Why Al Qaeda is a bigger threat than ISIS – Distinction between Group and Ideology (part 1)

How the categories of “group” and “ideology” can help to compare the main points of strength and the main weaknesses of bin Laden’s group with al-Baghdadi’s. In this first part, a focus on Al Qaeda to understand why it is still the most serious, long-term terrorist challenge we have to face

It was the end of the 1980s under the fire of the Afghan-Soviet war, when in a mountainous region across the Af-Pak border Al Qaeda came to life. Born out of the schism between bin Laden and the Palestinian Azzam, who had been working together for years organizing the flow of Arab men and money to the Afghan mujahideens, Al Qaeda was since its first days characterized by an ideology that no other jihadist group had ever formulated. While the already existing groups – such as those in Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan – were aimed at fighting against a specific enemy – such as the Egyptian government, Israel, the Soviets – Al Qaeda embraced a universalistic ideology.

To explain how this ideology took form and prospered, it is to be underlined the fact that Al Qaeda never had a specific territory to fight from: after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war it had no reasons to stay in Afghanistan (nor did the Afghan mujahideens want Arabs to get too deeply involved in their post-war businesses); in the early 1990s the group was expelled from Saudi Arabia because of though frictions emerged between bin Laden and the Saud family; in 1996 it lost its safe haven in Sudan after al-Turabi ceded to international pressure; in 2001 it lost its safe haven in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban; nowadays it is divided into more groups that make up the Jihadist Nebula and it is scattered throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South East Asia.

This lack of territoriality would have been irreconcilable with a an ideology aimed at fighting a specific enemy in a specific area (like is, for instance, the case of Hamas) and this is why Al Qaeda adopted and maintained a universalistic ideology based on a broad, abstract concept of jihad against the infidels and the apostates worldwide. If it is true that since 1996 (when bin Laden launched his famous fatwa) the United States has come to represent the main enemy, it is also true that it wasn’t the only one (Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also been preferred targets because deemed apostates) and that the jihad pursued by bin Laden was a global one, to be fought in more places against more kinds of targets.

Such an abstract, universalistic ideology couldn’t have given rise to a concrete political project, and it didn’t. Not once did bin Laden, or his deputy al-Zawahiri, say what was to happen after the jihad was won, what would actually be done after the defeat of the United States and its allies. Bin Laden wanted, for instance, to oust the Saud family in the name of the creation of a state based on sharia (something that, moreover, Saudi Arabia already was and is) but never made a plan on how such an ideal state would be organized and would be run.

Al Qaeda never made its political project clear simply because it didn’t have one; and this situation, with time, has brought about both advantages and disadvantages for the group.

The most important and significant advantage is that the lack of a political project allowed Al Qaeda to survive, even when after 2001 it seemed that the group was doomed to disappear. The group’s ideology, in fact, being so broad, abstract and comprehensive, easily spread among jihadist groups in the Middle East, in Northern and Central Africa and South East Asia, because it was possible for them to adopt it without committing to a specific project in a specific area(something that with other groups’ ideologies, such as Hamas’, is not possible). They embraced Al Qaeda’s global ideology and adapted it to their particular, local needs.

This phenomenon (known as Jihadist Nebula) has implied that now Al Qaeda is not only a group but an ideology in itself: when we think of Al Qaeda today, not only do we think of the original group now leaded by al-Zawahiri and located in the Af-Pak region; we rather think of a specific ideology based on a global jihad, on a view of the world founded on the distinction between Muslim devotees and infidels, on a fight against the kafir that is without time and space.

And though, sacrificing part of its group nature to transform itself into an ideology brought with it vulnerabilities too. In fact, becoming less an organization as such and more a way of thinking and seeing the world, Al Qaeda (meant as bin Laden’s original group) saw reduced its capacity to control in a centralized way the actions conducted in the name of its own ideology. All the groups that now make up the Al Qaeda universe act independently – as they have a connection with Al Qaeda that is ideologically strong but strategically and operatively low – and this lack of cohesion and coordination can’t but be a weakness. In fact, more groups conducting non-coordinated, independent actions, means that the large scale attacks that made Al Qaeda (in)famous in the ‘90s are now impossible and that the group’s capacity of action is now largely reduced.

