Seven Years Later: The Jihadist International
By Hassan Mneimneh
Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2008
MIDDLE EASTERN OUTLOOK
Publication Date: September 11, 2008
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No. 6, September 2008
Understanding al Qaeda's true character, structure, and
strategy provides important clues about why the organization has not been able
to ignite a global jihad. Still, the organization poses a grave threat to
international stability and to the United States
in particular. The next generation of al Qaeda leaders may be able to deliver
more localized sporadic deadly attacks.
Seven years after the worst lethal attack against the U.S.
mainland, the leadership of the group that claimed responsibility continues to
survive with impunity. Since 2001, al Qaeda, a loosely defined organization,
has had a volatile history. It has lost, then partially recovered, its main
launch pad in the Afghan plateau; precariously secured, then been substantially
beaten out of, a new base of operations in Iraq; claimed credit for a series of
terrorist acts across the globe--shattering lives and confidence in security
and state authority in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East; and initiated a
failed insurgency in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of its principal, Osama bin
Laden. But its hopes of igniting a global jihad have not materialized. Instead,
its efforts have been effectively curtailed in many locales, it has suffered
considerable setbacks in others, and it has had to confront ideological and
dogmatic challenges. Most significantly, al Qaeda has so far failed to
deliver on its declared goal of inflicting on the United
States another spectacular terrorist attack.
Still, al Qaeda remains a threat to international stability in general and to
the United States
in particular. The nature of the danger it represents is best understood in the
context of its character, structure, and strategy.
Al Qaeda is not a cohesive organization with centralized governance.
Instead, it is a diffuse network of "franchises" bound primarily by a
rigid reductionist ideology and broad strategic outlook. The franchises offer
allegiance to a global nominal charismatic leadership that, through direct
involvement or through the endorsement of local initiatives, has an arbitrage
function, redirecting resources--human and financial--in order to optimize
impact and effect. This function, however, tends to be ad hoc and opportunistic
and not aligned with a consistent and detailed strategy. In the absence of a
sophisticated strategy, al Qaeda adheres to a wholesale rejection of the world
order: states, governments, and international organizations are deemed
The combination of ideology and loyalty allows al Qaeda to
compensate for the general absence of conventional institutional structures
worldwide. Local affiliates--notably in Iraq,
where a bureaucracy of oppression was well anchored--have exhibited complex
administrative structures. But the global organization has preserved the
ephemeral and virtual aspects of the original database (the literal meaning of
"al Qaeda" in Arabic) compiled by bin Laden for coordinating with
The true character of al Qaeda has often been lost amid
alarmist portrayals that paint it as the harbinger of an inevitable
totalitarian caliphate and dismissive assessments that reduce it to little more
than a figment of the imagination of the uninformed or the politically
motivated. The lack of institutional capacity for sustained action, inherent to
the nature of the diffuse network, drastically limits the likelihood of al
Qaeda translating its ultimate utopian (or dystopian) dream into reality, but
the carnage and dislocation it has inflicted in recent years demonstrate amply
that the problem cannot be reduced to one of law and order.
Al Qaeda is not a cohesive organization with centralized
governance. Instead, it is a diffuse network of "franchises" bound
primarily by a rigid reductionist ideology and broad strategic outlook.
Al Qaeda may be quixotic in its pursuits, but it is
none-theless waging a global war against the United
States and the current world order. If war
is defined as actions aimed at reducing the assets--physical, human, and
financial--of one's enemy while limiting the loss of, preserving, or increasing
one's own assets, al Qaeda's assault on the United States seven years ago may
be ranked as one of the prime examples of asymmetrical warfare in modern
history. With little expenditure and with the easy sacrifice of nineteen of its
foot soldiers, al Qaeda forced the United States
into a conflict with rules of engagement dramatically different from any
previous battles in which the United States
has taken part. While the United States is bound in its conduct of war by both
international conventions and its own codes of ethics, al Qaeda displays no
such limitations, targeting noncombatants and other conventionally protected
categories solely on the basis of their vulnerability. Al Qaeda uses the
resulting imbalance to force the United States into an onerous, almost
prohibitive, adherence to principles--or into the ultimately even more costly
departure from these principles for the purpose of containing and eliminating
the continuous threat.
Two Major Currents
Al Qaeda is not solely responsible for the degeneration in
the interpretation of the Islamic corpus that gives religious sanction to acts
of terrorism. Through omission and commission, Arab and Muslim intellectuals
and religious leaders have condoned or endorsed statements and actions that
served as building blocks for the extreme positions espoused by al Qaeda. If
suicide bombing and the killing of civilians is justified in one context--as an
"act of resistance" by Palestinians in Israel,
for example--the justification can easily be extended to acts directed at the
global hegemon, local potentates, and "complicit" populations.
