The Limits of Third-Generation Jihad

The attacks that took place in Copenhagen this weekend and in Paris last month were typical of the latest generation of jihadis: They targeted Europe, which the terrorists see as the soft underbelly of the West, and relied on killers recruited among marginalized youths of Middle Eastern or North African descent but raised in Europe.

This new wave was born of the shortcomings of two earlier waves of jihadism. The first one emerged in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and over the following decade spawned offshoots in Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia and Chechnya, all intent on toppling various pro-Western regimes. They largely failed, however, because they proved unable to mobilize Muslim masses under their banner.

Partly as a result came a second generation of jihad: Spearheaded by Al Qaeda, this one targeted the United States, in the hope that taking down the Great Satan would better galvanize Muslims. Al Qaeda and its proxies attacked America head-on, striking it on 9/11, of course, and then striving to get American forces in Iraq mired in a modern-day Vietnam War.

Various groups also struck in Bali, Madrid and London. But again no Muslim mass mobilization ensued. If anything, these attacks only strengthened the West’s resolve to support authoritarian regimes as bulwarks against Al Qaeda. Outrage over 9/11 enabled President George W. Bush to garner wide support and vast funds for his “war on terror,” which over the past decade has considerably weakened Al Qaeda.

As early as December 2004, the Syrian-born, Spanish-naturalized thinker Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (nom de guerre: Abu Musab al-Suri), a former public relations man for Osama bin Laden, diagnosed the limitations of Al Qaeda’s approach and prophesied its downfall. He developed a new model for modern jihad.

The main target of his war would no longer be America, but Europe, which was closer and weaker, and a potentially fertile recruiting ground thanks to millions of Muslim residents, immigrants or recent converts, many of them poorly integrated. Suri also shunned Al Qaeda’s top-down, pyramid-like organizational structure, favoring a bottom-up system. Instead of dispatching international fighters with specific instructions for one-off operations against spectacular targets, Suri encouraged intense indoctrination and wide-ranging military training for recruits, the better to prepare them to act semi-independently on their home turf. Their autonomy has resulted in cheap but unsettling attacks that are difficult for state surveillance and intelligence services to anticipate, track and prevent.

Suri’s main objective being to widen cultural gaps within the West, especially between Muslims and the mainstream majority, he favored three targets: Jews, anti-Islamist liberal intellectuals and Muslims he considered to be apostates because, say, they joined the police or the military. In 2012, Mohammed Merah killed French soldiers he took to be of North African origin, as well as students and a teacher in a Jewish school. Two years later, Mehdi Nemmouche attacked the Jewish museum in Brussels. The victims of last month’s attacks in Paris were journalists at Charlie Hebdo, which had published offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad; shoppers at a kosher supermarket; and a police officer of Algerian origin. In Copenhagen this weekend, one attack targeted a group gathered to discuss issues of freedom of speech; the other took place outside a synagogue.

Suri published his theory in December 2004, while in hiding in Pakistan and soon before he was captured by American troops and handed over to the Assad regime under Washington’s rendition program. (His present whereabouts are unknown.) It became widely available — I translated some excerpts of his writings in my 2008 book “Beyond Terror and Martyrdom” — but was deemed irrelevant by many analysts, who were announcing that Al Qaeda’s difficulties meant the end of jihadism and then foresaw in the Arab Spring of 2011 the advent of Western-style democracy in the Middle East.

In fact, the chaos resulting from these events — notably unrest in Syria, Suri’s homeland — created the material conditions for the implementation of Suri’s theory. The third generation of jihad now has a battlefield: The territory in Iraq and Syria under the control of the Salafist group known as the Islamic State is just a few hours and a low-cost flight away from Paris, Brussels or London, and the would-be jihadists who travel there to fight can then readily be sent back to their native countries in Europe. That experience perfects the indoctrination many have undergone through social media, including a kind of religious phishing that bypasses recruiting in radical mosques, which are often under police surveillance.

Yet the apparent strength of this 3-G jihad belies its very weakness. Every day, its supporters post online thousands of revealing messages and videos, giving away much more useful information about themselves than was known about Al Qaeda after 9/11. Their freedom of action has encouraged acts of extreme cruelty, which risks provoking a backlash (consider, for example, the Jordanian government’s reaction to the execution of one of its pilots) and alienating potential recruits.

By gathering en masse throughout France on Jan. 11, several million French people reasserted the cornerstone values of the republic, including both secularism and Muslims’ rightful place in French society. Both an act of defiance and a gesture to ward off interconfessional strife — the trap laid out by Suri — the rally was a harbinger that this third generation of jihadism may fare no better than its predecessors.

Gilles Kepel is a professor of political science at Sciences Po and the author, most recently, of Passion Française. This essay was translated by The New York Times from the French.

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