This element inevitably led to the perception that Al Qaeda’s operations are now limited, in decline and no longer able to reach the success the group achieved in the period 1996-2001; and this perception has as consequence the fact that the number of people joining the Al Qaeda group (mostly made up of fighters who got close to bin Laden before 2001 or immediately after that date) drops every year more, as they can’t see what they would be fighting for. After OEF the Al Qaeda group looks like one that predicates without acting, that calls for jihad but can’t fully undertake it. Al-Zawahiri’s fatwas, which contain religious sermons rather than proofs of successful actions, have by now lost much of their appeal, as they don’t give wannabe martyrs a clear cause to die for; and this drop in recruitment adds to the group’s vulnerabilities.

Al Qaeda’s threat is thus represented by the fact that it is weak as group but resilient as ideology.

The group’s recent difficulties in retrieving its past capacities shouldn’t lead us to underestimate its strength, but rather make us realize that we are no longer dealing with a definite organization, as we were until 2001, but with an ideology, and that our strategies have to adapt to this new reality. Defeating an abstract enemy such as ideas and views, in fact, is much more difficult than defeating a concrete enemy such as groups. For counterterrorism the fight against Al Qaeda is an extremely tough one because bombs, drones, and rifles can’t nothing against ideas. As history teaches us, only the proposal of alternative, credible ideologies can defeat the existing ones; and this is how we should think now of our approach to Al Qaeda.


Muslims in Europe: when differences become barriers

The growing challenge posed in Europe by radical Islam can’t but lead us to wonder what went (and still goes) wrong in our relations with Muslim migrants

A few weeks after the Islamic State’s first anniversary, we can say that not only is the Caliphate proving more resilient than we hoped it would, but also its attraction of Muslims from all over the world is far from decreasing. The more the Caliphate survives, the more it strengthens that aura of success that al-Baghdadi has been shaping since 2012 – and this success unfortunately attracts young radical(ized) Muslims.

If this attraction is nothing new for terrorist organizations (just think of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah…) the new phenomenon is represented by the unprecedented number of youngsters going to Syria and Iraq from Western countries. For how difficult it is to get access to accurate data when dealing with terrorist groups, it is though estimated that ISIS has in its ranks 20,000 fighters, of whom 3,000 are said to be European.

The fact that so many youngsters are deciding to abandon wealthy, democratic states to join jihad is a failure of moderate Islam and a failure of our societies as well. And if the roots of the phenomenon are to be found in a mix of religious and personal reasons that psychology can better explain than politics, it is nonetheless true that such a phenomenon involves the broader issue of Muslim migration in Europe and is igniting the European political discourse on the topic.

With everyone pointing the finger to others we risk missing the point that when it comes to the locals-immigrants relationship, both sides are to be blamed and both sides are responsible if coexistence fails.

Where are we all going wrong?

In Middle Eastern countries – with the obvious exception of Israel – the majority of the population is made up of Muslims, and Islam – more than just a religion – is a way of living and seeing the world. In this context everyone perceives himself as a Muslim and feels recognized by others as such. In these societies people are born as Muslims, live as Muslims, interact with others as Muslims; and thus there is no individual-society gap.

But when Muslims come to Europe all this changes. They live as Muslims in their families but not in the external society, which (being a non-Islamic one) feels threatened by their group identity and does its best to curb it. They behave as Muslims in their narrow circles but not in the broader social ones, where relationships and bonds are not (and cannot be) built on the basis of religion, being this perceived as something that exclusively pertains to the private sphere.

Therefore, a gap between individual and society emerges. In fact, when the outer society puts rigid limits to a self-definition which is not individual but based on the belonging to a certain community, then what was a matter of immigration becomes a matter of identity – which is far more difficult to deal with.

If we want to find a way to address the problem of coexistence , we have to face our responsibilities: we have hosted and accepted Muslims in our countries but we haven’t integrated them; we have accepted their difference (building mosques for them, for instance) but we have put limits to its expression. We have accepted Muslim migrants as individuals but not as a community, and we have thus made our societies be ones that Muslims feel they can live in, but don’t feel they do belong to.

