Islamic Extremism and Terror: Anger and Despair

The American and British military campaign in Iraq achieved its broad aims, despite some unexpected resistance.

The World Today Updated 21 October 2020 Published 1 May 2003 3 minute READ

Maha Azzam

Much less clear is the result of the battle against ‘Islamist’ extremism and terrorism, which helped precipitate the war on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and continues to be at the forefront of US policy. If mainstream Islamist views are not given a voice across the Middle East, the current crisis will produce new militants.

Muslims and Arabs have already added the military assault on Iraq to a lengthy catalogue of perceived wrongs committed against them. It will be used by a minority, with the acquiescence of an increasing number of Muslims, to further justify the resort to terror as a legitimate tool against overwhelming odds.

Iraqi resistance to the allied invasion captured the imagination of many throughout the Muslim world more accustomed to seeing Arab soldiers flee in battle, be it in the 1967 Six Day war against Israel or the last Gulf war. They might now feel emboldened to confront the US and its allies.

Why does Iraq, with its secular and dictatorial regime, produce Islamist fervour that is both ideologically and geographically removed from the centre of conflict? The answer lies partly in the nature of radical Islamism, which is as much linked to the struggles of the modern nation-state and its advocacy of nationalism as with religious teachings and dogma. The independence movements in various Muslim nations had strong Islamic credentials. The subsequent power struggle in post-independence states also saw Islamist groups feature prominently. Issues affecting national sovereignty and independence are at the very core of the Islamist agenda.

In addition, the perception by both nationalists and Islamists that American involvement in the Middle East is part of a wider plan to control the region militarily, to install friendly regimes, to penetrate culturally and to control its most valuable asset – oil, has now become virtually impossible to contradict.


Since September 11 2001 there have been continuing incidents of terrorism linked to Al Qaeda: the nightclub bombing in Bali on November 11, the attacks on the French-flagged ship Limburg off Yemen on October 6, and shootings of American marines in Kuwait. These attacks are threatening and could potentially have resulted in even greater loss of life. They reflect the ability of cells connected to Al Qaeda to continue functioning. However, the recent arrest in Pakistan of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, believed to have been directing operations worldwide from Karachi, is a serious setback for the organisation.

The ‘war’ on terror, which has the consensus of the international community even though the war in Iraq did not, has seen the arrest of suspects in Europe and a general undermining of Al Qaeda’s financial network. Although the structure of Al Qaeda has been greatly weakened, its vitally important inspirational capacity does not appear to have been broken.

It is this that is likely to continue to encourage those from Algeria to Indonesia to carry out attacks against western targets. The emergence of suicide bombing as a combat method means that dedication and limited financial resources are the main components required of any group determined to carry out acts of terror.

Washington will not abandon the war on terror. Determined to prove this even in the midst of conflict in Iraq, it attacked Ansar al- Islam in northern Iraq for reputed links with Al Qaeda. Nevertheless the battle may become increasingly elusive; the survival of elements of Al Qaeda’s leadership testifies to unfinished business.

Sources of disaffection

Terrorism is nurtured by the unresolved political disputes that plague the Muslim world. The American presence in the Gulf was included by Osama Bin Laden in his diatribe against the US and his belief that the sanctity of Islam’s holy places had been transgressed by the use of Arabian soil. Now the force in Iraq, with all its symbolism of foreign invasion and resistance, feeds disaffection and despair in Muslim states, especially those of the Middle East.

We hear regularly that the unresolved Palestinian problem is at the heart of regional anger and frustration, and if settled, would alleviate much of the justification for anti-western feeling and terrorism. And yet somehow it sounds too simple.

What formula is going to satisfy the radicals who oppose the very existence of the state of Israel and carry out the acts of terror? It is true that their constituency would diminish considerably with a political settlement. But for all the goodwill of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the political configuration of the Arab-Israeli dispute, including the intransigence of Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the lack of clarity of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the continuing violence on the ground makes a sustainable compromise unlikely.

Nor does that conflict stand alone as the source of instability and violence; there are a number of other flashpoints directly connected to the Iraq conflict. Kurdish disaffection will increase if they are not granted a political and territorial share in post-conflict Iraq, or are threatened by Turkey. Shi’a disillusionment with the presence of allied forces and the quest for greater power and independence may lead to a Hezbollah-like situation in southern Iraq.

This could have considerable impact because Shi’as make up sixty percent of the population. Anger and despair amongst Sunni Iraqis or others may prompt them to react violently against the US or allied targets in reprisal for the losses of war and the foreign presence on Iraqi soil.

Dictatorial and unaccountable

Underlying much of the violence is the nature of the domestic political order in large parts of the Middle East. Dictatorial and unaccountable regimes with repressive security survived for the greater part of the last century and into the present one. This promoted the resort to violence because of the absence of channels for political expression or opposition.

Much of the anger levelled by Islamists against Middle East regimes is related to the mismatch between the high degree of Islamisation in society as a whole and the denial of any share in power. Little progress can be made toward creating a stable political environment unless there is an outlet for political Islam through legitimate channels.

Islamists argue for a system of government based on sharia Islamic law. Such a system exists in Saudi Arabia and yet its rulers are the target of Islamist wrath. This is because ultimately the issue for Muslims is not just the nature of the political order but its policies in relation to the US, Israel and the conflict in Iraq. For Islamists, the state must uphold political positions interpreted in the spirit of Islam; this is ultimately part of the contemporary political mood encompassing both religious and secular opinion.

Recruiting ground

There is a clear distinction between those Islamist elements that condemn violence but advocate policies that may be unfavourable to western interests through legitimate political channels, such as the Justice and Development Party in Turkey or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, and groups such as Hamas and Jihad in the Occupied Territories that advocate violent methods.

Mainstream political Islam has been hijacked by Al Qaeda and has suffered from arrests and clampdowns by the authorities. By suppressing moderate groups as well as extremists, the political terrain has been left open for the men of violence to recruit among the young and disaffected.

Terrorism can be countered not by suppressing all Islamist groups, but by encouraging those that are seen by their constituency and wider society as legitimate and dynamic.

Middle East states are unlikely to allow this to happen and, despite their rhetoric, will continue to pursue policies that are seen by their peoples as pro-American and detrimental to national and regional interests. Combined with the level of anger and despair in the face of overwhelming US military power in Iraq, this will be used to justify the resort to terror by different groups and contribute to the rise of new militants.