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gilles kepel

Iraq has become a sort of quagmire, a Pandora's box, if you wish.  For radical Islamists and jihadists, this chaos is welcome, because to them, it is the land of jihad par excellence. How does the current phenomenon of Islamic violence in Europe differ from previous episodes?

The story of Islamist violence in Europe traces back to the 1980s. At the time, the issue was mainly a dispute with Iran after the shah had been toppled by Khomeini. The Iranian revolutionaries used Lebanese Shiite Arabs to pressure the Europeans for a number of reasons: one, because there was the war between Iraq and Iran, and the Europeans, and particularly the French, were on the side of Iraq; also, because there were some deaths from the Europeans to the shah's regime…

Then, in the 1990s, we had a second wave of terrorism which was linked to Islamic guerrillas or jihad in Algeria. And it sort of reached out; it overspilled into Europe and into France, in particular, when some of the radicals there thought that Europe, instead of being a sanctuary where they could buy weapons or find shelter, was a place where they could pressure European governments so they would stop backing the Algerian military -- hence the bombings in France. But all this backfired by the end of the day.

Nowadays Europe has another challenge to face, because on the one hand it was the sanctuary par excellence for Al Qaeda -- Mohamed Atta and his brothers in arms studied in Hamburg. Why in Germany? Because probably Germany has the softest legal system because of the legacy of the Nazi regime; they are very careful to protect civil liberties.


Absolutely. The problem is that whenever you deal into religion in Germany, you are immediately protected by the law. So it is very difficult to investigate anything which is sort of mixing religion with politics or violence.

Then, in the first step, Europe was mainly a sanctuary, a sanctuary in Germany, a sanctuary in Britain also. You know, the British capital is nicknamed in Islamic circles Londonistan because the British had a policy of giving [not just] shelter but of asylum to anyone [who] was a radical exponent of Islamist jihad activities but would not practice it on British soil. So they know they could have access. They could sort of manipulate or control the issue, and they thought it was some sort of an insurance policy so that they would not be attacked.

photo of kepel

Gilles Kepel is a professor and chair of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, and the author of The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West; and Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. In this interview, he explains how Europe has evolved from a sanctuary for radical Islamists to a target. Kepel says that second- and third-generation Muslims in Europe have felt discriminated against and that the message of the jihadists have stepped in to fill this vacuum. This interview was conducted on Sept. 26, 2004.

And as opposed to that, you had the French system that had been badly hit in the 1980s and hit badly in the 1990s by terrorist activities, where there was a total refusal to allow any of those figures to receive asylum on French soil.

And then we had a second phase in the current situation which was sort of epitomized by the Madrid bombings. ... This new phase that we are now facing related to the recent events is that Europe has stopped to be a sanctuary. It has become a battlefield, and this is very clear from the Madrid bombings… Had all the trains that were booby-trapped arrived in Atocha Station simultaneously, then the station would have been destroyed by the bombs. And it's an underground station, you know, with a sort of glass ceiling, and the casualties of the toll [would] probably have [been] much worse even than 9/11. So this was a major signal, and I guess intelligence agencies now are very much on the watch-out.

What was the signal? What were they trying to convey if they did?

It's a very difficult question to deal with, because one of things which was probably very important for them was to show that no one was immune from their actions.

As far as Spain is concerned, it's a sort of two-pronged or three-pronged phenomenon. On the one hand, the bombing took place on the election weekend. Polls gave encumbent prime minister [José María] Aznar as the likely winner. And it so happened that he immediately incriminated ETA, the Basque separatist movement, for the bombings, and it was proved very quickly that it was not ETA, but the Islamist radicals. And then, to a large extent, the Spanish electorate voted against Aznar because he was accused of being a liar. So that showed that astute terrorists can intervene in the middle of the electoral process and have enough clout to change the electoral process, because Aznar was defeated, and [José Luis Rodríguez] Zapatero, his socialist opponent, was elected.

There is another issue that was: They wanted to pressure the Spanish government for it to pull back its troops from Iraq, which is what happened, because it was already on Zapatero's program that he would pull his troops back. And this is something which is extremely popular all over Europe. I think there is nowadays a major transatlantic divide in terms of public opinion. European public opinion is hostile in [an] overwhelming majority to the war in Iraq.

