Monday 2 February 2015
One of the most preposterous statements made after the killings in France between the 7th and 9th of January was that the murders were a protest against the West’s foreign policy. This has mostly come from people on the Left of the political spectrum, and I am not entirely surprised that it has resurfaced. It’s an old argument which I first recall being used after the September 11 attacks, but it probably dates back further. Nonetheless, it would be remiss of me to ignore it: so, were the Kouachis and Coulibaly stirred to kill by a difference of opinion over the foreign policy of the French or Western governments? Indeed, was their rampage an expression of disgust at Western imperialism?
It is easy to mix up cause and effect, especially as humans wish to think in binary; nothing is ever that straightforward. Students have teachers, who were once students with their own teachers, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Put it this way: on a large, hellish, Jihadist spider diagram one could draw a rather short line from the Kouachis and Coulibaly to Abu Hamza and the Finsbury Park mosque, or, even, to Osama bin Laden. A narrow lens is essential. One must pick their way through this minefield of tangents because in an attempt to explain everything, one often ends up explaining nothing. We are not trying to understand global Jihadism, merely whether foreign policy was the sole motivator for these men to kill a group of twenty people consisting of journalists and cartoonists, policemen and policewomen, and Jewish shoppers.
The killers were not intellectuals; they did not leave behind a detailed treatise explaining why and how they decided on this rampage and these targets. Both Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly said that the fate of Muslims abroad played upon their minds, but neither went into great detail. Saïd Kouachi said and wrote very little that could get him in trouble or leave an indication as to why he decided to go on a rampage. We know he studied in Yemen in 2009-10 and briefly shared a room with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber. Saïd returned to Yemen in 2011 and met Anwar al-Awlaki, then the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – the group which claimed responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo. (Meeting al-Awlaki does not necessarily mean that he trained with the group, but it cannot be discounted.) Whether Chérif was with him during this trip is a matter of speculation, but he was certainly not there during Saïd’s time as a student. All this being said, we do not know how or why Saïd was radicalised; it is likely that he was influenced by his younger brother, but we do not know when. His trail goes dark from 2011 onwards, approximately four years before the attack on Charlie Hebdo. A lot can happen in four years.
Chérif Kouachi’s statement is drawn from a deposition he gave in December 2007 before the trial of seven members of the Buttes-Chaumont network of which he was a part. Arrested in January 2005 as he was about to travel to Iraq, via Syria, to fight for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq, he was then incarcerated for over two years before the trial commenced. Chérif, according to his deposition, said: “I got this idea [to go to Iraq] when I saw the injustices shown by television on what was going on over there. I am speaking about the torture that the Americans have inflicted on the Iraqis.” Similarly, in a video posted on Twitter a few days after his death, Amedy Coulibaly stated that his own actions were “perfectly legitimate, amply deserved… You and your coalition carry out bombings regularly over there, you kill civilians, you kill fighters – and why, because we apply Sharia? Is it you who decides what goes on on this earth? No. We won’t allow it. We are going to fight.”
The message is clear, both are saying that they want to wage jihad because of events elsewhere: Chérif because of the deaths of Iraqis, Coulibaly because of bombings “over there”. This being said, foreign policy was a tool used in the radicalisation process, so it cannot have been the primary motive for the attacks. I have no doubt that images and discussion of the fate of some very unfortunate people during the War in Afghanistan and Iraq War were used as a recruitment tool to convert people like Chérif Kouachi to Jihadism. It needs to be pointed out though that the current concept of Jihadism predates both of those conflicts. Extreme fundamentalist Muslims were committing acts of violence and calling it Jihad well before the war began in Afghanistan. The resources used to get someone to believe – the propaganda – has changed but the ideology is still the same.
One of the incidents referenced by Chérif Kouachi was the torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, which was brought to light in late 2003 by Amnesty International. Several people who have studied the Buttes-Chaumont network, to which Chérif and, probably, Coulibaly belonged, have said that its leader Farid Benyettou used images from Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and Iraq to rile up his followers. According to a lawyer at the trial “Benyettou would talk to [his followers] about Abu Ghraib, the abuse of Muslims, and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’… He was like a little guru who claimed to know the sacred texts. And he convinced them that the texts said it was their duty to go to Iraq to fight for the cause.”
