January 9, 2015
Wednesday’s horrifying attack on the Parisian offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo appears to have been conducted with the sang-froid and calculation that distinguishes mafia organizations. We are now light years away from the failed attacks of do-it -yourself terrorists in the early 2000s, or of the Taliban’s army of beggars, light years even from the suicide bombing of the Atocha train station in Madrid. It is possible that the high professionalism of contemporary jihadists will allow them not only to survive their heinous actions, but to repeat them. As the financial model of Islamic terrorism, realized to a new extreme in the rise of the Islamic State, the first terror organization to become an armed state, has mutated, so too have the tactics of terrorist attacks in the West. In fact, the two phenomena go hand in hand.
In ISIS, we now face a new system of terror that has perfected some tactics of the past – for example, the compartmentalization so beloved by the Red Brigades and ETA – as well as developed new ones, including so-called ‘mini-attacks’ – armed surgical interventions, such as this week’s in Paris, often steeped in symbolism, and often filmed by passersby and disseminated across traditional and social media. This is a direct link connecting last year’s assault in Ottawa, the recent hostage attacks in Australia, those in France last December, and this morning’s tragic shooting in Paris.
Modern Islamic terrorism has transformed social media into a powerful weapon that allows users to magnify the media impact of armed actions, a development that derives from an analysis of September 11, the first attack filmed and distributed in real time through the media. That action, of course, was a spectacular one from all points of view, claiming more victims than any of the others; but today it would be impossible to reproduce it for several reasons, chief among them the sheer number of militants involved, which would alert anti-terrorism forces. Today’s jihadist terrorists aim to prevent infiltration by the police, which has always been the winning strategy of the state. All the armed organizations of the past, including al Qaeda, have been weakened and even defeated through police infiltration and the testimony of arrested militants. This explains why al Baghdadi, the new Caliph and undisputed leader of the Islamic State, has incited his followers throughout the world to conduct mini-attacks implemented by mini-cells of just one or two people. The recent shooting in Paris was apparently orchestrated by just three militants.
The changes taking place in the system of Islamic terrorism are the result of deep reflection on the mistakes and successes of the past. So far, it is easy to understand the process. It is more difficult to comprehend how some of these mini-cells that are operating in the West have acquired the expertise necessary to conduct mini-attacks of such great media impact. In the past, similar results were achieved through shorter or longer periods of training, such as during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. And in fact it was the veterans of these wars who, after returning home, went on to fuel most terrorist activity. Today, however, this is no longer so, a fact counter-terrorism experts should realize as soon as possible. Continuing to fear the return of veterans from the war in Syria or Iraq is the wrong strategy. Future European jihadists are already among us.
Those who mastermind these mini-attacks are often self-taught. Experts seem to agree on this. They are probably individuals who have been radicalized online, and who do not interact in person with a network of militants, as in the
days of the IRA or ETA. The strategists of today’s mini-attacks often keep their ideology hidden. Yet – and this is certainly the case with the bombers in Paris – they often have access to weapons and know how to use them professionally. This is a crucial point. It is very difficult to get hold of weapons and explosives in Europe without alerting intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, unless one has connections with organized crime. The only possible hypothesis is the following: the jihadists come from or work with organized crime. This would also explain their professionalism.
In the past, all armed terrorist organizations maintained relationships with organized crime, but kept a safe distance. Today, it is possible that this distance has been reduced. So it is in the underworld of organized crime that counter-terrorism efforts should begin, because it is highly likely that the cynical, Machiavellian jihadism of the Islamic State is now using the resources of organized crime to unleash terror in the West.
Judging by the pragmatism the Islamic State has demonstrated in the creation of its Caliphate, al Baghdadi is surely mindful of that notorious Florentine’s maxim: ‘the ends justify the means.’
This piece was originally published in Il Fatto Quotidiano and El País.
Loretta Napoleoni’s most recent book, The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East, was a major hit, translated into thirteen languages within a month of its US publication, and widely praised by experts, including Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times Bureau Chief Chris Hedges, who called it “a vital contribution to our understanding of what is happening in the Middle East.” She is also the author of the bestselling books Rogue Economics: Capitalism’s New Reality, which has been translated into fourteen languages, and Terror Incorporated: Tracing the Money Behind Global Terrorism, which has been translated into twelve languages. One of the world’s leading experts on money laundering and terror financing, she has worked as London correspondent and columnist for La Stampa, Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, El País, and Le Monde. A former Fulbright scholar, she holds an MA in international relations and economics from Johns Hopkins University, and an MPhil in terrorism from the London School of Economics. For her work as a consultant for commodities markets, she has traveled regularly to Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries, where she has met top financial and political leaders. She lives in London and Montana.