Old and New Terrorism Meet in the Mediterranean
The recent focus on the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) should not lead us to neglect the diversity of the contemporary terrorist threat and to overlook the connections between older and newer forms of terrorist violence rooted near the Mediterranean. In fact, terrorism is intertwined with the history of the modern Mediterranean and several lessons can be drawn in comparative perspective.
One such lesson is that terrorism is as strong as the environment allows. What makes Mediterranean-based terrorism such a significant global phenomenon is not just the existence of deep and long-standing cleavages in the region, but the fact that structures that could otherwise defuse, mediate, or channel conflict – starting with state institutions – are often weak or discredited. Against such backdrop, existing socio-economic, cultural, and religious differences can be powerfully exploited to propagate violence.
What is particularly worrying about the newer terrorism as incarnated by IS is that it does not limit its agenda to undermining the existing order. Rather, it claims to have already established a more legitimate and better functioning one in the “Caliphate.” As a terrorist entity, IS displays relatively novel characters in that it aspires to act and be recognized as a state in a region in which statehood has never been more fragile, borders more contested and porous, and governance so irremediably dysfunctional on a large scale.
Whereas older forms of terrorism provided asymmetric violent responses to conflicts in society that authorities did not address (for lack of will or ability), new terrorism aspires to fill the void left by the retreat or collapse of order. In this respect, IS may lose the battle of governance even before it is defeated militarily on the battleground. Its inhumane acts and incompetence are rapidly alienating the communities it has subjected.
The current scenario is further complicated by the fact that the new terrorism has not supplanted the old. In fact, IS has stolen the leadership from, yet not replaced nor absorbed Islamist terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda that had risen to notoriety in the 1990s and 2000s. Moreover, almost all forms of even older terrorism persist in the Mediterranean, Islamic terrorism being just the most prominent and deadly. It is estimated, for instance, that left-wing and right-wing groups currently implicated in lower-profile acts of violence can be counted in the hundreds in Greece alone.
Successors of groups that had fought on different sides of the ideological divide during the Cold War have been able to adapt by mixing old and new stances. For instance, violent far-right groups in Europe exploit growing xenophobic sentiments and draw on widespread concerns about immigration to feed their nationalistic message. They use the currency of fear to gain ground in the marketplace of extremism while undermining trust in multiculturalism and democracy. Attacks to refugee centers are part of the new tactics, and they are happening frequently in countries such as Germany, yet they are receiving little scrutiny.
Far-leftist groups that are ready to embrace violence present the collapse of the Middle Eastern order and its European spillovers as compelling evidence of Western military “adventurism,” corroborating the view that capitalism and “American imperialism” are responsible for the world’s chaos. Unlike during the Cold War era when the focus was on an alternative worldview, the current message seems to be mainly an anti-establishment one with strong anarchic undertones.
Some terrorist groups are no longer active because some political solution was found to issues that were at the roots of their rise, such as those in Spain and Ireland. In the current context, it is out of question that IS can be treated as an interlocutor. Its brutal violence and nihilistic ideology, which abuses Islamic teachings and disregards basic human rights, do not offer any basis for dialogue. However, the old strategy of separating its ideologues and leaders from the constituencies whose grievances it claims to vindicate remains valid. It is a fact that many Sunni communities in the Middle Est are currently denied access to basic goods, from security to employment. IS has thrived on the ruins of conflicts that only made these communities’ predicament harsher, and now IS itself adding to their oppression and suffering.
Terrorists are distinguishable from gangs or deranged individuals because there is always a political or ideological element to their actions (despite the presence of many deranged people in terrorist ranks). This leads to the uncomfortable truth that there are politics in terrorism and these politics are also at play for those that have committed to confronting it. One just needs to look at the different competing international coalitions fighting IS or the fact that some terrorist groups are recognized by some and not by others.
Despite declaratory unity on combatting terrorism regardless of its origins and geography, origins do matter and geography seems to remain an important consideration, as exemplified by the rather different weight assigned to combating Islamic terrorism in Europe’s south vs east.
Moving forward, the task of transatlantic partners is to understand that terrorism poses a threat to all not only because of its unacceptable means but because its aim is to undermine the imperfect yet common democratic order European countries have together built over the decades. This may seem quite a basic goal fifteen years after 9/11, but this realization is not always as widely and deeply felt as it should. Without it, however, any step toward further operational cooperation, such as having coordination-wary national intelligence agencies finally share information on a systematic basis, will remain a challenge.
For Middle Eastern countries the issue is one of survival. Letting terrorist groups enmesh in the proxy conflicts that are being fought will only precipitate a disintegration of the regional order which ultimately serves no one. If the disruptive spread of IS has not rung the alarm bell already, the next warning may be simply too late.
 The recent meeting of the GMF Mediterranean Strategy Group helped highlight some of these connections.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.