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The Rise of the Muslim Terrorists

Al Qaeda in Its Own Words

edited by Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli, translated from the Arabic by Pascale Ghazaleh
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 363 pp., $27.95

1.

In London eight men—all British nationals—are currently on trial for an alleged 2006 plot to destroy seven transatlantic aircraft in mid-air, using liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks. According to the prosecution they could have killed some 1,500 people, nearly half the number of those who died in the September 11 attacks. The airport security staff were to have their attentions distracted by “dirty” magazines in the would-be suicide bombers’ hand luggage—a neat example of jihad-by-pornography, fighting the infidel West with its own salacious habits.

In a video testament intended for posthumous transmission, one of the would-be martyrs berates the British people for their apathy toward their government’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan:

This is revenge for the actions of the USA in the Muslim lands and their accomplices such as the British and the Jews…. Most of you [are] too busy…watching Home and Away and EastEnders [two popular TV soaps], complaining about the World Cup, drinking your alcohol, to even care anything…. I know because I’ve come from that.

What are the forces that drive young men such as these to commit mass murder? The question is addressed from different perspectives in all of the books under review.

A convincing analysis is offered by Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and consultant to the US government, in his Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century. After examining some five hundred individual cases using “open source” data from court proceedings, media accounts, academic writings, and selected Internet materials, Sageman sets his gaze on what he calls the “middle range.” These are the social networks and intellectual milieus through which defendants in terrorist trials are recorded as operating. Contrary to widespread assumptions, he finds that they are not to be distinguished from their nonterrorist peers by extremes of hatred for the West:

It is actually difficult to convince people to sacrifice themselves just because they hate their target…. On the contrary, it appears that it is much more common to sacrifice oneself for a positive reason such as love, reputation, or glory.

A common theme, however, was geographical displacement. A very high proportion of his sample—84 percent—belonged to the Muslim diasporas, with a majority joining global Islamist terrorist movements in a country where they did not grow up. The Hamburg cell that provided the leadership for September 11 was typical of his wider sample: they were Middle Eastern students in Germany, who traveled to Afghanistan to join the fight against America.

Sageman pays close attention to family networks, with about one fifth of his sample having close family ties with other global Islamic activists. His point is strongly reinforced by Bilveer Singh in The Talibanization of Southeast Asia, his study of jihadist groups in Southeast Asia. Singh sees kinship as being a vital element in the makeup of al-Jamaat al-Islamiyah—the organization responsible for the Bali nightclub bombings in October 2002. The people who form terror groups have to know and trust one another. In most Muslim societies it is kinship, rather than shared ideological values, that generates relations of trust.

Although drawn from the professional middle classes, the terrorists and “wannabes” studied by Sageman are not pious intellectuals who may be persuaded—or dissuaded—by religious arguments. Most of them—especially those belonging to the younger generation or “third wave” of Islamist terrorists—are less well educated than earlier generations, especially in religious matters. Indeed he suggests that this very ignorance contributes to their susceptibility to extremism. Sageman writes:

The defendants in terrorism trials around the world would not have been swayed by an exegesis of the Quran. They would simply have been bored and would not have listened.1

In Sageman’s view the appeal of jihad is not so much narrowly religious as broadly romantic and consonant with the aspirations of youth everywhere. The young Moroccans with whom he spoke outside the mosque where the Madrid bombers used to worship equated Osama bin Laden with the soccer superstars they most admired. Their utopian aspirations are inspired as much by iconography as ideology. The images of Sheikh Osama, the rich civil engineer, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, once a promising physician from an elite Cairo family—both of whom are seen to have sacrificed everything for the sake of their beliefs—send powerful messages to aspirants far removed from the grimy realities of tribal Waziristan.

