The Islamist Decompression Chamber

The Islamist Decompression Chamber

Alexis Carre
Alexis Carre
8 min read

The Islamic State (IS) is unique among terrorist groups. Its ability to inspire terrorist acts beyond the scope of its core militants far outscores that of Al-Qaeda and others. Understanding the specific peculiarities of IS will enable us to assess why our regular security procedures have failed to protect us, and what has to change.

Looking back at the last 5 years one wonders how this relatively young and loose organization managed to secure such a morbid record compared to that of more mature and structured entities. The answer lies in its capacity to outsource most of its radicalization effort, crucial to the efficiency of its propaganda, to entities that pursue their task legally in the West. It is on our soil, in the blind spots of the law, that these groups proselytize an agenda of religious and cultural hegemony to the Muslim youth. These organisations are not taking orders directly from Raqqa but, willingly or not, they participate of an eco-system which IS exploits in order to further its objectives.

Traditional militancy required careful selection, tests of loyalty, and secrecy. Turning a man into a terrorist takes time, risks, and resources. It exposes the organization to the dangers of treason and infiltration. Instead, the Islamic State relies heavily on public communication and spontaneous initiatives. It addresses all Muslims around the world who are receptive to its ideas. By leaving the responsibility and organization of the terrorist acts to the actual perpetrators, IS has the great advantage of not engaging its human and material resources, nor does it need to expose its actual membership.

Meanwhile, radical groups only need pay lip service to the rejection of terrorism to dance around the law. They can still promote ideas that make it a legitimate course of action for an increasing number of youths. For these reasons we should not blind ourselves on the nature of the challenge that we face. The real battlefield against IS isn’t in Raqqa, or in Mosul, or on the world-wide web, but within our borders, in the membership of these well established religious groups that make IS propaganda such a potent weapon.

IS brought the theory of insurrection, initially developed by Marxists during post-colonial wars, from the state of a craft to that of an industry. The goal of any insurrection movement is to make the operational concepts of its enemies useless. The material superiority of the West in almost every respect is balanced by the legal and ethical constraints democracies place on the legitimate use of force. The rule of law dictates that, for example, criminals can only be charged with crimes they have already committed. Preemptive action is only admitted in a specific case – war – and against a specific kind of individual – soldiers, identifiable by their uniforms. By extending the web of its clandestine structure into the civilian population, the goal of the terrorist group is not only recruitment. It introduces a category confusion between criminal and combatant. In this way, it compels the State to act against its own population as against an enemy.

A liberal democratic State is faced with a threat it cannot successfully answer by resorting to its usual conception of legitimate State action. It must find and identify the terrorists, and since it cannot know in advance where to look for them, it must spy on its own population. Once the terrorists are identified, they must then be stopped. But that requires preemptive action against people who will sometimes be its own citizens, and therefore a suspension of their rights. Bringing militants to the necessary level of resolve and skill used to take many steps, and these provided as many opportunities for our security forces to identify and neutralize plots.

However, IS has made itself largely impervious to these efforts thanks to a gray shield of unstable and radicalized profiles that do not necessarily belong to the organization until the very last minute. Most of them will, moreover, never undertake any serious action. Nor will they always follow orders, as militants would. But the ideological noise they make is already enough to help the actual terrorists escape surveillance. Like a radioactive material, this pool of individuals, whose large number easily exhausts the resources available to our intelligence services, are as many unstable atoms. We can’t predict the behaviour of any one of them individually, even though we know that, on a regular basis, one of them will disintegrate, possibly leading others to disintegrate as well.

Formerly, terrorists had a linear, predictable trajectory. Analyzing IS militancy is more akin to quantum mechanics. This helps to explain the frustrating situation in which we find ourselves after almost every terrorist attack. The individual in question is almost invariably known to our security services, yet they didn’t – and probably couldn’t – intervene for the simple reason that nothing distinguished the soon-to-be illegal terrorist from other legal Islamists until it was too late. The appearance of Khuram Butt in the Channel 4 documentary The Jihadis Next Door is just one example of this upsetting paradox.

The conventional wisdom stipulates that IS owes mostly its success to the efficiency of its digital propaganda. But the link between hate-speech and hate crime is not a causal one. Murderous calls are made every day in the name of all manner of ideological denominations on the Internet. So what makes Islamist propaganda more efficient in inspiring concrete actions must come from elsewhere.

