Will it never end?
When will time run out on the array of shape-shifting militant Islamist movements intent on moving into shaky trouble spots around the world to impose their extreme ideology, harness the population and hijack the local economy?
How long will it take for the international community — the ubiquitous West — to come up with viable strategies to blunt if not block this type of jihadist campaign that has already shaken up Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya and Mali?
Given the lack of ready answers to such questions, it would seem particularly welcome news that scholars have identified a mechanism by which jihadists can simultaneously gain acceptance from the communities they wish to control, establish political order and start collecting taxes even as they battle corruption, encourage economic development and neutralize the local warlords who previously governed by force.
This is the gist of the fascinating research put forward by Aisha Ahmad, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a former fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. On her Twitter page, she describes herself as a British-born Canadian Muslim.
Her new book, “Jihad & Co., Black Markets and Islamist Power,” concludes that militant Islamists have gained a foothold in deeply troubled places like Afghanistan and Somalia through a simple business arrangement that offers local businesses — mainly smugglers — higher profits in return for their signing up to live in a starter Islamic state.
Sadly, by the end of her book, Ahmad has essentially pulled the rug out from under the most appealing of her conclusions, but her work starts out promising. The Islamists, she initially explains, have been so successful in jihadism in so many places because they could offer lower costs and better protection to smugglers in areas immersed in violence.
“As these jihadists raise their flags and declare their holy wars, it may appear as though zealotry has vanquished all rationality. Do not be fooled. Underneath the fiery religious rhetoric is the cold, hard cash of the underground economy. Amid the anarchy, the logic of the market prevails,” Ahmad writes. “What we are witnessing in the modern Muslim world is an unexpected mechanism through which Islamist and business elites come together to create a new form of political order out of disorder.”
Alas, just a few dozen pages later, Ahmad reverses course by stating that some of the Islamist uprisings have lately become so costly in lives and other societal damage that their demonstrated ability to transform utter chaos into an early form of nationhood is either no longer viable or can no longer be tolerated. She refers here to such groups as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
“As these jihadist movements spring up in civil wars around the world, this phenomenon appears uncontainable. The international community has thus far failed to effectively eliminate or pacify these groups; rather, these movements have actually multiplied over the past decade, causing entire regions to become infected with the spread of extremist violence,” she writes. “The international community is thus faced with a problem that it cannot accept and cannot control. This impasse is unsustainable.”
Ahmad’s book, incidentally, offers a rare and refreshing female perspective on some of the challenges faced by Islamists. A description of the problems encountered by traders operating under warlords includes a discussion of restrictions on women’s business activities; and an account of Islamist failures focuses on the difficulties faced by women who want to leave their homes without a male relative accompanying them.
In Afghanistan, Ahmad notes, the Taliban banned female employment to try to crack down on rape. While rapes diminished, thousands of qualified women were forced out of work because they could not go outside, and many female-headed families fell into deep poverty as a result.
Ahmad insists that overall, however, her extensive fieldwork and statistical analyses demonstrate that the jihadi stars used to be better aligned.
A few decades ago, the warlords watching over their patchwork fiefdoms in such hot spots as Afghanistan and Somalia made local businesspeople miserable, she maintains, by allowing only members of their ethnic group or tribe to operate in their area and by demanding high taxes and protection payments at the checkpoints dotting the countryside to sell their goods and secure passage. There was no recordkeeping and no trust, so smugglers had to pay protection money over and over, at every checkpoint.
When the Islamists came in, however, they offered their protection and a nascent civil framework based on their shared Muslim faith — bridging ethnic and tribal differences. Relying on Sharia law, better recordkeeping and Islamic fighters to hold things together enabled them to cut out the warlords, their costlier militias and their corrupt ways. Once smugglers paid their taxes, they didn’t have to pay again. For the business community, reducing security and social costs and eliminating corruption were the same as tax cuts.
“Much like the big box chain that drives out the mom-and-pop shop, the Islamists begin to dominate the security market,” Ahmad writes. “With the widespread support of the business class, the Islamists break the civil war stalemate and reconstruct political power out of enduring fragmentation.”
It was thus an “unholy trinity” of money, ideology and violence that led militant Islam into the start of a “modern political order,” she writes. And “considering the utterly gruesome history of European state formation, these jihadists seem to have built their proto-states with a comparatively modest amount of blood and treasure.”
But big new problems soon emerged that ultimately spelled bad news for the jihadists, Ahmad concludes.
Groups that had originally battled corruption were soon dipping far into the heroin and cocaine trade as well as kidnappings to quench a thirst for higher revenue. Islamists turned on their supporters in the form of rising extremism by unleashing morality police and prohibiting music, soccer, movies and cigarettes.
Various international attempts to counter the Islamists were also flawed and counterproductive, Ahmad writes. She includes the 2001 American-designed invasion of Afghanistan, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the NATO-led 2011 offensive in Libya that ended in the murder of Muammar Qaddafi, the Washington-financed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and the US-led 2013 initiative to aid a mixed bag of rebel groups seeking to topple Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
“Both well-intentioned interventions and self-interested invasions have produced extreme levels of disorder,” Ahmad writes. “And out of the ensuing political abyss has emerged the latest generation of jihadists, even more radical and irreconcilable than its predecessors. Anarchy has proven to be the breeding grounds of extremism.”
“For Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, the goal of a durable self-sustaining peace will now take decades to attain. The deed is done,” she adds. “What the policy community can do, however, is to learn the fundamental lesson from these failed engagements and stop repeating them.”
“Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power,” by Aisha Ahmad; 978-0-19-065677-5
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.