And though, not all the blame is to be put upon us.

What often happens, in fact, in the immigrants-locals relationship, is that the formers adopt a behavior that is –not without good reasons in many cases – perceived as threatening by the latters.

When moving to a different country, where they are faced with the individual-society gap, Muslims often tend to try to impose on the outer society their behavior, traditions, and values. They fail to recognize that the countries in which they now live and the people they live alongside with have their own history, traditions and beliefs, and that –just like them- we are not disposed to let them go.

When Muslim families ask for school meals to be not only adapted to their needs, as it is licit, but completely changed because they feel offended by other kids having pork; when they resist learning the local language; when they prohibit to their kids to make local friends…they contribute to make co-existence difficult and integration impossible. In fact, in trying to impose their ways and habits on the others, in refusing to understand the surrounding culture and in closing to contacts with those who don’t belong to their community, they just let the individual-society gap grow wider and wider. More than that, they often adopt a negative approach to the outer society that turns what could be a fillable gap into an insurmountable wall, and exasperates that question of identity that obstructs a balanced coexistence.

The blame, thus, is both ours and theirs.

We have hosted them and proved our multiculturalism but then we have missed the subsequent and most important step and do nothing to make them feel real part of our societies; they, for their part, have come to our countries looking for better life and job conditions, but rather than trying to understand our culture, they try to make us adapt to their views and ways of life.

We all have to find a delicate balance between their Muslim religious identity and our traditions, between their traditions and our European national identities.

Integration (not multiculturalism) must be our first objective. To make everyone feel part of a same society, whatever the religion and the nationality, points of contact need to be found. These can touch every field and go from TV channels and TV programs aimed at promoting the appreciation of the others’ culture (of which often nothing is known about), to language courses promoted by municipalities; from events aimed at the merging of groups and ideas (for instance local and immigrant artists exhibiting their works), to inclusive schools and neighborhoods (having boroughs where only certain ethnic/religious groups live, in fact, can make migrants feel home but doesn’t help integration); to inter-religion meetings that can become occasion of discussion and mutual listening for people belonging to different faiths but all living together in our countries (and at this respect one of the most positive examples is set by the European Council of Religious Leaders, where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists are all represented).

Far from being presented as definitive solutions, these are proposed as steps that could contribute to build up an inclusive society in which there is no gap, but everyone’s identity is part of a broader social one to which we all belong. Steps of this kind could help new generations to grow up together, without one feeling threatened by the other and without axis of religious and ethnic divisions building up barriers.

The importance we should be giving to the nuclear deal with Iran

What Republicans and many others in the West should take into account when dealing with the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program

The Iranian nuclear program was first initiated under the Shah in the ‘70s. At that time the USA and many other western countries regarded Iran as their ally and “policeman” in the region, Shiism was still characterized by a certain political quietism, Khomeini was nothing more than a voice of dissent coming from Paris and the prospect of a nuclear Iran was not a threat at all.

After 1979, when Khomeini ceased being a voice of dissent and became the voice of Iran, when the line separating religion and politics became blurred, when the country became an Islamic Republic guided by an often radical clergy and the Shah was nothing more than a sick monarch in exile, the prospect of a nuclear Iran began to be perceived in the West as a real threat. Set aside until the ‘80s, in 1995 the nuclear program was seriously retrieved and in the early 2000 became one of the main issues on which to base the relationship West-Iran.

The mistakes made by Bush’s blindness (above all his resolute refusal of the “Guldimann Grand Bargain” that contributed to Katami’s decline and paved the way to Ahmadinejad’s radical stance) and ignorance regarding Iran (that was inserted in an axis of evil even though in 2003-2004 it had stopped its nuclear activity to facilitate negotiations with the EU Three, then collapsed mainly due to the USA intransigence) made the issue grow tougher. It is with Obama that the US approach to Iran undergoes a necessary and valuable re-orientation: Iran is acknowledged to be too important in the Middle Eastern dynamics to be an enemy, and the possibilities to build a new relationship are at this point recognized to be highly dependent on the solution of the nuclear issue, on which discussions seriously begin in December 2013.