Ideology, against the backdrop of an acquiescing culture, is
the main component in al Qaeda's operational model. Arab culture might have
despaired about the promises of nationalists and leftists, but its acceptance
of their diagnosis of societal and political ills as the ultimate
responsibility of Zionism and U.S.
imperialism has lingered. The al Qaeda brand of militancy is a phenomenon at
the confluence of two major currents in modern Arab and Islamic cultural
evolution: first, the gradual expansion of Salafism, an undeclared
"reformation" within Sunni Islam seeking the return of Muslims to the
original faith, traceable to the fourteenth century literalist scholar Ibn
Taymiyyah and applied as a restrictive socio-religious regimentation by the
clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia, and second, a paradigm shift cascading
from the Arab Nahdah ("renaissance") of the nineteenth century,
replacing piety with proselytism and quietism with political activism as
normative values in Muslim life and positing Islam as a "total"
system and solution for all political discontent, as promoted by the Muslim
Brotherhood--a movement born in Egypt in the late 1920s--and other
"Islamist" formations. Both currents have adopted a sociocultural,
behavior-altering approach in their host societies, relegating economic
necessities and developmental needs to a nebulous background.
In the 1980s, the Afghan jihad incubator enabled the fusion
of the main elements of both currents, producing the ideological framework of
the uncompromising totalitarian regimentation implemented by al Qaeda and
sister organizations whenever and wherever possible. The parochial character of
the concerns of most militants persisted even with the creation of a de facto
"jihadist international." Whether in Algeria,
Arabia, or elsewhere, jihadists returning from Afghanistan
were not able to articulate an attractive message for their respective
societies. Instead, their brutal actions often resulted in further alienation
from mainstream society. Only with the attack on the United States on September
11, 2001--an act that created visual parity with the Superpower--was the leadership
of al Qaeda able to transcend parochialism, reinvigorate jihadists, and present
itself as the flag-bearer of a capable, transnational, Ummah-wide movement.
The ideological underpinnings of this movement are its
adherence to Salafist religious irredentism and Islamist vanguard
activism--i.e., an activism cleansed of the populist dilutions introduced by
the Muslim Brotherhood and restored to its elitist character. "Ideological
purity" is a sine qua non for any group seeking affiliation. The
commitment to an action-oriented, unequivocal rejection of any existing order
is the other prerequisite. From North Africa to the Levant, and from Yemen
to Iraq, the al
Qaeda imprimatur is made available only to groups that satisfy these dual requirements.
The Salafist concept of al-wala' wa-l-bara' (allegiance to true Muslims and
repudiation of all others), in belief and in practice, is presented as the
foundation for a relationship with the al Qaeda leadership and the subsequent
authorization of an al Qaeda franchise. And ideological purity serves as the
common denominator, ensuring compatible views with limited coordination.
But even rigid literalism is capable of yielding multiple
interpretations, and the textual corpus (the Quran and the Sunnah) is
frequently nuanced and has tolerant inclinations. To compensate for this
potential pitfall, al Qaeda ideologues have instituted a "maximalist"
approach that always errs on the side of severity and austerity. Applied to the
political realm, maximalism depicts all political players as strategic enemies
and identifies religious justifications, however tenuous, for all hostile
actions taken against them. Through this "no holds barred" approach,
maximalism creates the illusion of an al Qaeda that is centralized and
The career of Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq
is an illustration of both the power of the ideology-based model and its
pitfalls--from an al Qaeda perspective. Zarqawi, a Jordanian veteran of the
Afghan jihad, sought and ultimately received the endorsement of the al Qaeda
leadership for his actions in post-Saddam Iraq.
He nonetheless preserved operational autonomy, determined the local strategy,
and engaged in an effective genocide against Shiite Iraqis. While phrasing his
objections in utilitarian terms (and hence preserving the maximalist stance),
Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second-in-command, cautioned Zarqawi against the
harshness of his methods. Zarqawi did not heed the (half-hearted) message.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda affiliate that emerged as a result of
Zarqawi's efforts, later collapsed as a result, mutatis mutandis, of the
widespread discontent of its "subjects" against the oppressive and
arbitrary measures it implemented in the form of religious and social
maximalism. The failure of al Qaeda in Iraq today seems irreversible; even the
admission to mistakes and excesses on the part of the Islamic State of Iraq by
bin Laden himself could not mitigate the counterproductive effects of its
maximalism. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq
is not over; it is, however, no longer a tool in the al Qaeda global jihad.
