05 September 2007

How to Think About Al Qaeda

from FPRI.org


by Michael Radu

Al Qaeda is stronger now than at any time since 9/11, say some; it is
less strong than it could have become, answers the administration.
Congressional Democrats say that instead of catching Bin Laden, Bush took
his eyes off the ball and got mired in an irrelevant war in Iraq; the
White House replies that if we don't fight the jihadis in Iraq, we will
have to do so in Manhattan.

And so American politics argue in what seems to remain a cognitive
vacuum, confusing the public and producing inane statements from our
elected leaders. Had Al Qaeda consciously planned how to thoroughly
confuse the infidels, this would have been the ideal result. It is all
the persistent and inevitable outcome of executive delusions (jihadis are
"a small minority") and Democratic flippancy ("the war on
terrorism is a bumper sticker," Sen. John Edwards has charged)
against a background of popular ignorance and an oversupply of lawyers
and human rights activists. The result is that six years after 9/11 we
(and the Europeans are generally worse) are still fighting a war in a
conceptual fog--and not getting any close to winning it.

In reality, the nature and goals of the enemy, albeit complex, should
be quite clear, as should the ways to defeat it. Until we understand a few
key realities, we will continue to tread water and remain on the

Al Qaeda ("the base") is at the same time an Islamist totalitarian
terrorist organization and the particularly violent part of a global
Muslim revivalist movement. As the name implies, it was established as
a vanguard, elite organization, not dissimilar, conceptually, from
the previous Marxist Leninist self-selected vanguards of the proletariat
(Shining Path in Peru, Red Brigades in Italy, etc.), seeking to
reestablish Islam's historic (and mostly mythical) supremacy and purity
throughout the world via the unification of the umma, the Islamic
community, under a single political and religious leadership and
state--the Caliphate. The means to accomplish this is jihad, strictly
defined by the followers of this ideology as warfare.

Al Qaeda was not originally intended to exist as a territorial
base, but the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan unexpectedly
offered that opportunity. Al Qaeda took advantage of that opportunity, but
controlling those lands was neither intended nor absolutely necessary.
The same applies now to the wild areas of Pakistan that Al Qaeda uses for
refuge and training--they are important but not vital. That fact is still
misunderstood and explains the continuous surprise of some that after the
Taliban's fall in 2001 and the heavy losses it incurred at the time, Al
Qaeda did not die.

While it incessantly claims to be defending an Islamic umma under attack
from all sides--the most theologically convenient way to justify
jihad--Al Qaeda's ideology and strategy are aggressive and
revisionist. Al Qaeda aggressively attacks the home base of the
"Crusaders" (see 9/11 or the attacks in the UK) and revisionistically seeks
to reintegrate into the umma the long-lost territories of Islam, such as
Al-Andalus (the Iberian Peninsula).

Al Qaeda's ideology is rigorously anti-nationalist. That allows it to
attract alienated and poorly integrated elements among Muslim
communities in the West and explains in part the attraction it has
among Muslim elites everywhere. As Iraq today suggests, however, it could
also be a serious threat to the organization, since it also clashes
with the interests of established postcolonial elites and regionalist or
separatist groups (Kurds, Berbers, many Palestinians).

The enemies, and thus the targets, of jihad are a) all governing
regimes in the Muslim world (the "apostates"); b) their outside
manipulators, controllers and supporters (the "Crusaders" led by the
United States but including all Western states and Israel; c)
all other infidels "oppressing" Muslims (India for Kashmir,
Russia for Chechnya, China for Turkestan); and d) for the most radical
jihadis (the takfiris), all Muslims who do not actively support the
cause and, especially, the Shias. While these are all enemies, the
priority given to each depends on circumstances, capabilities and

This latter fact is another cause of confusion in the West, as demonstrated
by the case of Iraq. While an Al Qaeda associate group did have a small
presence in Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the spring of 2003, at least on a large
scale Iraq is a target of opportunity. Al Qaeda's growth (or present
decline) there depends on the chaos and confusion that followed the
2003 invasion and the vacuum created by the fall of Saddam. The scale of
and media attention on its presence in Iraq aside, Al Qaeda's role there
follows the same pattern as in Afghanistan and Chechnya in the late
1990s, or Somalia more recently - it tries to implant
itself wherever a political vacuum or persistent instability develop
in the midst of military conflict. Lebanon, Gaza, the Sahel, southern
Thailand and Philippines are, or should be expected to become, such areas
of implantation. In all such cases Al Qaeda interferes in an evolving
conflict, exacerbates it, and tries to channel the outcome towards its own
goals and translate local motivations into a coherent ideological and
global cause.

