Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Al Qaeda's Ideology

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Senior Fellow, Combating Terrorism Center, United States Military Academy, West Point

Unlike other terrrosit groups al-Qaeda presents an unprecedented threat to America, its allies, and to global security in general. In addition to training its own members—(4000 was the October 2001 estimate, according to the Western intelligence community)—al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime trained 70,000 members in its camps in Afghanistan. While al-Qaeda conducted one major attack every year prior to 9/11, al-Qaeda and its associated groups have conducted one attack every three months since 9/11. Although it is the most hunted terrorist group in history, the campaign of holy war unleashed by al-Qaeda is likely to outlive itself and the current generation of Islamists.

This is because al-Qaeda's real strength lies not in its global infrastructure and membership per se but in its overarching and highly appealing ideology. In keeping with its original mandate, al-Qaeda'sprincipal aim today is to inspire and incite Islamist movements and the Muslim masses worldwide to attack those perceived to be the enemies of Islam. Although the majority of Muslims worldwide do no support al-Qaeda, the group is constantly seeking to reinvigorate the global jihad movement by exploiting the widespread suffering, resentment, and anger in the Muslim world and turning it against the United States and its allies. Considering the sympathy and new recruits it has gathered from Islamist groups in Asia, Africa, Middle East, and elsewhere, the ideological campaign unleashed by al-Qaeda has been a partial success.

Although bin Laden and his associates have been scattered, arrested and killed, the organization has survived and the ideology is intact. With the diffusion of al-Qaeda's ideology around the globe, especially after 9/11, the threat it poses has moved beyond the group and individual figures like bin Laden. Israeli intelligence services now prefer to describe al-Qaeda as the “Jihadi International” and the British Special Branch refers to al-Qaeda and its associated groups as “international terrorism.”1 Al-Qaeda’s radical ideology—sustained internationally by anti-Western and anti-Semitic rhetoric—has adherents among many individuals and groups, few of whom are currently linked in any substantial way to bin Laden or those around him. They merely follow his precepts, models and methods, acting in the style of al-Qaeda. Therefore, the al-Qaeda ideology, and how it impacts Islamist terrorism’s strategies and tactics, must be thoroughly studied and understood. An effective strategy to weaken and destroy the group will have to focus on its ideology.

The Afghan Crucible

Osama bin Laden (alias Osama Mohammad al Wahad, or Abu Abdallah, or Al Aaqa) was born in 1957. Attending university in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden became deeply influenced by Wahhabi religious teachings, and later assisted the Islamist movement against the communists in Yemen. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, he arrived in Pakistan and subsequently in Afghanistan to assist the Afghan groups in their campaign against the Soviets. In 1984, Dr Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian Jordanian, who also came to oppose the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, founded the Maktab al Khidmat lil Mujahideen al-Arab (MAK), known commonly as the Afghan Service Bureau. MAK provided significant assistance to the Arab mujahidin and to their families. Bin Laden joined with Azzam, who became his mentor. At the height of the foreign Arab and Muslim influx into Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1984-1986, bin Laden spent time traveling widely and raising funds in the Arab world. As Azzam recruited several thousands of Arab and Muslim youths to fight the Soviet presence, bin Laden channeled several millions of dollars and other material resources into the Afghan jihad.

MAK operated independently of the Western and Pakistani governments that assisted in the fight. MAK rarely interacted with the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan of or with the Egyptian government, but it tapped into the vast Muslim Brotherhood network and into the resources of the Saudi government.2 Both the fighting and relief efforts were assisted by two banks—Dar al Mal al Islami, founded by Prince Mohammad Faisal in 1981 and Dalla al Baraka, established by King Fahd’s brother-in-law in 1982. The banks channeled funds to Afghanistan through 20 NGOs, the most famous of which was the International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO). Both IIRO and the Islamic Relief Agency functioned under the umbrella of the World Islamic League, led by Mufti Abdul Aziz bin Baz.

