Loading policy-making analysis with historical events often takes the 'baby' being cleansed (Islamic extremism) out with the dirty bathwater (faulty policies, first by befriending dictators, then by prioritising bombings and killings to eliminate terrorists). For example, the 1916 Sykes-Picot boundaries, around which the Islamic State (IS) and Kurd factions have been fighting the Iraqi and Syrian governments, can be elevated as one trigger behind IS terrorism today. But this raises the question why the dam of accumulating resentments did not burst before the 1980s. A better approach may be to contextualise history, then go backwards from the 1990s terror events shaking the world only to their direct roots in the 1980s (or late 1970s). The Khomeini revolution, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, and the substitution of Cold War atmospherics with a New World Order framework were identified and discussed previously. Scattered features standing out from these narratives demand more attention: the huge proportion of the terrorists originating, alphabetically, from Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United States, among others; the contention-base involving events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, among others; terror incidents were extended to Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Spain, showing how terror organisations can successfully capitalise upon colonial grievances and migrant alienation across West Europe to destabilise; and 'lone wolf' or 'spread-effects' individuals/incidents, which have not only hit too many countries to be listed here, but also widen the terror playfield beyond any policymaker's purview.
Yet, just from this short list of identifying possible political causes, the following features help to get the ball rolling (though the critical factor may lie in the linkages between them). The first would have to be the authoritarian nature of Muslim governments. The affinity of their relationship with the United States has to be counted as a second trait, since deep domestic alienation from Muslim authoritarian governments translated into targeting the United States. While both these causal factors have been central, they inspired rear-guard aficionados, typically compatriots fleeing those authoritarian states (or born of parents who fled those states), and seeking refugee/immigrant status in a long list of mostly West European countries, some previously in a colonial relationship in present authoritarian Muslim states. This is the third cause, followed by the fourth, which invokes the larger number of Muslim countries in flux today: whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Syria, on the one hand, or Bangladesh, Indonesia, or Pakistan, on the other, the growth of a Muslim terror business has helped hijack Islam, then used it to force moderate Muslim governments to face ostensibly Islamic fundamentalism, laced with ulterior terror motives.
It is no longer a cottage industry examining why Muslims cannot democratise: the custodian Muslim country, where millions of believers travel each year to fulfil holy duties, not only does not set any example, but in reality either punishes any movements in that direction, such as giving women greater voice, or silently funding fundamentalists through madrasa teachings. This training is hard to avoid for the impoverished child with little other exposure to build a balanced life compatible with the heterogeneous 21st Century social settings; and with instructors of the Osama bin-Laden type, it is no longer a secret how their instincts can accumulate against a specific target, let's say a government, and why '72 virgins awaiting them in heaven can be sold so effortlessly when a long wait to climb the economic ladder has only been producing zilch after zilch. One cannot blame them since they did not have an alternative vision. The true culprits would have to be their madrasa teachers, who essentially do not get targeted in terror-action retaliation campaigns. Thus, the seeds for extremism remain and grow even as the terrorists get killed.
Small wonder, then, that so many terror recruits volunteered to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan: from Chechnya, in two arcs to Saudi Arabia, one through Pakistan, the other through the Middle East and North Africa. With the Soviet collapse and its troops evacuated from Afghanistan, the first dar-al-Islam was created (Saudi Arabia cannot qualify as one since it is so closed a society to other Muslims outside the pilgrimage arenas); and everything the United States stood/stands for was identified as the dar-al-harb. It was not just bin-Laden asserting so owing to U.S. troops entering Saudi Arabia as protection against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the very early 1990s, but in every madrasa and jihadi camp, describing the United States as a villain is a popular exercise: how wretched that description becomes the competitive goal. As that stain deepens, fleets of madrasa students/jihadis successfully hit the road to rein in their 'evil', anywhere, and for any reason. This mindset cannot be blown to smithereens by drone bombings or SEAL ('sea, air, and land' military teams in the United States) operations. It is there, it is growing, and the only missing variable is the time it takes to change that mindset, which cannot be done by blowing their camp and possible perpetrators unless everyone is eliminated.
The third causal factor is the most dangerous: the hordes of alienated Muslim immigrants in western societies, who either could not assimilate or would not be allowed to, and therefore were unable to experience another mindset other than the madrasa-built or jihadi-exposed one. Whether in the suburbs of Paris or the inner-city slums of London or Manchester, among other metropolitans, they simply await some kind of a nirvana: IS campaigns prey upon such circumstances; and West Europe's unassimilated migrants have become a gold mine of opportunities. No espionage, bombings, or pay-offs can eliminate this society-based terror threat, spawned by grievances: only a mindset change can disarm such potential mercenaries.
Finally, terror recruiting agents have gotten as sophisticated as corporate marketing salespersons in building a customer base. Every Muslim country struggling between moderation and fundamentalism (and that includes, frankly, all of them), can easily be targeted, often with Saudi money for madrasa training, to pick the disillusioned youth: they can be rich or poor, educated or illiterate; or of any other stripe. Every society has them; they can be spotted, converted, and no SEAL or military/counter-terrorist strategy can fully retaliate against the damage they can inflict or eliminate them. Bangladesh had its own Holey Artisan Bakery experience depicting this, an incident set to grow worldwide wherever disillusioned Muslim youths congregate.
As evident, cultivating dictators, neglecting migrant assimilation, and confronting the reform-radical division have silently crept into the headlines for many of the wrong reasons. What policy-makers could/would not tackle previously have blown up into a policy-making nightmare, while still remaining outside the policy-making agenda. Bombings or killings can splash comfort and serve a preventive, or band-aid, purpose, until the next terror incident. What is needed is a curative prescription, by definition slow-moving, by nature bottom-up and, therefore, more healing.
Yet, what may hijack even a curative approach is the inherited political context: no dynamic, or a group of dynamics, can ever act independent of the national political context. The next article looks at such a context wherein political causes lie embedded.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.