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Al Qaeda

By Mark W. Korbitz July 2007

Al Qaeda, The Base in Arabic, is a Sunni Muslim organization developed in the late 1980s out of Usama bin Ladens experience successfully opposing (with many other Arabs and the Afghan mujahideen, who also received substantial support from the CIA) the Soviet Unions invasion/occupation of Afghanistan. (Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror, Random House, 2002, page 103) Bin Ladens conviction that jihad, defined here as unrelenting holy war waged against Islams enemies, must continue until the entire or perceived accumulation of Muslim humiliation, impotence, inferiority and suffering are avenged by the excision of impurity (currently Western or Jewish influence) from traditional Muslim areas, including Jerusalem, and the subsequent establishment of a pan-Islamist Caliphate uniting all Muslims (Prof. Paul Wilkinson, Characteristics of New Terrorism (Archetype, Al Qaeda), page 2) under sharia is deeply rooted in a worldview that regards purified Islam as the ultimate and inevitable victor in any conceivable clash of civilizations. This inevitable victory is made certain by nothing less than the ironclad and perfect will of Allah. One can not say that al Qaeda lacks clarity of vision or a specific sense of religious mission. Bin Laden and the rest of al Qaedas leadership apparently made the decision by 1996 to concentrate their efforts on driving Western nations and influence, the United States and Israel in particular, out of the Mideast region as a prerequisite for replacing secular and apostate regimes such as the rulers of Egypt and Jordan on the way toward reestablishment of a pan-Islamist Caliphate. (Marc Sageman, http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/congress/9-11_commission/0303709sageman.htm) Terror is judged the available and most effective tool to accomplish interim goals given the response of the United States to the attack on the Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Lebanon (1983), the response of the U. S. to the downing by insurgents of several helicopters in Mogadishu (1993), and, perhaps most importantly for bin Laden, the eventual withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s. The lesson members of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have selectively drawn from these incidents is that nations with superior conventional military forces and equipment can nevertheless be intimidated and forced to withdraw if the pressure brought to bear through extensive media coverage of bodies being dragged, bombings, beheadings, and other terrorist acts is sufficient in the enemys homeland to create a loss of public support for military action and a simultaneous economic drain. Al Qaeda is quite good at amplifying the effects of its actions through manipulation of the media and by supplementing coverage with websites and the internet.

Al Qaeda owes its ideological substance and style to a line of religious theorists beginning with the religions founder and extending through Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya, who in 1282 succeeded his father as professor of Hanbali law. . . Contemporary accounts depict him as a broad-shouldered, long-haired zealot, unconventional in behaviour and belief. It was said that as he strode to the mosque he would kick over the game boards of backgammon players in the street out of disgust at their frivolity. He attacked his ideological opponents with a vigour that seemed pathological. Ibn Taymiyya viewed the reestablishment of a unified caliphate under one God, one prophet, one scripture, one people, and one ruler, as the symbol on earth of the indivisibility of politics and religion, and he (the caliph) exercised his authority through the enforcement of sharia and his pursuit of jihad to enlarge the realm of Islam. He was, moreover, the leader of an ascendant movement destined to conquer the world and thereby redeem it. (Benjamin and Simon, pages 45-46) This, with little or no modification, is what bin Laden aims to accomplish through al Qaeda. In this worldview there can ultimately and ideally be no established division between religion (Islam) and government. Sharia must be accepted as the only legitimate law. Anything less (or more) means that an apostate is governing. In that case the response of the faithful can only be to launch a rebellion against the corrupt ruler and punish the apostate by putting him to death. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born in Arabia in 1703 and eventually discovered that his whole purpose in life was to bring about an age of religious purification and renewal aimed at recapturing the original Islam stripped of innovations. Al-Wahhab eventually developed a close relationship with a ruling sheikh near present-day Riyadh named Muhammad ibn Saud. The struggle for domination of the Islamic tradition on the Arabian Peninsula began. (ibid, pages 52-54) Intolerance won. Other Islamic theorists such as Rashid Rida, Hassan al-Banna, Abu al-Ala Maududi, Sayyid Qutb, Shuqri Mustafa, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, Abdullah Azzam, bin Ladens mentor, and others continued to develop the historical/theological interpretations that now define al Qaeda and inspire terrorist action. Qutb, in the last century, offered a synthesis of judgments, ideas and religious conviction that eventually earned him a death sentence (and Islamist martyrdom) in Egypt under the Nasser regime. Qutb travelled to the United States in 1948. His experience of the West was unpleasant. He came away negatively impressed with the superficial and mindless individualism of America. (ibid, page 64) The pious, puritanical and serious Muslim felt revulsion for much of what he saw in nearly a year spent visiting Colorado, Washington D. C. and New York City. His contempt for permissive western culture and the Wests exercise of raw military and political power carry over undiluted to bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others who carry the greatest influence in al Qaeda. Al Qaedas current goals include driving the Allied forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq, killing Americans and Europeans in large numbers, capturing as much media attention as possible through spectacular, visually stunning events, destabilizing Western economies, acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and eventually establishing Islamic governments to replace the regimes found in most states with predominantly Muslim populations. Traditional terrorist groups have generally been conservative. Al Qaeda is different.

