Intelligence agencies have a terrible track record in anticipating religious-oriented terrorism
Intelligence is often referred to as the ‘missing dimension’ when there is a failure to anticipate critical developments of a political and strategic nature. History is replete with many such instances. In recent times, renowned historians like Christopher Andrew have also talked of a lack of ‘theologians’ compounding this situation. Combined, these are seen as reasons for failing to anticipate many of the serious developments that took place during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
To this day, for instance, many still wonder how the West and its intelligence agencies failed to realise the dimensions of Iran’s religious revolution, leading to the establishment of a theocratic state under Ayatollah Khomeini. In retrospect, the Iranian Revolution was much larger than most previous secular uprisings, including the French Revolution. The generally accepted view, hence, is that intelligence agencies and policy-makers are usually unable to recognise the potential of movements about which they know little or understand even less.
Intelligence analysts are better off when it comes to matters arising from more pedantic issues and events. For example, in the case of non-denominational terrorism, which has been around for a long time, intelligence is better placed to understand its dimensions than that of religious-oriented terrorism. Any number of instances can be cited, wherein agencies failed to understand the emerging dimensions of religious-oriented terrorism.
Hardly any intelligence agency in the mid-20th century was able to comprehend the danger posed by the teachings of Islamist scholar, Sayyid Qutb. Few saw in what he said the seeds of all-embracing religious terrorism that would plague the world for years to come. Today, no doubt, it is possible to see the connection between Qutb’s views and the establishment of al-Qaeda, and how his teachings spawned an entire generation of Islamist terrorists.
It was only after al-Qaeda carried out its spectacular attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, that the world truly woke up to this reality. The failure or inability to piece together missing pieces of non-secular thought, leading to a lack of understanding of the expanding saga of revolutionary violence, mostly of the religious variety, constitutes one of the most spectacular failures of intelligence in modern times.
Ethnic-oriented violence and terrorism is no less sanguinary in many instances, as the history of ‘peoples’ uprisings’ in different parts of the world confirms. Some of the better known struggles of recent times, such as that of the Kurds in West Asia, have attracted international attention. Many others, however, have had a more limited shelf life. Some are based on local grievances, and many are sponsored by outside forces anxious to create turbulence and disorder in another country. Hardly any of them, however, have the same broad sweep or appeal as religious-oriented terrorism, especially Islamist terrorism. This is not to say that they do not pose a threat, or that the danger they pose is any less. What is apparent as one surveys the global scene today is that the number and variety of terror groups is larger and more widespread than at any time previously. Ideology remains the main source of violent extremism. When intertwined with religious extremism, it becomes an even more potent mixture. Behavioural patterns contribute to escalation, from grievance redress to mobilisation, and on to violent extremism.