Paris Attacks Don't Herald a Clash of Civilizations

Generalizations such as 'radical Islam' only sabotage the ability to root out terrorism. The real fight is against terrorists, not against ideologies.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A man holds a card that reads 'We are all against barbarism, we are Charlie Hedbo,' during a memorial ceremony in Rabat January 9, 2015.
A man holds a card that reads 'We are all against barbarism, we are Charlie Hedbo,' during a memorial ceremony in Rabat January 9, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Francois Hollande, the president of France, has rightly avoided cloaking the terrorist attacks in his country in a religious mantle. Even without these attacks, Islamophobia is rampant in France and there is no need to equip the racists with additional ammo. But aside from the political considerations, Hollande's statements reflect the futility, tactical and strategic, of laying sweeping blame against an idea, an ideology, or a religion.

Whether the terrorist cell acted for Al-Qaida or for Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), they are first and foremost French terrorists acting under the nose of French intelligence. Their group affiliation does not change the outcome, since the immediate struggle isn't against the motives, but against the perpetrators. The importance of recognizing the affiliation lies in the fact that it could help map out the terrorist network at work across France, under the condition that this was not the act of an independent cell.

Unlike an affiliation with a local group, which places the responsibility for preventing attacks on the state, an affiliation with Al-Qaida disperses the responsibility. The possibility of such an affiliation has sparked a chain reaction in every intelligence agency worldwide, both in the West and in the Middle East, putting the protocols of cooperation on standby. For instance, according to French media, the Algerian intelligence service alerted its French counterpart of a Paris terror plot one day before the Charlie Hebdo attack. There's no certainty that the report is true, but the tight intelligence cooperation between France and Algeria, as well as between France and Lebanon, is an inseparable part of the international effort, which failed this time, to prevent attacks by global terrorist groups.

Mapping these groups, and not their ideology, is a growing concern for the intelligence community in light of the competition between Islamic State and Al-Qaida over the control of swathes of Iraq and Syria, and for the allegiance of terrorist groups in Arab countries. Islamic State is the offspring of Al-Qaida in Iraq. Its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, defied Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's heir, and disengaged from the parent group to announce his organization as an independent caliphate, with all its religious and political implications. Mullah Omar in Afghanistan did the same when he defined the character of his "regime" prior to the American occupation of 2001.

Niether Islamic State nor Al-Qaida represent "Islam." On the contrary. They consider the regimes of the Islamic countries as apostates, both due to their dependency on the West and due to their corrupt conduct. The two groups are Sunni organizations engaged in a bloody conflict with Shi'ites, fighting over the same sources of income. The successes of Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq have already sparked a change in the loyalties of radical groups across the Islamic world. Thus its ranks were swelled by the Egyptian Ansar Beit Al-Maqdas, by part of the Moroccan Al-Qaida, by a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, and by radical militias in Syria.

Like Al-Qaida, which rallied volunteers from across the world for its war against the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and made a show of force with the 9/11 attacks, so is Islamic State now viewed by those same groups as a glowing success, which leads them to join its ranks.

But contrary to Al-Qaida, Islamic State gained its prowess thanks to victories in the Muslim states, not through attacks against the West. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi does use anti-Western rhetoric, but his professed targets are the Arab states. Al-Qaida's aggressive strategy, on the other hand, adopted the principle of the "near enemy and the far enemy," meaning that both Arab and Western regimes are its adversaries, and one target shouldn't be given up for the other. Instead, any of them should be targeted whenever the possibility arises. Islamic State's strategy relies on the vision of dominance over the Islamic world, while the West is considered, for the time being, a tactical aim to be targeted in retaliation for the international coalition's air strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Terrorists in the Middle East and in the West are little concerned by the two groups' ideological differences, but with their personal allegiance and the means of financing and armament the groups can offer. This is why a Chechen group active in Syria rejected Al-Baghdadi's demand to swear allegiance to his group, since it is already committed to its "emir" in Chechnya, who finances it. Islamic State's brutal war against the Nusra Front – a radical Islamist group active in Syria whose methods are similar to those of ISIS – is evidence that the broad term "radical Islam" offers no model for the battle against it. The bottom line is that the real fight is against operatives and cells, not against the ideology or the theological justifications for terrorism.

A fight against "radical Islam" in its ideological sense may baffle the Western states. Such a struggle would require them to demand an overhaul of the education systems of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It will require them to level sanctions against Saudi Arabia, which finances extremist Islamic schools in Pakistan and in Aghanistan, and adopt the pure Salafist point of view, which opposes political or jihadist intervention in the daily agenda of Islamic states.

No one is dreaming of launching such a sweeping campaign. There's no need for it, either. This same conflict has been going on for years in the Islamic world, between moderates and conservatives, between the conservatives and the radicals, and between the radicals and the terrorists. This conflict hasn't been borne out of intentions to curry favor with the West, but in order to keep the sanity of Muslim societies and the identity of their citizens.

The political generalizations and mantras like "Hamas is ISIS," or "all Islam is ISIS," or "clash of civilizations," or the maxim that "the attacks in France are part of the Islamic struggle against Western culture" not only have no practical use, but they actually sabotage the ability to engage in precision warfare against the causes of terrorism.

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