A third reason, which lays sort of much deeper into the radical Islamic psyche, is the legal status of Spain. In Islamist radical [thought], once a country has been part of what they call the dar al-Islam -- say, the world of Islam -- it has to be Muslim forever. And if it is reconquered by, in quotes, by "non-Muslims," then it is listed to … defensive jihad in order to recuperate it and to reintegrate it to dar al-Islam. In this jihad of defense, everything is listed. You're allowed to slaughter men, women, children, whoever. …

So some of the radicals thought that Spain, because it had been Andalusia, Spanish Andalusia, until 1492, then fell under this category, and then it was listed to reconquer Andalusia and to make it the sort of Islamic country again. This was perceived by the overwhelming majority [of] Muslims worldwide as totally ludicrous. In this case, the problem is that you have a small group of people with bombs who can turn the tables.

How significant was it that that small group of people were mostly indigenous to Spain? I mean, they were Spanish; they were living in Spain, these people, whereas a lot of jihadist activities that you referred to before were jihadists that came in from outside or were influenced from the outside.

The Spanish affair was a sort of hybrid between the two poles of the spectrum, if you will. On the one hand, you have the 9/11 affair, which was entirely performed by people who had been flown in from the outside and who had no relation whatsoever, or very little, to the local Muslim or even the local Islamist American community.

On the other hand, on the other end of the spectrum, you have the Casablanca bombings of May 2003. The Casablanca thing took place at the hands of people who had never travelled outside, who came out of the slums of the shantytown areas, near Casablanca, who had read pamphlets by Ayman al-Zawahiri or bin Laden on the Internet, had watched videos or DVDs of jihad in Chechnya or wherever, where mujahideen from the Arabian Peninsula were holding chopped heads of Russian soldiers, and they were enthusiastic about that. And they decided they would ape 9/11.

How would they ape it? They would do the same: They would kill Jews and kill Westerners. So they targeted a Jewish community center in Casablanca. But it was on Friday night [the Jewish Sabbath], and because those people were not really versed in [Jewish] issues, and there was no one. And they also targeted a restaurant which was called Casa de Espaa, the name phrasing back to the old days of the Spanish protectorate on Morocco, but no Spaniard had been seen treading in this place for 40 years. And they killed uniquely Morroccan Muslims; that is to say, the very civil society that they want to galvanize and mobilize. ...

So Spain was in the middle, because it was performed mainly by immigrants, by Moroccan immigrants. Some of them actually had family links with the ones who had done the Casablanca bombing the year before. But they also had some help from people who were directly in touch with the bin Laden network. One of them ... was arrested later in Italy, for instance. And there was also a Syrian national who was close to the bin Laden system, who was the sort of the link between the two.

Now, one of the differences also between the 9/11 in America and 3/11 in Spain was that the people who did it did not commit suicide. In America, Mohamed Atta and the other hijackers were on a death course, and so they disappeared. So it was difficult to track them, and it gave some sort of time to whoever had to escape to escape and the like. Whereas in Spain, those people who did it were far less professional. They had not been trained for years as had been the case with Mohamed Atta and the others, and after they put their bombs, they just remained where they were. So it was kind of easier for the Spanish police to trace them and to arrest a number of them.

And then a number of them did end up eventually committing suicide.


Well, they blew themselves up and --

Well, it was different because it was not something, you know, suicide in the course of action.

It was something which, in a way, is very telling for the dimension of the European response to those phenomena. When Aznar incriminated ETA, it was not only for political reasons. It was also [because] the whole intelligence bureaucracy or antiterrorism bureaucracy in Spain thinks in terms of ETA separatism, right, whereas actually it was not ETA separatism. So when they found out the hideout for those people, they stormed it as they would have stormed an ETA cache, if you would. And they had no idea that those people would blow themselves up.

