What to look for when looking at today's terror attacks

June 26th, 2015 - This is going to be a brief blog post. Because we know way too little for any kind of sustainable analysis yet. But there are few points that can be made and which can help in directing and informing our understanding of what happened today.

1.- The attack in Kuwait was an IS attack - and it may be connected to the attack in Tunisia. 

The claim of responsibility published a few hours ago fits the bill. I believe it to be authentic and I consider the attack on a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City an IS attack for the time being.

As for the attack in Tunisia's tourist paradise in Sousse: In this case IS sympathizers, or people who would call themselves actual members of the IS, are the most likely perpetrators. The IS has called for attacks in Tunisia on several occasion, destabilizing the only country that actually made a democratic turn after the events of 2011 is a prime target for the group. There are several thousands of Tunisians who are fighting on behalf of the IS in Syria and Iraq; they have ab extensive networks of supporters and sympathizers in the country; and the IS has struck there before - in March, in the capital Tunis.

It is not unlikely that the Kuwait attack and the Sousse attack have been co-ordinated, at least roughly. We saw a similar thing in March, when a mosque in Sanaa in Yemen and a museum in Tunis were struck within 48 hours - and, intriguingly, the respective IS claims of responsibility bore a very high degree of similarity. In the case of the Sousse attack, we don't have a claim of responsibility yet. So let's wait and see.

2.- The attack in France resembles other plots and attacks by self-recurites sympathizers

It seems to have been rather amateurish (the perpetrator did not manage to instigate the massive explosion he probably had in mind); it seems to have been executed by a single person; it seems to have had a personal dimension untypical of attacks planned by networks in that the murdered and decapitated victim appears to have been the alleged perpetrator's boss.

As Thomas Hegghammer and others have pointed out, most attacks and plots executed and hatched in the West in the past few years go back originated with self-recuited sympathizers. Right now, this seems to be the most likely scenario. It would also mean that there is likely no connection to the attacks in Sousse and Kuwait.

3.- The attacks in Kobane are separate from these other attacks 

I don't know this for a fact, it is just an assumption. But I am rather sure that even if the IS leadership in Syria/Iraq did have prior knowledge of the fact that something was planned in Tunisis and Kuwait, they would not have chosen to stage an offensive in Kobane just to amplify that signal. My reading is that the IS in the theatre can't really afford to coordinate his attacks inside the theatre with what people may be planning in the larger region. Other criteria for plotting apply, synchronization is not relay of importance.

4.- Please bear in mind the following 

It is still very early. Findings may soon change the hypothesis I have laid out here. If that happens, I will re-calibrate accordingly. 

Don't fall for the "Islamic State's" attempt at coining our opinion

June, 23rd 2015 - I have said it before, I will say it again: Let's try to not fall for the "Islamic State's" attempt at coining our opinion.

Earlier today the terror group published a new horrific video. It shows how the Jihadists murder a number of men who they claim have been "spies". The men are killed in three different ways: One group is being shot at with an RPG while forced to sit in a car; the second group is drowned to death by lowering the cage in which they are all placed into what appears to be a pool (while a mounted camera keeps filming under water); a third group is being murdered through an explosive charge that the terrorists ignite after the necks of the men have been connected to each other with a long wire.

I am certain that these methods, never shown in a high-end IS production before, have only been devised for one reason: So that the international public agrees that they constitute an escalation in brutality. The Jihadists want to increase the fear they instill in others by convincing them that they are acting ever more cruelly. (They did a very similar thing in January, when they filmed the burning to death of a Jordanian pilot.)

The problem is that many observers, including journalists, actually concur. And while I can understand anyone who finds these videos despicable and heinous (I find them such myself), I believe it is important we don't fall for this. We shouldn't follow the IS's intended lead and rank methods of murder according to brutality. I, for one, don't agree that any of the methods shown in the new video is in fact more brutal than many other methods that the IS has been employing for quite some time. Is any of this really more brutal than cutting someone's head of? Throwing someone off a high building? Stoning a woman to death?

