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Terrorism, the developments of Isis and Al Qaeda. What threat is there for us?

Isis and Al Qaeda are two sides of the same coin, minted at different times but with a common goal: to recreate the Caliphate abolished by Ataturk. This represents not only a concrete danger for global security, but also risks triggering a war of religion with uncertain outcomes

The terrorism of Isis and Al Qaeda and its possible developments. This is the title of a study, carried out by the group “Indomabili” (Indomitables), which traces the history of the two formations and the phenomena that led to their rise and fall, as well as the rebirth of the Phoenix. A new formation, which builds on the peculiarities of each of the two sides of the same coin: leadership, operational and logistical skills, and technology. This in order to recreate with every means, violent in the first place, the Caliphate abolished by Ataturk. The analysis, divided into chapters, intends to be a useful tool to understand the new terrorist form and to look for suitable instruments to contain and/or mediate the disruptive dynamics of Jihadism, covering various geopolitical areas and historical periods. Such developments represent a concrete danger for global security, in the West and elsewhere, and could unleash – as recently happened in New Zealand and Philippines – a full-fledged religious war with uncertain outcomes, and potential chain reactions leading to a spiral of violence of uncontrollable magnitude and difficult containment.

Prologue: The propaganda of facts

On January 27, 2019, two suicide bombers carried out an attack on the Christian cathedral of Jolo, in the Philippines, causing twenty victims and more than 110 wounded. The action was claimed by Isis who, for some time already, had transferred to those islands a number of fugitives of the Islamic State from the Syrian-Iraqi area, joining the remains of the Abu Sayaff group (a franchising of al Qaeda) to constitute a new terrorist cell in the area. On May 13, 2018, three churches (one Catholic, one Pentecostal and one Calvinist) in Surabaya, the second most populous city in Indonesia, suffered three suicide attacks that resulted in 13 deaths and more than 40 people injured. Among the six suicide bombers, a veiled woman who blew herself up with her two 10-year-old children, as well as two minors and a child from the same family. The attacks were allegedly organized by the Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (Jad) group, which has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State.

How modern terrorism was born

These are only the most recent episodes of “propaganda of facts,” an essential method for international terrorism to spread and make known its political-ideological strategies, while attracting proselytes. The present terrorist development of which Isis is the flag carrier cannot be understood in its vast disruptive potential without analyzing the precursors from which it originates and its underlying strategy. This is because the analysis of the phenomenon highlights how all forms of terrorism imply a geopolitical-strategic doctrine that triggers, feeds and directs them towards the (strategic) objectives to be pursued. This began with the Reign of Terror (July 1793 – July 1794), implemented by the Parisian Committee of Public Safety, concerned about a probable Prussian invasion aimed at the restoration of the Ancien Regime. The French revolutionaries feared the so-called “realists,” who were the main victims of Terror: “… Enemies must perish… only the dead do not turn back….”

Terrorism is the weapon against democracies to shape the consensus that binds rulers to the ruled

The feeling of terror elicited in political opponents has always been an asset of war, as well as a form of political struggle. In democratic regimes, the attack on the right to life and security, both individual and collective, pursues a strategic objective: the imposition of a new political order. Democracy is founded on respect for the rules and on natural law. According to this theory, there is a natural law preceding and superior to the State. This law attributes subjective, inalienable and imprescriptible rights to individuals. And it did so before any society was formed. The State, which arises by the will of the individuals themselves, cannot violate these fundamental rights. If it violates them, it becomes despotic. Hence, terrorism is the weapon typically used against democracies to shape or interrupt the consensus that binds the rulers to the ruled.

