Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri must wake up each morning looking forward to switching on the news. Virtually every day brings stories of murders they have inspired.
The bloody start to 2016 has seen high-profile attacks in Istanbul, Jakarta, el Ade in Somalia and Ouagadougou. And in many established war zones such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where brutality barely raises an eyebrow, there have been many more attacks that have gone virtually unrecorded.
In the West the violent jihadist threat has spawned a large and growing deradicalisation industry. Civil servants, academics, journalists, politicians and NGOs chasing funds have all stepped forward with their analysis of what’s going on. And yet it is still quite commonplace to hear TV and radio interviewers asking in incredulous tones: “Why do they do it? What on earth is driving so many people to commit suicide and to kill innocent civilians in the process?”
Some elements of this debate have become quite familiar: people have discussed the role of religion, economic deprivation, psychological factors and confused identities. But perhaps the most contentious of all the factors cited is Western foreign policy.
Broadly speaking, there are two camps on the issue. Many Islamists and Western liberals argue that the process of radicalisation is driven by anger about hypocritical Western foreign policies that speak about democracy but in reality support authoritarian and brutal regimes. The opposing view holds that the only people responsible for violent jihadist murders are the violent jihadist murderers who carry them out.
There are parallels to many long-standing debates about criminality. Some blame the social and economic conditions that drive people to commit crimes. Others believe that the criminals themselves are solely responsible for the choices they make. After all, the argument goes, some people suffer childhood deprivation and do not turn out to be criminals. We need to be able to distinguish between those who make choices that benefit society and those who do things that harm it. When Tony Blair was establishing himself as prime ministerial material in the UK he famously bridged the gap between these two positions with a pledge that he would be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”.
Many violent jihadists are quite clear on where they stand. Time and again young men and women making martyrdom videos highlight the issue of Western foreign policy as the reason for them being willing to die. And it is difficult to tell a man or woman about to go to their death for a cause that in fact they haven’t thought it through and they don’t realise there are different, underlying drivers of their behaviour of which they are unaware.
That notwithstanding, those who suspect that suicide bombers misunderstand their own motives make four main arguments.
First, why is there a greater willingness to blame Western capitals than Middle Eastern ones? Many say that the Saudi government has for years financed violent jihadists operating outside of Saudi Arabia. And while there is some – perhaps growing – anger felt about Riyadh, it is nothing as intense as the constant vitriol heaped at Washington’s door. The clerics who have such practised anti-American tirades rarely point their finger at the Saudis.
A second related argument is that exclusively blaming Westerners seems almost racist. It is as if the people living in the Middle East and South Asia are incapable of acting on their own accord but are victims always reacting to the actions of others. It seems unsatisfactory to suggest that, like cattle prodded by an electric probe, violent jihadists respond to the West’s actions, unable to stop themselves from launching violent attacks.
The third point. The majority of violent jihadists do not target Westerners. Most are Sunnis who want to kill Shias. Westerners tend to miss the fact that anti-Western violence is something of a sideshow. Bin Laden tried, without much success, to restrain his followers’ sectarianism. Baghdadi does not even try. Shias, Christians, Azidis and others have all been killed solely on the basis of their religious affiliation. On this account the Western occupation of Iraq was only one of things going on in the Middle East in the period after 2003. Just as profound – maybe more so – was the shift in the regional balance of power in favour of the Shias and the subsequent reaction to it.
The fourth line of reasoning is perhaps the weakest. It raises the issue of the varied responses to Western foreign policy. There are many who object to the longstanding presence of the British military base in Cyprus and the US base in Japan, for example. But they rarely express that opposition violently. And there are other gradations of anger. The violent rejection of the West is more widespread in the Middle East and South Asia than it is in South East Asia. Whilst there are violent jihadists from Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia they are fewer in number than those Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Western Europe. It all suggests that something quite complicated is going on which depends in part on local histories and conditions.
Against that, however, it can be argued that there is a geographic correlation between Western attacks and violent jihadism. Countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq that have been attacked by the West have produced the most violent jihadists. This is an initially appealing line of argument but not a wholly convincing one. Syria, after all, has many violent jihadists but has not been the subject of Western occupation.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.