As we all know, Western forces are fighting in Afghanistan to promote democracy, eradicate poverty, ensure that Afghan girls go to school, but also to prevent drug exports and – not least – prevent the exportation of terrorism.
But hasn´t terrorism already, quite successfully, been exported to the West? It seems definitely to have landed in Europe. But is it necessarily a product of Afghanistan?
The bombs against Madrid´s suburban trains in 2004, the murder that same year of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh, the suicide bombs in London in 2005 and, most recently, last December a young Somali´s attempt to kill Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, all this was effected, not by agents sent from a barely existing Al Qaeda HQ in Afghanistan but was done by young Muslim men who spent a large portion of their lives in Europe.
European experts – political scientists and police officers, invited by Magnus Ranstorp at the Swedish Defense College in Stockholm – voice in a book (Understanding Violent Radicalisation – Terrorist and Jihadist Movements in Europé, Routledge, London, 2009) their concern that terrorism has found a home in Europe and they fear young European Muslims are undergoing a process of radicalization.
In Britain, the police spy on radical imams and their mosques, bug telephones, intercept Internet traffic, knock down doors and arrest people. In a number of European countries, the special branch keeps an eye on radical Muslims. The leader of Sweden´s liberal party, Jan Björklund, is hoping high school students will spot “radical” class-mates and tell the police.
Thanks to these exercises, a number of terrorist attacks probably have been averted, among them plans in 2006 to smuggle explosive liquids on board US-bound planes taking off from Heathrow. After that discovery security checks at European airports are even more bothersome than before.
But is traditional police work sufficient? In Magnus Ranstorp´s book, I came across interesting remarks made by Sir David Omand, until recently the British government´s Intelligence and Security Co-ordinator and indeed for a long time Tony Blair´s most trusted adviser on matters of terrorism.
Says Sir David: “The most effective weapon of the terrorists at present is their ideology.” He is convinced that, alongside necessary police legwork there will have to be a struggle about ideas.
So what kind of ideology is it that appeals to potential young terrorists in Europe? What are they being told by radical imams, what is being preached in the mosques under police surveillance?
Obviously, young European Muslims, when they turn to a more radical ideology, do not revert to some kind of fundamentalist Ur-Islam.
Among radicalized young Jihadists, religious belief has taken an existential leap. Or as Sir David puts it: “The international terrorist ideology now has a life of its own beyond the lives of the men in the cave that spawned it. Like a biological parasite, it can only live off the energy of its hosts, mutating as it spreads, into forms that can infect previously untouched groups, particularly if their natural immunity is low.” This terrorist ideology is being strengthened by Internet and Youtube, showing atrocities committed against Muslims all over the world, in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya and Gaza, not least in the prisons of Iraq.
What is now required, says Sir David Omand, is a counter-narrative. It is necessary to counteract the narrative told by terrorists and explain current conflicts in a way that will render European Muslims immune to jihadist ideology.
So how should such a counter-narrative be presented? Initially there would have to be an explanation of the war in Afghanistan. It is, as most of us know, but European Muslims maybe don´t, a war of self-defense, authorized by the UN Security Council immediately after 9/11, stretching the UN Charter a little bit. It has now been going on for well over eight years but with additional well-intentioned aims: promoting democracy, eradicating poverty, giving Afghan girls a chance to go to school, preventing drug exports, etcetera. The counter-narrative may also have to explain that the US and its allies in the process regrettably also kill a number of Afghan civilians.
When, in 2003, the US and Great Britain attacked Iraq, they weren´t backed up by the Security Council and in fact launched a pre-emptive war, which is definitely against the UN Charter, under the pretense Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction which turned out to be Weapons of Mass Disappearance. A bit difficult to justify, maybe, but the counter-narrative might point out that an unpleasant dictator, Saddam Hussein, was in fact toppled.
The scary exercises at Abu Ghraib prison could perhaps be blamed on ignorant US soldiers (which is what US authorities have tried to get away with). Explaining the Danish Muhammed caricatures might be a bit more tricky, but could be handled by proudly emphasizing the great European tradition of free speech which makes it practically compulsory for European opinion makers to show the Prophet with a bomb in his turban (or by Swedish artist Lars Vilks portrayed as a dog).
Producing a desirable counter-narrative seems to be a difficult job. If Sir David Omand wishes to make Muslims living in Europe feel less exposed and less angry, I suggest the narrative should also contain some self-criticism. Why does a Muslim name immediately alert security controls at most airports in the Western world?
Who is most frequently exposed to searches in homes and on the streets of Europe? Why are primarily Muslims requested to keep an eye on everything that smacks of radicalization in their own organizations?
Why – to sum it up – does the Western world take it for granted that it is Islam as religion, as Weltanschauung, that carries the seed of terrorism? If, as Sir David Omand, the architect of Britain´s counter-terrorism strategy, suggests, a Western counter-narrative is needed, it will first of all have to question the West’s own age-old prejudices.
BJÖRN KUMM is a journalist living in Malmö, Sweden. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org