Jihadist terrorism, geopolitical and military implications


The recent attack in Paris, conducted in conjunction with the opening of the trial against the defendants for the massacre of Charlie Hebdo of January 2015, brought the threat of religious terrorism to general attention. A threat that, wrongly, many believed had been eradicated or reduced to impotence after the débâkey territory of the self-styled Islamic State. A conviction perhaps induced by the arrival of other threats, perceived as “closer” or more dangerous, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The eighteen-year-old offender (who entered Europe as an unaccompanied minor) instead caused a dramatic awakening, which added uncertainty to the perception of the future, already heavily unstable for many due to the economic crisis related to the pandemic.

To the medical-scientific effort carried out by the researchers, who work hard to find an antidote to overcome the virus, there is therefore added the indispensable commitment (in reality never failed) of the police forces and military departments to counter terrorism. But, in addition to all the actions of control and repression, in order to overcome the terrorist challenge, a cultural commitment is also more than ever necessary to better understand the causes and the articulated dynamics of the phenomenon. jihadi, its connections with international politics, with geopolitics, with national security.

The interpretations of religion

The first question that arises every time a terrorist attack is carried out is: why? To counter the threat, it is therefore important to know what the ideological-religious bases are Jihadists, starting from the reasons for the divisions within Islam.

After Muhammad's death, his first three successors were unanimously recognized as caliphs, or "vicars of the prophet". On the death of the third caliph, in 656, profound disagreements arose about the method of selecting the successor. This has led to the division of the Muslim world into Sunnis, Shiites and Kharijites or Ibadi. Sunnis are the majority in the Islamic world.

In order to endow the Muslim community with a common religious and legal code of conduct based on both the Koran and the Hadith (tradition), Muslim scholars and jurists have codified a body of norms of positive law called Sharia. The Sharia distinguishes the norms concerning worship and ritual obligations from those of a more juridical nature, but it also contemplates norms relating to armed struggle (which we identify with the term Jihad), both against local rebels and brigands (therefore Muslims) and against populations of other religions. Underlying everything is the distinction between the world of Islam (Dar al-Islam), meaning by this meaning all the converted territories, and the world of war (Dar al Harb), i.e. non-Muslim territories.

For the first seven centuries of history the term Jihad it had an exquisitely war connotation, which served as a push for the strong territorial expansion of dar al-Islam. Once the expansionist push was interrupted, the more strictly spiritual aspects regained strength, directing Muslim theologians towards interpretations of religion that distinguished between large and small Jihad, or respectively between inner struggle against the temptations of evil and armed struggle.

However, while having clearly indicated the spiritual aspects as a higher form of Jihad, this interpretation / distinction has, in recent decades, assumed a rather marginal importance within the Islamic tradition, in which the aspect of Jihad fighter.

The debate within the Muslim world on the Jihad finally, recently rediscovered interpretations formulated in the XII-XIII century, which supported the obligation to fight first the geographically closest enemies, that is to say Muslims who do not live according to the Sharia.

The objectives of terrorism jihadi

Precisely as a direct consequence of the "rediscovered" ideological bases, the propaganda campaign carried out first by al-Qaeda and subsequently by the self-styled Islamic State, two terrorist formations that propose themselves to Muslims as protectors of Islam and as bulwarks against the infidels.

However, it must be emphasized that terrorism jihadi, beyond the bombastic Slogans propaganda, its main objective is not the military defeat of the West, but the reconstitution of the Umma, the community of the faithful, and the restoration of the caliphate. It is for this reason that the reference point of propaganda jihadi it is always the glorious epoch of the beginnings of Islam, that of the great territorial conquests driven by religious fervor, that of the great scientific and cultural discoveries, that in which the Muslim world conditioned politically, economically and culturally that important strategic area that we today we call the enlarged Mediterranean and beyond, to India.

Relying on a degeneration determined by the substantial rejection of the civil and cultural progress achieved by other civilizations in recent centuries and by the protest against that part of Muslim society that would like to look to the future with an open spirit, the phenomenon jihadi therefore, it represents the violent expression of a political competition "internal" to the Arab-Islamic world for the conquest of power and resources. Looking at the statistics of terrorist attacks, in fact, the great majority of terrorist actions are aimed precisely at Muslims themselves. These violent actions respond to the need to decrease both social cohesion and popular consent towards Muslim governments considered not perfectly in line with the Sharia, in order to lead them to the institutional crisis. The "export" of violence to the West, on the other hand, responds to an always internal propaganda purpose (... I am so devoted that I challenge the infidels, even though I know that they are militarily much stronger than me ...), to attract other followers . A political competition, therefore, based on bloodshed. In this context, all the actors involved act for the destabilization of the territory, not to resolve social and political conflicts but to feed them, in order to keep the tension and uncertainty of the populations high, increasing their distrust of their respective institutions.

