The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members and friends of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.
In a CTC publication from 2006, Will McCants and Jarret Brachman recount a story told by Ayman al-Zawahiri in Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, in which the Egyptian government described the death of a school girl named Shayma as intentional, when in fact the twelve-year old was “collateral damage” in an assassination attempt of Egyptian Prime Minister Atif Sidqi. The authors reflect on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s guidance to then emir of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to avoid tactics that generate Muslim casualties, restating his argument as follows:
This is not out of ideological or theological reasons, but from a purely pragmatic, strategic calculus: The masses must view jihadis as liberators, not oppressors. They must be seen as fighting a just war and walking the moral high ground. Killing Muslims – even when undertaking legitimate operations against members of an unpopular local regime or symbols of Western occupation – is damaging to the jihadi movement because it inevitably leads to a loss of support among the Muslim masses, a consequence we call “the Shayma Effect.”
Unfortunately for many, the Islamic State is emulating the violent proclivities of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and engaging in highly lethal and highly destabilizing campaigns against Muslims and non-Muslims alike in Iraq and Syria. Their brand of violence will not be contained to those two ravaged countries. Through sensational propaganda, the Islamic State has already won geographically distant adherents - both individuals and groups. But more important than followers, the Islamic State will eventually produce leaders. As time goes on, just as global jihadist veterans introduced al-Qa’ida’s worldview to erstwhile locally-oriented terrorist groups, veterans from the Islamic State will infect other networks in other conflict zones with the belief that escalation (often in the form of sectarian or internecine violence) is the optimal strategy for advancing their ideological agenda.
It is a mistake to think that the long-term competition between al-Qa’ida and its Associated Movement (AQAM) and the Islamic State (and its eventual Associated Movement) is a good thing; they will not kill each other out of existence or somehow cancel each other out. Similarly, it would be a mistake to let the extremism of the Islamic State convince us that groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are more legitimate or mainstream. Instead, as START researchers Victor Asal and Karl Rethemeyer have taught us by studying terrorist organizations over time, terrorist organizations with rival terrorist organizations often compete by generating more and more violence.
No matter the salience of the grievance, there are too many twelve-year olds being killed to justify the terrorism of the Islamic State or al-Qa’ida as a tactic of change. Given the unprecedented levels of terrorist violence currently, and the prospect of increased levels of violence going forward, the time seems right for a “global Shayma effect.”
In recent weeks we have seen a crescendo of condemnation from Muslim scholars and organizations. This is not a new phenomenon, but instead a growing trend. Governmental organizations like the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications are experimenting with content to counter the narratives of these groups (#ThinkAgainTurnAway), and so are individuals (#Notinmyname) and NGOs (Safe Spaces Initiative: Tools for Developing Healthy Communities). START and the University of Maryland are partnering to offer an undergraduate course on Innovation and Countering Violent Extremism. Law enforcement communities are embracing community oriented policing practices as a way to partner with community-led CVE efforts.
Cynics are quick to dismiss much of this content as a mere drop in the bucket when compared to terrorist propaganda or ineffective for not ‘going viral’ (instead of further disseminating the content). But on the other hand, there is momentum building on a global scale if we are savvy enough to harness it.