On Woolwich, Counter-Terrorism and Leaderless Terrorist Movements

Brutality or, at least, its coverage in the mainstream press, has the effect of revealing much more about its commentators than the act itself. Each writer has his or her own take and very few commentators really ‘learn’ from these types of events, except in the sense that one ‘learns’ that one has been correct all along. A right-wing pundit might see in the Woolwich murder a reiteration of the senseless barbarism of the Islamic faith’s crudest elements, whilst a left-wing commentator might view the same event as a stark reminder of the marginalisation of Muslims in post-9/11 Britain. Opinions, therefore, remain largely unchanged, only held with more vigor; catharsis comes only in the form of the state proudly declaring its toughness in the face of such wanton destruction from “the other.” Toughness, in this instance, being shorthand for overbearing, illiberal attacks on free expression, free association and privacy – supposedly bedrocks of the liberal democratic state – in reality, political bargaining chips to be traded and discarded at a moment’s notice for the sake of appearing iron-willed and resolute.

It should, of course, go without saying that the murders in Woolwich were in no sense acts of politically serious individuals utilising strategic violence for political ends – ‘terrorism’, by another name. At least, not terrorism as has been commonly understood. Terrorism in its common form has an entrepreneurial, hierarchical command structure and a steadfast dedication to propaganda by deed. Discipline, therefore, is paramount, and what the Woolwich murders and, their US counterparts, the Boston bombers, certainly lack is the rigid militaristic discipline of Osama Bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. What the Woolwich murderers and the Boston bombers instead represent is a new and deliberate kind of leaderless jihad which views itself as a temporary stopgap measure in the fact of traditional Islamic terrorism’s defeat on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Leaderless jihad is terrorism for the iPod generation. Instead of getting your ragtag bunch of guys together to demonstrate your commitment to the cause in order to be shipped off to a jihadist training camp and be shown the ropes by ex-Mujaheddin fighters and other dedicated Islamist warriors, a would-be terrorist can simply download his or her professed ideology, pick and choose whichever radical clerics they wish and share their tough-talk on jihadist forums. If they’re the Real Deal, they can then make a crude explosive device to be detonated in a crowded area, or simply drive into town with a meat cleaver and hack apart the first British army officer they see and proudly proclaim to be fighting for their brothers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. The fact that these leaderless jihadists have never set foot in any of these countries or that the majority of people suffering as a result of western policy in these areas would likely disapprove of this wanton destruction is irrelevant. Their pain and outrage is vicarious – they are fighting in the belly of the beast for those whose pain they’ve experienced through the influx of information coming from mainstream news outlets and jihadist conspiracy theory websites.

This isn’t to say that leaderless jihad is an entirely grass-roots phenomenon. As a tactic, it borrows heavily from the white supremacist movement in the United States, who have in the past few decades articulated and relied on the tactic of leaderless resistance in the face of widespread surveillance from the US government. In essence – where hierarchical command structures fail, leaderless resistance thrives. A leaderless movement is virtually impervious to infiltration, since anything short of round-the-clock spying on every single citizen around the world leaves open cracks through which a lone wolf can slip. On the downside, leaderless resistance represents in many ways the death rattle of a terrorist movement – it’s going out, but with guns blazing, and a sign that a group is utilising a leaderless strategy is in many ways a sign of a movement on the ropes.

The leaderless jihadi movement finds its origins in the writings of the Islamic militant Aby Mus’ab al-Suri, an al-Qaeda strategist credited with responsibility for the 2004 Madrid Bombings and the bombings in London in July 2005. In al-Suri’s analysis, America has employed her “stunning technological superiority” to completely dominate the battlefield. In this sense, therefore, a “secret-regional-hierarchical” structure is a strategic impossibility, and al-Suri’s solution to this conundrum is what he terms a “Global Resistance Call” – a sort of information warfare, in which ideology, military tactics, vulnerable targets, bomb-making instructions, etc. are disseminated to impressionable Islamist activists across the globe. All that is required for this strategy is an open means of communication and a sufficiently embittered, impressionable audience. It should give us pause for thought that neither the Woolwich attackers nor the Boston bombers had reached the age of 30 yet – terrorism is as much about impressionable, misguided youth as it is about fanatics flying aeroplanes into buildings.

The question, therefore, is what is the proper policy response towards this kind of structurally anarchic political resistance? It should go without saying (though frequently doesn’t) that measures outlawing “extremist” speech or increased surveillance on “vulnerable communities” (read: spying on Muslims) are unlikely to do much to address the problem. As said above, anything short of total surveillance of information,  a technologically impossible policing of the internet (including restrictions on the online underworld of the deep web) and widespread bugging of all public places would still render our public spaces vulnerable in a tactical sense to the sorts of attacks which occurred in Woolwich and Boston. In terms of a law-enforcement response, there is very little that separates the attacks of a leaderless jihad from your average back-alley knife murder. Neither rely on much in the way of resources or hierarchical command, and can take place entirely inside the perpetrators head, rendering them potentially immune to traditional avenues of prevention. That both the Woolwich killers and the Boston bombers were aware to the intelligence authorities speaks directly to the inability for traditional means of infiltration to be anything approaching a perfect counter-terrorism policy.

Which brings us to the second source of sustenance for leaderless jihadists – the sense of vicarious (and sometimes directly influenced) outrage and marginalisation. A liberal democracy utilising harsh, draconian crackdowns on extremism which in effect amount to marginalisation of a religious minority is likely to run the risk of that deadly combination of freedom to act and minority repression on which terrorism thrives. Our counter-terrorism policy and the language of our coverage needs consistency in order to be seen as legitimate. The fact is that many Muslims, not unjustifiably, see counter-terrorism measures and commentary in the US and the UK as maximising the scale of violence emanating from Islamic communities and branding it as terrorism, whilst minimising the violence committed by white westerners as traditional “ordinary” violence.

It shouldn’t be necessary to say this (though it is), but none of this is to bring legitimacy to the kinds of violence experienced in the US and the UK over the past few months, only to understand its causes. The notion that minority discrimination causes politically motivated violence is well-established in the academic literature, and tub-thumping, grandstanding claims about the immorality of the evil-doers or apocalyptic calls to arms against the forces of barbarism do nothing to address the problem. In fact, they merely inflame already existing tensions and provide terrorists with the conceptual framework they desire – that this is, fundamentally, a war over ideology and religion rather than a law-enforcement phenomenon whose victims are few, yet visceral and wanton enough to warrant a serious response.

It is in this, therefore, that we find the proper scope of our counter-terrorism response – one that needs to be explicitly focused on violence per se, rather than policing ideology (however repellent) or religious communities. It might come as a surprise to some that even many Salafists are turned off by the kinds of short-sighted calls to arms being expounded by Muslim youths, and yet find their position as ideological, though non-violent, extremists capable of dissuading young Islamists with something to prove increasingly threatened by the zero tolerance approach adopted by many elements of the more hardline counter-terrorist policies.

Unless, therefore, western counter-terrorism policies begin to work in conjunction with and for the benefit of marginalised religious minorities, it is likely that we will see more violence of the kinds exhibited over the past few months. Looking ‘tough’ on terrorism and giving lofty speeches about the threats posed by radical clerics might be politically expedient, but as a means to combat the violence stemming from all sorts of politically disaffected individuals, it is deeply unserious and lacks any kind of true tactical rigor. In future, then, we might find that making more friends than enemies works out best for everyone in the long-term. 

Alex Harris