In June 2015 I was interview by Dr Chris Mackmurdo, former head of counter-terrorism analysis at the UK Foreign Office, for Contest Global.
‘You’ve recently written about the dangers of global jihadism as a state-building enterprise. Is the world becoming a more dangerous place?
Alia: “Well, in general, the death toll in the world’s major conflicts is dramatically increasing, and the UN says that today’s humanitarian emergencies are beyond anything experienced in living memory. But in terms of jihadism specifically, the outlook isn’t good either. After the Arab Spring, in either the chokeholds of strong states or the chaos of weak states, jihadism finds advantage. The power vacuums that developed as the result of ousted regimes have afforded jihadi militants the opportunity to gain very significant footholds in North Africa, Yemen, and the Levant. At the same time, the renewed repression of political Islamists by authoritarian regimes provides a vital longer-term entry point for radical Islam.
In fact, the issue of global jihadism is deeply bound up with these and other questions of governance. Nothing illustrates this more starkly than the reality that jihadism has now become a state-building activity. So we probably have to start adopting broader counterterrorism strategies, and start to think about counterterrorism as something which goes beyond the mitigation of immediate threats, and joins up clearly with other areas of international policy.”
What keeps you up at night?
Alia: “On a personal level, the scale of human suffering in Syria and Iraq, particularly that of children, keeps me awake every single night.
But I’d also like to flag Libya. The strange thing with Libya is that we arguably did too much in 2011, in that the mandate to protect civilians mushroomed into regime change – and since then we’ve done far too little. We simply left a very fragile central government to try to exercise authority in the absence of a national army, and the drift has been a very dangerous one. Two rival alliance blocs now claim the mantle of Libya’s legitimate government, Libya has become an established operating space for tens of thousands of jihadists pushed out of neighbouring countries, something like 28 million weapons circulate among a population of 6 million, and the Islamic State has been quietly preparing the ground for a major advance.
The thing to remember about the Islamic State is that it doesn’t work by sending invading armies in columns across borders. Instead, it infiltrates and coopts pre-existing groups, and capitalizes upon underlying social and political dynamics to position itself. So, in Libya, it’s been doing a lot of bargaining and cajoling around former Qadhafi strongholds, like Sirte. Despite the univeralist packaging of the so-called caliphate, it’s local identity politics that are pivotal to the aims of the Islamic State.”
What gets you up in the morning?
Alia: “Well, there’s a rare moment unfolding now in the region. Engagement and political dialogue have become options once again. From Libya, with the talks in Morocco, to Mali, to Yemen, to Iran, and maybe even Syria, there’s the sense now that maybe there can be no military solutions to political problems after all. So we have the faint beginnings of a paradigm shift, in which interests and possibilities are construed slightly differently, and the currency of militarism is somewhat devalued, because it has brought the whole region to the edge of the abyss. It’s all very fragile, but it feels as though there could be some space now for more creative solutions.”