For a long time, France has been a priority target for IS and a fertile source of recruits, and this has led several researchers to examine the state of Muslim communities in that country. Three polls were carried out recently by the Montaigne Institute, Fondapol (two liberal think tanks) and the CNRS (the National Center for Scientific Research, a French publicly funded research organization). They all concur that what was thought to be a statistically insignificant group in fact constitutes a strong minority. According to the first poll, about a third of French Muslims identify with “authoritarian” and “secessionist” definitions of Islam (promoting the niqab, polygamy etc.). This proportion rises to 50 per cent for those under 25. The second poll was devoted to the spread of antisemitism among the same communities in proportion to the strength of religious belief, and indicates that a third of French Muslims think Jews have too much power in France (a proportion that nearly doubles in the case of practicing Muslims).

The third poll, which has yet to be published, but the main findings of which were announced at a recent press conference, is the most interesting. It focused on high school students and found that a third of them hold that Islam is the only true religion and that science cannot be true if it contradicts its tenets. The same proportion show a disturbing tolerance towards violence as a means of defending ideas.

With such numbers it is safe to say that in some urban areas these opinions, that may be extremely unusual at the national level, have become commonly accepted views. For the people who uphold them, democracy itself is a denial of Islam, and terrorism is the preferred means to defend a religious community under attack. It is the approval and support of this radical fringe that terrorists seek when they commit their crimes. Thanks to these multiple layers of decreasingly passive sympathizers or supporters, it took months to find Salah Abdeslam (the only surviving terrorist of the Bataclan) in Molenbeek, even though it was widely known that he was being hidden there.

The task of using YouTube videos to transform a regular young man into a terrorist isn’t an easy one, the process may be expedited when people are shaped by an environment in which radical Islam is the norm, and advertised as a viable ideological alternative to modern secular lifestyles. IS strives to bring Muslim youth as close as is legally possible to condoning terrorism so that the final step from legally protected Islamist ideas to violent terror is too short and unpredictable to permit an effective intervention from our security services. But how does IS manage to radicalize such a large portion of Europe’s Muslim youth? This task usually requires a long-term commitment, community building, and social policy provisions like those offered by Hezbollah in Lebanon. In Western countries this can’t be done by an illegal and secret organization. So, like any company, IS has outsourced what it cannot accomplish by itself.

Terrorism is a mixture of operating mode and ideology. Formerly, the efficiency of our counter-terrorism efforts rested on the idea that the people promoting the ideology were the same, or were at least connected to, those operating the organisation and perpetrating the actions. IS has completely restructured the way the three “departments” of Terror interact. Islamic radicalism is more efficiently promoted by legal bodies and organisations protected by free speech legislation. Apart from complex operations (like the Bataclan or Charlie Hebdo attacks), IS can then leave the logistics and planning of the attacks to the terrorists themselves.

When looking for a culprit we are left with organisations or people who, although they promoted the ideas that led to the attack, had nothing to do with its actual preparation or execution. And the people who are most directly responsible are the dead terrorists, and possibly their digital recruiters far away in Syria and Iraq. While such operations require the contribution of many people over a long period of time, only few of these people will be operating outside the law, and only for a very short period of time. The question faced by democratic governments, then, is how to find ways to answer that challenge without weakening liberal institutions.

Our judicial system relies on a distinction between intentions and acts. In the case of fiscal optimization (also known as ‘tax avoidance’), it is obvious that the intent is to circumvent the law, although this intent results in no breach of law because there are no material facts to support the accusation. If we can grasp how it would be harmful to criminalize intent in the case of fiscal optimization, the problem posed by terrorism becomes apparent. Governments and courts attempting to sanction Islamist organizations (e.g. the UOIF, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in France) are frustrated because the hierarchy of such organisations is never involved in the preparation of any attack. But, by providing an environment in which radical militants can safely meet, disseminate propaganda, and organize, these organisations do participate in the economy of terrorism.

Smokescreen organizations have always existed in support of terrorist groups, like ETA or the IRA, to provide them with a decompression chamber between non-violent and violent opposition. Islamist organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have become masters in the art of double discourse. They offer perfunctory condemnations of political violence while nurturing its supporting ideology. IS uses Europe’s Islamist ideologues to spread its message within the bounds of the law and to turn the liberal institutions it is trying to destroy against themselves.

Since we cannot criminalize radicalization itself without putting at risk the rights of all citizens — and because the individuals involved are, in any case, too numerous — we must tackle these institutional vectors of radicalization. To do this, the legal means at our disposal in most Western countries must evolve. A nightclub can be sued if its customers are involved in an alcohol related incident, so why can’t a radical mosque be held accountable for the actions of its members? How can we efficiently fight terrorism if the heads of Islamist organisations can simply claim they didn’t know or are not responsible for the behaviour of their members?

If we want to prevail in the fight against terrorism, we must make it possible to charge organizations that operate at the intersection of several trajectories. In so doing, we link the fate of these organizations to their capacity to cooperate with the authorities in fighting violent Islamism. In this way we might succeed in cutting IS from its most quiet and efficient, if sometimes unwilling, allies.