As Omar Saghi, a scholar of Islam at Sciences Po, points out in his introduction to Al-Qaeda in Its Own Words, the Harvard University Press selection of al-Qaeda statements and writings, bin Laden’s first appearance after September 11 dressed in Afghan garb sitting cross-legged at the mouth of a cave sent a powerful message to the Muslim umma—or world community—by means of a “‘psycho-acoustic bubble,’…floating like gas through cyberspace”:

The challenge he posed to America as an ascetic stripped of all worldly goods and hiding out in Afghanistan’s miserable mountains was multiplied by the gaping breach that—as he delighted in emphasizing—separated him from the United States’ predatory opulence.

The cave has powerful symbolic resonances: the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation in a cave, and took refuge in one during his journey from Mecca to Medina.

None of this means, of course, that the new jihad is devoid of theological content. The collections produced by Harvard and Routledge, which has published a Sayyid Qutb Reader, usefully link the new jihad with the ideas of its founders and the anchoring of these ideas in classical sources. Bin Laden’s statements have already appeared in a more comprehensive volume in English.2 Although the Harvard reader contains a much smaller selection of his utterances, it has the advantage of tying them to the works of his close associates, including his former mentor Abdallah Azzam (assassinated in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1989) and al-Zawahiri. Some eighty pages of explanatory notes usefully flesh out the political and contextual details with citations in the Koran and Hadith (sayings or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad passed down over the centuries).

The bin Laden section includes his famous “World Islamic Front Statement,” co-signed by two qualified Islamic scholars, declaring the jihad an “individual duty” incumbent on all Muslims, because the Americans and their allies are supposedly occupying both of Islam’s holy places, Jerusalem and Mecca. Al-Zawahiri’s contribution includes excerpts from the much-quoted Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, published by the Saudi-financed daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat in London in December 2001. Knights contains this chilling threat:

It is always possible to track an American or a Jew, to kill him with a bullet or a knife, a simple explosive device, or a blow with an iron rod.

More pertinent for political analysis are the excerpts from al-Zawahiri’s Loyalty and Separation, a polemical 2002 tract whose title is borrowed from a text by the nephew of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, co-founder of the original eighteenth-century Saudi theocracy and primary source of religious legitimacy for the kingdom’s current rulers. All these writings are laced with Koranic references and citations from the Hadiths, carefully chosen to hark back to Islam’s heroic age while containing tropes culled from Western sources, such as the Nazi fantasy that Jews are ruling the world. The language is deliberately archaic and patriarchal, weaving contemporary events into the fabric of salvation history.

2.

It is now widely acknowledged that Sayyid Qutb, born in 1906 and hanged by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966 on trumped-up charges of subversion, is the intellectual godfather of modern Islamist activism and an enduring influence on Islamic radicalism. Qutb popularized the term jahil-iyya in his writings, taking it to mean a condition of contemporary arrogance, ignorance, and irreligion. Traditional mainstream scholarship viewed jahil-iyya as the condition of barbarism that prevailed among the Arabian tribes before the coming of the Prophet Muhammad. Although he had been an admirer of Western literature and especially the English Romantics, Qutb’s sojourn in America in 1949 crystallized his disdain for Western culture. His is the paradigmatic case of the “born-again” Muslim who, having adopted or absorbed many modern or foreign influences, makes a show of discarding them in his search for personal identity and cultural authenticity.

The term “fundamentalism” that Albert Bergesen applies to Qutb’s thought in his introduction to The Sayyid Qutb Reader, however, is open to question. Far from espousing received theological certainties in order to defend “Muslim society” against foreign encroachments, Qutb’s understanding of Islam is almost Kierkegaardian in its individualism. His “authentic” Muslim is one who espouses a very modern kind of revolution against the deification of men, against injustice, and against political, economic, racial, and religious prejudice.

Bergesen says that

from a civilizational perspective, Qutb doesn’t seemed to have hijacked Islam for political purposes as much as called for a return to Islam’s original religio-political compact.

Although this is true so far as it goes, he undervalues the way Qutb and other Muslim ideologues absorb values and influences derived from the Enlightenment while professing to deny them. One of Qutb’s statements that Bergesen cites should be challenged explicitly:

It is not possible to find a basis for Islamic thought in the modes and products of European thought, nor to construct Islamic thought by borrowing from Western modes of thought or its products.

