Last week the world took another step toward succumbing to an existential threat. Again.
Speaking in the aftermath of the spectacular seizure and siege of an Algerian gas refinery by Islamist extremists 10 days ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of how “we face a large and existential terrorist threat from a group of extremists based in different parts of the world who want to do the biggest possible amount of damage to our interests and way of life.”
There was little further detail, leaving it unclear if the prime minister was referring to al-Qaeda, the group founded by the late Osama bin Laden 25 years ago. Or possibly al-Qaeda-type groups in the middle of the Saharan desert. Or maybe other offshoots around the world. Or possibly the ideology of al-Qaeda.
However, the broad thrust of what he was saying was obvious: If you thought the threat from al-Qaeda, however defined, had gone away, you were wrong. It is here, and will be here for decades to come. And it endangers the very foundation of our societies. The intervening week, one imagines, replete as it was with a range of shootings, bombings, arrests and court judgments across the world all involving Islamist extremism, has not improved things.
Such rhetoric was once familiar. We heard much of it in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2011, terror attacks on the US and through the months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, as the years have passed however, such pronouncements of imminent danger became rarer. The public naturally learned to be suspicious of rhetoric raising fears that appeared unreasonable and unfounded. We all learned enough about the complex phenomenon of contemporary Islamist militancy to be able to challenge the sillier claims ourselves. Policymakers recognized that any exaggeration, particularly of the “global” nature of a threat that their own security services were increasingly seeing as local, simply played into the hands of the enemy.
So Cameron’s words last week, echoed elsewhere, were unexpected.
Rather like al-Qaeda’s own rhetoric in the wake of the changes wrought by the Arab spring, they sounded dated; at worst, they were an indication of willful ignorance, a nostalgia for simpler times when leaders could promise “iron resolve” against a threat without provoking widespread skepticism. They have however usefully provoked a new debate on two very old questions, both still urgent and important: What is al-Qaeda? And is it more or less dangerous than it was?
Answering the first question is, for once, relatively straightforward. Islamist militancy is a phenomenon going back much further than the foundation of the group al-Qaeda by Saudi-born bin Laden in 1988. There have been waves of revivalism in the Muslim world since the days of the Prophet Mohammed. These have frequently come in response to external challenges, whether political, social, cultural and military. Intense and very varied reactions were provoked by European colonialism in the 19th century from Afghanistan to Algeria, from Morocco to Malaysia and beyond. The end of European colonialism in the Muslim world in no way diminished the immediacy of that challenge nor the venality, brutality and incompetence of local regimes. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, scores of different violent extremist movements, in part products of a massive new interest in “Islamism” across the Muslim world, were waging armed struggles against local governments in the name of religion.