On the same deposition Chérif Kouachi notes that “the wise leaders in Islam told him and his friends that if they die as martyrs in Jihad they would go to heaven… [and] that martyrs would be greeted by more than 60 virgins in a big palace in heaven.” The delusion that one will be rewarded for martyrdom is never created by a disagreement over foreign policy; it can only come from religion, as Voltaire once asked: “What to say to a man who tells you he prefers to obey God than to obey men, and who is consequently sure of entering the gates of Heaven by slitting your throat?” Benyettou was a strict Salafist and, amongst many other disturbing things, he preached that the Islamic scriptures state that suicide bombing was a good thing. A thoroughly repugnant figure who has apparently reformed and was – until the attack on Charlie Hebdo – working as a trainee nurse at the hospital where many of the Kouachis victims were taken. Just one of those weird twists of fate history can conjure up.
I posit that the ideas Benyettou put to his disciples would not have materialised purely because of a dislike for the Iraq War; they were moulded by his extreme, fundamentalist, literalist version of Islam. Simply put, Jihadism did not begin because of the Iraq War or the bombings in Syria – that’s just a matter of chronology – but a skewed view of these and other conflicts will have been employed to persuade new recruits. Foreign policy will have played some part in the conversion process, but it isn’t the reason why the attack happened. Claiming that this was the case would be akin to stating that women’s rights were the reason why Anders Behring Breivik went on a rampage. Now, every time you hear people say “if we stop all foreign wars, these Jihadist terrorists will stop,” mentally replace the words “Jihadist” with “misogynist” and “foreign wars” with “women’s rights” and then proceed to explain how their argument is ill conceived.
The first time I heard someone say that foreign policy caused Jihadist violence was after 11th September 2001. A perfect example comes from a 2005 debate in New York where the odious George Galloway stated, mildly for him, that:
[You] may think that those aeroplanes in this city on 9/11 came out of a clear blue sky. I believe they emerged out of a swamp of hatred created by us. I believe… that by their unending, bottomless and total support for General Sharon’s crimes against the Palestinian people,… I believe that by propping up… the puppet presidents and the corrupt kings who rule the Muslim world almost without exception from one end to the other, western policy has created this swamp of hatred against us. …We have to drain that swamp by stopping that support for Sharon’s Israel, his apartheid war, his crimes against the Palestinians. …I think unless we stop propping up these dictators in the Muslim world – none of whom who would last five minutes if it were not for the military, political and financial support of countries like yours and mine. Unless we stop invading and occupying Arab and Muslim countries, then we will be forced to endure the atrocities that took place in New York on 9/11 and in London on 7/7, over and over again. …Revert your policy towards Israel and Palestine; reverse your policy towards dictators in the Muslim world. Reverse your policy towards war and occupation and we can all be safer!
It is this same argument which is being wildly rehashed over and over again by self-centred fools who cannot conceive of a world where what they and their country are doing is not all that others think about and despise. The blame game begins with the USA, then the West, then Israel and the Jews, and then to proxy support given by any of the above. I know this is tough to accept for a lot of people, but we do not have a central role in this contest. At best we are a spectator. The majority of Jihadist terrorist attacks take place in nations in the Arab world and Muslim majority countries, why would that happen if it was all about us and our “imperialism”? France, for example, was deeply opposed to military action in Iraq. This is a fight within Islam between the extremists and the liberals. And we really want the liberals to win.
I’ve recently been hearing about how the use of violence is merely the way that the Left-wing expresses themselves in other cultures and societies. In the West, the left write essays and pamphlets, but in Africa and the Middle East – so the argument goes – they blow themselves up to make a similar statement. I feel that I cannot shy away from using the word racist to describe this argument. That violence is what they do and that we write and maintain intellectual pursuits is an abominable way to think. Here’s a tip: spread the load. Critique all streams of thought equally, regardless of the ethnicity or culture of its adherents. Fight against the anti-gay marriage, anti-immigration line of British parties like UKIP by all means, but also stop trying to claim that Hamas, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, ISIS and other nut-bag Islamist groups are really fighting to unseat the power structures and be rid of the shadow of Western imperialism. It is okay to call a spade, a spade. If there’s one thing that can be said for UKIP it is that they don’t use violence, beheading, and rape as a political tool, unlike ISIS, et al. One should call out all bigoted, racist groups, and not shy away because their followers may be of a different ethnicity and/or claim to represent a minority. It is not a Left-critique to side with Islamism, nor is it racist to highlight extreme Islam’s totalitarian tendencies. It is simply common sense.