It is precisely this Al Qaeda piggybacking on existing conflicts that
makes the often heard distinctions between our fighting sectarian
conflict or Al Qaeda in Iraq nonsensical. Al Zarkawi stirred up the
Sunni-Shia conflict but did not invent it, and separating the two in
practical terms is not a serious proposition, any more than trying to do so
in Afghanistan between Taliban, Pakistani Islamist spillover, and Al
Qaeda. For Al Qaeda such parasitic behavior serves to magnify its
influence, and it will try to repeat it in every possible
circumstance. This fits perfectly in the organization's elite, vanguardist
ideology. It sees itself and behaves as the spearhead of global jihad, not
as its rank and file.

Ultimately, what seems to escape so many commentators, especially among
politicians, is that Al Qaeda is two things simultaneously: (1) a
violent Islamist organization with worldwide tentacles and a small
core leadership of ideologues and strategists, and (2) part and parcel
of a large and growing political-religious movement of Islamist revival.
The organization tries to channel and recruits from the movement, and the
latter looks to it for strategic direction and, often, tactical purpose.

The Islamic revivalist movement that is by now dominant in most of the
Muslim world from Malaysia to Morocco, including huge segments of the Muslim
communities in the West, shares some of Al Qaeda's basic ideological
tenets: that Islam is in crisis and under attack, from inside and outside
by alien, Western, mostly American influence and domination. Roughly put,
Islamic countries and Muslims generically are victims of the West. The
only solution is a return to the "original"
principles of the faith, those that gave it world importance and power
centuries ago, and to umma unity and solidarity.

These basic perceptions are shared by a majority of Muslims and Islamic
organizations everywhere, from the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest, to
individuals and smaller groups, whether in Muslim-majority countries or in
the West. While refuge in religious revivalism as an answer to
civilizational, political and military decline is far from unique to Islam,
its contemporary manifestation is largely Islamic.

The interface between the general perception of Islam as victim of the
West--a perception often encouraged by Western elites themselves--and Al
Qaeda's (or the Salafi) view that the victimization is largely due to naked
aggression is thin. This is demonstrated by a seldom noticed aspect of the
reaction of nonviolent, even anti-Al Qaeda groups and personalities,
including those in the West, to Islamist terrorism.
Those groups have steadfastly opposed not just the conflict in Iraq,
where the arguments used in favor of the U.S.-led intervention could always
be debated, but also the 2001 U.S.-led attack on the Taliban. Indeed,
almost always in Islamic critiques of American and British
policies, whether they come from London or Riyadh, the Muslim Brothers
or others, Afghanistan is mentioned in the same breath as Baghdad. Since the
removal of the Taliban and its Al Qaeda proteges was a clear-cut case of
self-defense, Muslim condemnations of the Afghan operations could only
mean that umma solidarity is more important to them than the Taliban's
crimes. Precisely the kind of attitude Al Qaeda needs to thrive.

Where most of the Islamic revivalist movement and its supporters
depart from Al Qaeda's ideology is the method whereby Islam is to be
renewed. In that sense, Western leaders' claim that "most Muslims"
reject jihadism is correct, but far from encouraging. Despite attempts,
such as those sponsored by Jordan's Crown prince Hassan to have
respected imams condemn jihadi terrorism (the method not the ideas leading
to it), not only has no important Sunni scholar declared Bin Laden
a non-Muslim (the most influential, Al-Qaradawi, would rather let
Allah decide), but many large Islamist organizations, such as Hizb ut
Tahrir (an international Party of Liberation) or the Tablighis
(Muslims missionary movement), could and do claim to be seeking the
Caliphate by nonviolent means while their recruits often "graduate" to
jihadism--again, same beliefs, different methods, and all unhelpful.
Thus, even when revivalist Islamists sincerely claim to oppose jihadism,
they are voluntarily tying their own hands. Hence the eternal and
annoying "we condemn terrorism . . . but" that so confuses Western
politicians, media and publics.