Shortly before the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Azzam and bin Laden decided to form a new vanguard group— al-Qaeda al-Sulbah (The Solid Base). This concept is commonly attributed to the Egyptian theorist Sayyid Qutb. He envisaged a revolutionary Muslim vanguard that would overturn un-Islamic regimes in the Middle East and establish Islamic rule. The concept draws on the stories told about the early Muslim generation who received education and guidance from the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) in the house of Arqam Bin Abi Arqam. They were companions of the Prophet Mohammed whose devotions and commitments to the Islamic struggle against Arab pagans during their time were unparalleled by later generations. It was precisely because of their success as well as the testimony of their excellence by the Prophet that they were revered. For al-Qaeda, they became a source of inspiration and model for Muslims to emulate.

When Azzam formulated the founding charter of al-Qaeda (probably in 1987 and in early 1988), he envisaged it as an organization that would channel the energies of the Afghan mujahidin into fighting on behalf of oppressed Muslims worldwide—an Islamic “rapid reaction force” ready to spring to the defense of their fellow believers and to advance the principles of Islam on short notice. In April 1988, Azzam described his original concept of al-Qaeda thus:

Every principle needs a vanguard to carry it forward and, while focusing its way into society, puts up with heavy tasks and enormous sacrifices. There is no ideology, neither earthly nor heavenly, that does not require such a vanguard that gives everything it possesses in order to achieve victory for this ideology. It carries the flag all along the sheer, endless and difficult path until it reaches its destination in the reality of life, since Allah has destined that it should make it and manifests itself. Al-Qa’idah al-Sulbah constitutes this vanguard for the expected society.3

When conceiving of al-Qaeda, a principal concern of Azzam was the future of the Islamist movement after its victory over the Soviet military. While the concept of al-Qaeda was transformed to meet the changing geopolitical landscapes, Azzam did not originally intend it to be a global terrorist organization.4 He was, according to many analysts, a firm believer that “the end does not justify the means.” During the Afghan-Soviet War, for example, Azzam rejected a proposal by MAK’s Egyptian members to utilize jihadi funds to train the mujahideen in terrorist techniques and tactics. He went so far as to issue a fatwa ruling this a violation of Islamic law. Azzam was against the killing of non-combatants and would never endorse al-Qaeda's current spate of terrorist tactics.5 In his view, jihad was invoked as a religious obligation in defense of Islam and Muslims against a defined enemy, and not a speculative one.

Though Azzam was the ideological father of al-Qaeda, bin Laden gradually assumed leadership of the group.6 Toward the end of the anti-Soviet Afghan campaign, however, bin Laden’s relationship with Azzam deteriorated. The dispute over Azzam’s support for Ahmad Shah Massoud, who later became the leader of the Northern Alliance, caused tension. Bin Laden preferred Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, former Prime Minister and leader of the Islamic Party (Hizb-i-Islami), who was both anti-communist and anti-western. Furthermore, together with the Egyptian members of Al Qaeda, bin Laden wished to support terrorist action against Egypt and other Muslim secular regimes. Having lived in Egypt, Azzam knew the price of such actions and opposed it vehemently. Azzam and bin Laden went their separate ways. Later, Azzam was assassinated by the Egyptian members of Al Qaeda in Peshawar, Pakistan.

After the Afghan victory, bin Laden was lionized in the eyes of those who fought with him in the war as a brave warrior and selfless Muslim ruler.

He not only gave us his money, but he also gave himself. He came down from his palace to live with the Afghan peasants and the Arab fighters. He cooked with them, ate with them, dug trenches with them. This is bin Laden’s way. His credentials include fighting in the famous battles of the whole Afghan war. In these battles the mujahidin came out victorious, convincing them how the Soviet’s huge military machine could be defeated by unconventional methods.