This claim—which crassly denies a vast history of cultural borrowings—might have been balanced with a reference to Leonard Binder’s important 1988 book Islamic Liberalism, which teases out the Western lineages and resonances in Qutb’s thought.

A more serious omission from Bergesen’s reader is Qutb’s notorious 1950 diatribe Our Struggle with the Jews, republished in 1970 and distributed throughout the world by the government of Saudi Arabia. In Jihad and Jew-Hatred Matthias Küntzel, a political scientist and former adviser to Germany’s Green Party, argues that this text, which has been available in English since 1987, blends traditional Islamic Judeophobia with imported Nazi ideas.

In Qutb’s analysis Jews appear inherently decadent and antireligious. They are actually worse than the idolators fought by Muhammad, since they are cunningly able to undermine and destroy Islam, the only true religion, from within. During Muhammad’s struggles in Medina, they joined the “hypocrites” in resisting his divine authority and made treacherous alliances with the polytheists. Qutb wrote that

the Muslim community continues to suffer from the same Jewish machinations and double-dealing…. This is a war which has not been extinguished…for close on fourteen centuries, and it continues to this moment, its blaze raging in all the corners of the earth.

Although there are no explicit references to Nazi sources, the Saudi editor of the 1970 edition helpfully appended references to The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as “proof” of the correctness of Qutb’s ideas. Imported European anti-Semitism is now embedded in the charter of Hamas, whose thirty-second article explicitly cites the Protocols as “proof” of Israeli conduct. As Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian philosopher and former PLO representative in Jerusalem, has observed, Hamas’s charter “sounds as if it were copied out from the pages of Der Stürmer.”

In drawing attention to the anti-Semitic writings of Qutb and others, Küntzel has performed a necessary task. His analysis, however, draws the wrong conclusions. His statement that al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups are “guided by an anti-Semitic ideology that was transferred to the Islamic world in the Nazi period” is overdrawn. It would be more correct to say that the Islamists exploit traditional theological Judeophobia, mixed with a sprinkling of imported Nazi ideas, in pursuit of their own, more ambitious, purposes. Bin Laden and his associates uniformly couple Jews with the Christians or Crusaders in their polemics.

Conventional wisdom generally holds that a resolution of the problems of Palestine and Jerusalem is the sine qua non for addressing wider geopolitical issues afflicting relations between the Islamic and Western worlds. By removing images of Palestinian persecution from Muslim television screens, a peace settlement would take the sting out of an issue that carries a formidable symbolic charge. But the Israeli occupation, though a constant source of pain and humiliation, is only one of many issues the global jihadists have in their sights.

Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, the Syrian ideologue who is the subject of a fascinating study by the Norwegian scholar Brynjar Lia, is quite explicit about this. In his Global Islamic Resistance Call—a 1,600-page document that is widely available on jihadist Web sites and now translated by Lia, he states:

Israel creates a motive for a global Islamic cause, and the American occupation [of Iraq] adds a revolutionary dimension, which is an excellent key to jihad.

The broader agenda, according to al-Suri, is to drive the Americans from the region, “to fight the Jews, remove idolators from the Arabian Peninsula and to free its oil and other resources from the American hegemony” and to remove all the “injustices and afflictions” caused by the occupation of the Islamic lands by America and its allies.

Al-Suri, who was captured in Pakistan in 2005 and is believed to have been repatriated to his native Syria, is the most articulate exponent of the modern jihad and its most sophisticated strategist. A mechanical engineer from Aleppo, his russet hair and fair complexion lend him a European look. He claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad through both his grandfathers—a claim that gives him high social status among the jihadis. He has Spanish citizenship and a Spanish wife and uses numerous aliases. His fellow jihadis teasingly call him “James Bond.”

A veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Syria in 1982 when the city of Hama was virtually destroyed by the Baathist regime of Hafez al-Assad, al-Suri has been a persistent critic of bin Laden’s strategy and approach to jihad. Holding to the view that the “road to Jerusalem lies through Cairo” (meaning that Palestine could only be liberated after the Mubarak regime had been toppled and replaced by an “Islamic” one), he was quick to criticize al-Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on the US embassies in East Africa. The centralized structure the jihadis had built in Afghanistan, with its emphasis on training camps, made them vulnerable to US missile attacks.

Al-Suri was dismayed by the disdain with which bin Laden and the “Afghan- Arabs”—especially the Saudis among them—treated the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan, and by their habit of making unilateral decisions without regard for the feelings of their hosts. He was cautiously critical of the September 11 operation, which put a “catastrophic end” to the jihadist struggle that had started in the 1960s. For al-Suri the new condition imposed by the “war on terror” calls for a new strategy. Al-Qaeda and the jihadis must abandon the “Tora-Bora mentality” of holding on to physical bases with a top-down command structure and opt for a “secret guerrilla war” using “unconnected cells” of varying and different types.

Al-Suri’s new strategy neatly fits into the conception of “leaderless jihad” or third-wave terrorism described by Sageman, where jihadists recruit each other in chat rooms and can download bomb-making materials from the Internet. Sageman makes the plausible argument that the dangers are greater in Europe than in America, a milieu less amenable to home-grown terrorism because of its traditions of community policing and the fact that a majority of Muslim immigrants in the US belong to the professional middle classes and are more inclined than their European counter-parts to identify with American values. When Sageman’s book went to press there had been 2,300 arrests for terrorist offenses in Europe compared to sixty in the US. When the differences in population are taken into account, the rate of arrest is six times higher in Europe than in the United States.

3.

Jihadis are not the only political activists seeking an Islamic state that will restore the Sharia—the holy law of Islam—to the position it held in pre-colonial times. In a short but masterful exposition, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Noah Feldman seeks to answer a question that puzzles most Western observers: Why do so many Muslims demand the “restoration” of a legal system that most Occidentals associate with “medieval” punishments such as amputation for theft and stoning for sexual transgressions? What do they mean by, and expect from, an Islamic state?

Feldman’s analysis focuses on the crucial responsibility of the Ottoman state for the decline of the Sharia. Pre-modern Islamic societies were for the most part governed according to an informal division of authority between the military rulers (often outsiders such as the Mamelukes, recruited from warrior societies, which were far removed from Islam’s cultural centers) and the religiously trained class of legal scholars conversant with the law. The informal compact comparable to, but different from, the feudal arrangements in the West conferred legitimacy on the military men on condition that they upheld the authority of the scholars. The system of scholarly control over law encouraged “stability, executive restraint, and legitimacy.” Feldman writes:

Through their near monopoly on legal affairs in a state where God’s law was accepted as paramount, the scholars…built themselves into a powerful and effective check on the ruler. To see the Islamic constitution as containing the balance of powers so necessary for a functioning, sustainable legal state is to emphasize not why it failed, as all forms of government eventually must, but why it succeeded so spectacularly for as long as it did.

Under pressure from their European rivals to modernize their empire, the Ottoman sultans, beginning in the nineteenth century, began enacting a series of administrative reforms that brought legal administration under direct state control:

The single most durable feature of the reforms turned out to be the removal of effective lawmaking authority from the scholars through the substitution of written legal codes for the common law of the shari’a.

In effect, the sultans “tamed” the Sharia by encoding it in a book. The scholars were rendered impotent, their freedom to interpret the law emasculated. Their incorporation into the Ottoman bureaucracy deprived them of the real authority they had previously enjoyed as upholders and interpreters of God’s law. Originally this concentration of legal power in the hands of the sultans was balanced by a European-style constitution, including an elected assembly, which the Ottoman modernizers saw as useful engines of reform. But within a year of its first sitting in 1876 Sultan Abdul Hamid dismissed the legislature and suspended the constitution, ruling as an absolute monarch for the next thirty years.

