Rene — Think Again: Al Qaeda

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Think Again: Al Qaeda
By Jason Burke
May/June 2004
The mere mention of al Qaeda conjures images of an efficient terrorist
network guided by a powerful criminal mastermind. Yet al Qaeda is more
lethal as an ideology than as an organization. “Al Qaedaism” will
continue to attract supporters in the years to come-whether Osama bin
Laden is around to lead them or not.
“Al Qaeda Is a Global Terrorist Organization”
No. It is less an organization than an ideology. The Arabic word qaeda
can be translated as a “base of operation” or “foundation,” or
alternatively as a “precept” or “method.” Islamic militants always
understood the term in the latter sense. In 1987, Abdullah Azzam, the
leading ideologue for modern Sunni Muslim radical activists, called
for al-qaeda al-sulbah (a vanguard of the strong). He envisaged men
who, acting independently, would set an example for the rest of the
Islamic world and thus galvanize the umma (global community of
believers) against its oppressors. It was the FBI-during its
investigation of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa-which
dubbed the loosely linked group of activists that Osama bin Laden and
his aides had formed as “al Qaeda.” This decision was partly due to
institutional conservatism and partly because the FBI had to apply
conventional antiterrorism laws to an adversary that was in no sense a
traditional terrorist or criminal organization.
Although bin Laden and his partners were able to create a structure in
Afghanistan that attracted new recruits and forged links among
preexisting Islamic militant groups, they never created a coherent
terrorist network in the way commonly conceived. Instead, al Qaeda
functioned like a venture capital firm-providing funding, contacts,
and expert advice to many different militant groups and individuals
from all over the Islamic world.
Today, the structure that was built in Afghanistan has been destroyed,
and bin Laden and his associates have scattered or been arrested or
killed. There is no longer a central hub for Islamic militancy. But
the al Qaeda worldview, or “al Qaedaism,” is growing stronger every
day. This radical internationalist ideology-sustained by
anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric-has adherents
among many individuals and groups, few of whom are currently linked in
any substantial way to bin Laden or those around him. They merely
follow his precepts, models, and methods. They act in the style of al
Qaeda, but they are only part of al Qaeda in the very loosest
sense. That’s why Israeli intelligence services now prefer the term
“jihadi international” instead of “al Qaeda.”
“Capturing or Killing Bin Laden Will Deal a Severe Blow to Al Qaeda”
Wrong. Even for militants with identifiable ties to bin Laden, the
death of the “sheik” will make little difference in their ability to
recruit people. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently
acknowledged as much when he questioned in an internal Pentagon memo
whether it was possible to kill militants faster than radical clerics
and religious schools could create them. In practical terms, bin Laden
now has only a very limited ability to commission acts of terror, and
his involvement is restricted to the broad strategic direction of
largely autonomous cells and groups. Most intelligence analysts now
consider him largely peripheral.
This turn of events should surprise no one. Islamic militancy predates
bin Laden’s activities. He was barely involved in the Islamic violence
of the early 1990s in Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia, and Kashmir. His links
to the 1993 World Trade Center attack were tangential. There were no
al Qaeda training camps during the early 1990s, although camps run by
other groups churned out thousands of highly trained fanatics. Even
when bin Laden was based in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it was
often Islamic groups and individuals who sought him out for help in
finding resources for preconceived attacks, not vice versa. These
days, Islamic groups can go to other individuals, such as Jordanian
activist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who set up his al Tauhid group in
competition with bin Laden (rather than, as is frequently claimed, in
alliance with him) to obtain funds, expertise, or other logistical
Bin Laden still plays a significant role in the movement as a
propagandist who effectively exploits modern mass communications. It
is likely that the United States will eventually apprehend bin Laden
and that this demonstration of U.S. power will demoralize many
militants. However, much depends on the manner in which he is
captured or killed. If, like deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein,
he surrenders without a fight, which is very unlikely, many followers
will be deeply disillusioned. If he achieves martyrdom in a way that
his cohorts can spin as heroic, he will be an inspiration for
generations to come. Either way, bin Laden’s removal from the scene
will not stop Islamic militancy.