If we accept the IS's suggestion that it is, we are actually helping them in shaping their own image. But we shouldn't allow the IS to coin our opinions in such a way.

As far as I am concerned, my disgust for the IS cannot be raised by videos like this.

PS: I know that I wrote a very similar piece in January, when the video of the killing of the Jordanian pilot was published. But I think this is so important that it is worth writing about it twice. 

Arrests in Oberursel

April 30th, 2015 - Today, police and the local prosecutor's office confirmed that they have arrested a couple under the suspicion that they had been "preparing for a severe crime intended to pose a threat to the state", which is a statutory offence often cited in terrorism related cases.

Here is a short list of what we know and what we don't know (yet).

According to the authorities, the couple are a man and a woman in their mid-thirties with ties in the Salafi community in the Frankfurt region. In a raid in their flat, police found weapons parts and ammunition as well as several chemical materials and a pipe bomb that is believed to be functioning. 

Some media are reporting that the man has ties to al-Qaida. The authorities have not commented on that. 

I cannot confirm it at this point but would point out that knowing people who are members of al-Qaida or have at some point been associating with al-Qaida is not necessarily the same as having connections to al-Qaida. 

Authorities say that they do not at this point know of a particular plan for an attack but are confident that they have indeed foiled on. One reason for taking action at this point was that the man had been observed along the route of a bike race scheduled for tomorrow. 

Authorities are also not commenting on whether they believe that there are accomplices. They stressed that the investigation was ongoing. 

According to my information, authorities have at this point no indications that the couple has travelled to Syria recently. 

Why Jihadists can time-travel and we cannot

March 31st, 2015 - The fact that the "Islamic State" is providing English, German, French or even Russian translations of the speeches of the "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or his spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani does not mean that these documents are understandable for a Western audience. Sure, most people will get the general meaning. But a lot of the allusion and some of the arguments inherent in them will be lost on readers who have never concerned themselves with Jihadist ideology or Arab history.

One could of course say that that's just fine: Aren't we, after all, talking about an ideology of murderers? Why would I want to understand their speeches? Why waste time to get into their brains?

I disagree with that position. I believe it does make sense to try and understand the IS better. Not least of all, because it helps assessing what they might be up to next. The ideology of Jihadists is brutal and murderous. But it is not entirely illogical or obscure.

A good case in point is the very way in which Jihadists interpret the history of mankind and, in fact, the course and even flow of time. It is here that we find a distinct difference in the way in which Jihadists and Westerners look at the world.

In the West, we are used to agree that there is a thing called the past and it's over; there is a thing called the present and it is now; and there is a thing called the future, which is about to happen. These states don't overlap and there is a particular order in which they occur. This is a linear concept of time.

Jihadists don't fully share this concept. They will agree that time goes by, but they will also maintain that that basically doesn't matter or change anything. It is as if we have a wristwatch and they have a wristwatch, but their's doesn't have numbers on it: Time goes by, but it doesn't mean anything.

If you look at the IS's publications, you can find traces of this all over the place. Take this quote from IS spokesperson al-Adnani from last June, when he said about the IS fighters that they "denounce Nationalism as they denounce the Jahiliyya".

What does that mean?

Jahiliyya, of course, is a term from the Quran and plays a role in Muslim intellectual history. It literally means "ignorance" and has mostly been used in the sense of "era of ignorance", thus describing human history prior to the advent of the prophet Mohammed who ended the state of ignorance when he brought God's word into the world. In the Jahilliya, people had been either heathens or they had followed the distorted and compromised versions of God's message as preserved by Christians and Jews.

But why does al-Adnani use the term as if the Jahiliyya was something that still exists? Because for him, it does. His quote is an echo of the new meaning of the term Jahiliyya that was developed by, among others, Sayyid Qutb, an important figure in the early Islamist movement.

