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Painful Coexistence

How do we deal with, and cope with, Jihadi terrorism?

Oleg Zabielin /


  • The struggle with the Jihadists might take decades since they refuse to entertain any idea of negotiating.
  • Islam is perpetually awaiting its Reformation and is undergoing a protracted civil war.
  • An Islamic Reformation will only come from women. They are on the forefront of this battle.
  • Our effort to combat the Jihadis is complicated by the fact that it is a mutating form of terrorism.
  • It cannot be denied that Western policy towards the Arab and Islamic world has often been ill-judged.

The struggle with the Jihadists might take decades — or longer still — since they refuse to entertain any idea of negotiating.

However, we cannot waver in this task. It is absolutely necessary to defend our societies from this type of terrorism and violent radicalization.

But no matter how tirelessly we combat them, and try to understand effects and causes, which are manifold and complex, the end of this battle can only come from within their own world.

Two uncomfortable truths

Despite the simplistic nature and ideological and theological poverty of Jihadi thinking, there is no denying that they fit into other broader strands of an Islam, or varieties of Islam.

Islam is perpetually awaiting its Reformation and is undergoing a protracted civil war, particularly in its Arab environment. Acknowledging this does not involve equating Islam with Jihadism or terrorism, but it does point to a problem.

Since the perpetrators of the attacks do not seem to be overly concerned about dying in order to kill, strengthening the legislation against this type of terrorism is of little avail.

A global challenge

Naturally, when it is our turn to suffer, the pain is all the greater, among other reasons because there is no sense of distance. In addition to the Jihadis’ global dimension, the phenomenon is also homegrown.

At the same time, it is not strictly Western, even though some of the assailants hail from Western societies. There have been many more deaths from this type of terrorism in the Muslim countries themselves than in the West.

The University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database reveals that in 2016 only 238, or 0.7%, of the 34,676 people killed in terrorist attacks were located in Western Europe. These deaths accounted for 269 incidents — out of a total of 13,488 — most of which (55%) took place in the Middle East and North Africa.

Successful at mutation

Our effort to combat the Jihadis is complicated by the fact that it is a mutating form of terrorism. It adapts depending on the type of countermeasures it is subjected to, and which, in the simplest of its manifestations, resorts to running people over and stabbings when it cannot blow them up.

The same applies to the way it is organized. The cell that operated in Barcelona and Cambrils consisted for the most part of young men who were well-integrated and in work. They were recruited rapidly by the Imam of Ripoll, probably using the brainwashing techniques typical of cults.

Cultists or Jihadis?

This raises fresh questions. Doubts persist about the extent of their relationship with the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh), both the organization and the “brand.”

We are already starting to see it metamorphose, following the loss of its caliphate in Syria and Iraq, into the virtual sphere – although with still with a tremendous physical effect. And we know that it possesses an unprecedented war chest that will enable it to continue funding attacks for a very long time in many parts of the world.

No existential threat – for now

Jihadism represents a profound threat to our societies. But despite the references to Al-Andalus in the Spanish case, it is not an existential one.

That is true at least as long as it does not have access to chemical, bacteriological or nuclear weapons of any type (such as so-called “dirty” weapons), potentially providing it with a capacity for mass destruction.

The Jihadis do however threaten our way of life. Although Westerners accept the inconveniences inherent to ever-tighter security measures, and even if they harbor a certain degree of fear and call for more security, there is also a certain amount of resignation about the fact that the attacks will continue.

Steadfast Spain

The citizens and the government in Spain have not been panicked by the attacks. They did not panic after March 11, 2004 in Madrid and have not done so now. Islamophobic currents did not emerge in Spanish society after 2004.

This time, following the slaughter in Barcelona’s Ramblas and the revelation of the Imam of Ripoll’s cell, many more questions about Muslims have arisen, magnified by social networks that did not exist in 2004.

The connection between terrorism and Islamism has narrowed considerably in the minds of many members of the Spanish public in the wake of Barcelona – as it did in France after the attacks in Paris, Nice and elsewhere – despite the calls denouncing Islamophobia.

A triple wake-up call

What we need is, first, a profound debate about the education and integration of second-generation immigrants. Second, we also need to use legal means to force Muslim families to respect the equality of women.

The reason why this is so important is that, far-fetched as this may sound to some, an Islamic Reformation will only come from women. They are on the forefront of this battle and experience not so much a clash of civilizations as a clash of the sexes.

And, third, we clearly need to keep tabs on the Imams. That is at the top of the agenda. And here, the Spanish Constitution may prove useful in consolidating and building up cooperation between the state and the organized religions.

When that constitution was drafted in 1978, the authors (of its article 16) were not thinking of Islam, but while rejecting any State religion, mentioned the need for cooperation “with the Catholic Church and other confessions.” But clearly, the scope of vision now encompasses the funding and oversight of all religious teachings and the Imams.

The census of mosques and Imams being drawn up by the Spanish Islamic Commission (CIE) is a first step. It should have been taken some time ago, because the authorities have been aware of the underlying problem for years.

The role of the West

It cannot be denied that Western policy towards what has been happening in the Arab and Islamic world – externally and internally – has often, although not always, been ill-judged. Such missteps have helped to keep the monster alive.

But that in no way diminishes the importance of undertaking a merciless, lengthy, complex and sometimes painful fight that requires the utmost cooperation between all the security forces, both national and international, the intelligence services and members of the public.

Editor’s Note: Adapted from Andres Ortega’s Global Spectator column, which he writes for the Elcano Royal Institute.

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About Andrés Ortega

Andrés Ortega is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank.

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