And the same can be said when you think about the way U.S. forces retaliated after 9/11. I mean, they invaded Afghanistan, and the thought [was] that if they destroyed states -- i.e., the Taliban state -- then they would wipe out the Al Qaeda phenomenon, because you had cold warriors who were in charge in Washington and people who had seen the world, thought of the world, through the categories of the Cold War. [This was] most paramount amongst the neocons who had won the war, if you wish, against the Soviet Union ideologically and who sort of duplicated their vision of the war, of the world, tracing back to the Cold War on the new challenge that the U.S. was facing.

But the problem is that Al Qaeda is not a terrorist group backed by a state. It's something that belongs to the Internet age. Bin Laden is the supreme hacker, if you want. He is not just a pawn manipulated by a rogue state. And this is, in my view, the main shortcoming in U.S. policy targeting this phenomenon.

In your book, you make the comment that the war for the Muslim mind will be fought in Europe. Tell me what you mean there.

... Within Europe we also have a number of radical groups, Salafist Islamists, who are much opposed to the fact that people from Muslim descent become assimilated into European culture, they are against European democracy. They would rather build citadels of jihad within Europe out of which to reach out not only to the young, deprived people of Muslim descent who live in European suburbs, but also to reach out to what is happening in the Middle East. And this is the major battle. On the one hand, you have those people in Europe who I think are the overwhelming majority of our citizens of Muslim descent, whether they come from North Africa, from the Middle East or where have you, from subcontinental India or from Turkey, who are the first generation of Muslims worldwide to be able to participate in a democratic country and to enjoy democratic life. ...

On what basis would the Salafist argument appeal to people who have come to Europe for material reasons, come to Europe to better their economic lives?

Well, for many reasons, the first of them being that even though people came to Europe to better their lives, they have not all achieved that goal -- far from it. Two, because we now have the second or third generation of children or grandchildren of immigrants, and the second generation has experienced a rather difficult life because many of the parents, after the crisis of the 1970s, were on the dole. They were unemployed. And then children sort of felt that they were rejected, that they didn't know where they belonged. Were they still Algerians, for instance, where the country rejected them as traitors, as they had gone overseas? Were they French already? And they felt that it was xenophobia or racism or what have you.

So that created some sort of a questioning, a sort of vacuum, if you wish, a niche into which the Salafists and the jihadists and the others came and they said: "You know, they see you're French, but in reality you are not French. You are Muslim, and you have to fight against the empire and the infidel French." ...

What is the appeal to young people who have the competing influences of the video arcade and the modern culture? What is the appeal of this far-fetched ideology?

Al Qaeda is part and parcel of the modern culture. Without the Internet and the Worldwide Web, there would be no Al Qaeda. ... Al Qaeda or radical Islamism shouldn't be perceived as a sort of medieval way of behaving. On the contrary, your average jihadi is a cybernaut and so far from, if you wish, the video arcades, and it's part and parcel of jihadi 21st-century culture.

And at the same time they're talking about restoring a state of existence that has not been of any relevance for 600 or 700 years, they are using the latest in technology. But the message is the same: that we have to revert to a form of personal management in government that has sort of been supplanted in most of the world by the Renaissance and the Reformation than --

Well, the message is very explicitly that history is bad; history has to be negated. And in order for the world to achieve its aims, it has to, if you wish, return to the fundamentals, hence the fundamentalism name of Islam, which took place 1,400 years ago in the 7th century A.D., when the prophet Muhammad came to life, and there the issue to sort of compel the social system to, if you wish, abide by the laws and the notions of shari'a, of Islamic law.

Now, what may be surprising or striking is how come such a thing has any appeal to young people who live in a sort of multi-culti, what-have-you society. Well, among other things, because some of those young people feel that they don't stand a chance in this modern society, that they were born on the wrong side of the river, and that there is social and political frustration, and there is also a feeling that their identity is not being explicitly fulfilled in this sort of in-between or torn in-between case, which is the fate of of immigration. ...

Why should the secular European or North American be concerned about a handful of really extreme ideologues from the fringes of Islam?

Well, because those ideologues are prone to use violence, and this is what happened in Madrid. This is what happened in New York. This is what happened in Bali, in Istanbul, Riyadh and wherever. And this is precisely the issue in the battle for the minds.