Bin Laden’s followers personally believe that it was the actions of the mujahidin, primarily supported by the Muslim world, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War. They also believe that the U.S. had achieved its goal of becoming the sole global superpower through what bin Laden and his fellow mujahidin had achieved in Afghanistan. Bin Laden later justified his actions by stating that MAK and its Islamist allies were being persecuted by “an ungrateful U.S.” who had also taken credit for the defeat of the Soviets. Al Qaeda ideologues often interpret the Afghan victory as the will of men—the Infidel armies—being single handedly defeated by the Will of God. The internalization of the victory brought about a belief in the power of armed jihad—a belief that their efforts had received divine legitimacy and that their future path was guided by God.

Al Qaeda’s Worldview

Following Azzam’s assassination, the ideological vacuum in al-Qaeda was filled by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. A well-known hardliner, Zawahiri became the principal strategist of the jihad movement, transforming bin Laden and al-Qaeda significantly. Before joining al-Qaeda, Zawahiri was already a practical terrorist, the mastermind of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, one of the most deadly organizations in the Middle East. His experience fighting against the “iron-fist” government policies of Egypt had made him battle-hardened to the core. He was compelled to continue the Islamic struggle across the world at all cost.7

Under Zawahiri’s leadership, the new ideology of al-Qaeda became marked by a willingness to carry out armed struggle against all who they perceived to be the enemies of Islam. This new ideology of jihadism is conventionally traced to the work of two modern Sunni Islamic thinkers: Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab and Sayyid Qutb. Wahhab, the eighteenth-century reformer, claimed that Islam had been corrupted a generation or so after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. He denounced all theology and customs that developed after that period as un-Islamic, and in doing so, tried to reject more than 1,000 years of religious scholarship. He and his supporters took over what is now Saudi Arabia, where today, Wahhabism remains the dominant school of religious thought. Qutb was an Egyptian ideologue of the mid-twentieth century. Following his experience traveling in the United States, he declared Western civilization an enemy of Islam, and denounced leaders of Muslim nations as “apostates” for not following the tenets of Islam closely enough.He preached that “defensive jihad” should be undertaken not just to defend Islam, but also to purify Islam of all un-Islamic belief.

In al-Qaeda's view, the U.S. and Israel were the leaders of a global conspiracy against Islam and the Muslim Nation. Al-Qaeda was especially incensed by America’s military, political, and economic presence in the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Saudi Arabia; U.S. support for the state of Israel; U.S. assistance to pro-Western dictatorships around the Middle East; and since the first Intifada in 1987, the neglected future of the Palestinians. Such perceptions generated support for al-Qaeda's new mission, propelling it forward and helping to transform it into its present state.

With his infamous 1988 fatwa declaring war on infidels and Muslim apostates, bin Laden underlined his resentment towards the U.S and the “alliance of Jews, Christians, and their agents.”8 Though he did not possess Islamic religious credentials or authority, bin Laden said the U.S. had made “a clear declaration of war on God, His messenger, and Muslims” through its policies in the Islamic world.9

Although the U.S. troops established a presence in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Saudi royal family, bin Laden justified and framed his fatwa with a renewed commitment to “defensive jihad.” Bin Laden publicly criticized the Saudi royal family and alleged that their invitation of foreign troops to the Arabian Peninsula constituted an affront to the sanctity of the birthplace of Islam and a betrayal to the global Islamic community.10 Bin Laden advocated violence against the Saudi government and the United States—the “near enemy” and the “far enemy.”

Al-Qaeda began a massive ideological campaign to rally support for the cause of jihad against Islam’s enemies. The arguments articulated in support of their ideology provide momentum for it to travel far and wide. Theologically, they legitimate their struggle against fellow Muslims as a struggle between “true Islam” or “pure Islam” and heresy. The former can only be implemented if a true Islamic society and the rule of Sharia can be established. Of course, to achieve this end, Islam will need a militant Islamic movement to provide leadership and spiritual guidance, and to check the threat posed by the global conspiracy that is trying to eradicate Islam by spreading godless and atheistic views among the Muslim masses.11

To appeal to the grievances shared by many in the Arab Muslim world, al-Qaeda began couching its agenda in the “Third Worldist” terms familiar to any contemporary anti-globalization activist. Though presented in divine and religious terms, their jihad was in the service of social justice. Jihad in the name of God, they proclaimed, was the means to rid the Muslim Nation of injustice and to attain freedom. It was also a way to avenge and to punish those who inflicted punishment upon the umma.12

Al-Qaeda employed several practices to reinforce its struggle. The baiah, or the pledge of allegiance, serves as an assurance that those affiliating themselves with the jihad will remain committed to the organization’s ideology. By instituting it, al-Qaeda has generally been able to buffer itself against internal differences and the organizational divisions that they lead to. Through it, a level of uniformity is maintained that has contributed to the organization’s stability and ease of management and administration.

