While the world cautiously watches the war in Afghanistan and the nuclear aspirations of Iran, a surprising geopolitical trend may be emerging which could have quite profound consequences for international security and the safety of millions throughout southwest Asia and indeed the rest of the world. Despite the global carnage that Islamic terrorist groups continue to wreak across the planet, and the failed Christmas day airline bombing in Detroit, it appears that such coordinated devastation may be in its final chapters and that we may be witnessing the end of large-scale Islamic terrorism. Before this discussion continues however, an important distinction must be made between Islamic terrorism, that is Islamist forces bent on violently reshaping the world, and merely terrorists who happen to be Muslim. The former have posed the most serious threat to international security since the end of the Cold War; the latter are comprised of Somali pirates, former Sunni insurgents in Iraq, Afghan militia and many of the terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank. While the intentions of this second group of terrorists are no less violent, they are often significantly more localized with less global reach, and are more concerned with feeding their families then overthrowing the West.
As the United States inches towards success in Iraq and an increasing number of international terrorists are apprehended, the world looks like a safer place than it was just a few years ago. While many will point to the increased danger now that Al-Qaeda have spilled over the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, there is, it appears, less to be afraid of then previously thought. While it is true that Pakistan remains the only official Muslim-majority member in the exclusive club of nuclear nations, and that the acquisition of those warheads are sure to be the primary target for Al-Qaeda, terrorists in Pakistan are likely to face a more difficult challenge establishing permanency and supremacy than they did in Afghanistan. Firstly, Pakistan features a functioning, albeit slightly corrupt and untrustworthy, central government-a luxury that Afghanistan has arguably never had in its 3000 year history. Secondly, Pakistan has a technologically sophisticated military with years of training in counterterrorism and border conflicts with India in Kashmir.
Not for want of trying, but major Islamic terrorist networks such as the Indonesian-based militant group Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaeda, have failed to hit any large international targets since the 2005 underground bombings in London. Some will point to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, which were attributed to South Asian militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), as an example of global Islamist terrorism. However, the attack which was likely carried out by LeT was neither outside of their region of immediate influence, and has been interpreted by some as yet another instance of proxy warfare in the Pakistan-India conflict.
This decrease in the amount of attacks by global Islamic terror organizations, especially upon nations in Europe and North America, may be due to a gradual increase in the competency and extent of western military efforts in the war on terror, yet it may also be because of internal problems in the terrorist groups. To choose the most notorious of examples, Al-Qaeda, who achieved household name status after the September 11 bombings and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, have had a sizeable portion of their financial income disrupted by officials in the U.S. Treasury department. According to David S. Cohen, assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing, Al-Qaeda’s influence is diminishing after a strategy of targeting donors and fundraisers of terrorist groups, which has left the terrorist organization in their worst financial state in years. Leaders of Al-Qaeda have resorted to broadcasting cell phone video telecasts in order to raise funds.
However, even fully funded, organizations like Al-Qaeda and Lebanon’s Hezbollah face a new problem that few leaders had to contend with twenty years ago, during the movement’s infancy. Partially due to the nation-building efforts of the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq, the domestic ousting of dictators in nations such as Indonesia, and gradual liberalization like in Iran and Turkey, a greater number of Muslim countries practice democracy than did only a couple of generations ago. While it is true that many countries like Iran and Afghanistan face scrutiny for what many believe to be state sanctioned election fraud, Muslims across the world, in dozens of fledgling democracies, are beginning to appreciate the idea of participatory government and the benefits that it can bring. Abu Bakar Baasyir, mastermind behind the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali and alleged leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, recently proclaimed that democracy goes against the will of Allah and that “Islam and democracy cannot coexist.” Such extreme rhetoric will do little to build support among young Indonesian Muslims, who now live in the third largest democracy in the world. As the Muslim world continues to take baby steps towards democratic government and Islamic terrorist groups take massive cultural leaps backwards into the Stone Age, one can only wonder if these financially crippled organizations can continue to find support in a world which is trying so desperately to put them out of business for good.
Martin Surridge is a freelance journalist who is currently working on his M.A. in Teaching at Walla Walla University.