The Charlie Hebdo attacks have provoked visions of highly trained foreign fighters returning from Syria to carry out assaults on Western targets. Intelligence services, it seems, must be on the highest alert for such 'radicalized' returnees. Apparently this is because none of the Charlie Hebdo attackers ever set foot in Syria or were 'affiliated', however tenuously, with any Syrian organization.
Lest this might not be idiocy after all, consider whether it might even matter if Syria is a source of training and radicalization.
The Charlie Hebdo attacks, like the Kosher supermarket attacks and the previous striking terror attack in Kenya, used AK-47 assault rifles and similar weaponry. These weapons are all but ubiquitous and so is the relatively simple 'training' required to operate them.
Terrorists might use more sophisticated weapons which might require more sophisticated training. Is this likely? More sophisticated weapons - modern MANPADS and anti-tank systems, for instance - have been widely available for decades. There have been radicals, from the IRA to extreme fundamentalists, who possessed them. In the last century, they even figured one or two unsuccessful attacks on Western targets. However Bin Laden and other terrorists who spook the West have pretty consistently advocated and used the simplest weapons, obtainable anywhere without crossing borders. Oklahoma City used home-made explosives; 9-11 used box cutters. The attacks in Madrid used dynamite. In London homemade bombs requiring "minimal training" were produced. The Boston Marathon bombers used black powder and pressure cookers. Such 'training' as these weapons require is accessible online (*). So it's hard to see how the more sophisticated weaponry obtainable in Syria and elsewhere is going to increase the threat substantially.
But suppose serious training in weaponry and techniques is required after all. Quite possibly that could happen in Syria. What's more, some extremists have tried to go there. The question then is, so what?
Should a potential terrorist desire weapons training, he or she would have many choices even if Syria didn't exist. Prime destinations would include Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan. Only slightly less convenient, there are regions of Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Very likely one could also train in, for example, Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Colombia. There must be many more areas, given that the very expert Chechens don't seem to need any of those mentioned. Another great place to receive weapons training of all types is the US, where the 9-11 pilots learned to fly. To suppose that Syria could make any difference amid this embarras de richesses is an exercise in either self-deception or bad faith.
What then of the endlessly repeated warning about how 'foreign fighters' are being 'radicalized' in Syria? No doubt some Syrian returnees are among the many likely to carry out attacks. But the idea that they were unlikely to do so before they went to Syria, or that they were radicalized there, is ludicrous.
Suppose you leave your relatively safe and comfortable life in the West to fight abroad. You brave numerous dangers to join extreme fundamentalist groups who declare that their members seek martyrdom, and who do indeed die in large numbers. There could hardly be more compelling evidence that you've been radicalized already, like the many who've been involved in terror attacks yet never set foot in the Middle East. It's not just that departure to fight abroad is an expression rather than a cause of radicalization. It's also that were a departure necessary, the availability of Syria wouldn't matter.
Most of the places where you could train are also places where that could fight and get radicalized. What's more, many thousands have been radicalized where training and fighting are currently more difficult - for example the Gulf States, Egypt, and Algeria: you could be radicalized there and fight elsewhere. It's hard to see how someone radical enough to fight in Syria would not be radical enough to travel to these alternative destinations. In this context too, Syria makes no difference.
One wonders what exactly makes people think otherwise. We hear so much about the importance of 'ideas' or ideology or radical preachers. But you'd hardly need to travel abroad to be exposed to such influences. Not to mention the many proponents of these doctrines in the West, there's this internet thing...
The 'returning foreign fighters' version of radicalization may even involve travel in the wrong direction. Sayyid Qutb - whom many suppose the source of Al Qaeda's ideology - had a radicalizing epiphany in 1948. It didn't happen in the Middle East. It happened in Greely, Colorado, when he was scandalized by a church dance which included the tune "Baby It's Cold Outside".
