Burke began reporting on events relating to the change in the Islamic character of the Middle East and South Asia as a journalist in the 1990s and he has refined his understanding of the changes in those regions ever since. His grasp is both deep and wide—he wishes he could have included more about the movement in South and Southeast Asia because, in his conclusions at the end, he believes that could be the next area to source individuals committed to jihad.
Burke reiterates over the course of his narrative that terrorism is meant to force leaders to act quickly, make mistakes, and take action they ordinarily would not do, destabilizing their governments. Terror is meant to make individuals disrupt their daily routines, causing follow-on economic repercussions. And terror is meant to cause the populace to polarize: people to question their relationships, fear their neighbors, challenge their government, and consider violence. One might argue terror has already caused irremediable changes in the fabric of world society. Burke replies that we must become resilient, savvy, and knowledgeable. Terrorism in the Middle East may have already run its course, but the seeds are everywhere.
The book is not long, and those of you already well-schooled in the history of ISIS may not feel you need to reread the beginning, though I found Burke’s finesse added a depth to my own understanding of the region, besides being the tightest, clearest history I’ve yet seen. Burke adds to the work done previously by making cogent comment on others’ conclusions. For years I’d been wondering about the families of suicide bombers, their apparent acquiescence causing me to question my own understanding of family ties. Burke addresses this directly:
"Suicide bombing is neither a cheap weapon, as often said, nor the spontaneous, organic expression of the inchoate rage of a people. It is a tactic, adopted for specific strategic reasons by terrorists, and which involves the commitment of significant resources if it is going to be successful. The extremist organizations that pioneered the use of the tactic—such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers—rapidly learned that few communities naturally accept the voluntary death of their teenagers. The individual who becomes a human bomb may cost an organization less than a missile but any militant hoping to reply suicide attackers needs to invest heavily and systematically in propaganda designed to build and then maintain a ‘cult of the martyr’ if they are avoid a backlash from relatives, friends and their wider circle. It is not natural for a mother or a father to celebrate the death of a child, and the idea that young men, or increasingly women, should kill themselves in order to kill others, often civilians, has to be normalized…in practical terms, meanwhile, the families of ‘martyrs’ need to be looked after; funerals organized and paid for, valedictory films produced and broadcast; a dedicated infrastructure to find, isolate and condition ‘martyrs’ set up and run. This effort must be constant and places a considerable strain on a groups’ resources. Many Islamic extremist organizations, including IS, make disproportionate use of foreign volunteers as suicide attackers. One reason may well be to make a powerful statement about the extent of their support around the globe. But another may simply be that foreigners are cheaper."Burke briefly traces the history and methods of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, their differences and similarities, and their current state of play, including their affiliates around the world. He then discusses the threat to the West, drawing on the most important conclusions of Western analysts regarding what has been called home-grown terror or “lone wolves.” He first focuses on terror incidents in Britain and Europe, which I found particularly enlightening. With regards to America, Burke focuses most intensely on the Marathon Bombers in Boston.
He takes issue with the notion of ‘lone wolf,’ arguing that the similarities of the public statements of those with wearing this label use many of the same words and concepts, implying an underlying global community that extends far beyond their individual actions. “These men were formed, conditioned and prepared for their ultimate acts over years, if not decades, by an entire culture of extremist activism.”
An interesting outcome of the Arab Spring, Burke notes, is that several relatively Westernized pro-democracy activists turned to Islamic militancy when they were disillusioned during the fifty months from 2011 to 2015 when regimes collapsed, governments failed, and the international community did little to stave off deprivation for citizens facing war or displacement. He speaks of the gangland ethos among converts to Islamic militancy, the ‘jihadi cool,’ and 'jihad meets The Sweeney meets the gangsta.’ There is exploitable weakness there, for both the converts and for the main terror group.
In the final chapter on the future of terror, Burke discusses several completely fascinating long-term surveys or polls done in huge swathes of Islamic territory. The U.S.-based Pew Center published one in 2013 which revealed that support for suicide bombing remains limited, concerns about extremism are high, and levels of support for Al Qaeda remain low, but that perceptions of Western society are are increasingly negative, including views of Christians and Jews. On the Western side, we don't need to go further than our newspapers and TV reports to know that perceptions of Muslims are tanking.
Burke’s final chapter is one readers will not want to miss. In it Burke describes the outcomes of this history of terror—the divisions we see in our societies, the retrenchments in rights, the fear, the polarity—despite the relative lack of physical impact of terror on Western communities. “The real impact of Islamic militancy…is in the Islamic world where the monthly death toll frequently exceeds the total in the West over the past decade.” But the West has had costs: by focusing on terror we did not focus on climate change, the relationships between the West and Arab or Islamic populations have become poisonous, and our own communities have divisions that are destroying us from within. How we deal with the threats we face will define us long into the future.
This book has been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize 2016.
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