Terrorism is not really about religion; it is politics, stupid

Saturday February 09 2019

Every of our counter-terrorism officials should take a keen interest in what French-American anthropologist Scott Atran says. He is a globally acknowledged authority on the subject of terrorism. He sits as the research director of the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. He has ongoing lecturing stints at Cambridge (UK), Princeton (US) and such other places who are interested in understanding the global menace of religious extremism.

Professor Atran’s published thoughts on how governments the world over are reacting to this terrorist problem are a key primer. Mosques no longer recruit you directly. No. They just psyche you up. Most likely you get recruited at your neighbourhood football pitch. The coffee cafe you frequent. By the college mate you share a room with. By the cellmate in prison. That sort of thing. The lovable fellow who shows up to organise the neighbourhood boys for weekend football games fits that kind of suspect.

In Kenya, we have this wrenching reckoning with a phenomenon of home-grown jihadists. Farouk Gichunge — or whatever his name was — of the Dusit Complex attack was living quietly in a Kiambu suburb. He doesn’t fit the usual profile of Somali or Coastal Muslim. Such types are not originally Muslim, but converted to it. They are wild and reckless, like any converts to a new religion tend to be. That’s why they are so amenable to Al-Shabaab indoctrination. But this story is not about religion. Hapana. It is about how religion is used for violent aims.

Studies have shown that these home-grown terrorists never act alone. They are used like on major hits such as Dusit and Westgate. The conceptualisation and planning of the attacks comes from higher-ups in the hierarchy, inside Kenya or outside. For Dusit and Westgate, they use the local network of the Gichunges and company. For bigger hits, like the US embassy bombing in 1998, they come in themselves.


A different angle was introduced by American scholar Bronwyn Bruton, who studies Somalia for the Atlantic Council, a US think tank. She divides Al-Shabaab into two — the nationalists and the ideologues. There are those in the hierarchy who believe in global jihad, and there are those types who are simply Somali nationalists. The nationalists want the interim Somalia government out, and especially our KDF. The ideologues need Somalia as a base for global Islamist jihad. These are the ones who announced an alliance with Al-Qaeda. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are in this category.


Ms Bruton makes a lot of sense. The usual explanation of jihadism that it is bred by poverty and alienation is mistaken. Gichunge was living a fairly well-to-do life, by Kenyan standards. The most famous terrorist of all, Osama bin Laden, was a rich Saudi aristocrat. He left his cushy construction job to go wage war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Scores of middle-class Somali youths from the US state of Minnesota have flooded into Somalia eager to join the jihad. Kenya, and Ethiopia, are watching. And they mean business. Alienation may be a factor, but the thrill of getting a bigger meaning from a drab life could be the clincher. How else to explain a suicide bomber? A person who ties herself up in explosives and blows herself up, shouting Allah? What else would it mean?

The home-grown terrorist like Gichunge is not necessarily fired up by the dream of a greater Somalia. He doesn’t even understand the geopolitics of it all. But his controllers do. Bigger still are the jihadists, who read the world as a struggle between good and evil. That’s where groups like ISIS in Syria come in. The argument about Kenya getting our forces out of Somalia is based on this: that you can never win against a foe fired up by religious craziness. Militarily Somalia is no match for Kenya. It is an insurgency headache which, unfortunately, we have to live with for decades.


If I was running the Somali counter-insurgency policy, I would split it into two. Co-opt the nationalists. Then kill the jihadists. That’s what America is doing. Don’t — I say don’t — allow our border points to be breached.

By the way, that border militancy is one thing I love about Donald Trump. And close the Dadaab camp. It serves no purpose than to let terrorists seep through.

Let me repeat: Today’s jihadism has nothing to do with religion. The same way the Christian Crusades were engineered centuries ago to serve a political purpose disguised as religious.

On the same token, jihadism is purely political. The Taliban want the Americans out of Afghanistan. The Chechens want the Russians out of their land. The Chinese are battling a weird thing in their western province called the Uighurs. Everywhere you look, the story is the same. How will we ever fix these minds? I don’t know.

This story gets back to Atran, the professor. He says to destroy jihadism, change the minds. It’s a tough task.

[email protected]