Al Qaeda has also firmly intertwined its jihadi ideology with the theology of martyrdom. Its operatives firmly believe that Allah guides and rewards those who sacrifice themselves for a noble and holy cause. Looking into the 9/11 hijackers psyche before the suicide attack revealed that they were willing to sacrifice their lives without hesitation. None of them had second thoughts; they viewed their acts as a sacrifice necessary to achieve the goal of establishing the religion of majestic Allah on earth. Their struggle yields either one of two things—victory or martyrdom.

What actually motivates al-Qaeda is not power, wealth or fame, but rather this ideological belief in the purification of Islam through violent struggle.13 The many mujahidin factions joined together to face the Soviets, a common enemy. They put aside their differences. The whole experience showed them how to work toward achieving a common objective. Regardless of individual affluence, education, or nationality, the Afghan Jihad showed that Muslims could fight side by side and attain victory for all. The individuals that filled the ranks of the mujahidin during this war came from all strata of society and proved that greater achievements could be attained through unity based on a common objective. The battle concept was total war. The only means that is left is “by pen and gun, by word and bullet, by tongue and teeth.”14 Recreating the Caliphate thereby uniting the whole Muslim world into a single entity is a logical conclusion drawn by al-Qaeda to help bring the Muslim communities out of this dilemma.15

The Driving Force

Momentous events such as the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the collapse of communism, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War precipitated the creation of over one hundred contemporary Islamist movements in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. Since 9/11, the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan has scattered al-Qaeda’s members across the globe. Though the group’s command and control and organizational infrastructure has been dealt some heavy blows, its ideology has inspired and incited the formation of new terrorist groups, bringing many of them, both old and new, into the service of the global jihad.

Three years after 9/11, the West has had very limited success containing and rolling back the Al Qaeda ideology as it spreads across the world. Al-Qaeda remains a capable organization, frequently packing surprises. Support for al-Qaeda is often spawned and sustained in regional conflict zones. To reduce the appeal of this ideology, it is essential that the international community develop the capability and structures to end regional conflicts through political negotiation. Regional conflict zones—Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, Mindanao (Philippines), Maluku (Indonesia), Poso (Indonesia), Algeria, Afghanistan, and Iraq—are the biggest producers of human rights violations, internal displacement, refugee flows and terrorists. International neglect of such conflicts, thinking that the warring parties will fight among each other and exhaust them themselves, has proven to be misguided.

The key to strategically defeating the new international terrorism is to counter the extremist ideology that triggers, drives, and justifies it. Because one of the methods by which terrorist ideologues recruit members is the subversion of madrasas, it is necessary to institute measures preventing the spread of extremism through the educational institutions. Similarly, it is important for governments to work with media outlets—especially on television and the Internet—to present alternatives to the rhetoric and false ideas that inflame political extremism and make the al-Qaeda ideology so appealing. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, moderate Muslims must expose the deviant teachings of al-Qaeda and its associated groups, and assume responsibility for the future direction of Islam and their political communities.

Defeating al-Qaeda requires unconventional methods. Only by using military force in conjunction with a concerted effort to offer an ideological alternative to extremism can a wedge be driven between actual terrorists and potential terrorists and supporters. It is essential that the counter-terrorism community understand that without marrying hard power with soft power, the al-Qaeda-led jihad movement will not be defeated.

Keywords: Terrorist, al-Qaeda, bin Laden, Afghanistan, jihad, mujahidin, Islam, Muslim