Qutb took the term Jahiliyya out of it's historical context and made it transcendent. For him, there were only two kinds of societies, as he described it in his book "Ma'alim fi al-Tariq": A Muslim society - and Jahilliya.

Qutb thus turned a historical demarcation line into an ideological one. He exchanged "before Mohammed" with "against Mohammed". Jihadists, who have taken many beliefs of Islamism to the extreme, not only share this notion in theory - for them, it is practically real.

And that's not without consequence. Because this allows Jihadists to time-travel between what we consider to be two separate states of past and present. For Jihadists, time may have passed between the 7th century and today, but only in a profane way. Which is why the conflicts of the 7th century are, in their eyes, neither past nor over. What they see in the way of conflict in the world today, is not similar to those conflicts, it is identical - it is the very same fight. Look closely and you will find, e.g., that many IS fighters and supporters don't compare themselves to the companions of the prophet Mohammed - they rather count themselves among them.

So if from time to time we have the feeling that IS authors somewhat oddly jump between times and tenses, it is because their understanding of the way in which human history evolves is different. It is not entirely linear. 

It is, however, partly linear and partly compatible with the Western view of history and time. In March 2015, for example, al-Adnani stated that "if our ancestors fought against the Romans, the Persians and the Unbelievers yesterday, we are proud to fight against them today".

Look at this closely: While al-Adnani accepts that there is a difference between "today" and "yesterday", he doesn't not allow for a distinction between the enemies of then and now. They are the same, they are identical - even if the date on the calendar perhaps is not.

All of this links back to the Jihadist conviction that history is not a chain of events set in motion by mankind but a constant re-play of the ever same battle between believers and unbelievers set in motion by God.

The forces of evil never change, they only change their appearance. A great illustration of that is how Osama Bin Laden liked to call George W. Bush "Hubal" - which is the name of a God from pre-Islamic times (Jahiliyya!). Bin Laden didn't compare Bush to Hubal. He identified him as Hubal. 

Of course this Jihadist view of history and time is not entirely free of contradictions. The IS, e.g., hardly ever speaks of the West, but instead uses the terms Crusaders or Romans a lot. The Romans (of Byzanz) were of course a force that the early Muslims actually fought against - but the Crusaders were not. They appeared centuries later. So the IS terminology does allow for historical invention up to a point.

But be that as it may: No ideology is free of contradictions. And in the context of this post, I believe it is more important to understand that what may appear as obscure to us at first, may be fully logical in the ears of a Jihadist.

There is one last important difference between the Western view and the Jihadist view, of course: We tend to think of history as open-ended. Jihadists don't: There will be an end to the world - the day of resurrection. Only on that day will the eternal battle between Good and Evil end with the triumph of the forces of Good. This notion also features prominently in IS propaganda. And it is another example of an idea that, while many people in the West may perhaps be able to understand it intellectually, is a very real prospect for Jihadists that pertains to their life decisions - like joining the war in Syria, where Dabiq lies, a place believed to be the stage for one of the end of times battles between Good end Evil.

So I guess what I am trying to say is really this: Different ideologies are one thing. But what sets us apart from Jihadists in a very substantial way, too, is the fundamental difference in the interpretation of history and even the concept of time.


PLEASE NOTE: This is an edited and somewhat different version of a German language blog post I published at DIE ZEIT online yesterday

A few Thoughts on "Counter Narratives" and "Counter Messaging"

If we look at the lives Western foreign fighters led before they decided to go to Syria, we will find that they are truly diverse. We find former Gangsta Rappers as well as converts from well-to-do, bourgeois families among them; we see former pretty criminals, drug consumers and drinkers, but also university student, workers and pupils. What we usually don't find is recruits who used to be politically active.

That's interesting, because it wouldn't be at all counter-intuitive to assume that radicalization can be the result of frustration over not having been able to achieve anything through political activism. But that's not the case, apparently. What we see instead is that many of those who end up waging war in Syria have been radicalized at a dramatic speed. As if there had been a vacuum that needed to be filled as quickly as possible.