The “surrogate war” to develop asymmetrical conflicts

The more complex a social organization is, the more extensive the consequences of the destruction of one of its productive elements are and, therefore, the greater the possibilities of provoking popular reaction or dictatorial solutions, both monistic and proletarian. Terrorism, therefore, is a typical weapon against democracy for three main reasons. One: its complete reliance on the modern media that circulate its deeds (propaganda of facts). Two: the interruption of the relationship of trust between “rulers” and “ruled”. Three: terrorism is increasingly used as a means of “surrogate war”. That is to say, as a particularly suitable instrument for developing asymmetrical conflicts. This feature was already foretold in 1978 (cf. “Rassegna dell’Arma dei Carabinieri”, year 1978, n. 4), but it finally found its strategic implementation in 2001. With the attacks against the Twin Towers of New York, which annihilated the adversary, terrorism shifted from the tactical level of the “propaganda of facts” to that of a “strategic paramilitary operation”. According to the canons of war, this new level entailed information acquisitions, planning and implementation. Nowadays, with ISIS’ appearance on the international scene of terrorism, it turned into a “hybrid war”.

Infowarfare does not follow rules and does not respect conventions

The hybrid war, centered on infowarfare (information war), does not follow rules because there are no rules. Also, it does not respect conventions because those involved are almost always non-State actors. They hide behind the anonymity, and that makes them not easy to identify. The new form of conflict cleverly combines conventional warfare, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and the infowarfare that has now risen to cyberwarfare (cybernetic warfare), involving operational theatres, information systems, economic and social structures, psychological and political environment. The development of this phenomenon requires two essential factors: the sponsors (namely, the puppet masters) and the financing, crucial factors for conducting prolonged terrorist activities over time. Islamist terrorism does not escape this paradigm. On the contrary, it adds to the equation the direct and mediated participation of the active contenders (the terrorist organization and the State) but also of third parties that are directly interested in its operative development for the pursuit of autonomous or agreed strategic objectives.

Isis is the direct subsidiary of Al Qaeda. The two groups are two sides of the same coin

In the light of that, we believe that ISIS is a direct subsidiary of al Qaeda, that the two groups represent two sides of the same coin, minted at different times and with the aim of counteracting different geopolitical developments. These statements may appear categorical, but considering a temporal synchronization of the events that led to the constitution of the Islamic State and to its defeat (as well as its present attempts at rebirth), the above-mentioned circumstances give the legitimacy of this analysis a considerable degree of credibility.

The beginning of jihadist terrorism. Iran aims at Sudan and Saudi Arabia reacts

In 1979, attempts to export the Iranian Islamic Revolution to the world – implemented by the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI) – initially turned to Iraq, with the establishment of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).Then they pointed toward different areas of Central Asia, with particular reference to the five Muslim Soviet republics. Such attempts clashed with the Sunni reality rooted in those areas, also supported by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. For this reason, the Iranians turned their policy of influence towards other zones of Central-Northern Africa, with priority toward Sudan. These ambitions could not leave Sunni leaders indifferent, especially Saudi Arabia, which did not intend to give free rein to the diffusion of Shiite theocratic ideologies. For a long time, it had been home to a large Shiite colony, which had settled in the area since the centuries immediately following the birth of Islam and until then had been tolerated, even though marginalized and considered heretical.

The Shiite-Sunni clash passes through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Islamist fundamentalism is born, thanks to the support of Maududi’s Jamaat-e Islami

The area most affected by Iranian ambitions was not so much the African one, but the contiguous one of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The defense of the Sunni counterpart against such attempts, however, had already been developed in the same period through the strategy of the Qur’an’s Concept of War, conceived by the Pakistani Brigadier General, S. K. Malik. Furthermore, Pakistan, since its creation in 1947, had made Islamic nationalism the unifying ideology of the State, which it transfused in its 1973 Constitution, when it became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and Islam was declared the state religion. Over time, Pakistani Islamic fundamentalism has been strengthened through a deep and global Islamization process carried out by General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, author of a military coup d’état, who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. He worked with the support of the mullahs of the Jamaat-e Islami (Islamic society) of Abul Ala Maududi (alias Mawdudi, 1903-1979). Theologian and politician, also known as Mawlana (Maulana) or Shaykh Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi or Abul Ala Maududi, he was a leading political figure in the country.