They are genuinely creative, and their ingenuity and desire to inflict massive casualties will continue to drive them toward the acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction. (ibid, page 400) The organization or association called al Qaeda resembles a rather loose, horizontal network more than a hierarchical military or bureaucratic structure. It may be that al Qaeda is evolving to the point that it is now primarily a propaganda machine in the business of producing ideological tracts and other media to distribute over the internet and through the cooperative mass media while operational details and decisions are largely left to affiliated or sympathetic cells and individuals scattered across the planet. Such structure as exists or remains is focussed on bin Laden and Zawahiri because they continue to supply some measure of guidance with regard to financing and ideological consistency. It is possible that they continue to be assisted by a Shura and specialist committees. (Wilkinson, page 5) Al Qaeda and affiliated organizations will certainly continue to attack infidels using bombs, missiles, and aircraft, plan the kidnappings of Westerners, video tape grisly executions, and attempt political assassinations. There is a distinct and very real possibility that these methods will escalate toward the use of chemical, biological and radiological/nuclear material and technologies. Great concern regarding the dangers of WMD proliferation is reasonable given al Qaedas stated ambition to launch more spectacular attacks in the future in order to achieve the defeat and eventual subjugation of the West. In thirty two incidents known to be linked to al Qaeda to the present nearly 9,000 people have been injured and 3,500 killed although these numbers may not include all of the casualties inflicted by al Qaeda in Iraq. (MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base at http://www.tkb.org/Group.jsp?groupID=6. Al Qaeda promises to do things in the future that will dwarf what they have done in the past. It is possible that this is more bluster than promise. Nevertheless, we would be foolish not to take the threat seriously. Among our highest and most urgent priorities must be the gathering of WMD intelligence.

Al Qaeda and the Global Salafi Jihad represent a significant threat to Western Civilization if not immediately and directly through weapons of mass destruction then indirectly as terrorist attacks, an uncompromising ideology, and effectively communicated threats inspire Western overreactions that subsequently fuel recruitment of new members and sympathizers for al Qaeda. There is evidence of fairly sophisticated calculation on the part of bin Laden, Zawahiri and others with regard to gauging the economic impacts of attacks. They obviously use great care in crafting messages, use precise timing, and issue generalized warnings to try to legitimize and defend the future murder of civilians. Bin Laden seems recently to be sick, dead, camera shy, or carefully cultivating his image as a quiet, thoughtful, even-tempered, courageous and pious Islamic leader who happens to be avoiding overexposure in the media. He has recast himself as a symbolic mentor for the next generation of fighters. The jihadi movement has become a global phenomenon. The dissemination of information and images via the media and the Internet created a global sense of solidarity among Islamists. Potential recruits easily access information, and many new volunteers are young people who live in the West, often in Europe. (Gus Martin, Understanding Terrorism, 2nd Edition, Sage Publications, 2006, pages 213-214)

