Book Review: Virtual Caliphate (2011) by Yaakov Lappin

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 13, 2014

I have yet to read a book more prescient than Yaakov Lappin’s about events in Iraq in the last few days. Having sketched out the way Salafi-jihadists have created the ministries of a future Caliphate in cyber-format—the simple fact that “Al-Qaeda would not be in existence were it not for the pervasive presence of online jihadis”—Lappin finished by suggesting three options: (1) we manage to take down this virtual Empire; (2) we manage to weaken it in cyberspace; or (3) the jihadists “upload” this virtual State into the real world. In the form of a fictitious news report, Lappin predicts this latter scenario as follows:

Despite much American success in fighting al-Qaeda, the Iraqi state propped up by American troops collapsed soon after the exit of U.S. troops … Al-Qaeda forces converged on Baghdad and Sunni areas in central Iraq, declaring the establishment of an Islamic state. … The nascent Islamist state came under immediate attack by Iraqi Shiite militias backed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard units“.

Sounds like reading this morning’s news. The distinction between al-Qaeda and what is now the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was not as clear in 2011 as it is now, but Lappin saw earlier than most the significance of ISI(S)’ claim to statehood, noting that on jihadist websites the countdown had already started after an announcement of the rebirth of the Caliphate. ISI(S) had been severely damaged at that time and its claims to statehood seemed ludicrous but it kept up a very determined propaganda campaign to present itself as a shadow State in Iraq not a terrorist/guerrilla network, attempting to rob the Iraqi government of a legitimacy it has since thrown away by sectarianism and authoritarianism.

Yaakov Lappin, national security journalist with the Jerusalem Post and IHS Jane’s analyst

Lappin also foresaw the way the Sunni-Shi’a strife would overtake external targets as the focus of the Salafi-jihadists. Where they used to speak of a Zionist-Crusader conspiracy to destroy Islam, they now spoke of “rancorous Shi’ites, Zionists, and Crusaders” who seek to undo the One True Faith.

When you dig into the jihadist literature it is impossible to come away with what is apparently a majority view in the West: that jihadism is motivated by specific actions in the real world—i.e. foreign policy—and by a feeling of “resistance” against an overwhelmingly-powerful American-led West. In fact jihadists are motivated by ideas that are sui generis: their “grievance” is that the West is not under Islamic law.

It is worth getting hold of the book just to read pages 34 to 40: to expose yourself to the discourse jihadists actually engage in, and their hatreds. The existence of democracy and secularism, of all non-Muslims especially Jews, Muslims who don’t share this totalitarian concept of their religion (they are “worse than infidels,” since they have been “exposed to Islam and yet [chosen] to stray from it,” and they suffer far more from this than we do), homosexuals, unveiled and unobedient women (the sick attention to detail in the erasure of the entire female personality is stunning; a wife lives only for her husband’s pleasure and should not contradict him even with a facial expression), romantic love, and free trade. “The West is morally sick and needs to be destroyed,” the jihadists say. To make the changes that might appease the jihadists we would be changing what we are not what we do in the West. This fury concentrates on the United States because she is the leader of the infidels, the one without which they believe Islam would reign supreme.

So far from seeing themselves as responding to aggression, the Salafi-jihadists’ rallying cry is the West’s weakness. They are sure we have no stomach for this fight, that we will withdraw and allow them victory. And military strength is in any case not their chief source of concern. Theirs is the Qutbist view that it is America’s decadent and tempting culture that is the real threat to Islam; it is colonialism of the mind not colonialism of the land that is their concern. It is Sayyid Qutb too on whom the jihadists rely for their view that a Muslim has no nation: that there is only the umma (community of believers), and now with the Internet, this is nearing reality. Nor is the motivator despair: the suicide-killers are in a “state of barely concealed ecstasy,” Lappin notes. To state the obvious: the Salafi-jihadists’ conception of their religion—something they love, as they stress repeatedly, more than life itself—is the motivator for this wave of violence. The holy warriors are determined to impose the Holy Law on the entire world or be killed in the attempt.

Within the jihadist universe there are broadly two approaches. There is the bottom-up effort of the Muslim Brotherhood-types, which says that declaring an Islamic State is meaningless if the population is insufficiently pious to uphold it, and thus dawa (missionary work) is the immediate-run focus: converts to this totalitarian concept of the religion must reach a critical mass at which point the Caliphate can return with ease. There is then the Qaeda-type approach, which says that it is blasphemous that the Holy Law is not implemented and anyone who says there is an acceptable delay is a heretic. Any obeisance to popular opinion is apostasy in this view—it is explicitly said that it should be imposed even if the majority do not want it, Muslims or not—and this system must be imposed by violence as swiftly as possible.