Malik’s Theories of the Quranic War

According to the theories of the “Quranic War” the Qur’an contains war doctrines that are different from those to which western thinkers are accustomed, because they are not produced by man. These are principles and commandments of war revealed by God, and therefore an integral part of the Quranic doctrine. A doctrine in which the Ummah – the universal Islamic community – represents the spiritual and immanent principle of humanity’s integration, that is to say, supra-national, supra-racial, supra-linguistic and supra-territorial. Malik’s theories indicate that war, or jihad, must be developed between Muslims and infidels and not between states that, for the Quranic doctrine, do not exist. Therefore, the strategic concept of power is represented by the jihad, which is total both in its conduct and in its support technique. It is a continuous and infinite struggle, undertaken on all fronts, including the political, economic, social, moral and spiritual ones, in order to attain the objectives that the political strategy sets itself.

“Terror is the decision we want to impose on the enemy.” The ultimate goal is to achieve political goals through jihad

According to Malik, the power of jihad carries with it the power of God, and makes the Quranic concept of strategy a divine theory. The general goes on to say “when God desires to impose his will on enemies, he chooses to do so by casting terror into their hearts.” Thus identifying the war’s center of gravity “in the soul of man, in his spirit and in his faith.” It follows that terror is conceived both as a means and as the main objective of war: “Terror is not a means of imposing a decision on the enemy. It is the decision we want to impose. Terror can only be instilled if the Faith of the adversary is destroyed.” The theory of the “Quranic war” emphasizes that the final aim, or the main good, of the Quranic war operations is to reach political objectives through the jihad, and not the safeguard of life. Death for this cause leads the mujahidin directly to their heavenly reward, for which sacrifice is sacred and death must not be feared, but whished for.

The Quranic War as a tool to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

The Quranic Concept of War was approved with a preface by the Pakistani Islamist dictator, General Zia Al Haq (“Source of Truth”), who considered Afghanistan and the Muslim republics of Central Asia to be the Pakistani strategic background in case of conflict with India. The text emphasized the importance of this work as an instrument of jihad, not only intended for soldiers but also declined in the form of war by the entire community of Ummah. Such a strategy seems to have been prepared expressly to counter the almost contextual invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union (December 1979). This invasion was supported by the Afghan Democratic People’s Party (PDPA), of Marxist-Leninist orientation, which provoked the reaction of the Islamic population and the formation of various guerrilla groups of mujaheddin (jihad fighters.) From guerrilla fighters to Islamic militia.

The birth of Peshawar 7, the Islamic Regiments and the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK)

The USSR invasion of Afghanistan on 24 December 1979 provoked several international reactions, in particular in Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The various factions of guerrilla fighters, initially autonomously insurgent, were united in 1985 under a committee called “Peshawar 7,” composed of as many exclusively Sunni groups. To these, Pakistan, headed by General Zia-ul-Haq, flanked organized units, called “Islamic Regiments,” for fear of a further Soviet escalation towards the borders of its own Country. Those units were composed of young Muslim extremists from almost all Islamic countries – especially those in North Africa – militarily trained in Pakistani camps. For the control of “Peshawar 7” – and in order to convey money, arms and fighters from all over the Arab world to Afghanistan – the Maktab al-Khidamat, Service Office (MAK), was constituted in Peshawar in 1984, under the direction of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani secret service).

The MAK, financed by Osama bin Laden, establishes, together with the ISI, training camps in Pakistan for the Muslims of the “Islamic Foreign Legion”, who come to fight the Russian atheists. Malik’s reflections are implemented in the Strategic Concept of the Quranic War

The MAK was managed and led by the Palestinian activist Abd Allah Yusuf Azzam, a Palestinian refugee from Jenin (West Bank), a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood with a doctorate in Sharia at the Abdul Aziz University of Jeddah (where he had Osama Bin Laden as his student). Osama himself, a Saudi billionaire listed at the time in the service of the security apparatus of that monarchy, was among the financial supporters of the MAK. The organization gathered the Muslims who had come to fight the Russian atheists, set up training camps (in Pakistani territory) and had access to funds for the guerrilla warfare through the ISI. All the observations exposed by General Malik in the strategic concept of the Quranic war found application in such training camps, where the so-called “Islamic foreign legion” developed the military and spiritual preparation of the various mujahidin who had come to Peshawar to fight.

