German Intelligence Head Bruno Kahl on Global Islamist Influence

The interview was first published in German newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung" on July 13, 2021

Mr. Kahl, 20 years after 9/11, is there any reason to believe that Islamist terror is under control?

Bruno Kahl: No. It is true that we have never seen such massive events as the attacks back then. But Islamist terrorism has developed since then, it has cost many human lives. The number of actors involved in terrorism and their dangers have grown. Even if there have been successes, such as the military or territorial victory over the so-called IS, the actors have by no means disappeared. Both main fighting groups are still there: al-Qaeda and “Islamic State” with their sub-organizations. The latter are even spreading selectively. The threat posed by them has not decreased worldwide.

Now we are mainly looking at the Sahel and other regions of Africa. But there are also signs of a resurgence in Iraq. Where do you see the greatest threat at the moment?

Iraq and Syria must still be described as the regions of origin of the so-called Islamic State. It is very active there. It is true that it has been robbed of its territorial rule and its quasi-state properties. But it has withdrawn into inhospitable areas, restructured and reorganized. It is still capable of assassinations in this region. And from there it can work internationally again.

Is IS returning?

IS inspires from the center with modern means of communication and affects all corners of the world. We see that planned initiatives in the central area are exported through so-called subsidiaries. For a long time we had the impression that the network was without a center. Now we are observing an orientation into the central hierarchy. One tries to act in a decentralized way and remains structured in a subsidiary way.

What is it that makes it so attractive today?

The prerequisite was always visibility, territorial rule, the promise of a caliphate. Here you could not only live out faith, but also rule. That is gone. In this respect, the influx from our regions in particular has decreased considerably. But we are seeing a strong influx where there is a lack of state authority and structures. The idea is attractive to be able to fill this vacuum and then be part of the movement: a new rule that both corresponds to Sharia and brings social promises. It works in the Near and Middle East, it affects the Sahel, countries in southern Africa and partly in Central Asia.

After 20 years, why is it so difficult to break this religious promise?

The religious component is actually not decisive. The religious core is necessary to provide the followers with a clear conscience. This also helps with recruiting. But the main problem is the weakness of state structures. You can not only promise the followers social advancement and rule and money, but you can also exercise authority, you can organize quasi-state services. It’s the old fascination with domination. That is why there is only one way to combat them: the implementation of the state monopoly on the use of force, the establishment of state structures, the guarantee of security.

What role do the underlying ideological currents, such as the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, play?

A religiously cloaked ideology aimed at the aggressive spread of faith provides a good breeding ground for sheer violence. That is why both must be combated: the excesses of violence, the military-tactical phenomena of terrorism, but also the ideological foundation.

There are various ways of creating space for state violence in the sense of a monopoly of violence or of organizing Islamist ideology. These competitions turn out differently depending on the country, in Egypt different than in Turkey, in Syria different than in Iraq. I would be very careful to recommend the generally valid recipe from Europe.

Will the rump Syrian state still be able to exercise a monopoly of force, or has there not been a permanent vacuum?

In Syria before the civil war, all religious forces and rivalries were contained at the price of a brutal police state, a system of oppression. There are similar anatomies in other countries as well. It is not foreseeable how an order can be established in Syria that fulfills all the requirements for nonviolence – and whether it then meets Western constitutional requirements. Individual minorities would have to breathe a sigh of relief and expect a guarantee of protection in order to subordinate themselves to a new state authority. This success depends not least on the powers that are in charge from outside: Russia, Turkey, Iran and, of course, the US.

At the moment, the IS seems to be benefiting massively from the vacuum?

We see this danger and are therefore interested in continuing the fight against the core cells of IS. We must continue to stand by the countries in which this disaster began. The fight against IS is no more over than the fight against al-Qaeda.

The Iraqi parliament calls on foreign troops to leave the country. Iran is pursuing its own agenda through targeted attacks by Shiite militias, looking for a successful displacement strategy.

This is one of the main problems in the great regional conflict and a difficult balancing act, because the antipathy against the West in these regions is based precisely on this reaction. But if you give in, a security vacuum is created again, which the militias use.

Beyond the core area, the fears have long since arisen: In the Sahel, the IS exercises de facto territorial control, the structure is also growing in other regions of Africa. Can that still be stopped?

That was exactly the reason for Europe to intervene – to stop the expansion of the reign of terror from a desert region that is politically relatively irrelevant for us to the populated and cultivated areas. That was initially successful. Now the structures are taking hold, state violence is receding. That is why Europe must do everything possible to stop this process. This also applies to Burkina Faso, Niger, and to some extent Nigeria. We have to help states regain control, or at least keep control where it needs to be.