It was especially interesting to see how this mapped onto Britain (and not just because it is my country). The Ikhwans (Brothers) are represented here by the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Qaeda-types by al-Muhajiroun (about which I have written before.) As anyone vaguely acquainted with Salafi-jihadism knows, “For decades, jihadis have used Britain as a base to organize and fund terrorist attacks.” The French intelligence services took to referring to “Londonistan” after they tracked the renegades from the Algerian jihad and found them congregated in the British capital—a veritable “Star Wars bar scene” of international jihadism. Tellingly, Salafi-jihadists list as zones where it is possible the Caliphate could be re-begun as Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Britain. Demographics notwithstanding, they believe that a wave of conversions coupled with a violent coup could bring Britain into Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam). There is a chuckle to be had at the reminder that George Galloway—whose RESPECT party is a coalition of the MAB and the Socialist Workers’ Party—found himself physically attacked by al-Muhajiroun for trying to bring Muslims into so un-Islamic a process as democracy. Galloway’s having cheered on Abu Musab az-Zarqawi did nothing to spare him their wrath. But the penetration of these forces is very deep, as was recently seen in Tower Hamlets where an area of the capital is in many important respects beyond the Rule of Law. There are sleeper cells—secret armies—within the borders of the West simply awaiting the command to use lethal violence against what we think of as their fellow citizens.

So the question becomes this: Why did it take until July 2005 for this to affect Britain directly? The answer lies in the jihadists’ concept of a “covenant of security”. The idea is that when given a visa—for which it is not only permissible but obligatory to lie about one’s intentions—this is Western States signing on to this deal: that holy war organised by these people will be directed outward. Perhaps the most striking claim in the book comes from Baroness Caroline Cox, former speaker of the House of Lords, who told Lappin in 2007:

[T]here are signs that the UK government allowed jihadis into Britain and gave them a free hand to set up base, on the understanding that Britain itself would not be harmed.”

The motivator for ending that “covenant,” incidentally, was not the British Government’s decision to join the United States in ending the Gulf War. It was that Britain introduced anti-terrorist legislation forbidding incitement and arrested several terrorist recruiters and organisers, notably Abu Hamza al-Masri (“taking of hostages,” in the jihadists’ perception). Thus even when a “grievance” has a real-world component it is so warped by the ideas through which jihadists interpret them that trying to find ways to stop jihadists being angry at us is not only humiliating but impossible.

To gain recruits in the West, however, the jihadists do not have to be physically present. Their propaganda is available online: sermons on YouTube, innumerable forums and websites from which more specialised material can be gained, and from where people can be effectively groomed. The Arab States are the “most hostile environments” for the jihadists—this kind of thing is banned and anyone trying to access it, let alone disseminating it, would be arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. (This is among the reasons the Western Muslim population is so disproportionately radical: having failed to topple the non-theocratic regimes in the region, the jihadists have fled to the West.) Their effort is “identity restructuring”; to unmoor young Muslim men from their surroundings, to alienate them from it and incite deep personal hatred against everything and everyone around them. The Internet allows the like-minded to find one-another from half the world away. I have mentioned before the phenomenon of people surrounded by the like-minded becoming more extreme than ever: the restraints that would check their descent into purism—namely the experience of opposing ideas—is removed so ideas can be taken to a reductio ad absurdum without anyone there to point out that it is absurd. The forums are also strictly controlled in a cult-like manner that removes dissenting ideas.

There is a great debate on whether these jihadist websites are our best view of the enemy or whether they should be disabled. Lappin presents the best evidence for both and I tend to side with the former: it is not actually possible to shut them down and it is probably better to monitor them and if possible penetrate them—to get Russian about it, if you like.

The Internet also collapses distances so that immigrants can reach back into the old country. Where previously a few letters per year was the limit of contact, now the whole experience of the old place is available in seconds. Combined with Western policies that have removed pressures for assimilation, we have allowed young Muslim men to become “nowhere men,” as Fouad Ajami put it: only loosely attached to their surroundings because of a multiculturalism that has dismantled the idea of a national culture to which they might offer allegiance and be immersed in, they are easy prey for those whose intention is to reduce their identity to a particularly violent version of Islam.

Amid this jihadist literature, by far the most disturbing is the material instructing on the kit needed to be a jihadist, handling and using weapons, constructing bombs, and placing explosives so as to cause maximum carnage. The extent and sophistication of the material they have and have disseminated on the use of weapons and tactics for insurgency and mass-casualty attacks on civilians is terrifying, as is the attention to cruelty—how to pack explosives with shrapnel and where to leave a car bomb around a stadium or market to cause the most civilian casualties.