The "surge" of U.S. forces in Iraq enabled the
transformation of the popular discontent in Sunni Iraqi society over the al
Qaeda presence into an active force that inflicted on the global organization
one of several setbacks that are ultimately the result of its dogmatic
maximalism. The most important such setback, for the symbolism associated
with it, was the apparent failure of the al Qaeda insurgency in Saudi Arabia. A
primary supplier of suicide bombers to Iraq,
through underground jihadist networks, Saudi Arabia
was the ultimate prize sought by al Qaeda, both for its symbolic value as host
to the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina,
and for the ideological affiliation between its clerical establishment and the
al Qaeda doctrine.
A Prize Denied
represents a unique example of a partnership between an absolute monarchy and a
clerical establishment to which the monarchy has delegated control over
religion, culture, and education. Through the abundance of oil wealth, the
Salafist beliefs espoused by the Wahhabi establishment found a means of
propagation to the rest of the Muslim world. While Saudi society has largely
adjusted to Salafist dogma, the relocation of Salafism to other Muslim
societies is often a generator of tension and confrontation. Al Qaeda has
productively used the resulting polarization for recruitment. In Saudi
Arabia, al Qaeda regarded the disapproval
displayed by the clerical establishment vis-à-vis the behavior and positions of
the Saudi monarchy as a green light for action toward regime change. Its
incremental efforts in this direction were preempted by government security
operations forcing al Qaeda supporters in Saudi
Arabia to premature action. This insurgency
set off two important reactions. First, the clerical establishment refused to
endorse the purity and maximalism openly espoused by the insurgency and
commanded instead allegiance and loyalty to the monarchy, even if its adherence
to Islamic precepts were less than total. Second, the Saudi public, which
seemed to support, or at least condone, the brutality displayed by the al Qaeda
insurgency in Iraq--often
at the hands of Saudi jihadists--was appalled by its repatriation. Grievances
and contradictions in Saudi society may provide new points of entry for al
Qaeda. Irredentism and maximalism, however, did not yield the immediate results
al Qaeda expected.
The "surge" of U.S.
forces in Iraq
enabled the transformation of the popular discontent in Sunni Iraqi society
over the al Qaeda presence into an active force that inflicted on the global
organization one of several setbacks.
Al Qaeda's assessment of the effect of authoritarianism and
dictatorship elsewhere in the Arab world was more accurate. It has thus
benefited considerably from the accommodation of Islamism undertaken by Arab
rulers--ostensibly to control its rise--both in gaining new recruits and
channeling activists from one locale to another. Saddam Hussein sought to
contain the growing Islamist threat by embracing a faith campaign that served
as an actual program of initiation for Iraqi Sunni society into Salafism and
Islamist activism and ensured compliance, at least for a while, with the harsh
rule of Zarqawi and the Islamic State of Iraq. Similarly, Muammar al Qaddafi
through erratic social and educational policies, enabling grassroots Salafism
and, through political repression, forcing activists out of the country to join
the jihadist international. Libyans today are distinctly overrepresented in the
new generation of al Qaeda--in Iraq,
The worldwide arbitrage of jihad resources is implemented
largely through Internet communications. It is, however, subject to abuse and
can even be used against al Qaeda's designs or interests. The battle of Nahr
al-Barid in Northern Lebanon in 2007 as detailed below
provides a distinct illustration.
The quasifictional world map adopted by al Qaeda consists of
only three recognized (virtual) political entities: the Islamic Emirate of
Afghanistan (straddling the internationally recognized Afghanistan
and Pakistan), the Islamic State of
Iraq, and the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus.
Elsewhere, as a function of the maturity of the local conditions, it is either
ard jihad (territory of jihad, including all non-Muslim lands); ard ribat
(territory in which jihadists gather in anticipation of jihad); or ard nusrah
(Muslim societies not ripe for jihad but ones in which jihadists can be
recruited). Fath al-Islam, a self-declared Salafist jihadist formation, sought
affiliation with al Qaeda, but leaked reports indicate that the al Qaeda
vetting emissary advised against granting the affiliation on the grounds of the
group's nonadherence to al Qaeda ideology and the unsuitability of Lebanon as
ard jihad. Ignoring the cold shoulder from al Qaeda leadership, Fath
al-Islam, which appears to have links with Syrian intelligence, sought al Qaeda
supporters directly over the Internet, ensuring a continuous flux of jihad
volunteers to swell its ranks. By the end of its battle with the Lebanese armed
forces, hundreds of jihadists that al Qaeda could have mobilized to its
advantage had died, and a local Sunni population stood alienated from jihadism.
The Next Generation
While the efforts of its affiliates across the Middle East
were in jeopardy, the al Qaeda leadership itself was under assault in Afghanistan.