The French want to reduce their Barkhane mission in the entire Sahel region to a few hundred elite soldiers. What does this mean for the subordinate missions Minusma and the EU training mission? The federal government signals that cooperation must rather increase.

It is obvious that the West should not leave. The French President has expressly emphasized that France will continue to be involved in the Sahel. Europe must also be aware of the fact that this is a neighborhood region, in which security risks have a direct impact on us – through terror exports, migration or even organized crime.

Nevertheless, there are doubts after the recent attack on German soldiers. The price just seems too high.

It is obvious that the terrorist actors are becoming more and more capable of acting, even in regions that were previously considered safe. We have to be careful that the Sahel terror does not get further south to the coast of the Gulf of Guinea.

Is there a remedy for it?

Show presence. Europeans are also considering getting involved, such as a training mission in Mozambique. The principle is to stop the cancer from growing.

This anti-terrorist mission is like fighting the Hydra. Is the basic strategy even suitable?

The Barkhane mission has certainly shown success. We shouldn’t downplay that. But the terror continues. I believe that we must also find answers to the question of how, beyond the mere fight against terror, we can upgrade the economy and infrastructure on a corresponding scale so that the growing population is also offered enough prospects that make terrorism and migration meaningless.

After 20 years, Afghanistan has run out of strength, and the Sahel cannot rely on aid in the long term either. The US services predict that the Taliban will come to power within six months. So why the effort?

I don’t think it would be right to withdraw all troops from the Sahel overnight. That would create a vacuum with all security risks for Europe. Nevertheless, one must avoid fatigue. The German Chancellor and the French President speak of an internationalization of the commitment in the Sahel zone. The burden cannot rest on the shoulders of just one country. But we cannot allow the affected countries to seek help elsewhere, for example in Russia. So we need to export security without repeating mistakes. We shouldn’t promise castles in the air, for example the export of democracy and the rule of law as in Europe and thus paradisiacal conditions. It is primarily about organizing security.

Is the Sahel a bigger threat than Afghanistan ever was?

I find it difficult to prioritize like this. In 2001, Afghanistan was a real threat and it was absolutely right to take action against the terrorism that emanated from there.

IS and al-Qaeda no longer dominate there. Does the success last?

We only see snapshots everywhere. In any case, ISIS has lost its ability to dominate certain regions, but it is still able to carry out attacks, including the capital Kabul. The parallel activities of the Taliban on the one hand and state security forces on the other have succeeded in keeping IS in Afghanistan down. It is in the self-interest of any ruler in Kabul to keep terrorist structures out of there.

Historically, Afghanistan has always been an amalgam of tribes and ethnic groups who, when in doubt, went to war with one another. When will these intra-Afghan conflicts break out again?

We are indeed observing regionalized structures that are based on tribes, rulers, charisms and old, traditional networks. Security in Afghanistan has always had to do with tribalist allegiances.

Are the republic and the tribal system reconcilable?

I don’t trust myself to make a final judgment, but I can imagine that consequences will be drawn from the negative experiences in the past. The Taliban of 2021 are no longer those of 2001. Society has also changed. The Taliban will have an interest not completely losing their ability to connect and dialogue with the West. They need money, they need support in rebuilding the country.

And there are the external players who have always had the best hand. Especially the Pakistani secret service.

The Afghan Taliban have not only received orders from Islamabad in the past. Of course, Pakistan still has a great interest in influencing developments in the neighboring country. But this is a game with a lot of unknowns. There is also the intra-Pakistani struggle for influence. That is always rearranged.

If you take stock of these 20 years in Afghanistan: what is the most important lesson?

The most important lesson is to prevent the uncontrolled development of terrorist structures as early as possible. It would be good to prevent this on the side of regional rulers instead of letting the problem become so big that intervention is necessary.

Has the immediate objective, the smashing of al-Qaida and ending the terrorist threat, been achieved?

Structures were smashed, that was successful. That does not mean that terrorism is defeated. It is still important to prevent it from regaining its strength. But first of all, Afghanistan has dried up as a previously neglected export source of horror and terror. So a military goal has been achieved.

Isn’t the most important function in the fight against terrorism to deprive the terrorists of the approval of the population?

Even more important than the idea is the de facto protection. Where people have to fear for their lives, the idea is of relatively little help. It must be possible to provide security to the affected population so that people can live the way they want, that they can organize their schools without being indoctrinated, that they can earn a living.

Do we have to accept Islamist terror as part of our world 20 years after 9/11?

We must not accept it, but we must continue to count on it. At the moment, we have absolutely no reason to give the all-clear. Europe and the United States would be well advised to work together to maintain their analytical and counter-terrorism capabilities.