“The Militants Seek to Destroy the West so They Can Impose a Global
Islamic State”
False. Islamic militants’ main objective is not conquest, but to beat
back what they perceive as an aggressive West that is supposedly
trying to complete the project begun during the Crusades and colonial
periods of denigrating, dividing, and humiliating Islam. The
militants’ secondary goal is the establishment of the caliphate, or
single Islamic state, in the lands roughly corresponding to the
furthest extent of the Islamic empire of the late first and early
second centuries. Today, this state would encompass the Middle East,
the Maghreb (North Africa bordering the Mediterranean), Andalusia in
southern Spain, Central Asia, parts of the Balkans, and possibly some
Islamic territories in the Far East. Precisely how this utopian
caliphate would function is vague. The militants believe that if all
Muslims act according to a literal interpretation of the Islamic holy
texts, an almost mystical transformation to a just and perfect society
will follow.
The radical Islamists seek to weaken the United States and the West
because they are both impediments to this end. During the 1990s,
militants in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria began
turning their attention abroad as they grew frustrated by their
failure to change the status quo at home. The militants felt that
striking at the Arab regimes’ Western sponsors (the “far enemy” as
opposed to the “near enemy”) would be the best means to improve local
conditions. This strategy, which bin Laden and those around him
aggressively advocate, remains contentious among Islamic radicals,
especially in Egypt.
Yet, as the March 11, 2004, terrorist bombings in Madrid revealed,
attacks on the “far enemy” can still be employed with great effect. By
striking Spain just before its elections, the militants sent a message
to Western governments that their presence in the Middle East would
exact a heavy political and human toll.
“The Militants Reject Modern Ideas in Favor of Traditional Muslim
No. Although Islamic hard-liners long to return to an idealized
seventh-century existence, they have little compunction about
embracing the tools that modernity provides. Their purported
medievalism has not deterred militants from effectively using the
Internet and videocassettes to mobilize the faithful.
At the ideological level, prominent thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb and
Abu Ala Maududi have borrowed heavily from the organizational tactics
of secular leftist and anarchist revolutionaries. Their concept of the
vanguard is influenced by Leninist theory. Qutb’s most important work,
Ma’alim fi’l-tariq (Milestones), reads in part like an Islamicized
Communist Manifesto. A commonly used Arabic word in the names of
militant groups is Hizb (as in Lebanon’s Hizb Allah, or Hezbollah),
which means “party”-another modern concept.
In fact, the militants often couch their grievances in Third-Worldist
terms familiar to any contemporary antiglobalization activist. One
recent document purporting to come from bin Laden berates the United
States for failing to ratify the Kyoto agreement on climate change.
Egyptian militant leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has decried multinational
companies as a major evil. Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11
hijackers, once told a friend how angered he was by a world economic
system that meant Egyptian farmers grew cash crops such as
strawberries for the West while the country’s own people could barely
afford bread. In all these cases, the militants are framing modern
political concerns, including social justice, within a mythic and
religious narrative. They do not reject modernization per se, but they
resent their failure to benefit from that modernization.
Also, within the context of Islamic observance, these new Sunni
militants are not considered traditionalists, but radical reformers,
because they reject the authority of the established clergy and demand
the right to interpret doctrine themselves, despite a general lack of
academic credentials on the part of leading figures such as bin Laden
or Zawahiri.
“Since the Rise of Al Qaeda, Islamic Moderates Have Been Marginalized”
Incorrect. Al Qaeda represents the lunatic fringe of political thought
in the Islamic world. While al Qaedaism has made significant inroads
in recent years, only a tiny minority of the world’s 1.3 billion
Muslims adhere to its doctrine. Many sympathize with bin Laden and
take satisfaction at his ability to strike the United States, but that
does not mean they genuinely want to live in a unified Islamic state
governed along strict Koranic lines. Nor does anti-Western sentiment
translate into a rejection of Western values. Surveys of public
opinion in the Arab world, conducted by organizations such as Zogby
International and the Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press, reveal strong support for elected government, personal liberty,
educational opportunity, and economic choice.