Addressing the causes
Since terrorists typically use simple weapons which require simple training, the means to mount attacks are always there. So are attackers. If one imam estimates there are 120 violent extremists in one suburb of Sydney, Australia, it's safe to say there are thousands of angry people in the West, and many more outside it, who have the disposition to mount attacks - who are 'radicalized'. Their numbers dwarf the few who have actually fought in Syria or indeed anywhere else. From a security standpoint, foreign fighters returning from Syria are coals to Newcastle. All this suggests the only cure for terrorism lies in addressing its causes.
We'll see that the causes themselves are no surprise. What's astonishing - and politically significant - are what pundits, experts and politicians say are causes. Their explanations are remarkable for how little they explain. No wonder we often hear that terrorism is a disease - like ebola, perhaps, or like cancer - whose causes, it seems, have little to do with the environments in which those afflicted actually live.
Thus we hear that extremists groups find recruits among various populations - but why these and not others? We hear that some become extremists through travel to various destinations - but why does this change them, in just what crucial way? We hear that some fall prey to ideologies or religions - but why do they listen and why are they convinced? Some blame sectarianism - but why are sectarian conflicts acute enough to produce just this result? We hear the problem is failed states - but why would a failed state project attackers Westward? We hear US tactics are to blame - but why would mere tactics produce just these sorts of responses rather than others? We hear everything but that the conditions of daily life play a role.
The conditions of daily life aren't good. In Syria and Egypt, for example, the average monthly disposable salary ($251.75 and $264.33, respectively) ranks below the Philippines, Burma, Laos and Papua New Guinea - far, far lower than Thailand, Peru, Kenya, and India. Afghanistan's is of course lower still, less than Ethiopia's. In the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index, Syria and Egypt rank below Venezuela, Indonesia, Peru, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic. These figures are bad but not catastrophic. They also don't reflect the brutally enforced hierarchy of wealth in the Middle East.
Some analysts attribute the turmoil in the Middle East to the "suppression of dissent". This seems to refer to penalties imposed on middle class bloggers, journalists, and facebook posters. But this suppression is nothing compared to what the lower classes of the Middle East experience all their lives. No one hears about them. They don't become martyrs in the media. They simply live under a capricious, cruel authority which takes delight in humiliating them. Their position, all in all, is a bit like southern American blacks in the 1940s or 1950s, except that repression is almost entirely in the hands of the police and army, not volunteer organizations like the Klan.
This authority is at the service of the moneyed classes. To take an old example from Egypt, here's an incident recounted to me by its beneficiary. A man is convicted of theft from a businessman's firm. He threatens the businessman in court. An attending police officer takes the businessman aside and says, "Don't worry, sir, he will never leave jail alive." This is the kind of service that the better-off, whether they want it or not, know to expect. That knowledge is reflected in the arrogance or obliviousness with which they treat the poor who attend to their needs and whims.
By themselves, the trials of daily life don't account for terrorism. Combined with the shrinking of alternatives & the shameful record of secularism, they do. Rebellion against the conditions of existence may have been inevitable, but its embrace of extremism is the West's work of decades. Every single movement for the sort of radical change that could actually improve the majority's lot was rejected. Moreover, all the very worst manifestations of secularism were at best tolerated, but usually supported.
In the first place, the West has been hostile to both secularist and moderate alternatives. It's usually had a hand in their suppression. Communism wouldn't do. Arab nationalism wasn't good enough either. It greatest and most successful exponent, Nasser, was undone by the Western-sponsored and secularist state of Israel. Moderate Islam, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been taken to be extreme and ruthlessly suppressed by the entrenched élites it threatened. The alternative in whose foundation the West was most extensively involved is Lebanon, whose failure is patent in its atrocious civil conflicts. The secularist state of Algeria has continued to function only after an equally atrocious period of civil strife. We are encouraged to look at Middle Eastern extremists as irrational or bigoted fanatics. Perhaps they are, but it's hard to see what alternatives are live options in the eyes of a rational individual desiring serious change in the Middle East. This is not to insist that moderate Islamic régimes will actually do a great deal for the have-nots, only that they seem the most likely to do so.
