INTERVIEW: Russia-Ukraine war is a major game changer on the world stage: Gilles Kepel

Mohamed Alkazaz and Hend Hany, Friday 12 Aug 2022

Ahram Online spoke to Gilles Kepel, the author of more than 20 books on the modern Arab world which have been translated into 17 languages, about the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East and the future of regional and international jihadism.

Gilles Kepler


During his time in Egypt, from 1980 to 1983, Kepel witnessed firsthand President Anwar Sadat’s assassination and the rise of political Islamist movements, the theme of his PhD dissertation and first book The Prophet and Pharaoh (1984), which is still a standard reading in Middle East departments in universities worldwide.

Among his best-sellers, The Revenge of God (1990) compared the political use of religion in Islam, Judaism and Christendom, while Jihad (2000) and lately Away from Chaos / The Middle East and the Challenge to the West (2020) contributed to the global history of jihadist movements, from Afghanistan to Al-Qaeda and Daesh. He also studied the manyfold developments of Muslim diasporas in France and Europe, and penned Terror in France (2017) which analysed the latest attacks by Daesh and others. He was appointed in 2022 President Macron’s Special Envoy on the relations between France and its North African, Sahelian and Middle East environment, though he expresses himself in the following interview in his personal capacity only.

Books by Dr. Gilles Kepel

Ahram Online: What new phenomena could the Russian-Ukrainian war create? Will we witness new geostrategic alliances and a state of political polarisation. How likely is it to ignite new military confrontations?

Gilles Kepel: I believe the Russian-Ukraine war is a major game changer on the world scene – Russia, a nuclear power, has attacked a neighboring state which is part of the European continent, and now a candidate to the EU. As opposed to the Red Army invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, a country remote from major world centres, the present war threatens the core balance of the world system.

It disrupts both the oil and gas markets, which are crucial for Europe, and also the grain exports from Ukraine, which threatens countries like Egypt who rely heavily on such imports.

It also creates new alignments in the Middle East as a whole: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, trusted allies of the US, have been reluctant to increase production to reduce the price hike. President Biden, who had stated he would not interact with the Saudi Crown Prince after the Khashoggi murder in Istanbul in 2018, had to go to Jeddah in July 2022 to that effect. And, were Ukraine to remain occupied, even partly, it would give China an opening to invade Taiwan. Also, a number of pro-western states formerly colonised by Europe have kept a neutral stance – particularly in Africa and Asia – and a military escalation seems inevitable to many, who hold their breath.

The UN and the World Trade Organisation, which exerted a major influence on world affairs in the first two decades of the 21st century, have become impotent, if not irrelevant.

AO: The Middle East was one of the most important stages in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Will we return to this state of affairs?

GK: The Middle East has changed tremendously since the Cold War. The peace treaties between Egypt, then Jordan, with Israel, and lately the Abraham Accords with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan and the Jewish state have significantly diminished the intensity of the Arab-Israeli tension at state level, something which provided a regional vehicle for USA-USSR confrontation.

Add to it that Qatar, which was also attracted to the spirit of the accords, which consists in creating a sort of joint venture between Arab oil money and the “start up nation” which is Israel, with its huge technological environment. And the NEOM project in KSA is part and parcel of the same venture, the kingdom has twisted westwards, towards the Red Sea and the Suez Canal – even though it cannot officially embrace the Abraham Agreements because it would still be, at this stage, detrimental to its Khadim al Haramayn status [custodian of Mecca and Medina]. Its leadership on Islam worldwide is challenged from Iran, and also, to some extent, by Erdogan’s self-styled neo-caliphate pretense… as was seen when the latter re-Islamised Haghia Sophia in July 2020 in great fanfare and saber-rattling, while KSA had not allowed the pilgrimage to take place as usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the attraction of regional prosperity under US auspices was what kept Russia at bay, and also diminished the attraction of the Muslim Brotherhood: Qatar – which had also a long-standing commercial relation with Israel – recently toned down Al Jazeera’s support for the Ikhwan, and has made its peace with KSA and (to a lesser extent) with the UAE. Erdogan, who is cash-strapped and faces elections in 2023, also shut down the exile Egyptian Brotherhood TV Channel and traded the Khashoggi affair for MBS petrodollars… Rather facetiously, the main politics of the Muslim Brothers in the Middle East now is to provide a tipping point majority at Knesset for whatever Israeli government, thanks to Mansour Abbas’ four representatives. What a paradox, that says a lot about the changes happening in the region:  the much reviled “Zionist State” of yesterday can function today only thanks to Muslim Brotherhood support … so that the Raad Islamist party can pump money into dilapidated Arab-Israeli neighborhoods!!

AO: What will be the impact of this war on global terrorism given the social and security disruptions it is causing, especially considering the massive influx of weapons into Ukraine expected to reach the black market?

