seen within this model of franchising and globalisation. In a business sense, the central office can, itself, be quite small, as long as its product is virally reproduced in theatres of combat on the ground.

And there is a reality that organisations, groups, random individuals often instrumentally proclaim affiliation for material support, to try to raise their own profile, or to claim legitimacy that they may not otherwise have.

It is also important to remember that Al Qaeda is different from almost any other forms of Islamically inspired political activism or even violence around the world – and is generally despised by those who describe themselves as Islamists. Why is this? Because whereas some Muslims may find their moral compass for peaceful political activism within the context of their faith – and this includes those that oppose occasionally secular and despotic Western-backed regimes in the Arab and Islamic world – these Islamists don’t buy into the violent and/or fully sectarian character of the Al Qaeda leadership. They don’t buy into Al Qaeda because they believe it to be deviant – morally and religiously – literally believing that Al Qaeda is an abomination before God.

There is a third question which you don’t ask here – but which naturally follows on: what can be done to stop Al Qaeda? Or indeed will the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism ever really go away?

It is my own personal opinion that were Al Qaeda to have an unimpeded opportunity to conduct terrorism they would do so – and in that way they are inherently threat to security not only in the West, but globally. Security services in Europe have, generally speaking, done a good job of finding out about and interrupting Al Qaeda (inspired) terrorist plots. But we have to understand that part of the commitment to Al Qaeda is to believe that they are in the vanguard. They believe that any sacrifice is worthwhile as long as it ratchets up tension on Western Muslim communities – through media stigma or security repression of political Islam and Muslim communities. Al Qaeda’s is a simple calculation the greater the repression of European Muslims, the more likely these communities are to believe that the Al Qaeda message is the right one. Al Qaeda’s strategy  is premised on capitalising  on Western ignorance of Islam – the way that some politicians and elements of the media are happy to categorise all of Islam and all Muslim communities as being violent, anti-democratic, and backwards. This ignorance is more dangerous than the Al Qaeda threat itself. To this extent, things like the minarette debate in Switzerland, Sarkozy’s head scarve banning in France, and the completely virulent and Islamophobic rants in the USA against the Park 51 Muslim community centre do Al Qaeda’s work for them. They make Muslim communities feel unwelcome, suspects in their own homes – and Al Qaeda hopes that feeling stigmatised will make Western Muslims more likely to feel that they have to take sides against the West. This hasn’t happened – and is unlikely to, because Al Qaeda’s message is not popularly resonant – because they are viewed as political anachronistic and religiously deviant.

What is interesting here is that while the security services have done a great job in putting out the fires of Al Qaeda terrorism, it seems as though some naïve or morally dubious politicians want to add fuel to these flames to keep them lit for their own personal political gain. Were it not for this, I believe that Al Qaeda would be much more likely to be a passing fad – the product of a Cold War struggle in a far off land that took place over 20 years ago, with little relevance to Western Muslims and others.

Adrian Guelke, Professor, Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict, Queen’s University of Belfast

Al Qaeda is really a term for a network of people who believe in the idea of attacking the “far enemy” i.e it is not a memberhsip organisation like a spoorts club.  To put it another way they are global jihadists who believe in attacking those countries directly they perceive as having intervened in the Muslim world   A further dimension is their belief in spectaculars i.e. killing large numbers of people simultaneously for maximum effect.  It is quite impossible to say how many people among the Muslim community believe this stuff.  They would tend to be connected with countries that have been seriously affected by violent conflict.  In any event, the number is almost certainly a tiny fraction of the Muslim population anywhere and the number willing to take action on the basis of these two beliefs is smaller still and of these the number with the skill to carry out such attacks (which has to include of course plotting to do so undetected) is tinier still, especially given the ramping up of security since 2001,   Indeed, what is striking is that the number of actual attacks on the “far enemy” since 2001 as opposed to plots has been very small.  A huge amount of publicity is given to plots that are thwarted as well as to false alarms of one kind and another (so there is extensive reporting of arrests but little reference to the fact that many of these end in the people concerned being released without any charge).

Peter Gill, Professor, University of Salford A Greater Manchester University

1. In the UK, the Security Service periodically refer to the numbers of people they believe to be actively plotting some terrorist action. These might be about 2,000 but what is less often reported is that they add ‘…and there may be as many again that we do not know about…’  So, this is the problem: al Qaeda is in some respects a movement but in others an ideology and people may shift from being sympathisers to activists quite quickly. The main plots in the UK have featured people who have been to Pakistan for training but there is now equal concern with people going to, for example, Yemen or Somalia.   You can check out the latest speech on all this from the MI5 director at www.mi5.gov.uk

2. So, your second question is very hard to answer since al Qaeda is not simply a ‘group’ who recruit in the traditional way – some small bombings in UK have occurred as a result of individuals simply being ‘inspired’ and acting alone.  I don’t know about the situation elsewhere in Europe but my impression is that it is not much different; this is why working out precisely the nature and strength of the threat is so difficult for security agencies. As far as we know recruitment may come via personal contacts or through internet chatrooms etc. A recent concern here is the future release from prison of people imprisoned for relatively short times but who may have been ‘radicalised’ there by others imprisoned for violent offenses.

Frank Gregory, Professor of European Security, School of Social Sciences, University of Southampton

1. AQ in Europe – ‘No’ – is the short answer as if the answer was ‘Yes’ we could expect the security services to have a more active trawl of suspect persons. A lot of reported AQ activity is via the internet.

2. Affiliates of AQ certainly exist in Europe – recruiting data is problematic.

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