Is an Islamist guerrilla war overtaking Europe?

The atrocities committed in Brussels earlier this month by the Islamic State, occurring in the unofficial capital of the European Union and so quickly after the massacres in Paris, has created some speculation that the campaign of Al Qaeda, its offshoot the IS and similar Sunni extremist groups against the West and particularly Western Europe, is entering a new and more dangerous phase.

This escalation has been described as having already moved beyond simple terrorism to an active guerilla war to fears of a low intensity insurgency breaking out in Europe if trained or even veteran IS “personnel” should make it into the Occident from the Near East.

These latest attacks probably represent a shift to a different form of warfare than the kind of traditional terrorism in Europeans have seen from the PLO and groups such as the Red Army Faction and there is a long pedigree of various, mostly left-wing ideologists in the heyday of the 1960s and 70s trying to sanitize terrorists and their actions under the euphemistic moniker of “Urban Guerilla.”

However the Islamist assault on Europe still hasn’t reached the point of sustained frequency of the large-scale, or even low-casualty attacks of the “Second Intifada”* period or the current terrorist offensive in Israel and it differs from the “classic” asymmetrical warfare formula that characterized guerilla conflicts such as Second Indochina War or Vietnam War and the Algerian War. The latter were still largely defined by attacks on military or government targets by the insurgents and regular military and anti-guerilla “Special Operations” by the armed forces and specialized police of the state and its allies.

Despite the often frequent use of indiscriminate violence against civilians by the respective irregular forces in these conflicts, none of them had military strategies based almost completely, or entirely, on deliberately committing crimes against humanity. The Islamic State, Al Qaeda and their kind are not like the modern guerrilla movements of the Cold War era; their tactics, strategies and goals bear greater similarity to the campaigns of Mahmud of Ghazni and the war crimes of the government in the Second Sudanese Civil War than to Viet Cong, Mao or Che. A guerrilla war for them would be more like the Rwandan Genocide than The Battle of Algiers.

* I’m not completely comfortable using that term; there is a continual record of organized Arab terrorist violence against Jews in Israel since at least 1947 and arguably, 1920, and of the same nature of the mob attacks, scattered shootings and stabbings that have dominated the violence since 1987. It would be more accurate to think of the current violence as the latest round in a war that has continued uninterrupted since at least the start of the “First Intifada” until now or of the entire era from 1987 to the present as the current incarnation of a sustained but evolving conflict punctuated by truces or other temporary calm, or even “peace.” Historians have often classified drawn out, intermittent and shifting conflicts such as the Hundred Years War and even the French Wars of Religion under a single umbrella term if official hostilities were in fact continuous for that time span, and for the sake of categorization and simplifying their work; the war to drive the Jews back into homeless thralldom should be viewed similarly.

About the Author
Jonathan Turner is a writer and historian who lives and works in New York City. A former Fellow at the U.S. Department of State where he worked in Public Affairs, he is currently working on developing a think tank devoted to historical research, defense issues and foreign policy analysis called the Severn Institute.
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