An article in the April 12 New York Times points to possible evolution in 4GW, evolution that would make the threat it poses to states all the more serious. Titled, “Jihadi Mentor Mingled Crime with Religion: ‘Gangster Islam’ Drew Recruits in Brussels,” the piece tells the story of Khalid Zerkani, a radical Islamic in Brussels who recruited young men to wage jihad both in Syria and in Europe. More gangster than Islamic scholar, Zerkani preferred recruits who had a criminal past:
Belgian security officials and people who know Mr. Zerkani said he had assured Molenbeek’s wayward youth that past criminal convictions were not an obstacle to the Islamic cause, but a vital foundation.
The Times quotes an expert on Molenbeek, a heavily Islamic part of Brussels, Hind Fraihi, as saying that Islamic extremism there “has mutated…into a criminal enterprise driven by ‘the synergy between banditism and Islam.'”
From the state’s perspective, one of the challenging aspects of 4GW is that it faces not just multiple opponents, but multiple kinds of opponents, ranging from gang members through people belonging to specific ethnic groups (e.g., Chechens) to religious fanatics. There can be no “one size fits all” answer to the diverse challenges 4GW presents.
However, the state also benefits from the fact that its 4GW opponents are so different. The success of one does not necessarily benefit all; in fact it can weaken others. If one is surging, the state can concentrate against it while putting others on the back burner.
The threat to the state would grow if 4GW entities of different kinds began working together. This is what the Times story suggests could have happened in Molenbeek. If the criminals were lone operators, no more than petty criminals, then it probably does not change much. However, if they were gang members, then the situation could be more serious.
Gangs are classic 4GW entities because the provide a wide variety of services, starting with protection, that puts them in direct competition with the state. They thrive where the state is too weak or corrupt to perform its duties, duties the gangs can perform. When that happens, legitimacy flows away from the state and to the gangs.
Should gangs and other types of 4GW entities such as jihadis start cooperating against a recognized common enemy, the state, then 4GW would have evolved in an important way. The state would be less able to focus on one type of challenger because others would immediately take advantage of being neglected. Already thinly-stretched states would be stretched further, sometimes to the breaking point. 4GW would itself in effect become conscious as a Ding an sich.
Again, a gang-jihadi alliance may not have happened in Molenbeek. My guess is that probably it did not, at least not yet. But the many Molenbeeks splashed across Europe are each a Petri dish where 4GW is evolving. That evolution will include both false starts and steps forward for 4GW. There is no way to stop the process except to cleanse the dish.
PS: In Syria and Iraq, what seemed an important evolutionary step for 4GW may be proving a false start. That step is the move by ISIS to form a caliphate, which is to say to take and hold territory. Light cavalry warfare, the only type of warfare Arabs are good at, is poorly suited to holding ground. Doing so also has made ISIS targetable by the slow-adapting but powerful firepower delivery systems found in state militaries. The inability of pure Islam to govern is alienating the people under ISIS’s control. It is far too soon to write ISIS off, especially in Iraq where the state and its armed forces are both mirages. But I would not be surprised if in the long run 4GW entities which attempt to replace the state are less successful than those which prefer to operate within a hollowed-out state, e.g., Hezbollah.