Gaza and the long tail of terror

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Israel-Palestine, Terrorism

The war in Gaza will – sooner or later – inspire other Islamist terrorist groups, just as previous conflicts did.

Palestinian Salafist groups march at a protest in Gaza denouncing the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Palestinian Salafist groups march at a protest in Gaza denouncing the killing of Osama bin Laden. Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

On 26 December Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) announced the re-launch of their English language magazine, Inspire, with a video entitled ‘What America and the West do not expect’. It cites the ongoing war in Israel and Palestine and calls for attacks in America and against Jewish and western targets, including US, British and French airlines and high-profile figures. Towards the end of last year, arrests in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands and lone-actor attacks in France appeared to answer the question of whether the Hamas assault, and the Israeli response to it, would lead to a rise in the Islamist terrorist threat. Momentum builds: these developments signal an uptick in terrorist activity which was sadly predictable. So what do we expect?

While attention always focuses on the immediate, the war in Gaza will also have a long tail. For those whose job is to predict when and where an attack might happen, there is a tricky balance between holding one’s nerve and warning of an escalating threat that may take some time to materialise. There will be an increase in difficult-to-predict acts of violence in Europe, America and against manifestations of the ‘West’ and Israel worldwide. Many of these will be low-sophistication and ‘self-initiated’, but that does not mean that they will not be deadly. The 7 October Hamas attack came when it was assumed that the threat from Islamist terrorism was fading: the Caliphate was militarily defeated in 2019, although there are still thousands of foreign fighters in Syria and the Taliban now govern Afghanistan. The problem was only ever suppressed. Groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and Daesh now operate with more freedom, and in more territory, than ever before. The risk is that the Hamas attack and/or the Israeli response will revivify Islamist terrorism, or even beget a new version.

Last November’s TikTok sensation that was the rediscovery of Osama bin Laden’s 2002 ‘Letter to the American People’ showed that when the Palestinian cause is used to radicalise it can be powerful stuff. Al Qaeda’s ‘single narrative’ integrated its ideological roots – Islam’s sacred texts and traditions – with a litany of contemporary grievances: Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir, Bosnia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Arabian Gulf, Iraq, Syria, all cited as clear examples of the oppression of Muslims. It is a deeply resilient and adaptable argument. Some of these are ‘frozen conflicts’, or otherwise inconvenient, expensive and intractable for western foreign policymakers, whose attention is now focused on state threats posed by Russia, China and Iran. But unresolved conflicts perpetuate grievance and motivation, and will sooner or later become flashpoints again. When they do, they become a gateway for those seeking to legitimise violence. Where, like a fly in amber, hostility to the West is trapped inside the frozen conflict, there is also an opportunity for state actors to amplify and exploit those grievances.

An example of how long and violent the tail might be is the case of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who turned 50 on 23 December. He was born in London in 1973, and educated in the private Forest School in Snaresbrook and – between the ages of 14 and 16 – at the prestigious Aitcheson College in Lahore. In February 2002 he was arrested in Pakistan accused of the kidnapping and beheading in Karachi of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Sheikh’s transition from middle-class schoolboy to Islamist terrorist offers instructive insights to those who want to understand why. There is general consensus that a pivotal moment was during his first year as a statistics student at the London School of Economics (LSE), which he entered in October 1992. The Bosnian War had begun in April 1992 and, that summer, Serb forces encircled Sarajevo and commenced a bombardment and blockade that was to last nearly four years.

A UN embargo against supplying weapons to Yugoslavia had been introduced in September 1991, aiming to enable the peaceful resolution of the break-up conflicts through negotiation. In practice it left the Bosnian armed forces poorly supplied in contrast to their Republika Srpska opponents, who were supported by Serbia and the Yugoslav National Army. The UK and Europe were urged to lift the embargo, to no avail. President Clinton later said proposals had been blocked on the grounds that it would only make the conflict worse, but there were also accusations of a reluctance to supply a Muslim army in Europe, and Pakistan supplied weapons to the Bosnian Muslims in contravention of the embargo. The war started to draw in foreign fighters from a wide circle of countries, alongside state aid from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Groups such as Hizbullah and Al-Qaeda mobilised, and the Bosnian Mujahideen was born. Aid convoys, such as the British Workers Aid for Bosnia, joined in. The American negotiator Richard Holbrooke said that without this help the Bosnian Muslims would not have survived.