On the matter of the ideology—the ever-thorny question of how much Islam is a contributor to terrorism—Lappin takes a generally sympathetic view that the faith has been weaponised rather against its nature. He does, however, cite terrorism expert, Don Radlauer, who notes that those who take their ideas to violence are “the extreme end of the bell curve of alienation.” In short, it is a fantasy to imagine that the themes and prejudices that motivate the Salafi-jihadists are a fringe phenomenon: those prepared to kill—and especially those prepared to die—for these ideas might be a fringe group, though the absolute numbers are not reassuring, but they are working with deep-rooted historical, cultural, and religious symbols and ideas that are close to the mainstream. Anti-Shi’ism is a classic case of this. Zarqawi was an exception in his declaration of all-out war on the Shi’a but he is only taking to the extreme a notion and a logic that exists in much of the Arab world.

This system is financed by front companies, money laundering, false documents, organised retail theft, drugs (cannabis for Hizballah, heroin for al-Qaeda), and especially credit card scams and identity theft—fake bank websites and shipping companies, and phishing sites. Online gambling is another source, and the major one is charities, which produce very slick, very explicit reports for their donors on how their money has been used to take holy war to the infidels. There are surely some credulous contributors but the vast majority are not: these globe-spanning institutions are openly for “financial jihad,” said by many to be equally as important as military jihad, and they even refuse to return to ask for donations from people who have previously refused; it is an honour to contribute to the holy cause, which will not be dishonoured with half-hearted or coerced participants.

It was interesting to see the evidence that Abu Hamza al-Muhajir orchestrated the 2007 attempt to blow up Glasgow airport, which would make the May 24 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels the second act of terrorism ISI(S) has committed on European soil.

Lappin also touches on the question of Bosnia: in reciting the biographies of the leaders of jihadism it is clear that nearly all of them passed through Bosnia and many of them began there. Many of us who supported—or would have—the intervention to rescue that country have been too unwilling to listen to the evidence of the jihadist inroads. Some of that is defensible: the “revisionist” literature has been largely pro-Milosevic propaganda that presents the man as a bulwark of European civilisation against Wahhabist hordes. But the truth of al-Qaeda’s deep involvement, and the complicity of sections of the Bosnian government and intelligence services, should not be ignored. Many jihadists trained there in the 1990s and if you visit Sarajevo you can see the lasting impact—the white-washed Wahhabi-style mosques that have replaced the ornate, colourful buildings that came before.

Contrary to the Israel-centric view of terrorism, the fact is that the hostility comes from the belief that lands formerly ruled by Islam cannot be surrendered: jihadists are as focussed or more on Spain, Kashmir, the Balkans, and East Timor. They hate India and Russia with equal passion. The bombings in Morocco and Turkey were intended by al-Qaeda to tell the West that Islam was again at the gates of Europe: that it was only a matter of time before Andalusia and the former Ottoman-controlled areas of Balkans were returned to the House of Islam.

Lappin mentioned one globe-trotting mujahideen who went from Bosnia to Uganda to Chechnya, having stopped in Kosovo on his way to Chechnya but left quickly because the war was ended so quickly by the NATO intervention. The gives a very suggestive implicit conclusion that bears on Syria at the present time and Bosnia previously: do not let these things drag out. The Salafi-jihadists’ entry into these struggles is inevitable: allowing it to protract rather than intervening quickly is not “prudence”; it is the surest way to give them the time and space they need to dominate the landscape and spill across borders.

Lappin’s conclusion is that since there is no technological solution to this—these websites, even if taken down on occasion or infiltrated will re-emerge—it has to be recognised that this is a war of ideas, and that moderates and reformist Muslims are the front-line. It is necessary to help build an online infrastructure rivalling the jihadists’ that is run by moderates who will rob the radicals of their ability to define their faith. That process has begun, Lappin says, but it is a long way from completion—and events in the Fertile Crescent suggest it is a tad more urgent than perhaps we have time for.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Virtual Caliphate (2011) by Yaakov Lappin

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  6. Lamia

    Very interesting piece. Thank you. This is the sort of material our police, security services and the Home Office should be reading. Events suggest it’s the sort of thing that most of them still don’t get, and they are still being duped by other dupes such as Robert Lambert and co. The Met police couldn’t even work recently out that Abase Hussen, the ‘sobbing’ father of a girl who ran off to join the headchoppers ISIS was himself an extremist and supporter of Anjem Choudary. They can do with all the help they can get. Part of the problem is they so often just won’t listen and just won’t act.

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