GK: The Ukraine war was first and foremost an attempt by Putin to reclaim Russia’s great power status. When you think that its GDP is located somewhere between that of Italy and Spain… The display of force was aimed to that, though it is unsure the aging Moscow leader has a clear view of the way out, except strong-arming against the West.

In the meanwhile, the global unbalance he has unleashed for all of us in both the Middle East and North Africa on the one hand, and Europe on the other hand, is worrying: bread riots, on top of destabilising governments in the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, would translate into renewed illegal migrations to Europe, some of which are a harbinger for jihadi terrorism on the one hand, and the rise of the European extreme-right as a reaction.

And you are right, much of the weapons used on European soil by Daesh had been smuggled from the former Soviet arsenals, paramount among them the infamous AK-47.

AO: The Middle East has suffered throughout its history from the scourge of war. Understanding the crises of the Middle East stems to a large extent from a misunderstanding of the far and near historical roots that feed these conflicts? How can the bracket of endless crises be closed?

GK: Well, in a lifelong 40 year career as an academic specialist of the modern Mediterranean – both on its southern, eastern and northern shores – I have tried to put into historical perspective the conflicts which are unfolding under our eyes … Alas, this perspective was not taken into consideration by the powers-that-be, and it is now coming back to us with a vengeance. That might be why President Macron has tasked me with the present mission – and I would very much like to suggest that the civil society exponents and leaders of the Mediterranean countries without exception gather to close the “bracket of crises” that you mention … Inshallah!

AO: In the face of the tragic scene that the world is experiencing, are we about to witness the emergence of the fifth jihadist generation? What are its dangers and areas it will spread in?

GK: I devoted a lot of attention to that in my last book – The Prophet and the Pandemic (2021) – which, unfortunately, the very pandemic has not allowed to have made its way into an English or Arabic translation yet. You can read it in French, German, Italian, Spanish or Greek.

I noticed that the last terror attacks we suffered in France and in Austria in the fall of 2020 were of a different kind, as opposed to the previous mode of operation by Al Qaeda or Daesh. The perpetrators did not belong to a chain of command: they were self-mobilised into killing targets because they had read on their cellphone messages posted by “entrepreneurs of rage” that identified different individuals or entities as “enemies of Allah,” “apostates,” kuffar, etc. This phenomenon I dubbed “jihadism of atmosphere:” it is a major challenge to security agencies which are trained to identify people who give orders.

AO: If the great Arab setback that resulted from the June 1967 defeat created a vacuum that contributed to the growth of political Islam, will the war in Europe contribute to the ongoing growth of populist and extreme right-wing parties, or even the collapse of the European Union?

GK: I do not think the EU is on a disintegration path; on the contrary, the threats, both from the Ukraine war and from the jihad terror attacks, have led to a significant, if insufficient, awakening that we Europeans have to build a strong homegrown security and defense policy, which is not solely reliant on the US, even though we are of course their allies.

Germany, which had built its prosperity since the end of WW2 on the absence of defense spending – as the US taxpayers catered for it – and on its privileged access to cheap Russian gas, has made an important about-face after the Ukraine war, and is now investing €100 million in rebuilding a military.

NATO is gaining two new members – Sweden and Finland – in spite of Erdogan blackmailing them into curbing the freedoms of Kurdish Swedes.

AO: With the regression of ISIS and the sluggishness of the Sunni-Shia conflict, what kind of conflict will the Middle East witness in the coming period, and what is the future of jihadism and Salafism?

GK: Jihadism is in crisis, as I mentioned above. Daesh was destroyed by the bombings on their rogue [state] in Al-Sham and Iraq from 2016 to 2019, but they are trying to reorganise, learn the lessons from their political failures, and build a new strategy … up to the metaverse!!! But I believe that the enormous amount of knowledge accumulated after the study of Al Qaeda and Daesh allows us to analyse better what they have in mind.

The threat is still around of course, and the turmoil coming in the region as a consequence of the Ukraine war will no doubt give them opportunities. See for instance that EU States are now repatriating their Daesh citizens which were detained in Kurdish camps in northeast Syria under the YPD’s watch, because the advent of a Turkish attack on the Syrian border would lead to the dismantling of the camps of al-Hol and Khorj, allowing a number of seasoned jihadists to go free and reorganise with a view to rebuild global networks.

The Arab world, and the Western world in particular, has come to live without an agreement of the so-called alliance of terror between the ideology of jihadist political Islam and the anti-Islam ideology, where both militant jihadists and Islamophobic movements have come to support each other, so what is the cultural, intellectual and religious impact of this?