As Feldman sees it, the absolutist state became the dominant model in most of the Sunni world in the twentieth century. The “distinctive distortions of many Muslim states in this era were products of unchecked executive authority.” However, the idea of Sharia law—of rule “in accordance with God’s law”—retained its utility; hence contemporary demands for an Islamic state that includes its “restoration.”

Unfortunately, Feldman does not flesh out his thesis with much historical detail. It would have helped his argument if he had provided specific examples of interventions by scholars in cases of disputed successions. An important example he does cite, however, is the establishment of the waqf, or Islamic trust, which, beginning in medieval times, was one of the most important institutions of the precolonial era. These foundations, which were immune from government interference, allowed the transmission of wealth down the generations while sustaining public welfare by providing hospitals, schools, mosques, inns, public drinking fountains, and other services independently of the state.

Waqfs were the primary civil society institutions in the Islamic world. As such they represented a threat to the modernizing schemes of governments facing the challenge of growing European power. The Ottoman sultans and other would-be reformers gradually took them over, incorporating them into the apparatus of state—a movement that facilitated the emergence of the autocratic regimes that prevail in much of the Islamic world to this day because the increase in the power of the state was not balanced by advances in democratic accountability.

In his book Islam and the Secular State Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’im—from Sudan, now a professor at Emory Law School—covers some of the same ground as Feldman, and reaches similar conclusions. As a practicing Muslim, however, he takes the discussion much further, making a powerful theological case for abandoning the very notion of an Islamic state. He argues that the claims of these so-called states to enforce the Sharia repudiate the fundamental right of religious choice implicit in a Koranic verse that says there can be “no compulsion in religion.” The Sharia cannot be codified as state law without violating this provision. It is not a code but a process of legal reasoning. An-Na’im writes:

Whenever the state has been used to enforce Shari’a, the outcome has been a highly selective set of principles in total isolation from their legitimate methodological sources.

Under modern conditions, he argues, recognition of this fact requires separation of religious and secular institutions—in effect, a model similar to the system of church–state separation prevailing in the United States. A secular state provides the most friendly environment in which people can practice their religion out of “honest conviction.”

Such an institutional separation, however, need not entail a separation between Islam and politics. Under a formal system of separation the connection between the two can be maintained, allowing for “the implementation of Islamic principles in official policy and legislation,” subject to certain safeguards. The Islamist ideology an-Na’im appears to have in mind—although this is not spelled out—would be comparable to the outlook of Christian democratic parties in Europe and Latin America: parties that subscribe to a political philosophy informed by religious values without being dogmatically religious.

In postulating his model, however, an-Na’im reveals the size of the theological mountain that must be climbed before such ideas can take root. To start with, his approach demands a comprehensive reappraisal of Islamic origins. In returning to Islam’s earliest sources, he follows the path cleared by the Sudanese humanist scholar Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, founder of the Sudanese Republican Brotherhood, who was hanged in 1985 after being convicted of apostasy. Taha had argued that a distinction must be made between the universal message of Islam proclaimed by Muhammad in Mecca, and the time-specific and hence changeable messages proclaimed in Medina, where he founded the first Islamic state. The changeable texts would include principles such as the “guardianship” of women, punishment for apostasy, and discrimination against religious minorities—issues that pit traditional interpretations of Islam against the constitutional provisions of most modern states, including most that have Muslim majorities.

An-Na’im argues that the dhimma system (entailing legal discrimination against “protected minorities” such as Jews and Christians) is “neither practiced nor advocated anywhere in the Muslim world today.” The realities speak louder. Of some seventy terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia that Bilveer Singh attributes to the al-Jamat al-Islamiyah group since 1994, forty-five were against churches. When state institutions are weak, sectarian hatred, fueled by Islamist rhetoric that demonizes Christians and Jews, becomes the default position on the ground. It is difficult to see how such progressive views as an-Na’im’s can entrench themselves in the face of fourteen centuries of cultural programming.