In fact, I think this is actually what happens. Many of those who radicalize do it because the ideology of Jihadism offers them simple and all-encompassing answers to all their questions and problems - and it instills them with a deep sense of purpose and meaning, something most other ideas on offer seem to be failing at. Jihadism basically says that you can leave behind your troubled past this very moment; your slate will be wiped clean; all crises are over; all conflicts from your past life are meaningless. You will be a new person, with a new identity. You are truly re-born. Or: Given a second chance.

You have to understand this mechanism if you want to fight Jihadist ideology. My question is: Does the renewed talk about counter narratives and counter messaging take this into account?

As the New York Times is reporting, the US State Department is in the midst of revamping its respective efforts. There is talk of making use of as many as 350 State department Social Media accounts in order to repel the IS's propaganda flow. The "Think again. Turn Away"-Initiative, which hadn't been faring as well as had been hoped for, will apparently be made part of a broader initiative that will also enlist the help of Pentagon and intelligence analysts so as to make sure that messaging is co-ordinated, not only among US agencies, but also with partner states.

One of the inherent problems with a state-run counter messaging proposal is made aptly visible in this quote by Nicholas Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center: "We try to find ways to stimulate this kind of counter narrative, this kind of counter messaging, without heaving a U.S. government hand in it." The problem is that, quite frankly, the more state involvement there is, the more it smacks of counter propaganda - a concept which is not easily reconciled with our ideas of a free, liberal society.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think it is a mistake to point out blatant lies by Jihadists. I just think that this effort is not addressing the core of the problem.

I don't even like the term counter narrative. Because in my understanding, Jihadism is the counter narrative here. (And that is true even if you take into account the historical  emergence of the Salafiyya in reaction to the rise of the West.) Our problem is not that we need to find an answer to the ideological challenge of Jihadism - our problem is that our original narrative has become too unattractive. It can not fulfill the needs of those who later become Jihadists.

Our first question therefor should be: Why is our original idea not attractive enough anymore? Is it because we don't teach it well enough (in our schools, for example)? Is it, because it is not exciting enough (since party politics are "boring")? Is its, because we can't offer quick and complete solutions, unlike Jihadism? Or is it because we don't really keep our promises (because, e.g., we are all equal on paper, but it is much harder to find a flat or a job if you are a Muslim with an Arabic name)?

To me, it looks like this: The moment in which a 17-year-old starts believing a Jihadist hardliner, he has already stopped believing "us.

But at the same time, this may be true, too: Another 17-year-old, who in the same moment experiences that he is not powerless because he secured funding for a basketball court from the municipality or perhaps because he just successfully registered a demonstration against the next Gaza war, may become quite immune towards Jihadist recruiters.

I don't want to downplay personal factors. Broken families, lack of (male) examples - all of this plays into radicalization processes, as well. But the sense of being unable to achieve or change anything, is also a big driving force.

The truth is that Jihadism has many thousands of voluntary helpers across the Globe who spend hours on hours in front of their laptops trying to spread their ideology. These people are truly committed. If we want to counter their influence, we need more than state-run and state-instigated programs. We need volunteers ourselves, in order to counter the volunteers of extremism.

I have nothing against help from the state, wherever it is helpful and makes sense. But actually, no-one needs a mandate or even a laptop to his own bit of counter messaging. I guess this is my point. We can't and we shouldn't delegate this to the state or its agencies alone.


NB: This is a somewhat different version of a German blog post I published on ZEIT ONLINE today

Let's not follow the IS playbook

Yes, the recently published "Islamic Stat" video of the burning to death of Jordanian fighter pilot Muaz al-Kawasbeh was horrific. It was very hard to watch. Just terrible.

In their reporting, many media suggested that this was the most gruesome of its kind so far. CNN called it the "most brutal yet"; German journalists found similar words. Sascha Lehnartz, for example, at welt.despoke of an IS strategy of "continuos escalation." I am sure, the video was similarly described in other countries.