In the second place there is the secularist record. Most Westerners don't even acknowledge its existence; the category seems too broad. But it's unclear how a narrower conception would improve the picture. Secularism at its best is thought to reside in the Western democracies, and that doesn't seem to help.
It would be irrational to regard Western secularism as a positive force in the Middle East or indeed in the world. The West has of course achieved much, as did, for example, Stalin and Mao. But it has at one point or another supported all but one of the worst Middle Eastern régimes in recent memory, from the Shah of Iran to Saddam Hussein to the Egyptian military. The sole exception, Assad, is hardly an exception any more: indeed the secular world has been from the very start resolute in its resolve to do nothing about him. The West has also contribted to such delightful examples of good government as Pinochet, the Duvaliers, Bokassa and Idi Amin, not to mention apartheid South Africa. So a rational individual would not even have to look at the broader secularist record, which includes literally every great atrocity in the last hundred years, from the Nazis to Pol Pot to Rwanda and the Congo. Nothing in the career of Western secularism suggests it offers the slightest prospect for improving the daily lives of the region's poor. In fact the Middle Eastern states most prosperous and peaceful, and least noxious to their own citizens, are the near-theocratic Gulf States. These may be awful governments but, it must be said, Western influence has set the bar awfully low.
So there is much more to the origins of terror than fanaticism. Perhaps it would be worth heeding Professor Alireza Doostdar of the University of Chicago Divinity School when he has problems with analyses that
seem to assume that ISIS is a causa sui phenomenon that has suddenly materialized out of the thin ether of an evil doctrine. ...ISIS emerged from the fires of war, occupation, killing, torture, and disenfranchisement. It did not need to sell its doctrine to win recruits. It needed above all to prove itself effective against its foes.
We might listen to him even though he is so bold as to ask:
...could it be that a sense of compassion for suffering fellow humans or of altruistic duty ...has prefigured their receptiveness to a call to arms to aid a people they consider to be oppressed?
To look honestly at the causes of 'terror' is also to see how pointless all the fuss is about groups 'linked to' or 'affiliated with' Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. These groups don't exist because someone swooped down from Afghanistan and created them ex nihilo, membership and all. They exist because all over the world, impoverished, unemployed and frustrated individuals can find no other outlet for their anger and aspirations than extremist organizations. Yes, much of the leadership of these organizations is middle class - for whatever reason, so it has been with radical organizations throughout modern history. But without the lower-class base, these organizations would go nowhere, like the German radicals of the 60s and 70s.
Even if the weak secularist movements in the region had serious plans for social change, by now, as the Syrian example shows, they haven't the tiniest chance of success without the support of Islamists. But this means these movements can expect no serious Western support, because the West will never break its habit of shunning even moderate Islamists on the grounds they they might not be moderate.
These causes of extremism aren't done with, like a tornado's damage. They're ongoing. It's not merely that they account for the rise of extremism; it's that they continue to feed its existence. Increased security measures have seen nothing but increased success for extreme Islamists and there is no reason to think this will change. Naturally it would be absurd to suppose that the West would actually try to help the poor of the Middle East by supporting the Islamist alternative. It is only slightly less unlikely that the West will at least, belatedly, put an end to Assad's régime, thereby starting to improve the secularist record. But that seems to be the least costly and most promising anti-terror measure that the West could take - even if, indirectly, it helps "the Islamists".
(*) "Recipes for preparing these explosives are available through a number of internet sites, not all of which are terrorist sites." http://www.army.gov.au/Our-future/Publications/Australian-Army-Journal/Past-editions/~/media/Files/Our%20future/LWSC%20Publications/AAJ/2013Autumn/05-NicheThreatOrganicPerox.pdf