However even if, to achieve their goals, the main groups Jihadists have adopted different operational strategies, not only the gaze turned to the past unites them, but also an ideology founded on a totalitarian moralism, where women are the main victims, on the unscrupulous use of extreme violence against defenseless populations and innocent individuals and ... on the complete absence of a political proposal on economic and social development.

Geopolitical implications

The signs of a significant change in the terrorist threat were clear and strong, even before 11 September 2001. The attacks no longer aimed at killing public figures or capturing hostages to negotiate their release, but killed random people, dozens or more. hundreds of people who by fate were in that place at that precise moment.

The new approach involves acts perpetrated by fanatical individuals who sacrifice their lives to take it away from innocent strangers, convinced that they are reaching their very personal paradise. Acts which, by exploiting modern technologies and communication techniques, allow the puppeteers "terror professionals" to amplify the scope of these vile attacks, causing significant geopolitical repercussions. The terrorist groups Jihadists in fact, they want to present themselves as a geopolitical subject, as a community with a recognized territory. A safe heaven where they can also safely train, make propaganda, plan attacks all over the world and which also represents a call for extremists everywhere.

An obvious example of these concepts is represented by the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, which overcame the most pessimistic forecasts by gravity, cruelty and effectiveness. On this occasion, in fact, from Afghanistan the terrorists demonstrated full mastery in the use of the media and the psychology of communication. The "challenge" was directed against the most pregnant symbols of American wealth and power, those best known to American citizens and the whole world. The individual attacks were organized and coordinated according to a real hidden television direction, so much so that the twenty minute distance between the first and second impact on the Towers guaranteed the live development of the challenge in all its unimaginable gravity and spectacularity, under the eyes of all the television networks in the world and with the highest audience possible.

That attack caused an immediate reaction from the markets, with global economic and political consequences, the most noticeable effects of which were a loss of 14% of the Dow Jones, the loss of 40% by the airlines involved in the attack ( American Airlines and United Airlines), a 6% increase in the prices of Brent oil and gold (which has always been a safe haven). In Italy, the MIBTEL has "burned" 7,4% and the MIB 30 has lost 7,79%.

As a result of that massacre, there was a decisive change in US foreign policy, which passed from isolationism to a renewed multilateralism, also involving the allied countries. The rapid deterioration of relations with some countries, believed to be supporters of terrorism (the "rogue states"), triggered several international crises, which affected areas that were already difficult to manage at that time. Crises that, in many ways, have not yet been resolved.

A scheme which, albeit with different operational nuances, was confirmed by the crisis in the Syrian-Iraqi area, caused by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

All these areas of instability have, over time, also generated a strong clandestine migratory movement which has put pressure on the closest Western countries, in particular the countries of the northern shore of the Mediterranean. A phenomenon that quickly catalyzed the expectations of thousands of other people, attracted by the prospect of a better life. A phenomenon which, due to the numerous clandestine connections, has also made it possible to increase the profits of terrorists, overcoming the usual distinctions with criminal organizations based on objectives (the first political-religious and the second for pure profit) to the point that, , terrorists are increasingly financed by trafficking in people or drug trafficking.

Military implications

From a military point of view, terrorism jihadi it can be placed among the low intensity conflicts. Even if it does not appear to represent a strategic threat, nor a territorial one, it is quite difficult to counter because it is characterized by considerable difficulty in prevention and by extreme imagination in devising new subtle methods of attack. The asymmetry of the clash essentially concerns the methods and means employed by terrorists to achieve their objectives. The attackers, in fact, know perfectly well that their relative weakness will never allow them to attack a solid and stable state head-on, let alone conquer it by force. But this does not mean that the phenomenon is irrelevant or that the battle and the use of the military should be given up. However, a military response is inevitable. Given the nature of the threat, however, one must rely on the military instrument not as a decisive action but only when it is strictly necessary and in support of other forms / initiatives of contrast (political, economic, regulatory, investigative).

In preparing the military response, it is also necessary to consider that the size and geographical extension have made terrorism jihadi a now global phenomenon and, as we have seen, with important geopolitical implications. Communication and information technologies have added complexity to a phenomenon that is already sufficiently complex in itself, having a decisive influence on the methods of recruitment and attack. Finally, it must be borne in mind that one can never be completely sure of avoiding attacks. Total protection is, in fact, impossible to implement, not even by transforming the whole country into one bunker. If the security forces sometimes fail to prevent an attack, it is because surprise in the tactical field is an intrinsic, obvious and almost self-evident factor in terrorism.