And why is Europe more sensitive or more vulnerable than, say, Canada or the United States?

It's not an issue of being more sensitive or more vulnerable. It's an issue of being nearer. To us, the Middle East is not the Middle East. It is the Near East. And we are part and parcel of the Mediterranean, and they are part and parcel of Europe. And this creates a very different perspective ... whereas with North America, it's not the same issue. I mean, it's far away. It's the Middle East for North America, maybe more for the U.S. than for Canada; [it] is something which pertains to foreign policy. To us, it is domestic policy.

So quantify the possibility, if you can, that in Europe, which is on the cutting edge of modernity, there is a realistic appetite for an ideology that is totally opposed to modernity. What are the chances that they will ever make enough headway there to justify this rising tide of concern that gets expressed in the headscarf dispute?

It is difficult to quantify, but the problem with terrorism is that quantity is not the issue, because with the small group of dedicated people, you can hijack a public agenda. And then the issue is to make sure that the civil society out of which the terrorist groups surge will eradicate terrorism. This is the key issue for us, and it is fought on the different level than the level which is America's level, because, as I said, we have millions of people of Muslim descent on our soil. We are very near. ...

What is Salafism, and why does anybody consider it relevant today?

Salafism is a word that comes from the Arabic word salaf, which means "the ancestors," and it is a means to sort of practice Islam the way the ancestors [did], by their forefathers. The first Muslims supposedly practiced it, so it is a means to deny history. There is no evolution. Evolution in itself is bad, if you wish. Hence, Salafism is tantamount to fundamentalism, if you wish, and it is a view of Islam which became particularly persuasive and relevant in the Arabian Peninsula and particularly in the Saudi kingdom.

Salafism is divided into, [so] to speak -- grows into two branches. On the one hand, you had the conservative Salafists, people who backed the Saudi family, for instance, the Saudi ruling family, and who were opposed to anything revolutionary; who, for instance, considered that the Earth was flat, but on the same time [thought] it was not legitimate to revolt against the Muslim ruler.

But on the other hand, we have another brand of Salafism which is nicknamed jihadi Salafism, and those people who mixed this sort of very rigorous view of religion together with the desire to fight jihad. They considered that nowadays, in the late 20th and early 21st century, the main aim for Muslims to live their faith was to implement jihad; i.e., holy war, the holy war that was sort of all-pervasive, not only against the enemies of Islam -- i.e., whoever was not Muslim -- but also against bad Muslims. And this creates a sort of sectarian effect which leaves at the end of the day this feeling that there is only one group, one core group of pure blue or true green Muslims who are the members of the sects. All the others are likely to be killed, assassinated, or to be converted.

And this took place mainly during the war in Afghanistan, during the U.S.- and Saudi-backed jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when people from the sort of traditional Salafi descent, on the one hand, and people were more interested in jihad, and the people who were called usually Islamists or people who were intellectual inheritors of the Muslim Brotherhood meld together in the training camps in Afghanistan and who were trained by Pakistani army under CIA sponsorship who were fed on Saudi petro dollars. And this sort of developed this new, very modern hybrid which is called Salafi jihadism. The U.S. was totally unawares at the time that it had given birth to a monster. ...

How would you evaluate the effecctiveness of the war on terror?

The war on terror had two wars in it. The first one officially was the war of retaliation against Al Qaeda that led American and allied forces to attack Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001 to eradicate the Taliban regime. But it did not create or reach its aims, because the issue was not the Taliban regime; it was only a side effect, if you wish. The issue was to destroy the Al Qaeda network and to really do so entirely. Even though severe blows were stricken against Al Qaeda, even though a number of Al Qaeda top executives were captured, like Khalid [Sheikh] Mohammed, who is the engineer and chief of 9/11 and whose confessions have been published in the 9/11 Commission report in the United States, nevertheless, Zawahiri for sure and bin Laden for sure are probably at large and alive.

So this was phase one of the war on terror, and I think that the reason why it was not entirely successful was that the people who fought the war on terror from the American side still dealt with the world with a Cold War mentality. They believed that they had to find out states that were their enemies, that were the rogue states of President Bush or the "axis of evil." The axis of evil is the sort of adulterous term of the empire of Ronald Reagan, if you wish, but it doesn't come to terms with the kind of threats or the kind of challenge that the Al Qaeda network as a network is really posing.

