What are the chief factors responsible for the rise of Islamist terrorist groups & holy war?
It was May 2011, and the world braced for another raw wave of global terror attacks. Al-Qaeda just publicly vowed to avenge the murder of their leader, Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man. The British and American authorities immediately declared a severe level of terrorist threat and scurried to increase their national security at airports and other transportation hubs. The police were placed on heightened alert on the bustling city streets to look out for any suspicious activity at the ground level. Anjem Choudary, the former leader of the banned UK-based al-Muhajirun Islamist group, eerily warned the West of upcoming fatal attacks of the likes of 7/7. Prominent leaders of the West – Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, William Hague, David Cameron – simultaneously announced to their citizens the importance of continued vigilance and that ‘the battle goes on.’ But what exactly is al-Qaeda? How did it become so influential to resonate such a deadly tune throughout the world? And why has Islamist terrorism increased so rapidly in recent decades?
To a well-informed Westerner, al-Qaeda is an international terrorist organization that assimilated over two decades ago by a wealthy Saudi Arabian Wahhabist, Osama bin Laden. It is a fantastically powerful network with a defined ideology and personnel that operate globally under his order. This organization is comprised of thousands of driven fanatics that are trained to kill in deadly terrorist tactics for their cause. They are planted in different countries, on every continent, waiting as they lead ordinary lives for the orders to come from above to strike the unexpecting society. It is good news, then, that this type of a tight-knit, ‘octopus’ organization does not truly exist. In fact, when American forces managed to seize the camp base in Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaeda was just five years old.
Upon the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, investigators were diligent to name the group responsible for the invasive aggression. Within days of the fatal attack, ‘al-Qaeda’ – roughly translated as ‘the base’ from Arabic – had been painted in the Western public discourse as an ‘all-encompassing terror network’ that is headed by bin Laden at his headquarters in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. This is not to imply that al-Qaeda does not exist, but point out that such ill-defined labeling misconstrues bin Laden’s group into something that it is truly not. To see al-Qaeda in such a narrow light leads to misunderstandings with the nature of Islamic radicalism then and now.
Before we describe and attempt to understand al-Qaeda in the present, we have to look back to its origin. It is true that the word ‘al-Qaeda’ – which can also mean foundation, principle, maxim, model, and rule – was used in the mid-eighties by Islamic radicals during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But it was to mundanely describe the literal base from which they operated in during the war. Nearing the end of the war, an early spiritual role model to bin Laden, Abdallah Azzam, was enthused by this mujahideen – struggle – and creatively expanded the meaning of ‘al-Qaeda’ to a ‘mode of activism,’ a tactic, in 1987. He was not referring to the idea of creating an actual extant organization, but a foundation composed of dedicated Muslims from around the world, from which they can instigate active revolutionary change, past their geographical borders, and onto a global scale. Bin Laden and some of his close associates took Azzam’s conception, and by 1988, had set up a militant base comprising of a dozen men in Peshawar, Pakistan. But it was neither referred to as ‘al-Qaeda’ in an organizational fashion nor operative as a network group until the late nineties.
Such emergence of a group should not be considered a new phenomenon. Bin Laden’s group was one of many other similar groups of enthused militants in other parts of the Muslim world. Islamic militancy pre-dates the war in Afghanistan by a couple of thousands of years; since the first recorded jihad – defensive war – by the Prophet Mohammad during the earliest strands of Islam faith. There were already thousands of militants, calloused and radicalized by their victory against the Soviets that eventually created or were already part of other Islamic radical groups, headed by leaders with funds, charm, knowledge, and skills as bin Laden. Bin Laden’s activism is nothing bigger than a part of an early modern Islamic militant history as a whole. The few times that the word ‘al-Qaeda’ or the name ‘Osama bin Laden’ was ever mentioned in the early 1990’s was when the Encyclopedia of Jihad, an eleven-volume summary of modern terrorist tactics and strategies of warfare produced in Pakistan, acknowledged Azzam and bin Laden as credible contributors. A few months before the 1993 World Trade Center bomb plot, a militant was caught in JFK carrying a manual called al-Qaeda, correctly translated at the time as ‘the basics.’ When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden spent most of his energy on protecting his native land, Saudi Arabia, and eventually fled to Sudan until 1996. The start up of al-Qaeda in this period remained a standstill.
Between the years 1996 and 2001, al-Qaeda gradually matured. By mid-1996, bin Laden officially declared a jihad against the US for their invasive military presence in Saudi Arabia, just as the Arabs had previously done with the Soviet Union. Religious scholars consented with this declaration, and al-Qaeda steadily gained influential power as inspired Arabs – mostly Saudis and Yemenis – travelled to bin Laden’s training camps now stationed in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was able to centralize modern Islamic militancy and provide tools in terms of resources and facilities. Training, finances, arms, supplies, expertise, and a safe haven were provided for the voluntary militants, scarce resources that individuals or external groups have been trying to obtain in the past.
Al-Qaeda’s rise during this period is threefold: the heart, body, and mind. The first thing is the heart, al-Qaeda’s solid infrastructure in a convenient location. Any functional group needs a strong framework in a workable environment. After his fatwa against the West, bin Laden charismatically attracted many active experienced militants from all over the world to join his small group. This formed the core of al-Qaeda’s capability, the heart pumping life into the body. In the Al-Sharq al-Awsat (2002), it revealed a letter that was recovered at the base on a computer. The letter was shrewdly coded to make the base seem like an innocent start-up business. In reality, it explained the importance of gathering skilled Islamic militants under one congregation and the critical use of Afghanistan as a safe haven, using the words ‘profitable trade’ for terrorist operations, threat of ‘international monopoly companies’ for Western governments, and ‘traders’ for militants.
Afghanistan was an excellent place to mobilize, specifically designed and available for Islamic militants. After years of struggling to fight for their cause in their own countries under domestic security surveillance and pressure from international intelligence agencies and forces, everything was suddenly available to them with no distractions or concerns. A majority of these men that pledged loyalty to bin Laden in return for his services were former soldiers that took part in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Egypt, and Algeria. Others have been fighting for the Islamic cause for nearly a decade. And the rest are complete neophytes to Islamic militancy. By 2001, al-Qaeda, a group that started out with a dozen or so associates, became a hardcore that brimmed over a hundred highly driven trained members from all parts of the Islamic world, pooling their talents to seek out the same agenda.
The second component to al-Qaeda’s rise is the body, the network of co-opted groups. With the increase of members, al-Qaeda had links to other militant Islamic groups around the world. To clarify, these groups were neither created by bin Laden, nor are directly part of an international network under a giant al-Qaeda umbrella. It is not unusual for groups with the similar objectives and beliefs to have some kind of associations with each other. In the ex-Soviet Central Asia, surrounding regions, and even overseas of the 1990’s, it was a scene of multiplication of independently coordinated Islamic movements – some interconnected with each other, some not – of various sizes, forms, and power. But not all groups agreed with each other, and their relationships with the members of al-Qaeda were often tenuous. Complex ethnic and inter-religion divisions, rivalries, interpersonal relations, differing strategies and methods obstructed any real unity. Others were solely interested in the affairs within their own country. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) continuously rejected bin Laden’s co-opt attempts in 1993, as well as the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, in fear that being affiliated with a Saudi could taint their image in their native land. Despite this, most groups were willing to develop interpersonal relations with al-Qaeda and bin Laden.
Altogether, these links formed a loose set of complex and diverse networks, helping each other to develop bigger and stronger. Abu Doha in London, Abu Abdullah al-Shami in Jordan, and al-Nahiri in Yemen accepted missions or acted as recruiters for al-Qaeda and bin Laden in exchange for resources. Vice-versa, al-Qaeda often acted as a venture-capitalist firm, where groups would submit projects and plan proposals to be sponsored by al-Qaeda; al-Qaeda will then fund the plans that seemed the most ‘profitable,’ ranging from small amounts of cash to big-time investments. In 2000, a Saudi named Mohammad al-Tubaiti arrived to the camps of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and offered his services of martyrdom for any operation in the name of Islam. He was curtly denied, the senior associates instructing him to go back, formulate a plan, and ‘submit it for approval like everyone else.’ Djamel Beghal of France, Ahmed Ressam of Canada, Abu Hoshar of Jordan, and others were examples of links between al-Qaeda’s infrastructure and the ‘rest of the vast, amorphous movement of modern radical Islam, with its myriad cells, domestic groups, ‘groupuscules’ and splinters,’ all joining the ‘networks of networks.’ But, what compels these groups and individuals to willingly co-opt with bin Laden, just to commit horrific attacks that could potentially end their lives?
This leads us to the third element, the mind: ideology. It is the most essential factor that drives extremists to resort to terrorism. Islamic ideology is the worldview that Islamic militants believe to be true and only. It is the comprehensive vision that allows them to constitute their goals, expectations, and actions through terrorism. Generally, a majority of Westerners would accuse al-Qaeda and similar groups to be simple religious zealots, brainwashed by Islam, and completely ignorant of international politics, law and freedom. But if they take a closer look, there is more to it than simply Islam. Bin Laden’s agenda is actually considered very political, shrouded in religious terminology and imagery. Since 1996, his statements and demands have included the expulsion of American forces in Saudi Arabia, reformations in currency, sanitation and taxation, and the end of oppression of Muslim ethnic groups such as the Palestinians, Chechens, and Kashmiri people. He also condemned the sanctions imposed on Iraq, the nuclear weapons used during World War II and their continued development thereafter, the support for Israel, and human rights abuses, majorly blaming these events on the US. Al-Qaeda also expressed environment and climate change concerns when they posted a document titled, Letter to America, on their website, indicating the US to be the biggest contributor to pollution and industrial waste, evident when the US refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. As we can see, the ideology of al-Qaeda is based on the mixture of religious interpretation of Islamic history and the current social, economic and political problems of the Muslim world.
But before we indulge in Islamic ideology in relation to current events, we need to determine where this radical thought derived from. Throughout Islamic history, revivalism and reformation have always been a reoccurring phenomenon. There is the standard revivalist movement where it dictates for all Muslims to return to the fundamental principles of Islam, such as the teachings of Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism and arguably, Salafism. And then there is the modern movement, known as Islamic Modernism, that have similar implications declared by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the Communist Manifesto: ‘History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’; meaning to an Islamist that history is comprised of battles between good and evil, between the Muslims and non-Muslims.
Syed Abul A’ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb were particular prominent figures of Islamic modern thought in the 20th century, and heavily influenced Islamic militancy today. Maududi is a Pakistani revivalist and founder of Jamaat-e-Islami that conceptualized an ‘Islamic state.’ He believed that Islam is all-encompassing, where Sharia – Islamic law – should be practiced beyond the ‘homeland of Islam,’ and establish a worldwide Islamic state. He encourages the use of jihad to eliminate the lands with un-Islamic rule. Maududi also placed emphasis on the word kafir, meaning ‘disbeliever,’ to be used for non-Muslims throughout the world. In his book, The Islamic Movement, he declares that the only way ‘left to please God’ is to struggle to remove ‘nonbelievers’ and leave a society consisted of ‘the righteous.’
Sayyid Qutb is an Egyptian theorist and took the adoptive parent role in the Muslim Brotherhood after the late Hasan al-Banna. Qutb was an ardent anti-West activist, radicalized by his experience in the US and in the Egyptian prisons under President Nasser in the 1950’s. He adapted to Maududi’s model of the ‘Islamic state,’ but developed it further. Maududi believed in gradualism, where Islamism gains power through parliamentary democracy, supportive military, and coercion with the West. However, Qutb declared that in order for world change, there needs to be an immediate all-out war.