Deadline after deadline, the only thing we are now sure of is that for both sides the nuclear deal is something too important to be let go. Looking at the Iran’s international isolation and the dissatisfaction of the Iranian people after years of sanctions, we can easily understand the importance the nuclear deal has for the country’s people , but it is as much important for us too.


On the political level, reaching a deal would mean that Iran is subject to international controls, that international personnel can have access to Iran’s nuclear sites and keep under control the process of uranium enrichment to make sure it doesn’t reach the level which marks the border between civilian and military use. Until now such controls have not been possible and without a deal they would remain impossible, thus preventing us from knowing what is really going on at Iran’s nuclear sites.

No deal doesn’t in any way mean no nuclear Iran; it only means no controls.

Iran has by now reached a point of technological development thanks to which it has acquired the capability to become the next nuclear power. At this point the only thing we can do is trying to keep that capability under control; as for trying to cancel it, it is just too late.

Those who fear that allowing Iran to go on with its nuclear program will introduce a further element of destabilization in the Middle East, prompting Sunni states like Saudi Arabia to start a nuclear program too, should wonder what will happen without deal: a nuclear power under no control, Sunni states and Israel feeling threatened, military actions and proxy wars therefore much more likely, further destabilization in a region already touched by chaos.

Those who state that protracted sanctions will eventually bind Iran and make collapse its nuclear program, thus making the deal not necessary, fail to understand the reality of the Islamic Republic. In the limbo between authoritarianism and democracy the Iran’s government is not accountable in the same way in which democratic governments are; and past experiences show that when you are not dealing with a full democracy, then sanctions won’t work. They will just be manipulated by those in power, until reaching the paradox of becoming a weapon against those who enforced them (this is for instance what happened with Saddam after the Second Gulf War). Looking at Iran, whose government cannot be compared to fully authoritarian ones either, we can see that here people overtly express their resentment and the desire for sanctions to be lifted. On the other hand though, these complaints don’t reach the deaf ears of those in power, as sanctions are benefitting those who are close to the regime (in particular the Sepah), who are taking advantage of soaring prices. And this is why going on with further sanctions won’t be the answer to the nuclear issue: those hit by sanctions are not those who take decisions, and those who benefit from sanctions have power enough not to step back.

On the economic level, a deal would mean a gradual but definitive lifting of sanctions.

In this way Iran would be back on the world stage, retrieve its economic growth, weave new financial and economic relationships, go back exporting oil and gas, attract new investments and invest in its turn . And this would have positive repercussions not only the country’s economy but on the broader regional one, that can’t but benefit from the re-emergence of what can be a leading economy in the Middle East, thanks to its natural resources and labor force, its traditional role of bridge between middle east and South Asia and an internal political stability that in the region is unfortunately not the rule. The possibilities that an Iran integrated in the global economic system can unfold for the region have been for instance acknowledged also by the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government), that has declared it would benefit from acquiring Iranian gas and oil.

The positive implications, on both regional security and regional economy, that a nuclear deal between P5+1 and Iran would have, are thus the keys to explain why diplomats from all over the world are investing so much in negotiations and why can’t they just be let turn out into nothing.

The fight to keep our past alive

The path to follow in order to find a balance between protecting our past and securing our future, and why military should be left out of it

Our fight against time is as old as humankind itself. The inexorable flow of hours, months and years is a tragedy we have always known we cannot escape. And though men, throughout their history, have proved brave and resilient and have found ways to freeze time, to bind its flow and leave a trace of their passage that nothing could cancel.

And in this fight –as the prehistoric caves in Africa prove – the stronger tool in our hands has always been art. Art in all its form, art as the most powerful means to tell those who will come who we were, and how they are who they are.

This is how we have been winning this millennial fight. This is how our cities, museums, archeological sites tell us how did we get here.

Then why are there men who have passed to the enemy’s field? Why are there men trying to erase our past and with it our identity, letting time laugh at us?

Because when I said men are brave and resilient, I forgot to add that men can also be weak and ignorant.

