Catalonia: A terrorist cell in Spain

Catalonia Attack Map       Bacelona Lights Out

This week we interrupt the series of blogs on South Sudan and return to one of our all too common themes. A blog focused on conflict and its resolution is tied to the events that occur in the world and attacks in European cities are linked to one of our main themes, which is jihadist groups such as ISIS and violence related to them. The blog is also being published early.

Referring to an attack of terrorism as being ISIS linked is, it must be said, an assumption, as the group invariably claims an attack in Europe as its own when it has had no direct input in organising it, and one can become a martyr for ISIS by claiming allegiance and driving a vehicle into a crowd. This makes counter-terrorism difficult as the attack can be planned in isolation and carried out by amateurs with deadly consequences. While this is the case with lone attackers, the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks were carried out by cells, not individuals, as was the case in the London Bridge attack. Fake suicide vests were also worn, which guarantees that people will be terrified and that the Police will respond with lethal force. Yet counter-terrorism is not impossible as people do not choose violence overnight: there is a radicalisation process, which results in changes in behaviour, and leaves a trail of confrontation and internet exploration and communication. They also come under the watchful eye of the security services, and we wait to see if any of the perpetrators of the attacks in Catalonia were known to them.

There is a pattern of events all too familiar: the attack happens and people are maimed or killed, the attackers are swiftly stopped, life returns to normal, there is international solidarity, and what the security services knew of the attackers is put under scrutiny. Both Spain and the United Kingdom were seen as resilient to Jihadist inspired attacks due to their better integration of Muslims. This has proved to be a fallacy. The ISIS ideology in particular focuses on the alienated and disenfranchised, one does not need to be a Muslim to experience this, but ISIS provides the vulnerable with an explanation based on Western opposition to Islam. That this is a false rhetoric, largely described as so by Muslim leaders, means little to the recruit as it is highly developed and pervasive. It also provides an explanation for alienation and a means by which action can be taken.

The attacks in Europe are the tip of the iceberg of a much larger battle for dominance with implications across the Islamic world. One that has pitted Muslim against Muslim and has drawn the attentions of the West, whom are not blameless in the events that have transpired, but has seen most of the devastation occur in the Middle-East. Various labels have been applied to describe the ideology of the fundamentalist Islamic groups and their emergence has been aided by the lack of representation in countries of the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) and the foolish support of governments pursuing strategic goals against each other. The US-led global war on terror (GWOT) was an ill-conceived and badly implemented intervention in response to the actions of a group professing a violent ideology and implacably opposed to western culture and democracy. The most apt description that this writer has seen is Salafi-jihadism, as described by Shiraz Mayer, which draws on Islamic teachings and takes the fundamentalism of Salafism, which can be very conservative but not necessarily violent, and uses it to justify a jihadist ideology. This has a long history but Al-Qaeda and ISIS are very good examples. It carries a powerful message as it draws on Islamic teachings and is self-justifiably violent, marking its enemies as infidels and worthy only of slaughter. This applies to the secular West, other religions, Muslims not following the Salafist creed, and anyone who chooses to leave the faith. Should civilians, including other Muslims, get in the way their deaths are sanctioned due to the wider goal of creating the ‘Caliphate’. In fact, while there are a lot of things that are forbidden there is a lot more that is allowed in pursuit of the cause and one does not have to worry about understanding Islamic scripture to do so. Moreover, the clear delineation between followers of the creed and everyone else, the worthy and the unworthy, believer and non-believer, is defined by them. The holy warriors are at war, whether their opponents realise it or not, and giving their opponents little choice in the matter. Objection makes one an unbeliever and worthy of punishment. If this sounds like totalitarianism then there is a simple explanation: it is totalitarianism.

So where does this leave cities like Barcelona and towns like Cambrils? The shortest answer is: vulnerable. Attacks in the European cities and towns are high profile events in a wider war, which provide publicity for the jihadists and succour for their supporters. Experts in terrorism and counter-terrorism specialists have warned repeatedly of the danger of attacks by groups which have openly declared war on the ‘West’. The adaptation to using everyday objects such as cars and vans has the advantage of enabling the alienated and disenfranchised to strike back, usually in their home country. The aims are to foment disorder, divide the population and provoke a response. Should the response be discrimination against Muslims in, for example, Spain or the United Kingdom, then all well and good in the eyes of the jihadists as this means more potential recruits. Should it draw out a military response, all the better, as it demonstrates the truth of the jihadist message, and also means more recruits. In the event that the result is the withdrawal of Western forces from one of their ill-conceived interventions then this is declared a victory. Either way, the likes of ISIS will treat it as a win, and when they are gone their successors will do the same.

Sadly, Western leaders do get it wrong and often act against the wishes of their people, but they also learn and question their actions. The correct response to terrorism is to reduce the possibility of a successful attack, directly target the perpetrators only, and address the concerns of the people the terrorists claim to represent, in effect a blend of coercion and reform. This works better for domestic terrorism, having already proven successful in Spain and the United Kingdom, but struggles against global jihad, with its absolutist message. It will, however, work against home grown extremists inspired by Salafi-Jihadism, who form a large number of the people who have carried out attacks. The most powerful response is one that the nations of Europe and North America in particular have hit upon: unity in the face of tragedy and an ability to quickly return to normality. Las Ramblas was open again the next day, with subdued tourists present who had witnessed the violence the day. There are divisions as a result of attacks in European countries, to be sure, but this is roundly condemned when it descends to populism and racism. There is also an increasing awareness of the impact of extremism in the Middle-East in particular: by attacking the cities of Europe the jihadists have managed to make Europeans see the impact of attacks in cities such as Baghdad in a clearer light. Ultimately the jihadist ideology is self-defeating wherever it rears its absolutist head. Sadly, there may be much more damage because of them.

This blog has carried one consistent message in relation to the attacks in Europe this year and it remains the same: Fear, anger and hate are what the bad guys want: don’t let them have it.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-40964242

http://icsr.info/projects/

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/24/salafi-jihadism-shiraz-maher-crusade-jihad-malcolm-lambert-review-patrick-french

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2016/07/15/islamism-salafism-and-jihadism-a-primer/

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

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