A further reality check is provided by Roy Gutman’s important study How We Missed the Story. A searing critique of US policy in Afghanistan after the departure of Soviet troops in 1989, it traces the policy shifts in Washington and especially the loss of focus that assisted the rise of the Taliban. Gutman’s central claim, that the inability of the US to prevent the September 11 attacks was not so much an intelligence or military failure as a strategic foreign policy failure, will not make comfortable reading for Hillary Clinton’s advisers.

Foremost among the errors that he documents in detail was the failure of Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright to give adequate support to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the most able of Afghanistan’s mujahideen commanders, in the face of pro-Taliban pressure from the Pakistan military. Massoud, the Tajik leader, headed a multiethnic coalition and practiced a moderate version of Islamism that contrasted starkly with Taliban extremism. His troops were much more disposed to observe the rules of war than their opponents.

Because of the Lewinsky scandal and complications arising from Pakistan’s nuclear policies, Clinton was distracted, with ultimately devastating consequences. Gutman is equally scathing about the role of the international press—or rather, its absence. The atrocities committed by the Taliban during their attempted conquest of central and northern Afghanistan received little coverage. They included “every war crime on the United Nations’ list of summary executions and massacres.” Few of these actions were spontaneous: in the case of the worst atrocity of the war, the massacre of at least two thousand mainly Shia civilians in the town of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, “there is overwhelming evidence of advance planning, central direction, and clarity of purpose, namely, revenge.”

Gutman provides many details of bin Laden’s growing ascendancy over the Taliban and their leader Mullah Omar, and of various ways in which the “Arab-Afghans” humiliated their Taliban hosts and subjected them to a Wahhabite religious agenda. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, giant sandstone statues that had stood for more than 1,500 years, was the most egregious of the iconoclastic acts carried out under pressure from the Arabs and Pakistani mullahs.

The Islamist movement is a mixture of forces comprising many strands of tradition, culture, allegiance, and belief. Its most noxious ingredient is a style of religious imperialism fueled by Arabian petrodollars. As Feldman points out, Saudi Arabia is unique in not having inherited the Ottoman state system. Its scholars influence state policies while also having the freedom to propagate versions of Islam that diverge from the interests of the ruling family. By helping to supply the religious arguments that support jihadist trends, the Wahhabi scholars have a political impact well beyond their intellectual and theological weight, even when specific outcomes, such as attacks on Western targets, run counter to the Saudi state’s policies.

The dangers of jihadism, however, have been needlessly exacerbated by the “war on terror” and the folly of the US invasion of Iraq, which, as Sageman suggests, galvanized a whole new generation of “third-wave” jihadists. Yet the “leaderless jihad” he discusses is inherently self-limiting. As a transnational social movement—rather than an ideology with a coherent political agenda—it generally lacks the organizational capacity to gain and hold power. The exceptions lie in the atypical situations of Iran, where the Shia clergy constitute an “estate” comparable to their equivalents in early modern Europe, and of Gaza, occasioned by the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Contrary to the alarmist views of Henry Kissinger, who insists that “radical Islam rejects claims to national sovereignty based on secular state models,” Islamist attitudes toward the national state are ambivalent. There are no insuperable obstacles, historical or theological, to the de jure acceptance of the postcolonial state that most of the Islamist movements already acknowledge, de facto, as being the arena of politics. The challenge for policymakers in Islamic and Western worlds must be to harness these movements’ positive energies (including their democratic aspirations and social concerns), while criminalizing terrorism and relentlessly exposing the bigotry that drives it.

April 30, 2008

  1. 1

    Sageman’s book doubtless went to press before several Muslim doctors and trainees (from Iraq and India) working for the National Health Service were arrested in Britain in connection with a failed attempt last July to destroy a London discotheque using car bombs primed with propane gas. A member of the team, three of whom were related, died of his injuries after the failure of a subsequent attempt on Glasgow airport.

  2. 2

    Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, edited and introduced by Bruce Lawrence and translated by James Howarth (Verso, 2005); reviewed in these pages by Max Rodenbeck, March 9, 2006.

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