Kamal — Bin Laden's self-defeating jihad

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compliments of shobak:
Bin Laden’s self-defeating jihad By Gilles Kepel Published: September 7 2004
20:47 | Last updated: September 7 2004 20:47
Three years after the September 11 attacks, the hostage-taking in North
Ossetia and its horrendous outcome and the capture of two French journalists
in Iraq have shed new light on the challenges facing Islamist terrorism. In
his 2001 pamphlet, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, Ayman al-Zawahiri,
al-Qaeda’s ideologue, reminded his readers that the “jihadist vanguard” was
always at risk of being isolated from the “Muslim masses”. He wrote that the
jihadists needed to find ways of mobilising those masses towards the supreme
political goal: the triumph of the Islamic state and the implementation of
Islamic law worldwide. Dr Zawahiri considered the 1990s a decade of failed
opportunities. Jihad had been unsuccessful in Algeria, Bosnia, Egypt and
Kashmir because militants had proved unable to galvanise civil society. To
reverse this trend, he came up with the idea of spectacular terrorism to
shock the enemy and make the Muslim masses see the jihadists as “Knights”.
The September 11 attacks were conceived by Dr Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden as a way of “magnifying” jihad against Israel and “burning the hands of the US”, Islam’s “faraway enemy” and the chief ally of the Jewish state. But three years on, this ideology has not achieved its goal. Although al-Qaeda
has resisted cold war-inspired US military strategy (Mr bin Laden and Dr
Zawahiri remain on the run) and directed a succession of bloody terrorist
attacks – from Bali to Madrid – jihad activists have not seized power
anywhere. They have lost their Afghan stronghold and US-led coalition troops
have pursued the war on terror to Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime and
occupying Baghdad, erstwhile capital of the Muslim Caliphate. For the ulema
– the Islamic scholars – this is a catastrophe. Instead of making inroads
into enemy territory, jihad has backfired and led to what they call fitna –
a war in the heart of Islam that has pitted Shia against Sunni, Arab against
Kurd, Muslim against Muslim, and brought nothing but chaos. In Palestine,
jihad has also so far led to fitna: the Palestinian Authority has lost
influence, while Ariel Sharon’s government has built a fence that keeps away
most suicide bombers and will choke the Palestinian economy. Jihadists are
at a crossroads: they are looking desperately for new slogans and modes of
action that will trigger mass mobilisation. This is the context for the
North Ossetia massacre and the abduction of the French journalists. Even
though large numbers of Chechens resent Kremlin policy and look forward to
independence, only a few identify with Islamist radicals, who tried to
hijack the whole Chechen independence movement. Taking hundreds of children
hostage was supposed to show that Vladimir Putin’s policy towards Chechnya
had failed. Jihad activists had hoped to compel Moscow to come to terms, but
the tactic has alienated Muslim opinion. Mr Putin could have exploited this
revulsion. Instead, the Russian establishment, drawn from the ranks of the
old KGB, decided to storm the school, turning the Beslan massacre into the
worst terrorist incident since September 11 in terms of casualties. Russia’s
politicians have demonstrated that they do not understand the nature of the
challenge. They are using obsolete methods and weapons that were designed in
Soviet days to curb dissidents but are ineffectual against 21st century
Islamist terrorism. The US – in spite of its “smart” weapons, crafted to win
the cold war – has fared no better in its attempts to destroy the al-Qaeda
leadership. The French journalists’ abduction by the “Islamic Army in Iraq”,
which tried to blackmail Jacques Chirac into cancelling the law banning
religious symbols in French schools, and its near-unanimous condemnation by
the Muslim world, provide another opportunity for an alternative approach to
fighting terrorism. Even Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hizbollah were
adamant in their denunciation of the hostage-taking: not out of love for
impious France, but because they believed the kidnapping would provoke
fitna. The Islamic Army thought it had a winning strategy: on Arab
television stations Islamist activists daily portray French secularism as
persecution of Muslims. But the strategy has backfired. France’s policy in
the Middle East – its criticism of the US-led war in Iraq and its view of
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – is more important to opinion in the
region than its stance on secularism. Scores of French citizens of Muslim
descent have appeared on Arab TV since the kidnapping, vehemently opposing
the Islamic Army’s claims that it speaks in their name. Jihadists have had
to backpedal and are now seeking a ransom rather than a change in the law.
The Muslim reaction to these incidents suggests Moscow, Washington and their
allies could try to beat al-Qaeda at its own game. Instead, by concentrating
on the military option, Russia and the US are missing an opportunity to
mobilise Muslim civil society against Islamist terrorism and dry out the
social swamps from which it springs. The writer, professor and chair of
Middle East Studies at the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques in
Paris, is the author of The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West
(Harvard University Press)