In a statement declaring Al Qaedas intention to kill at least four million Americans with weapons of mass destruction, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, spokesman for the group, said How can (a Muslim) possibly accept humiliation and inferiority when he knows that his nation was created to stand at the centre of leadership, at the centre of hegemony and rule, at the centre of ability and sacrifice? How can he possibly accept humiliation and inferiority when he knows that the divine rule is that the entire earth must be subject to the religion of Allahnot to the East, not to the Westto no ideology and to no path except for the path of Allah? (Benjamin and Simon, page 397) It seems western democratic nations do not quite yet know what to effectively do when confronted by clever and completely committed people who claim to love death more than we love life . . . beyond kill them over there when we find them (or think we may have found them), protect their right to voice their religious opinions over here, and offer democratization as a political panacea everywhere. This observation is certainly not intended to discount or discredit the solid police/security work that has foiled serious terrorist plots, undoubtedly saved lives, and resulted in arrests and convictions. However, in the contest of ideas, Al Qaeda so far seems more than pleased with the interim results of the War on Terror. In a recent article appearing in the journal, Foreign Affairs, (Al Qaeda Strikes Back, Bruce Riedel, May-June, 2007, pages 24-40), Mr. Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 29 year veteran of the CIA, enumerates the mistakes made by the current United States Administration particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. He makes important and valuable observations with regard to the essential connection between al Qaedas organizational fortunes and the presence of failed and failing states. Al Qaeda is well placed to threaten global security in the near future. Because it thrives on failed and failing states, it will have opportunities to set up new operations. (ibid, page 32) Options listed for al Qaeda include Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Bangladesh, Somalia, and Algeria. Al Qaeda clearly already has a substantial presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Other states could extend that list. On page sixteen of a seventeen page article, Mr. Riedel addresses what I view as the most important issue here. Another essential aspect of the United States war against al Qaeda is the war of ideas. Washington must learn to develop more compelling narratives for its actions. . . . Washington should emphasize the concrete steps the United States is taking to heal differences between Islam and the West and to bring peace to Palestine and Kashmir, among other areas. Creating a new narrative will probably also require bringing to Washington (and London) new leaders who are untarnished by the events of the last few years. (ibid, page 39) Thats it for what I believe should be the fulcrum of all our efforts. We need more compelling narratives, new untarnished leaders, and we need to expend effort to heal differences between Islam and the West. I think we need to be much more explicit about who we are and about what we believe is true. We must explicitly say what is at stake in this conflict, and the coalition of willing partners in this fight must be much broader than that represented in the quote above.

From the Islamist point of view, we in the West are a threat to every conceivable, authentic way of life measured by their standard of pure Islam. Secular Western culture defends, or at least represents, an unusual commitment to freedom of thought and action, sometimes, admittedly, to the point of excess and unfortunate moral permissiveness. Highest on our list of achievements, however, might be our illuminated intention to foster and demand religious tolerance. These are things, obviously, that al Qaeda is not and never will be interested in. That, in my opinion, is how we can best indicate the point-source of our conflict, a conflict that the West has half-blindly blundered through up to the present. We have not, unfortunately, really hit our stride. There may be vast numbers of moderate Muslims who can honestly live with the thought of having former Muslims as family members, those who have freely converted to Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, agnosticism, or atheism. Those honest and progressive Muslims can be our allies in the war against nearly complete intolerancea war that many did not see coming in this country until mid-morning, September 11, 2001. Perhaps part of the reason we are hesitant and unfocussed in this contest of ideas is that we fear losing the solid ground of religious tolerance, so highly prized, and we do not yet know how to ideologically confront a religious expression that is everything we hope not to become without seeming to move more toward intolerance ourselves.