Why, in this context, anyone in the West would expect such Muslims, as a
whole or organized ones, to condemn anything other than acts of terrorism is
a mystery.

The relationships between the different Al Qaeda parts of the movement are
dynamic, both centripetal and centrifugal at the same time.

Centripetal. The centripetal expansion of the movement follows general,
indeed universal terrorist patterns of recruitment and indoctrination. In
the specific case of Al Qaeda this means two distinct, but related methods.

The first is centered on the thousands of trainees who graduated from
the Afghan camps prior to the end of 2001, who returned to their
countries of origin--Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and countries in North
Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Once back, they
either established cells or founded or radicalized existing
organizations (the cases of Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon). These people
know and share Al Qaeda core's ideology and many retain ties, including
personal ones, with it and with each other.

A typical case is that of Saad Houssaini, a.k.a. Moustapha, one of Al
Qaeda's most prominent cadres in Spain and North Africa. Born in Meknes,
Morocco, from a middle-class family (his father was a professor)--an almost
universal pattern among Al Qaeda cadres, Houssaini obtained a government
scholarship to study chemistry and physics at the University of Valencia in
Spain. It was there that he was attracted, or recruited, to Islamism under
the influence of Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, the London-based ideologue and
leader of Al- Nahda (the Revival), Tunisia's major Islamist organization.
Already under Spanish surveillance, in 1997 he fled to Taliban's
Afghanistan where he underwent further training in explosives in Al Qaeda
camps, met other Moroccans, Bin Laden, Al Zarkawi and Al Zawahiri--the
latter was a witness at his marriage. Following the U.S. attack in the
fall of 2001, he returned to Morocco in April 2002, became a founder of GICM
(Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, now part of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic
Maghreb--AQIM) and trainer of its bomb makers. By September 2006 he was
running a network of Moroccan volunteers to Iraq, until his arrest in
March 2007.[1] It was under the influence of one of the
many "nonviolent" Islamist ideologues in Spain harbored by
"Londonistan" that he was radicalized, shifted to jihadism, established
personal ties to the Al Qaeda core, and later served as a force
multiplier for the organization thousands of miles away.

Second, Al Qaeda's central core (Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Khaled Sheikh
Mohammed, etc.) have sometimes accepted and given their "brand
copyright" to organizations formed independently, such as the Algerian
Salafi Group for Combat and Preaching, which last year became the
AQIM, or autonomously, like Al Zarkawi's group, now Al Qaeda in

Like metastasized cancerous tumors, members and trainees of these formal Al
Qaeda franchises, and some informal ones, like Southeast Asia's Jemaah
Islamiah, spread the ideology and expand the committed membership of the

Centrifugal. There is, however, another dynamic within the movement, a
centrifugal one. This consists of thousands of individual Muslims, many
from the West and including a disproportionate number of converts to
Islam, who have no personal ties to the Al Qaeda core or its main
franchises, but feel attracted to its ideology and the methods it uses.
With each spectacular jihadi attack or campaign, their numbers grow and
they flock to the latest battlefield, as defined by Al Zawahiri in his
Al Jazeera statements or by the innumerable jihadi Internet sites and
their do-it- yourself jihad recipes.

There is not always a clearly defined line between the two dynamics--Al
Qaeda recruiting for its cause and would be, self-recruited jihadis
seeking a battle under its flag, or at least its cause.