However, I think we ought to take a step back here. Of course the IS intended the video to be an escalation. But is it really? Are we really agreeing that the burning to death of al-Kawasbeh is more gruesome than the mass executions that the IS has perpetrated and filmed? More terrible than the stonings to death of several women? More brutal than the murder of allegedly gay men by throwing them off of high buildings? Are these images really more gruesome than the decapitation videos that the IS has produced? Decapitations that sometimes take minutes?? 

I am asking these rhetorical questions because in my opinion it is impossible for the IS to become more brutal than it has already proven itself to be. The escalation we are talking about here really only pertains to the technical savvyness of the videos and to the ever more skillful addressing of the target audience. This can and should be described and analyzed. 

But do we really want to be taking part in the ranking of the brutality of methods of murder? I, for one, don't think that we should. 

Of course it is conceivable that the IS will try rattle us again and again. Quite possibly they will succeed. They might kill people with methods we wouldn't have thought of. Methods which may seem like taken out of a horror movie. 

But let us at least not follow their playbook in this one respect: Let us not rank murder methods for brutality. As far as I am concerned, my disgust of the IS killing machine couldn't possibly be any bigger than it already is. 

NB: This is a slightly edited version from my German blog post about this topic here at ZEIT ONLINE. 

"Europe only talks about radical Islam"

January 27th 2015 - In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, I interviewed Mustafa Ceric for ZEIT ONLINE. Ceric is the former Grand Mufti of Bosnia & Herzegovina and one of the most important Muslim scholars in Europe. A German version of this interview was published on January, 14th. 

DIE ZEIT: Mr Ceric, you have condemned the Paris attack in strong terms. You have also called it an attack on innocent journalists. There are a lot of people in the Muslim world who believe these journalists were not innocent, but guilty, because they ridiculed the Prophet Mohammed. What do you say to that?

Mustafa Ceric: I would like to postpone the question of innocence for now. We know from the Sira, the recorded history of his life, that whenever the Prophet was attacked and offended, these offences were not only more hurtful than the ones by Charlie Hebdo – but the Prophet did not issue any death sentences. As Muslims, if we want to express our love for him, we do this in our hearts. Of course, the caricatures are not OK. All Muslims feel embarrassed and uncomfortable about them. If Charlie Hebdo wanted to hurt Muslims, the magazine succeeded. If the magazine wanted to offer some kind of social criticism, if it wanted to make clear, that some Muslims have shortcomings – yes, of course, that is true, too. But my point is: You don't love the prophet and show it with a gun.

DIE ZEIT: Al-Qaida, to give just one example, has always argued that cartoonists have to die, when they ridicule the Prophet, because the Prophet himself set an example when he had Ka'ab bin al-Ashraf killed, who had ridiculed him. Is that wrong?

Mustafa Ceric: I don't accept this argument. These terrorists first decide to do something and then seek for arguments. You know what bothers Muslims more? Charlie Hebdo also ridiculed the Jewish faith, and at least one journalist was ousted for Antisemtitism. We want to know: How are we going to solve this puzzle? Or take Anders Breivik, for example. He killed over 70 people. He said he did it as a Christian. Did the media call him a Christian terrorist?

DIE ZEIT: Nobody denied that Breivik believed he was on a Christian mission.

Mustafa Ceric: Perhaps. But it did not lead to hysteria about Christian terrorism in Europe. Why, for God's sake, are the media always talking about „Islamic terrorism“? This is a double standard. What happened in Paris, is not „Islamic terrorism“. I would like to ask the media in Europa to apologize for using the term „Islamic terrorism“.

DIE ZEIT: So the perpetrators have nothing to do with Islam?

Mustafa Ceric: No, this has nothing to with Islam.

DIE ZEIT: If that is so, why did you sign a letter to the head of the „Islamic state“ terror group together with over 120 Muslim scholars, in which you tried to convince Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that his religious arguments were wrong? Clearly you addressed him as a Muslim!