Pakistan becomes the “sanctuary of Jihadist guerrillas” in an anti-Russian key in Afghanistan. Various countries finance them, but the objectives are not always converging

Pakistan thus became the “sanctuary of Jihadist guerrillas”, where foreign volunteers and supplies for the Sunni Mujahidin were gathered, placing them outside the Soviet operation area. The guerrilla groups, for the entire duration of the conflict, were supported – financially and logistically – by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom and China to achieve different objectives:

  1. a) Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the United States and the United Kingdom shared the concern of a further advance of the USSR toward the Indian Ocean, a strategic direction that has always been pursued by the Tsarist Russia in “The Great Game” and further coveted by international Communism.
  2. b) Saudi Arabia, the main financial sponsor, also engaged its own secret service in indoctrinating in Wahhabism voluntary fighters, coming from all over the Islamic world, estimated at around 20,000 units.
  3. c) China sought insurance for the cessation of any aid to the Jihadist guerrillas of the Uighurs of Xinjiang (autonomous region in the south-west of the People’s Republic of China,) supplying light weapons, rocket launchers and tanks to the Mujahidin operating in the northeast.

The ISI becomes the main administrator of guerrilla funds and weapons. Only “loyal” organizations such as those of Hekmatyar and Haqqani actually benefit from it

During the years of guerrilla warfare against the Soviet Union, the ISI was charged with administering and distributing funds and weapons to the aforementioned guerrilla groups. These funds, however, were given – in abundance and with particular attention to intelligence – only to those leaders who were its most faithful associates, among whom were the organizations of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, essential instruments for managing the “guidelines” of the Pakistani strategic policy in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in 1988, Al Qaeda was born from Maktab.

For Pakistan, Afghan terrorism was strategic against possible military escalation of India. Thanks to it the Islamist extremism spread and from the Matkab Al Qaeda was born

The Afghan territory was and is considered, from the Pakistani strategic doctrine, indispensable in function of possible military escalation of India, as well as to exercise the control of the infamous “tribal areas” , straddling the Afghan-Pakistani border, irreducible enemies of all forms of state administration. These initiatives contributed not a little to spread Islamist extremism and in 1988, from the Maktab Al Qaeda was born.

Gli Indomabili


The Authors

Luciano Piacentini – Commander of Operational Detachment and Company in the 9th Paratroopers Assault Regiment “Col Moschin” (SF-Tier 1) of the Italian Army with the rank of Lieutenant and Captain. Assigned to the Army General Staff, he subsequently commanded the “Col Moschin” Regiment. Later he held the position of Chief of Staff of the Paratroopers Brigade “Folgore”. Then he has worked in National Information and Security Bodies with assignments in different areas of the Asian continent.

Claudio Masci – Carabinieri Officer coming from the Military Academy of Modena. After having taken over the command of a territorial unit mainly engaged in the fight against organized crime, he passed through National Information and Security Bodies. He graduated in political science. Among his contributions, “Intelligence between conflicts and mediation” (Caucci Editore, Bari 2010), and “The future of intelligence” (April 15, 2012, Longitude, the monthly magazine of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Pino Bianchi – Architect, expert in risk management, organization, process re-engineering and business management systems. For over twenty years he has conducted business, marketing, communication and organization activities in American and European multinational companies. Management consultant in ICT, marketing, communication, business planning and project financing.

Francesco Bussoletti

Claudio Masci and Luciano Piacentini – Authors of the article “The Future of Intelligence” (Longitude, April 15, 2012), and of the books “Intelligence between conflicts and mediation” (Caucci Editore, Bari 2010), and “Humint… this unknown (Function intelligence evergreen)”. Buy it from Amazon here.

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