The case of Shaker Al-Abssi, the leader of Fatah Al-Islam in the Palestinian
refugee camp of Nahr Al-Bared, near Tripoli, Lebanon, lately under assault
by that country's army, is revealing. A Palestinian born in a camp near
Jericho, his family migrated to Jordan after 1967, and he joined Yasser
Arafat's Fatah as a teenager. The organization sent him to study medicine,
but he dropped out in favor of becoming a pilot, receiving training in
Libya and later serving as an instructor in South Yemen. Later he
participated in combat, on the winning Sandinista side in Nicaragua and
on the losing Libyan side in that country's conflict with Chad.
Disappointed with Arafat's corruption, he joined dissident, pro-Syrian
factions and moved to Damascus, where he discovered religion and
became a fervent believer. Afterward he became associated with Al Zarkawi's
group in Iraq and Jordan, and was sentenced to death in absentia for his
role in murdering an American diplomat in Amman in 2002. Why? Because,
says his brother Abdel Razak, a doctor, "The Palestinians have tried
Marxism and Arab nationalism. All failed. I believe that for Shaker
Islamism was the ultimate solution." Now, claims his family, "we wait for
him to become a martyr, hoping that his death will be the fuel that will set
on fire the Palestinian cause."[2]

This, then, is a case of a rebel in search of a global ideological and
strategic anchor to articulate and justify his fight for a particular
cause. Associating with Al Qaeda satisfied both needs. The fact that Fatah
Al-Islam is seen as both an Al Qaeda spin-off and a Syrian tool should not be
confusing, not in light of the organization's pattern of tactically
piggybacking other causes.

Another good example is a new jihadist group, Ansar al Islam fi Sahara al
Bilad al Mulazamin (The followers of Islam in Sahara, the land of those
lifting the veil). Made up of Moroccans, Algerians, and Mauritanians,
dissident elements of AQIM, it first surfaced in June 2007. Ansar refuses
to obey direct orders from Al Qaeda's core, all the while telling the
latter that "You should know that we are in the same trench." Indeed, it
shares Al Qaeda's well-known obsession with the "recovery" of Al-Andalus
and hatred for all North African governments and France.[3] This is a
perfect example of what French analysts call the "Al Qaeda
nebula"--a multiplying system of jihadi groups ideologically,
but not always hierarchicaly, tied to the core group. We are once again
confronted with the interface of movement and terrorist group.

German-Turkish author Nacla Kelek was right when he pointed out that

"Politicians and religious scholars of all faiths are right in pointing out
that there are many varieties of Islam, that Islamism and Islam should not
be confused, that there is no line in the Koran that would justify
murder. But the assertion that radical Islamic fundamentalism and Islam
have nothing to do with each other is like asserting that there was no link
between Stalinism and Communism."[4]

But just as Stalinism (and Pol Pot or Mao) was made possible by the mass of
usually peaceful and naive believers in the Marxist Utopia, Al Qaeda and
its nebula are permanently feeding up from the growing Islamic revivalist
movement. To separate the two should be the goal of Muslims and non-
Muslims alike, since they are all targets of jihadism. To deny the
intimate link between the two is to deny reality.

By making artificial distinctions between the two, one only postpones and
avoids the real struggle..


[1] For his career, see "Adil Boukhima, Portrait: Le Marocain d'Al
Qaida," TelQuel (Casablanca), May 17, 2007; Craig Whitlock, "In Morocco's
'Chemist,' A Glimpse of Al- Qaeda Bombmaker Typified Resilient Network,
Washington Post, July 7, 2007; Driss Bennani, Abdellatif El Azizi, Ismail
Bellaouali and Lahcen Aouad, "Enquete. Au-dela de la
panique," Tel Quel, July 5, 2007.

[2] Cecile Hennion, "De la colere au djihad, le chef du Fatah Al-Islam
raconte par son frere," Le Monde, June 5, 2007.

[3] Antonio Baquero and Jordi Corach n , "Actividad
Extremista En El Desierto. Un nuevo grupo terrorista magreb¡ amenaza a
Espana," El Periodico (Barcelona), July 12, 2007.

[4] Quoted by Peter Schneider, "The New Berlin Wall," New York Times, Dec.
4, 2005.

No comments: