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The Truth About Jihad

We say outright: these are madmen, yet these madmen have their own logic, their teaching, their code, their God even, and it’s as deepset as could be.”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky


Recall, for a moment, the mood in Washington immediately after September 11. There was grief, and rage, and bewilderment, followed closely by a grim determination to strike back. This last response evolved, in parts of the policymaking establishment, into a will to go beyond mere punishment or containment of the aggressor, and instead to exploit the moment in order to advance a much broader agenda.

This was understandable. America’s past offers many examples of seeming setbacks being turned to dramatic and lasting advantage. The sinking of the battleship Maine is one that comes to mind, or of the liner Lusitania by a German U-boat, or of half the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. More recently, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan exposed a vein that allowed America and its allies to bleed the decaying Evil Empire, just as Saddam Hussein’s lunge at Kuwait in 1990 revealed an opportunity to score a number of American goals, from smashing this dangerous man’s army, to testing and displaying the power of new weapons, to warning potential rivals away from the Gulf’s crucial oil resources.

All these strategic overreactions had something in common. In each case, the identity and nature of the enemy were abundantly clear. In most such cases, too, little discussion took place to clarify the stakes involved, the advantages to be gained, or the optimum means for winning them. (Which usually meant the application of overwhelming force.)

Yet while the strikes against New York and Washington seemed to fit the first part of this historical template, they did not quite suit the rest. Here was yet another of the “sneak attacks” that seem to have punctuated America’s rise, demanding yet another crushing response. But where and who was the enemy? What was his motivation for attacking in the first place? What, beyond merely destroying this adversary, was the strategic prize waiting to be gained, a prize that surely must be worthy of an unchallenged global superpower? Which were the appropriate tools to be used for this broader mission? What were the risks?

By now it is clear that in pursuing the grand counterstroke, American policy has gone somewhat astray. Perhaps our proclaimed values of liberty, tolerance, and the rule of law will, eventually and in some fashion, be seen to have triumphed. Perhaps America will be seen to have secured tangible strategic gains.1 Yet it is safe to say that the immediate opportunity offered by September 11 either to promote ideals or extend influence was misused.

The so-called Global War on Terror, or GWOT, as the Bush administration initially labeled America’s offensive against vaguely defined dark forces, certainly has achieved some successes—notably in Afghanistan where, for all the current unrest, life is perhaps less bleak than under Taliban rule. But American action has also proven hideously costly and inefficient. The cost to US taxpayers of offensive military operations alone since September 11 is widely reckoned at around $300 billion. The Iraq occupation is costing about $60 billion a year, a sum considerably larger than that country’s own GDP, and 20 percent more than New York City’s annual budget. Other costs include the lives of close to 1,800 US servicemen, as well as several thousand Afghans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, most of them civilians. Less tangible are losses to American prestige and credibility in much of the world, and the galvanizing of sympathy for forces that may be hostile to American interests. Every opinion survey of Muslims taken since September 11 shows deepening distrust of the United States. For example, the percentage of Saudis expressing confidence in America shrank from 60 percent in 2000 to just 4 percent in 2004. And of course the prime culprit, Osama bin Laden, remains at large.

To an extent, America has fallen into precisely the trap that the September 11 attackers believed they were setting. It has created new enemies. It has alienated old friends. Arguably, it has not made the world a safer place, as the recent London bombings showed.

The reasons for this failure are multiple. One might cite, for example, a predisposition to grab the most obvious weapons at hand, such as bombs and missiles, rather than resort to subtler means of persuasion. Another institutional handicap is the reflexive placing of blame for America’s predicament on external actors, such as so-called rogue states, as opposed to addressing the responsibility of America’s own policies (or of Washington’s imagination) in unintentionally helping to create its enemies. Other factors have obviously been at play, too, such as the political instinct to go for glory, to exploit the public’s fears, its desire for action and also for revenge. As we now know, such untempered political drives often translated into an ugly excess of zeal on the part of commanders and soldiers.

Particularly crucial, however, was the failure of America’s giant intelligence apparatus to perform its primary function, that of knowing the enemy. It proved incapable of delivering a simple understanding of who and what America was up against. Was it just Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization, and, if so, what made this man tick? What attracted people to his ideas? How best to defuse their potency? Was the danger “terror” in general, or rather a particular strain of Muslim fundamentalism, or was it perhaps some flaw in the Near Eastern body politic that rendered that whole region a breeding ground for hostility to America?

The answers to these questions have grown clearer over time. In fact, something of a consensus seems to be emerging about the causes, effects, and best means of dealing with violent Islamist radicalism. Sadly, however, as recent publications about this “enemy” show, the wisest counsel has emanated from outside the US policymaking establishment. Only now does it appear to be penetrating the Beltway.2


Jonathan Randal, a seasoned war correspondent who has written illuminating books on Lebanon’s civil war and on the Kurds, was drawn to the sub-ject of Osama bin Laden long before September 11. Osama: The Making of a Terrorist, his light and digressive look at the world’s number-one fugitive, partly biographical and partly analytical, does not unearth many fresh facts. The basic riches-to-rags story is, after all, pretty well known by now, and despite long years of trying, Randal never did hit the journalistic jackpot of a face-to-face meeting. (Amusingly, the closest he came was when the al-Qaeda mastermind instructed a Pakistani intermediary to scold Randal for the poor quality of the Arabic translation of his—declined—written request for an interview.)

Yet even without striking new insights, Randal’s combination of worldliness and stolid common sense stands in refreshing contrast to much commentary on the subject. For a start, he presents bin Laden and his like-minded global jihadists not as crazed fanatics but as rational actors. Their worldview is certainly different from most other movements, arising as it does from a peculiar set of historical assumptions, yet it is a fully coherent, internally consistent worldview nonetheless.

To take a small example, Randal explains that in the perception of Islamist radicals, the real Iron Curtain created by communism was not the one that separated Eastern and Western Europe but rather the one that cut off Muslims in Central Asia and the Caucasus from their coreligionists in the Muslim heartlands. So, as he points out, pursuing jihad in those regions “was less a question of expansionism than winning back what had been previously lost.” To them, in other words, the fall of the Soviet Union did not mark the conclusion of the cold war so much as the starting point of a potential Muslim reconquista.

The significance of such apprehensions has often been missed by Western policymakers. Randal quotes, for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, defending America’s jihad-breeding intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s by asking what was ultimately more important for the world, “some stirred-up Muslims or…the end of the Cold War?” Such arguments, taken by themselves, can seem cogent (if one assumes it was Afghanistan that finished the Soviets off, which is debatable). But when multiplied by a range of other US foreign policy initiatives that further “stirred up” Muslim sentiments, often needlessly, one begins to understand the processes behind the growing demonization of America on the part of Islamists. As Randal notes elsewhere, the trouble was that America “maddeningly dominated the globe but refused to set right the festering Palestines and Kashmirs.” The conclusion that many Muslims, and not just radicals, came to was that America’s seeming deafness to the plight of their fellow Muslims was not simply a national hearing impairment but was instead a deliberate policy aimed at dividing and weakening them.

It was the slow poisoning of attitudes toward America that provided bin Laden with a historic opportunity. This lanky seventeenth of his billionaire father’s twenty-four sons had done much to inspire young Muslims with the romance of anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. With the assassination of his ideological mentor, the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, in 1989, bin Laden rose to figurehead status within the swelling ideological current usually referred to in Arabic as the Jihadist Salafists, Salafism being a school that calls for blinkered adherence to the way of the salaf, or forebears, i.e., the early companions and interpreters of the Prophet.

Yet bin Laden found himself, by the mid-1990s, bottled up in the Afghan badlands, having been stripped of his Saudi nationality and booted out of ostensibly “Islamist”-ruled Sudan. Among his camp mates, the ragtag leftovers of the Muslim foreign legion of Afghanistan, the fire of armed jihad still burned. But their passion lacked a satisfactory immediate outlet. Radical insurgencies had been defeated, or severely constrained, across a number of local fronts, from Egypt to Algeria to the southern Philippines. Most ordinary Muslims in these countries, as Randal observes, had not merely failed to join in the fight but questioned its very premises.

With these so-called “near enemies” in Asia and the Middle East proving inconveniently resilient, the idea emerged of transferring jihadist zeal instead to the “far enemy.” Hitting the United States would in itself score points, considering that America was seen as a pillar of support for compromised Muslim regimes, such as Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s, that bin Laden had as his target. The boldness of attacking the strongest world power would propel Islam (or rather, the jihadists’ version thereof) onto the geo- political stage as a force demanding equal stature. This would not only inspire reluctant jihadists to join in the fight. It would also help cement the broader, and growing, Muslim sense that their faith was somehow under threat, and needed vigorous defense.

The September 11 attacks, destructive beyond the wildest dreams of their planners, were the extreme outcome of such thinking. “No doubt,” writes Randal,

  1. 1

    There are, for example, signs that the rift between America and Europe over the Iraq adventure is beginning to heal. Fainter signs are emerging, too, that American hopes of encouraging political progress in the Arab world are not entirely misplaced. And America has certainly underlined its strategic dominance of the Gulf, just when demand for the region’s oil is taking off in Asia.

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    A recent Brookings Institution publication proposes some admirably clear guidelines. “America’s primary enemy in the post 9/11 world is most appropriately identified, not as terrorism in a generic sense, but as Binladenism,” says the report, which goes on to recommend an appropriate course of action:

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