To an extent, jihadists, Muslim Brothers and the European extreme-right reinforce each other. Indeed, in a mirror-image dynamic. Abu Mussab Al Suri, the French-educated Syrian ideologue of Daesh (together with his namesake the Jordanian Abu Mussab Al Zarqaoui) had theorised all that as of 2005: perpetuating attacks blindly on the European public would reinforce the anti-Muslim feeling in the population. Therefore, European Muslims themselves would gather “under the Prophet’s banner” – to quote from Zawahiri’s 1997 manifesto Fursantahtarayat an-nabi (“Knights under the Prophet’s banner”) – and turn to jihadists to defend them [in the same way] Iraqi secularist Sunnis joined Daesh to protect them from the Shia militias after the US invasion of March 2003.

For the time being, this phenomenon, which is taken very seriously by government agencies in Europe, has developed only within limited circles. You could add to your scenario that some forces on the extreme left are now courting political Islam voters from disenfranchised neighborhoods, among European citizens from immigrant Muslim descent or converts… something which is not unlike what Raad and Mansour Abbas are doing in Israel!

AO: Religions throughout history have constituted one of the main factors in conflicts. Is the Russian-Ukrainian war primarily religious?

GK: I am not an expert on Russia. What I understand of the Ukraine war is that there is an issue of identity also between Catholics in western Ukraine, and Orthodox in the eastern part of the country… not to mention the Jewish issue.

Ukraine was the birthplace of conservative, Hassidic Judaism, which was persecuted by the Nazis, and has later developed strong networks the world over. So while initially Israel was leaning a blind eye to the war (Netanyahu had not voted against the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 because Moscow and Jerusalem had an agreement on the sharing of Syrian skies), there was afterwards a strong reaction of conservative Jews in Israel, who control a lot of votes, and the Jewish State had a much more pro-Ukrainian stance, at least officially.

AO: What do you think about the idea of forming a "Middle East NATO" against "common enemies" as it resurfaced before President Joe Biden's visit to the region?

GK: I do not believe a Middle East NATO – or “METO” – could be feasible … it would be reminiscent of the CENTO post-WW2 that sank into failure. The Middle East challenge now is to rebuild its centrality at the world level, [not because of wars], but because it can build the transition towards clean energy and be one of its main producers – something that was in the making as a consequence of COVID-19. I believe President Biden’s visit has more modest goals – the first of which is to help him secure a Democratic majority in Congress for the mid-term elections this fall, for which the omens are not great as of today if we believe the polls.

AO: On the heels of the economic crises caused by COVID-19 and the war, what are the biggest obstacles to regional cooperation facing the US?

GK: After the Trump administration came to an end, we had the Ukraine war, which has led to a rather different picture. I believe that for many countries in the Middle East, first and foremost Egypt but not only, the burning issue is to find a way out of the cereals and food security problem which is looming in a matter of months, and parallels the cold winter ahead in Europe if the gas problem is not resolved.

Such very matter-of-fact considerations, I believe, should lead to a major Middle East, North Africa and Europe conference because we are now making an extended region, and we need to think our future together.

AO: The French government has introduced a new body – the Forum of Islam in France – to get rid  of extremism. Do you think this new forum can build bridges for dialogue and build trust between Muslims in France and the French society?

GK: Much had been said and written in the Arab world about supposed French Islamophobia, a campaign mostly boosted by the Muslim Brothers International and its sidekicks. President Macron’s speech against “Islamist separatism” – ie against the creation of enclaves where Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood would put their rigid understanding of sharia above the law of the secular French republic – was uttered ten days before the beheading of a schoolteacher by a Chehen jihadist who had read Twitter post demonising him because the teacher had asked his pupils to debate the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Those tweets were forwarded all around by such Islamist “entrepreneurs of rage” that I mentioned above.

That separatism is comparable to what you called “fitnataïfia” in Egypt – and that you considered unacceptable because it wanted to destroy the Egyptian state and values in the name of an extremist view of religion that threatened to rip off the national fabric. Alas, we were, if I may say so, “lost in translation” and largely misunderstood in the Arab and Muslim world. That may be why someone with some knowledge of the Middle East was asked to provide some thoughts to mend the misunderstanding? The present-day Forum of Islam in France is precisely intended to give the responsibility for recruiting imams and managing mosques to associations of reliable French Muslim citizens… even though much of the problem, as the beheading of the teacher showed, is rooted in the internet.

AO: How has the world changed in the two decades since the events of  September 11?

GK: Bin Laden did not succeed in building a state (something Daesh would achieve between 2014 and 2017 in its own rogue way with its self-styled “dawla”[state]), but it set an example for many angry youth and built new fault lines within communities, societies and also between states. I believe we have not yet assessed the magnitude of the damage, let alone found the remedies. That is why I believe that the civil societies and leaders most concerned on the middle and long-term, those bordering the Mediterranean and the hinterland beyond, should seriously take the matter into their hands.

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