Even those who believe “Islam is the solution” disagree over precisely
what that solution might be and how it might be achieved. Radical
militants such as bin Laden want to destroy the state and replace it
with something based on a literal reading of the Koran. However, some
political Islamists want to appropriate the structures of the state
and, in varying degrees, Islamicize them, usually with a view toward
promoting greater social justice and outflanking undemocratic and
powerful regimes. An example of the latter would be the Pakistani
Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) movement, currently led by veteran activist Qazi
Hussein Ahmed. JI represents a significant swath of Pakistani popular
opinion, and although it is tainted by appalling levels of
anti-Semitism, it has taken a stance against bin Laden and the Taliban
when politically feasible. Often, as in Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey, such
groups are relatively moderate and can serve as useful interlocutors
for the West. They should not be rejected out of hand as “Islamists”;
refusing to engage them only allows the extremists to dominate the
political discourse.
“The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is Central to the Militants’ Cause”
Wrong. Televised images of Israeli troops violently repressing
Palestinian protesters in the occupied territories certainly reinforce
the militants’ key message that the lands of Islam are under attack
and that all Muslims must rise up and fight. However, although a
resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help alleviate
political tensions in the region, it would not end the threat of
militant Islam.
The roots of contemporary Sunni Islamic militancy cannot be reduced to
any single, albeit thorny, problem. Militants feel the umma is under
attack. In their view, Israel is merely the West’s most obvious
outpost-as it was when it became a Crusader kingdom in the 12th
century. If the Jewish state disappeared, the Islamists would still
fight in Chechnya, Kashmir, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, and
Algeria. Their agenda is typically determined by local grievances,
often with lengthy histories. For instance, although bin Laden was
already calling for a boycott of U.S. goods to protest support for
Israel in the late 1980s, he had never been involved in an attack on
an Israeli target until recently. His primary focus has always been to
topple the regime in his homeland of Saudi Arabia. Likewise,
Zawahiri’s lengthy 2002 book, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner-part
autobiography, part militant manifesto, which first appeared in serial
form in 2001-focuses almost exclusively on the author’s native Egypt.
Moreover, considerable support for the Islamic cause stems from
Muslims’ sense of humiliation. A two-state solution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would still leave the “Zionist
entity” intact, would therefore offer little succor to the wounded
pride of any committed militant or, more crucial, to the pride of
those in the wider community who support and legitimize extremism and
“Sort Out Saudi Arabia and the Whole Problem Will Disappear”
No. Saudi Arabia has contributed significantly to the spread of
radicalism through the government-subsidized export of its Wahhabist
strand of hard-line Islam. This policy arose from the turmoil of the
late 1970s, when outrage over government corruption and the royal
family’s decadence prompted hundreds of Islamic radicals to occupy the
Grand Mosque in Mecca. The 1978-79 Shiite revolution in Iran
threatened Saudi leadership in the Muslim world and offered a
cautionary tale of the fate that could await the House of Saud. In an
effort to appeal to religious conservatives and counter the Iranian
regime, the royal family gave the Wahhabi clerics more influence at
home and a mandate to expand their ideology abroad.
Since then, Saudi money disbursed through quasi-governmental
organizations such as the Muslim World League has built hundreds of
mosques throughout the world. The Saudis provide hard-line clerics
with stipends and offer financial incentives to those who forsake
previous patterns of worship. In Pakistan, money from the Persian Gulf
has funded the massive expansion of madrasas (Islamic schools) that
indoctrinate young students with virulent, anti-Western dogma. This
Saudi-funded proselytism has enormously damaged long-standing tolerant
and pluralist traditions of Islamic observance in East and West
Africa, the Far East, and Central Asia. Wahhabism was virtually
unknown in northern Iraq until a massive push by Gulf-based
missionaries in the early 1990s. And many of the mosques known for
radical activity in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada were built
with donations from private and state sources in Saudi Arabia.