Then you had phase two of the war on terror, and here you have this little confusion, which is the toppling of the Saddam Hussein tyranny in Iraq. And you know it has become extremely political, because many people said that President Bush and Prime Minister [Tony] Blair had deliberately fooled public opinion saying that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and that it was actually only a pretext for the war. Whatever the reason, the issue is that both the U.S. and the British administrations believed that ousting Saddam Hussein from power, toppling his dictatorial regime, would one, be something that would be very popular in the Muslim world because they would have the dictator ousted; that two, it would lead to a democratic Iraq by the magic of military force, that successful military force and the military would translate into a military apotheosis; and three, that this was the way to get rid of terrorism, because the assumption in the American administration -- I think this is not questionable -- was that terrorism is borne out of this profession, that people become terrorists because they have no way to express what they feel, what they want, what they need, and that if you get rid of authoritarian regimes, if you have democratic regimes in the Middle East, then you will have no more ground for terror.

So what's wrong with that line of thought?

So the only problem is that it did not work out. I mean, three years after, instead of becoming the new paragon for democracy, Iraq has become a sort of quagmire, a Pandora's box, if you wish. And for sure, military victory which was blatant against a Third World army, which was Saddam Hussein's army, which had no weapons of mass destruction as we now know, did not translate into political victory. It translated into chaos. And this is the major problem.

Now, what is going to be borne out of this chaos is the big question mark. For radical Islamists and jihadists, this chaos is welcome, because to them, it is the land of jihad par excellence. And they are convinced that they are going to inflict a new Vietnam on America, that the amount of casualties is going to be such that American troops will have to pull back without putting in motion anything that looks like what they had expected or they had, or what they had wished for Iraq. Hence the multiplication of the multitude of terrorist attacks, of hostage takings and the many casualties of American soldiers and the sort of hijacking of Iraqi civil society.

Whenever you have the people who are deprived or unemployed and who line up in order to take a job in the auxiliary police, then you have a booby-trapped truck that goes and explodes between close to them.

And what of the overarching goal of extending a sort of a beachhead of democracy into an area?

That was the whole point. The issue was that if the democratic game had functioned in Iraq, people in the Bush administration were convinced that it would overspill in the whole area and that the dictators in the area would be wiped out by the will of their civil societies backed by the U.S. But the problem is that, for the time being, it hasn't worked.

I guess that the reason is that in Iraq, you're not in former East Germany. I mean, Baghdad is no East Berlin. And the methods that were used to de-Nazify or de-Communistify, if you wish, those countries cannot be duplicated with the de-Baathification. I mean, it is much more complex. Iraq is a country where you have opposing ethnic groups fighting against each other, and not only for the nature of the state, but also for the cultural commodity. Iraq is a country that conservative estimates say could produce 5 million barrels of oil a day, which is half of the the Saudi output. And definitely this is a stake which is considered worth dying for or sending others people dying for by a number of actors. ...

Either Iraq becomes the land of jihad out of the Iraqi chaos, [and] jihadists from the strongholds in Fallujah, in the Sunni Triangle are able to repel U.S. troops and for some reason or another, the U.S. have to pull out and it becomes some sort of a new Vietnam; or Iraq becomes the land of fitna [in Arabic, strife; dissent] -- that is to say that jihad backfires against those who have launched it, and then Islamist radicals become isolated from civil society, and the program for democracy in the Middle East can be implemented.

But in order for this program to be implemented, I think that the West should address a number of concerns of those Middle East civil societies, and particularly should address on a more balanced footing the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, because what is at risk nowadays is that in the Muslim world, people who reject the violence, terrorism and Islamism and so on and so forth, are nevertheless adamant against the U.S., because they see it not as an honest broker anymore in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but as a country which is backing liquid policies.

Right or wrong --

Whatever, whatever. Whether it is right or wrong does not matter. The problem is that this is the perception, and this perception has to be dealt with if we want to move. ...

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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