Mustafa Ceric: There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world! When you talk about Islamic terrorism, you are including all of them. That is a verbal crime. Why do you not do the same with Christian terrorists? Or with Jewish terrorists, like the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin? Did anyone blame Moses for what that man did?

DIE ZEIT: But who is blaming the Prophet Mohammed for what the Paris killers did?

Mustafa Ceric: Everybody is blaming Islam!

DIE ZEIT: I find it confusing that you say the Paris attack has nothing to do with Islam, but argue about Muslim theology with the leader of the IS. So let me ask you: Does Paris have anything to do with Islam or not?

Mustafa Ceric: Does al-Baghdadi have to do with Paris?

DIE ZEIT: We don't know yet, but his school of thought is similar.

Mustafa Ceric: We don't know anything about the school of thought of the Paris attackers. I will put it this way: What happened in Paris is against Islam. And against Muslims! It is not acceptable. It is against the values of freedom, against the European values we all hold.

DIE ZEIT: Across Europe, there is a growing problem with young Muslims who are influenced by Jihadists. If you were to speak to a 17-year-old who is in the process of radicalizing and tells you he wants to kill cartoonists because they have ridiculed the Prophet and because the Prophet himself ordered the killing of Kaa'b bin al-Ashraf – what is your argument against that?

Mustafa Ceric: I would tell him that the Prophet has never killed for revenge or for any offence that he suffered. When the Prophet came to Mecca, he forgave the killers of his uncle Hamza. I would tell him: If you love the Prophet, the Prophet will love you for not killing anyone in his defence. The Prophet doesn't need revenge.

DIE ZEIT: According to the Quran, blasphemy will be punished by Allah after you die. There is no prescribed worldly punishment for blasphemy, correct?

Mustafa Ceric: Correct. And if Islam was the way these terrorists represent it, I don't think I would be a Muslim.

DIE ZEIT: As a scholar and a former grand Mufti, are you in competition with radical preachers in Europe?

Mustafa Ceric: Yes. And we need a broader approach to re-socializing and re-educating those who decide to go and fight in Syria and then come back. They need to understand that they are wrong. But the Muslim institutions are weak, they have little resources and many Imams have little knowledge. We need help by Europe's states to establish strong structures.

DIE ZEIT: Why is the radical theology of the IS and al-Qaeda so attractive?

Mustafa Ceric: Young people tend to be rebellious against established systems, that's one reason. But they are also giving them arguments without telling them about their responsibilities. They turn it into an adventure.

DIE ZEIT: What can be done?

Mustafa Ceric: For one, I believe Europe needs a Grand Mufti. We need a voice to calm down things. Not everybody will accept this office, but it will have an effect. But the European states are hesitant to support this.

DIE ZEIT: Muslims could do something themselves to establish that office...

Mustafa Ceric: But we are weak.

DIE ZEIT: In Germany, Muslim groups often find it very difficult to even agree with one another on a local level and on local issues.

Mustafa Ceric: This process is not easy. We need to structure Islam as an official institution. We need better teachers, better Imams, who are from here and not imported.

DIE ZEIT: But who is doing something about that?

Mustafa Ceric: I am fighting radical Imams every day. But even those who are trying to help are sometimes accused of being radicals. Who is an acceptable Muslim for Europeans? It seems like there is almost no acceptable Muslims for the governments or the media. We can't solve this problem alone. Europe complains about political Islam all the time. But Europe also only talks about political Islam.

DIE ZEIT: Should we distinguish between Islam and Islamism?

Mustafa Ceric: I think these distinctions cause a lot of confusion. The Paris attackers should be called neither. They are rebellious murderers. They don't know anything about Islam.

DIE ZEIT: But radical Muslims are often louder than moderate Muslims. They shape the image of Islam.

Mustafa Ceric: But they are not doing this on behalf of Islam! For me, they are destroyers of civilization.