The inequities of the Saudi system-in which most people are very poor
and ruled by a super-rich clique-continues to create a sense of
disenfranchisement that allows extremism to flourish. Many of the most
militant preachers (and some of the Saudi hijackers who perpetrated
the September 11 terrorist attacks) come from marginalized tribes and
provinces. A more inclusive style of government and a more just
redistribution of resources would undercut the legitimacy of local
militants and deny radicals new recruits. Yet, while such reforms
might slow the spread of Wahhabism and associated strands outside
Saudi Arabia, in much of the world the damage has already been
done. As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia is one of
the many causes of modern Islamic militancy, but it has no monopoly on
“It Is Only a Matter of Time Before Islamic Militants Use Weapons of
Mass Destruction”
Calm down. Although Islamic militants (including bin Laden) have
attempted to develop a basic chemical or biological arsenal, those
efforts have been largely unsuccessful due to the technical difficulty
of creating, let alone weaponizing, such materials. As one of the
first journalists to enter the research facilities at the Darunta camp
in eastern Afghanistan in 2001, I was struck by how crude they
were. The Ansar al-Islam terrorist group’s alleged chemical weapons
factory in northern Iraq, which I inspected the day after its capture
in 2003, was even more rudimentary. Alleged attempts by a British
group to develop ricin poison, but for the apparent seriousness of the
intent, could be dismissed as farcical.
Nor is there any compelling evidence that militants have come close to
creating a “dirty bomb” (a conventional explosive packaged with
radioactive material). The claim that Jose Padilla, an alleged al
Qaeda operative arrested in the United States in 2002, had intended to
deploy a dirty bomb has been largely discounted-it was an aspiration
rather than a practical plan. Constructing a dirty bomb is more
difficult than most imagine. Although the International Atomic Energy
Agency warns that more than 100 countries have inadequate control of
radioactive material, only a small percentage of that material is
lethal enough to cause serious harm. It also requires considerable
technical sophistication to build a device that can effectively
disperse radioactive material. Some have also voiced the fear that
militants might obtain a “prepackaged” working nuclear warhead from
Pakistan. However, that would only be a plausible scenario if an
Islamic regime came to power, or if high-ranking elements of the
Pakistani military developed greater sympathy for the Islamists than
currently exists.
The 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in Japan highlights the
difficulties terrorist groups face in deploying weapons of mass
destruction. Despite possessing sophisticated research facilities
funded by an estimated $1 billion in assets, the group failed nine
times to launch a successful attack prior to the incident in the Tokyo
subway system. (Even then, the fatalities were mercifully limited to a
dozen people.) Confronted with such constraints, Islamic militants are
far more likely to use conventional bombs or employ conventional
devices in imaginative ways-as was the case with the September 11,
2001, attacks in the United States and the March 11, 2004, train
bombings in Spain.
“The West Is Winning the War on Terror”
Unfortunately, no. The military component of the war on terrorism has
had some significant success. A high proportion of those who
associated with bin Laden between 1996 and 2001 are now either dead or
in prison. Bin Laden’s own ability to commission and instigate terror
attacks has been severely curtailed. Enhanced cooperation between
intelligence organizations around the world and increased security
budgets have made it much harder for terrorists to move their funds
across borders or to successfully organize and execute attacks.
However, if countries are to win the war on terror, they must
eradicate enemies without creating new ones. They also need to deny
those militants with whom negotiation is impossible the support of
local populations. Such support assists and, in the minds of the
militants, morally legitimizes their actions. If Western countries are
to succeed, they must marry the hard component of military force to
the soft component of cultural appeal. There is nothing weak about
this approach. As any senior military officer with experience in
counterinsurgency warfare will tell you, it makes good sense. The
invasion of Iraq, though entirely justifiable from a humanitarian
perspective, has made this task more pressing.
Bin Laden is a propagandist, directing his efforts at attracting those
Muslims who have hitherto shunned his extremist message. He knows that
only through mass participation in his project will he have any chance
of success. His worldview is receiving immeasurably more support
around the globe than it was two years ago, let alone 15 years ago
when he began serious campaigning. The objective of Western countries
is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a
way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its
citizens. Bin Laden’s aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer
to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him.
Jason Burke is chief reporter for Britain’s Observer and author of
Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003).