That’s why men, throughout all their history, have built magnificent things, but also destroyed magnificent things. That’s why men have tried to produce things that could leave a mark in history, but also destroyed the  marks left by others – failing to see that you don’t have to make something to appreciate and respect it, failing to realize that it doesn’t matter who is the author, what his religion or his nationality is, since what is done by one man in any remote part of the world is an achievement of us all.

Far from being a new phenomenon, it is once again men’s ignorance to guide groups who have cancelled some of the most ancient and beautiful things men had built in the Middle East. They have thus far consigned to history pieces of arts such as the Gorgon heads of the Assyrians , four out of six world heritage sites Syria had, the mosaics the Romans made to decorate their palaces and temples, the statues kept in the Mosul museum, the ruins of the ancient cities of Hatra and Nimrud…and the fear now is that Palmyra, an ancient Roman city in Syria, could follow suit.

Partly convinced of their idolatrous nature and significance- proof of the “infidels” who once lived those lands- and partly looting those antiquities to sell them and thus finance their activities, those groups are right now cancelling our achievements.

Saving art is far more than just saving beauty: it means saving our history from disappearing.

We have, therefore, to protect our past from ignorance and self-deceiving ideologies. But such a mission comes at a price, and what is to be decided now is what price are we disposed to pay, and is rational to pay.

I firmly believe, as person who had tears in her eyes when admiring for the first time the majesty and stunning beauty of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, that saving art is a duty we cannot avoid. But I also believe that calls for military actions and proposals such as the creation of “blue helmets of culture” or the one that came from UNESCO, calling for the creation of protected cultural zones, fail to recognize that there is no work of art – no matter how ancient or beautiful – that can be compared to human life.

We have to save art but all the efforts of the international community should be aimed at protecting people. We have to preserve our past but the priority is to grant everyone a future. Groups who destroy our past, in fact, are threatening our future even more, and “protected cultural zones” should not be created until there are men, women and children living in “terror exposed zones”.

The fight to save future and man cannot but overcome that to save past and art.

If those proposals lack pragmatism and common sense, the positive and hopeful note is represented by all those people who, in many countries, have taken on themselves initiatives to save what they regard as a heritage too precious to be let go.

In Mosul locals have risked everything to protect a local minaret; others in Syria and Iraq (for instance in Idlib) have concealed works of art or sent them abroad to foreign museums; and among the most important initiatives there are educative programs, held by academics in areas under rebels’ control, aimed at explaining the members of those groups the importance – and the interests – of preserving art. At this respect, an invaluable job is that of the so-called Syria’s Monuments Men. This is a group of 200 local archeologists, academics and volunteers who are travelling unarmed all over the country to save from looting and disruption what is left in Syrian museums and Syrian cities, and who are also organizing meetings with the groups operating there, to educate them to be more sympathetic to cultural heritage.

These examples of courage and action tell us that, in order to prevent time from cancelling what we have been and what we have done, the best path is for the international community to avoid military actions. Military interventions, indeed, far from saving ancient sites would just turn them into battlefields, endangering even more the lives of the locals.

A better measure, on the contrary, would be to rely on art experts and institutions all over the world to support local people and local museums in cataloguing, concealing and sending abroad works of art, that to survive need to leave – hopefully only temporarily – their lands of origin. Far from becoming a fight among world museums to host those pieces of art – fight that would only make Syrian and Iraqi museums reluctant to send their antiquities abroad – it should be a worldwide cooperative work aimed at finding temporary new homes for those endangered beauties. So that in the centuries to come they will still be there telling our posterity who we were.

It is a matter of fact that there are things that cannot be saved from their destiny, and at times we lose our fight.

This was the case in Afghanistan when in March 2001 the Taliban turned into dust the 1500 year old Bamiyan Buddhas. And though, for any man who – blinded by his own ignorance – proves unable to appreciate art, history and culture, there are thousands of men who will never give up defending our heritage with creativity and passion – in this fight far more effective than any weapon. During the nights of the 6th and 7th of June, in fact, a Chinese couple realized in the holes left by the Taliban more than a decade ago, 3-D projections of the Buddhas.

Certainly not comparable to what we lost, nevertheless their light forced time to come back at our will for two nights. And it reminds us that man’s desire to defend his past is something too big to be stemmed.

Something that not even explosives and ignorance can destroy.