The LSE held ‘Bosnia Week’ in November 1992, a week of screenings of documentaries of the war. Bosnia-Herzegovina: The Destruction of a Nation was produced by Islamic Relief and linked the persecution of Muslims in Bosnia to its history and argued that the West had left Bosnian Muslims defenceless, urging Muslims to come to their aid. Sheikh cites this film as having caused him to act. At Easter 1993 he dropped out of university to join an aid convoy to the Balkans. There he met Pakistani veterans of the Afghan war, who had arrived in the second half of 1992 to form the Bosnian Mujahideen. Sheikh soon travelled with them to North Waziristan, where he joined the Kashmiri group Harakat-ul-Ansar. By July 1994 he was in Delhi and – with several accomplices – kidnapped three Britons and an American. The operation ended in a shoot-out with the Indian police in October, and Sheikh was shot, arrested and jailed.

He did not stay in prison for long. On Christmas Eve 1999 Indian Airlines flight 814 was hijacked after leaving Kathmandu and was forced to fly to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The hijackers were the Kashmiri group Harakat ul-Mujahideen, and they demanded the release of Shekih and two other significant figures in the Kashmiri Jihad in exchange for the 155 passengers. Sheikh returned to Pakistan. When Daniel Pearl vanished in Karachi on 23 January 2002, while investigating the links between the shoe bomber Richard Reid and Pakistani militant groups, Sheikh quickly became a suspect and he was arrested in Lahore three weeks later. Emails in which Sheikh told Pearl he could make some introductions in Karachi were produced as evidence at his trial.

Sheikh was sentenced to death on 15 July 2002. Although he appeared to have confessed to the murder, he later admitted only to the kidnapping of Pearl. He remained on death row until April 2020, when the High Court in Sindh acquitted him. In December 2020 it ordered his release. This ruling was challenged by both the Pakistani government and the family of Daniel Pearl, and Sheikh remains in custody. In March 2021 he was moved to a prison in Lahore, and his acquittal is now being appealed at Pakistan’s supreme court. At 50, he is still a relatively young man.

Of the other two kidnappers who were released from Indian prison in 1999, one – Masood Azhar – continues to lead the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammed, and the other, Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, is believed still to be involved in the Kashmiri Jihad. Jaish-e-Muhammed is one of the more vigorous terrorist groups based in Pakistan and, although its roots are in the Kashmiri Jihad, it has long had a crossover of personnel with Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Masood Azhar now lives in the southern Pakistani city of Bahawalpur and is wanted by India for his role in an attack on the Indian parliament building in 2001 (which led to significantly increased tensions between India and Pakistan), an attack against the Indian Air Force Pathankot airbase in 2016, and the 2019 suicide bombing of an Indian security personnel convoy in Pulwama, which killed more than 40. He also has notable British connections: he toured the UK in 1993 to raise money and recruits and had connections to those behind the terror attacks in London on 7 July 2005 and the plotters of 21 July. In Pakistan he assisted British-Pakistani Rashid Rauf, one of those behind a plot in 2006 to detonate liquid explosives on transatlantic airliners between the UK, the US and Canada. Rauf was married to one of Azhar’s relatives, and was arrested in Bahawalpur. That Masood Azhar is still at relative liberty in Pakistan is a constant irritant with India.

There is a lot of detail here; there always is. This kind of networked activity is one tiny example of the natural development and evolution of networks based on common grievance and preparedness to act violently. It demonstrates the enduring nature of intent and the interweaving of geopolitics with individual decisions to conduct acts of terror. As with Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the war in Gaza may sow the seeds of violence far from the tree, and they may take a long time to germinate. The radicalising narrative is as convincing as ever and is deftly exploited by states who use it to destabilise and disrupt, creating ever wider instability, which challenges the West. This challenge is immediate (instability makes trade and travel riskier, so must be warned and defended against), but also strategic: should the West again be drawn into trying to solve problems or leave them to fester?

Since the prevention of successful terrorist attacks depends not just on their prior discovery and the disruption of the actors but the undermining of their appeal, this long-term strategic geopolitical challenge will require not just military suppression but the application of diplomatic heft to flashpoints on a continuous basis. It requires an understanding of how foreign policy positions impact the fortunes of terrorist groups, who are themselves foreign policy actors, and an understanding of how the narrative is used both by non-states and states to undermine and recruit from within the West. AQAP’s Inspire magazine was first published in 2010; its reappearance reminds us of the need for staying power and the courage to act counter-cyclically rather than through surges of high-intensity effort around events. We’ve been here before. We had hoped not to be here again.

If you enjoyed this notebook by Suzanne, listen in through the link below to her in conversation with the EI team:


Suzanne Raine