Inspired by his inhumane and torturous experiences in prison and his resentment for faulty Muslim political leaders, he wrote his book, Milestones, claiming that the world was divided into two: Islam and jahiliyah – the ignorant. Qutb declared jihad directly against the jahiliya. After his execution in 1966, the Muslim Brotherhood coined the phrase, ‘Islam is the solution,’ to promote their campaign for worldly change in the name of Islam. These ideologues and many others incepted the idea of internationalizing Islam through the aggressive use of jihad. Their key message was that Islam is not simply a spiritual religion, but a political ideology that have to be acted upon in the name of God. In the words of Hasan al-Banna: ‘Allah is our Lord. Muhammad is our Leader. The Koran is our constitution. Jihad is our way. Martyrdom is our desire’.
This is the blueprint of al-Qaeda’s ideology. Bin Laden was impressed by Qutb’s form of direct ideology, and it particularly gained notoriety for inspiring jihadists, often found ‘citing Sayyid Qutb repeatedly and considering themselves his intellectual descendants.’ They follow a form of ‘jihadism,’ where it is characterized by the willingness to kill the kafir and an emphasis on jihad. With this extreme ideology instilled in modern Islamic militants, they see themselves as resistance fighters with a justifiable cause. Ed Husain, a British ex-radical Islamist activist, confessed that he unconsciously thought of those in opposition with Islam as ‘somehow less human and thus expendable in the Islamist pursuit of political dominion.’ Looking back, Husain mentioned he would often be left astounded on the influential powers of Islamism to the Muslim’s mind. Al-Qaeda and its networks and other international Islamist groups dispersed and caused significant radicalization throughout the world, either in radical mosques, religious meetings, or on the Internet. To them, the idea of global Islamism is a waiting reality to be materialized.
It would be quite difficult to also characterize this broad spectrum of Islamic militants in any analytic fashion. They all come from diverse and varied backgrounds in regards to education, experiences, professions, cultures, and societies. But, there are generally two distinct types of groups in this modern Islamic movement. The first group is regarded as the ‘intellectuals.’ This is the group that creates the alluring attraction to Islamism and militancy by dressing the package in fancy articulate religious snipping, usually taking up dominating leader roles and advocating for change. Resentful and angered, this change is to fight against what they perceive as ongoing injustice of political and socio-economic grievances: the rise in economic power by East Asia and the Jews compared to their region’s second rate status, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, and the military aggression and cultural indecency by the West. Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Doha, Omar Saeed Sheikh, Khalid Seikh Muhammad, and prominent others are considered to be part of this group.
The second group consists of the wave of Islamic extreme activists that gradually appeared throughout the past few decades. They are distinguished as marginalized, less educated, and more radical and violent, driven by bigotry and anti-Semitism. They are usually recruited by jihadi groups from the most destitute and brutal areas, ranging from Morocco to Southeast Asia, and coerced with fanatic Islamism. They are also more inclined to commit suicide bombings. The suicide bombers of the catastrophic 2002 Bali and the 2003 Casablanca bombings were largely uneducated and from poor slum communities. This plight has now shifted to the West, where you have the likes of Richard Reid, a British petty criminal that attempted to blow up a commercial aircraft in-flight in 2001, or Nizar Tribelsi, an unemployed drug addict and Tunisian refugee that attempted to attack a Belgian airbase of American soldiers. This brief dichotomy is not austere, and the groups do overlap. But it gives a sense of why Islamic militants choose a terrorist’s path.
In the past decade, there has been a progressive understanding of the true nature of al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups. Living in a post-9/11 world, previous counterterrorism tactics and strategies were updated to accommodate the new definition. Yet, the misconceptions of al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations are still persistent in the public consciousness, and for good reason. It would be widely difficult to apprehend modern radical Islamic militancy – a continuous morphing historical and intricate phenomenon – and would be more convenient to condense it all into simple ideas. It is easier to think that one man is responsible for everything, summing the imminent terror threat under one super group. In essence, the word ‘al-Qaeda’ is a useful shorthand term. Although the recent bombing in Tora Bora by US forces made Afghanistan now an unfavorable destination for aspiring terrorists and severely weakened al-Qaeda’s infrastructure, it did nothing to expunge their Islamic ambitions, their mind, their ideology. Thus, the battle indeed goes on.
Tagged War Studies