In the period following WWII, to the time the ‘War on Terror’ was declared in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001, more than 700 people had already been killed outside the Middle-East at the hands of Islamic terrorism—with many thousands more having been injured.
Islamic terrorism was not born in a bubble. While this moment flung it into the forefront of the West’s attention, the movement had already formed a significant history and the foundations for the current terror climate where already clearly set out.
What we see today comes from a culmination of multiple factors and issues spanning back nearly 100 years, two which particularly stand out and need to be outlined: The growth of Islamic fundamentalism—or Islamism—and ramifications from the declaration of the nation-state of Israel.
The prior providing the ideology and inspiration that drives the movement, the latter helping, despite also contributing to anti-West sentiment, influence the tactics and approach of the jihad.
The first development can be clearly traced to the demise of colonial domination post-WWI. In this period, the newly formed countries within the Middle-East began forming their independent nations with secular models of government—following the example of Turkey.
In the construction of these secular societies, many traditional Islamic values were superseded by European ones and this was viewed by some as a form of cultural imperialism.
This fuelled notions of Muslim nationalism and this grew gradually through the development of non-governmental groups like the Muslim Brotherhood—originally a grassroots effort to promote Islamic rule—and through the promotion of fundamental Islamic rule by Saudi Arabia—the richest and most influential Middle-Eastern nation.
The movement was given a terrific endorsement in 1979 with the disposition of the Iranian shah—who was regarded a puppet of the West—and, despite not being resolved that year, the eventual success of Muslim forces against the Soviets attempting to raid Afghanistan.
Muslims rallied to the Afghan cause. The army raised to resist the communists received volunteers and funding from all across the Middle-East, especially from the Saudis and their sphere of influence.
The war finally ended in 1989 and those who supported the Afghan cause were labeled heroes across the Arab world. Osama Bin Laden was one such hero through his leadership in Afghanistan developed prominence.
Using his influence, Bin Laden began forming al-Qaeda, largely in opposition to Western military intervention in the first Gulf War. In light of the Afghan success, Bin Laden regarded Western intervention unnecessary and opposed what he regarded as Western military infiltration on the Arabian Peninsula.
Al-Qaeda’s mission grew to attack those they perceived enemies of the Islamic world. This included resisting those foreign forces—namely the USA and it’s allies—that had stationed themselves in the Middle-East, and who they perceived as the major enemies of an Islamic state.
ISIS, with roots in Al-Qaeda, rose with similar goals but with a different approach. While Al-Qaeda focused its jihad on external forces, ISIS turned to focus on aggressively advancing Islamism within the Middle-East, enforcing one ‘true’ Sunni caliphate—Islamic rule. This can be illustrated by their particular focus on attacking Shi’ite’s within the region.
Despite localised goals, ISIS’ effectiveness in mobilising it’s followers through (social) media, has seen them become the more significant threat to the West with the rise of ISIS-inspired attacks outside the Middle East.
The other important development which has heavily influenced the rise of Islamic terrorism as we understand it today was the establishment of the nation-state of Israel. This development has been particularly key in inspiring the guerrilla tactics that have become a hallmark of the movement.
The United Nations’ creation was immediately rejected by the surrounding Arab states and a number of short wars were fought between Israel and some of these countries in the decades following. Through these wars, Israel demonstrated it had a significantly more advanced military, and state-based warfare had ceased by the 1970s.
In lieu of this failure to disband the newly formed nation, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was created with a goal of strategically reclaiming parts of Israel on behalf of the somewhat displaced Palestinian people.
Despite no official tie, beginning in the 1970s and gaining momentum through the 1980s, factions from within the PLO began to implement terror attacks against Israeli targets, and these attacks began to bring Islamic terrorism into the Western news.
These Palestinian sects and groups from surrounding states were formed in frustration to the secular PLO approach, adopting a more aggressive Islamist agenda. These groups embraced the use of suicide bombing, hostage-taking and attacks on civilian targets as part of their approach to reclaiming the Levant for Muslim peoples.
Initial attacks focused on Israeli targets. The first major attack outside of the Middle-East involved the bombing of Swiss Air flight 330 outside Zürich en-route to Tel-Aviv, but it was probably the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre—in which a small stem from within the PLO, calling themselves the Black September Group, captured and eventually killed 11 Israeli athletes—which became the most vivid early illustration of Islamic terrorism in the West.
Over the next decade, the attacks moved from simply focusing on Israeli targets, to including attacks on its significant allies. The effectiveness of these attacks and the relative success of groups like Islamic Jihad Organisation, Hamas and Hezbollah helped encourage the use of guerrilla tactics in jihad. Beginning in the 1990s other Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda, took this approach in attempting to achieve their goals in Europe and the United States and many other parts of the world.
By the time the September 11 attacks took place, the seeds for the ideology and methodology had already taken root. Guerrilla tactics against civilian targets had already been deemed an appropriate course of action to advance political agendas, and, the West and its values had entrenched itself a major enemy of a caliphate.
As a result, it seems the struggle to bring order and unification in the region will always involve the use of terrorism in the West. Therefore to stand back and believe the West is not deeply involved in this conflict is, unfortunately, naive.