With these premises, political directives should absolutely avoid macroscopic strategic and conceptual errors such as the launch of large military operations aimed at canceling the existing state structure, as in the case of Iraq in 2003 (United States) or Libya in 2011 (France and Great Britain). These actions, in addition to causing serious damage to image, create international chaos, foment resentments towards the West and create the conditions for the conquest of power by terrorist organizations. Defense Secretary Weinberger (in office from 1981 to 1987) underlined that "... if we decide to use our forces overseas, we must first have clearly defined the military and political objectives ...". And, in fact, during the Kuwait Liberation War (1991), the US showed foresight when it decided not to overthrow toto the Iraqi state system, so as not to leave dangerous power gaps. As in physics, even in geopolitics the gaps left by legitimate institutions are actually filled by dark and illegal forces, in our case the terrorists. A simple concept but then forgotten, as we all know.

In this context, it seems appropriate to emphasize once more that massive military intervention does not allow the problem to be resolved definitively, given that the taking of territory from terrorist organizations almost always turns into a migration to other territories where the State has collapsed or fails to ensure control. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and, ultimately, Libya are the proofs.

Nevertheless, the military units can make their own contribution to the fight against international terrorism, through the conduct of counter-terrorism and counter-terrorism operations. In planning these interventions, priority will be given to theintelligence, which must represent the indispensable information base to be able to implement “targeted” military interventions, from the action of the Special Forces to the international operation on a larger scale, in order to directly hit the terrorist structures in their respective gravitation basins. Certain consolidated capabilities and excellences already present in the military instrument could therefore be very useful for the fight against international terrorism. Suffice it to recall the extensive skills inintelligence, the remarkable projection capacity towards any destination or the great professionalism and effectiveness of the Special Forces of each Armed Force.

Given that, in the current situation, the possibility of an invasion of the national territory, either by terrorist groups or by opposing national entities, does not appear likely, the problem facing the military, in essence, is no longer just the protection of one's own forces and more or less sensitive installations, but it is also that of being able to effectively intervene in a preventive and "surgical" manner to disarticulate the ramifications jihadi.

However, whatever the motivations that move towards military intervention, this should never be an isolated project, but it seems indispensable that it is always accompanied by other political, social and economic initiatives aimed at discrediting terrorists, isolating them from their societies, and to dry up the sources of funding and recruitment. Only in this way can strategic success be achieved. In the absence of such initiatives, mere military intervention can only achieve "tactical" success.


A ghost with a thousand faces roams the world and has sparked a war that today affects the entire planet, from American centers to the savannahs of Sudan, from European cities to the islands of Malaysia. A ghost that identifies "all the others" as enemies, including those same Muslims who live the Koran not in a literal and uncompromising way, but who interpret it with a modern spirit. A ghost that has also changed its operating modes, passing from attacks carried out in groups, first in the majority, to a prevalence of attacks conducted by solitary, from the use of explosives and firearms to the prevalent use of sidearms and vehicles to engine, from carefully planned operations to actions that seem to be conducted on the wave of the emotion of the moment.

In this context of widespread uncertainty, however, the countries under threat have acquired a new awareness of the intricate global interconnections of terrorism and of a more effective use of the police forces and military units to combat it. Above all, they have acquired the awareness that terrorism jihadi it is mainly fought with cohesion and greater collaboration between countries. An awareness that comes from horror, fear, outrage. The self-proclaimed Islamic State, for example, was able to commit atrocious acts by exploiting the ignorance of politicians who cynically looked only at their own backyard, their own electoral interests, and bell tower rivalries. In this way it was able to make effective propaganda and grow, even territorially. When there was real cooperation, however, he had to withdraw, suffering heavy defeats.

Echoing a famous sentence by Judge Giovanni Falcone we can say that, being terrorism jihadi a human phenomenon, even this one day will end, provided however that it is possible to create a broad and shared strategic framework in which the actors involved in this very delicate mission can work synergistically and effectively on different fronts and with all the political, diplomatic, military, legal, economic, social, media and cultural services available.

The quality of peace will depend on how we achieve victory. If the Muslim world perceives this victory as a humiliation, we will not be able to appreciate the sweet taste of peace for long and new forms of violent struggle for supremacy will emerge. As Javier Solana said in a speech in Berlin in 2004, “…It is a matter of preserving our basic values…", and not only.

cv pil. (ris) Renato Scarfi

To deepen the question of the causes, motivations and actions to counter the jihadist phenomenon, by the same author "Jihadist terrorism", Europa Edizioni, 2019. Foreword by gen. ca Roberto Bernardini, former commander of the Italian Army's Land Operational Forces