Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

‘Soft power’ financing of religious, cultural and educational networks that nurture the jihadi ideology: Impact and relevance of foreign funding for Western Islam

Muslims are becoming more visible in Western urban communities, and all too often have fallen uncomfortably under the media spotlight following bombings and explosions perpetrated by Salafi-jihadis.  Mainstream Muslim organisations, including those with foreign affiliations, routinely denounce the extremists’ explosive violence but find themselves unfairly tainted by tenuous association.  In the context of our research into networks that facilitate IED use, the questions to be answered here are whether, or to what extent, the extensive influence of Gulf Arab governments and Wahhabi institutions among Muslim communities in the West poses a security risk or a threat to civilian lives, and specifically whether it has the potential to affect vulnerability to radicalism and violence.

In Europe, lavish expenditure by conservative Arab states on mosques and Islamic centres has gone hand in hand with massive investment by their sovereign wealth funds, businesses and high net worth individuals in real estate, media organisations and top-flight football clubs.  There is no doubt that the Gulf states, notably Qatar and the UAE, are ambitious to assert their presence on the scene and have the financial resources to do so; and we have seen the extent of their networks of influence.

Some activities of their Islamic charities in Europe clearly aim not only to support and resource existing Muslim communities but also explicitly to make new converts to Islam, through teaching, preaching, and offering lessons in Arabic to facilitate study of the Quran.  The freedom to hold religious beliefs, and to practise – or indeed change – one’s religion, is a fundamental human right, and poses no threat to free societies.  It is worth briefly remembering, for comparison, the extensive evangelistic efforts of European and American Christian missionaries around the world in the past, in which humanitarian work in the fields of health and education was closely bound up with Bible lessons, church-building and spreading the Gospel.

However, our findings in section 7.2 show that the content of preaching in foreign-funded mosques has tended to strongly reflect the religious agenda of the donors, whether the political activism and engagement of the Muslim Brotherhood, favoured by Qatar, or the ultraconservative Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.  While the transformation of European Islam effected by the injection of Gulf money and fundamentalist preachers has helped to strengthen Muslim identity and often encourage separatism rather than integration with the wider community, it has not, however, directly fostered jihadi violence or attacks harming civilians.

Conversion to Islam is not in any sense a predictor of violence, and the majority of Western converts will never have anything to do with jihadi terrorism.  Nevertheless, Western converts are overrepresented among jihadis.  One study found that of 58 individuals linked to 32 IS-related plots in the West between July 2014 and August 2015, 29% of these individuals were converts to Islam. Converts, it said, accounted for 67% (12 out of 18) of the Americans involved in committing or planning an IS-related attack, despite comprising only 20% of Muslims in the US.  The same thing has been found among convicted British jihadis. According to another report, converts constitute an estimated 2-3% of Britain’s 2.8 million Muslims, yet were involved in 31% of jihadi terrorism convictions in the UK between 2001 and 2010.

The progression from conservative Wahhabi or radical Salafi beliefs to violent jihadi discourse, and then beyond that to recourse to violent action, takes place in only a minority of cases, and in accordance with the plethora of demographic and socio-economic dynamics that we explored in section 3.  Early studies of the role of Muslim converts in the context of homegrown terrorism – and by ‘early’ we are talking about 2010-11 – took the view that the minority who radicalised almost always followed a ‘Conversion-Radicalisation-Activation’ pattern.  In other words, they first and most importantly converted to an extreme form of Islam (generally following some personal crisis), which allowed them subsequently to be further radicalised to the point where they might eventually turn to violent action.

It is widely thought that recent converts’ inadequate knowledge of Islam, together with their ‘double marginalisation’ (not feeling a sense of fully belonging either among their new co-religionists or in the wider non-Muslim society) might explain their disproportionate tendency to be swayed by extremist thinking.  But the idea is also gaining ground that it is radicalism that is attracting them to Islam in the first place – for reasons we explored in sections 3 and 4 above and illustrate below – and in a sense, they are being converted directly into violent Salafi-jihadism.  Olivier Roy, a leading authority on political Islam, has developed this idea into a theory of generational revolt, both by the second generation of Muslim immigrant families against their parents and by native converts with their own causes of alienation, for which radical Islam is a convenient and deadly vehicle.  This “generational nihilistic radicalised youth revolt”, Roy says, is “more about the Islamisation of radicalism than the radicalisation of Islam”.

In France, both the engaged political-activist approach of MB-affiliated UOIF mosques on the one hand, and the focus on personal salvation and morality of the non-integrating Salafist mosques on the other, have been found severely wanting by this segment of alienated or disenfranchised youth.  This first became strikingly apparent when in November 2005, after several nights of rioting in the banlieues – unrelated to terrorism, but featuring the torching of hundreds of cars – the UOIF, seeking advantage from the situation, issued an inept fatwa condemning the unrest.[i]  It did nothing to calm the riots, but rather tarnished the UOIF’s own image, and showed just how out of touch it was with the mood of French youth.  The quietist Salafists were no more effective in reaching out to them. Since then, with the advent of the Internet and above all the emergence of the truly extreme ‘Islamic State’, homegrown Salafi-jihadism has found its moment – the genie has left the bottle.

Active engagement

Today, Western politicians routinely call on mainstream Muslim organisations to play their part in preventing radicalisation and countering terrorist narratives from within Islam.  In Western societies (and some Gulf countries) many are of course attempting to do exactly that, and some may be offended that their motivation to do so is doubted.

Several of the Gulf-funded projects in the West also claim to be working towards this end, as we saw in the case of the Al Noor Centre in Mulhouse.  It is questionable, though, how appropriately this can be done in a local context by agencies so strongly influenced by foreign backers, especially backers whose governments and citizens continue, as has been abundantly demonstrated in the preceding chapters, to provide financial and material support to the world’s major perpetrators of IED attacks.

Western governments therefore face a challenge in deciding which Muslim groups and organisations to engage with to build positive relations that may also help ward off the threat of radical jihadism.  This issue is already receiving a great deal of attention, and clearly deserves further sensitive study and debate.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.

[i] Kepel, G. Beyond Terror and Martyrdom p. 253.  Belknap Press, 2008.