With savvy acquired over decades of local presence, it has so far been able to
navigate the contradictions of the region to ensure survival and even to
develop adjusted plans of action.
past dogmatism is tempered by a reluctant desire for accommodation, with the
Islamic State of Iraq courting other Sunni insurgency factions. If the Iraqi
government adheres to cautious and productive measures, this courtship may
prove to be too little too late. In the Levant, a renewed focus on the
Palestinian cause, the perennial motivator of Arab societies, seems to be contemplated
by al Qaeda leadership in Iraq
and in Afghanistan. A trustworthy local affiliate, however, does not yet
exist. In North Africa, as in Saudi Arabia,
Yemen, and the Horn of Africa and well
into Africa and Southeast Asia, al Qaeda seems to be devising
approaches that might amount to serious departures from the previous strategic
outlook and, if not countered, might herald a new phase for al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda continues to struggle through the paradox that the
same ideology that serves to cement its authority hampers its ability to become
truly powerful. The next generation of al Qaeda, steeped in ideology and
trained in tactical maneuvers, may deliver more sporadic operations, but it is
unlikely to succeed where its predecessor has failed in igniting a meaningful
Hassan Mneimneh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a visiting
fellow at AEI.
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1. For an example of the ongoing challenges and al Qaeda's
attempt at addressing them, see the brief document "Tarshid al-'Amal
al-Jihadi" [Toward the Maturity of Jihadist Actions] by Sayyid Imam
Sharif, former leader of the Egyptian al-Jama'ah al-Islamiyyah, and Ayman al
Zawahiri's January 2008 polemical 216-page refutation, "al-Tabri'ah."
2. The rooting in jurisprudence of the license to accept
high levels of civilian casualties has gravitated to expanding the concept of
tatarrus (noncombatants used as human shields by the enemy) to include the
virtual totality of the enemy population. See, for example, the 2005 treatise
by Abu Yahya al-Libi, "al-Tatarrus fi-l-Jihad al-Mu'asir" [Human
Shields in Contemporary Jihad].
3. Notable in this respect is the "groundbreaking"
opinion of Yusuf Qaradawi, one of the most prominent mainline religious scholars
of Islam today, in "Shar'iyyat al-'Amaliyyat al-Istishhadiyyah fi Filistin
al-Muhtallah" [On the Religious Legitimacy of the Martyrdom Seeking
Operations in Occupied Palestine], which justifies civilian casualties by
stressing that Israeli society is militarized in its totality.
4. On the basis of the maximalist understanding of this
notion, any dialogue with non-Muslims is condemned. See, for example, the
denunciation of the response of Saudi intellectuals to their U.S.
counterparts in 2002 by Yusuf al-'Ayiri, "al-Raja' Inbatihu Sirran"
[Please Prostrate in Private].
5. Zawahiri's letter to Zarqawi was released by the Office
of the Director of National Intelligence on October 11, 2005. It was originally
contested as a fabrication, but later references to its content in Islamist
circles confirmed its authenticity.
6. "Risalah li-Ahl al-'Iraq,
Ahl al-'Ilm wa-l-Fadl al-Sadiqin" [A Letter to the People of Iraq, the
Truthful Holders of Knowledge and Virtue], Al Jazeera, October 22, 2007.
7. For an example of debates, even within Salafism, on the
excesses of jihadism in Iraq, see "Dahr al-Muthallib 'ala Jawaz Tawliyat
al-Muslim 'ala Muslim min Kafir Mutaghallib" [The Refutation of the
Denunciation of the Permissibility of the Appointment of Muslims to Govern Muslims
by a non-Muslim Prevailing Force], circulated in Iraq in 2005.
8. "Libyans Advance in al Qaeda Network," Los
Angeles Times, February 4, 2008.
9. The incisive reporting on Fath al-Islam by the Lebanese
journalist Fida' Itani has been recently integrated into a detailed study of
jihadism in Lebanon: al-Jihadiyyun fi
Lubnan: Min Quwwat al-Fajr ila Fath al-Islam (Beirut:
Dar al-Saqi, 2008).
10. Statements stressing the centrality of the Palestinian
question were made by both leaderships. See, for example, Abu 'Umar
al-Baghdadi, "Al-Din al-Nasihah" [Religion Is Advice], placed on
jihadist websites on February 23, 2008; and Osama bin Ladin, "Asbab
al-Sira' fi al-Dhikra al-Sittin li-Qiyam Dawlat al-Ihtilal" [The Causes of
the Conflict, in the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Creation of the State of Occupation],
Al Jazeera, May 17, 2008.
AEI's Middle Eastern Outlook series
Related On the Issues on the "real" al Qaeda by
Frederick W. Kagan
Related National Security Outlook on understanding al Qaeda
by Frederick W. Kagan
You can find this online at: http://www.aei.org/favicon.ico