what jihadists want

July 11th, 2012

(read the book free online - get a copy for your Kindle - read the Reddit AMA)

Nidal Malik Hassan may not be alone. At least, not for long. In late June, NPR reported that the FBI has over 100 open investigations into members of the U.S. military who may have ties to Islamic extremists, roughly a dozen of them are considered serious:

The FBI and Department of Defense call these cases “insider threats.” They include not just active and reserve military personnel but also individuals who have access to military facilities such as contractors and close family members with dependent ID cards.

Officials would not provide details about the cases and the FBI would not confirm the numbers, but they did say that cases seen as serious could include, among others things, suspects who seem to be planning an attack or were in touch with “dangerous individuals” who were goading them to attack.

Whether any of these cases will amount to anything remains to be seen, but recruiting people with access to military materiel seems like a logical and potent approach, especially given the predilection of Afghan nationals working with our military overseas to stage attacks against American troops:

The attack on Sergeant Hissong’s company, on March 1 at Combat Outpost Sangesar, left two Americans dead along with two Afghan assailants, but it was not the first time that Afghan solders had attacked forces from the American-led coalition, nor would it be the last of what the military calls “green on blue” attacks. Already this year, 22 coalition service members have been killed by men in Afghan uniform, compared with 35 for all of last year, according to coalition officials.

The attacks, and the personal animosity that officials believe have driven most of them, are threatening the joint-training model that is one of the remaining imperatives of the Western mission in Afghanistan.

But to understand these two intertwined trends, we must go back a little ways – back to when al-Qaeda was little more than an ideology beginning to take shape within the minds of a few close friends. What’s become an international movement started out as just the spark of an idea, and not a particularly novel idea at that. Al-Qaeda was far from unprecedented in history, it was simply just another instance when an ideology’s adherents called for a return to what they saw as their belief’s fundamental roots.

The first formalized call to militant jihad and the birth of the fundamentalist salfi movement both came from one man, Ibn Taymiya, a Syrian scholar and historian who saw a return to the original Islam as the only way to stop the dismemberment of the Muslim world. In what would become a recurring theme for Islam, when its power was in decline movements that argued for a return to its original and purest precepts would begin to stir inside Islam and find sustenance.  Mind you, this was was back in the 1300s when the imminent threat was Mongol invasions, so the world was rather different.

But, then as now, plenty of Muslims saw the fate of the Muslim world as hanging in the balance.  And, as it so often seems to fundamentalists, there was only one way to save it: salfism.

Any fundamentalist who took the label salfi gained a label that refers to the original companions of the Prophet. The closest direct translation of someone described as salfi into English would be something along the lines of “Godfather” – which makes sense since they think they’re attempting to return to the original and traditional tenets of the faith. And, just like Don Corlione, they aren’t afraid to use violence to do it.

Several hundred years later, Ibn Taymiya would find his message updated for the twentieth century by Sayid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar whose time in America helped shape his perception of our culture as fundamentally broken, corrupt, and materialistic – about as distant from God as you could possibly get.  As a Fundamentalist Muslim he made arguments that dovetail nicely with the Fundamentalist Christians of today who argue that Americans have become detached from God and must return to Him or else our society will disintegrate.

They both spout messages of Us versus Them. Fundamentalist Muslims don’t necessarily hate Americans any more than our own Fundamentalist Christians hate us. Disdain is something different than hate. It’s rooted in a feeling of superiority over another, that somehow you are deeply more prepared for life with a richer and fuller understanding of the Why of it all. However, in the end, disdain often breeds the same ends as hate and can be used for the dehumanization that so often predicates violence.

Qutb’s message has not at all become outdated, in fact today he has more followers now than he ever did during his lifetime. In militant Islamic ideology as in hip-hop – being killed often elevates your work to heights it might never otherwise have reached, and your greatest success often comes after your violent end, your martyrdom. For example there was Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who was was just one among thousands of Muslims who read Qutb’s writings and agreed with his impressions of America. During KSM’s time studying in America he shunned any sign of Western decadence – from drinking to women to pork. Although, like a third-grader afraid of cooties, later in life he’d come around about women.

The legacy Qutb left for modern Islamic extremists, salfists as they usually like to think of themselves, is manifold. The most obvious and pervasive elements of it are framing the ideologies of disdain for the West and jihad in the name of true Islam with a panache and erudition that in all probability will never be outdone. Qutb didn’t seek to incite a violent hatred of America, our values, or our way of life. But he provided a vivid rationalization for violence against the West, a society he recorded as bereft of values or morals – a society whose culture was explicitly at odds with Islam. It was Qutb who first framed the idea that the world of Islam would inevitably and violently clash with the West.

At the core of Qutb’s fundamentalism was a call to return to shariah, which is often translated as Islamic law but literally means “street” or “path” – so a good way to think of it is as a Dao, or a Way. To accomplish this return, Qutb called for a vanguard of true believers who would form a base upon which revolution could foment.  And if you’ve followed current events at all recently, you’re probably well aware that “al-Qaeda” translates as “the base,” which in this case doesn’t carry the connotation of a home-base, but instead refers to the foundation of a ideology.

Sayid Qutb is very much the Godfather of modern Islamic extremism, both in terms of framing the decadence of the West and inspiring the ideal of violent Islamic militancy. A generation later bin Ladin would take Qutb’s message and reinterpret it, modernize it, and make it his own. Little of bin Ladin’s accomplishments have much to do with originality, all he’s done is simply repackage old appeals in a charismatic and modernized sales pitch.

It’s a concept that requires a fundamentalist view of Islam, a type of view that “in all religious traditions, is impervious to suppression. The more one tries to squelch it, the stronger it becomes. Counter it with cruelty, and it gains adherents. Respond with despotism, and it becomes the sole voice of opposition. Try to control it, and it will turn against you. Try to appease it, and it will take control.”

And this idea, of taking control, was alive and well during al-Qaeda’s early origins.

As the fireball consumed Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, his final thoughts were the same as just about everyone’s.  Simple regret at life’s unknowns.  What would his legacy be? What would happen to the dreams he’d left behind? Who the hell had set-off the car-bomb that’d just killed him? Okay, maybe that last one was fairly unique.

But in its answer might also lie the answer to the last thought that raced through his mind: would the Near Enemy or the Far Enemy be the first to topple? As it turns out, dealing a blow against the Far Enemy would set events that would eventually lead to the Near Enemy’s fall  into motion.

Azzam had dedicated his life to the defense of his fellow Muslims, starting back in his homeland of Palestine where he’d seen countless loved ones killed by Israeli military action, and continuing to his time teaching at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah during the 1970s. Which is also where Osama bin Ladin had been getting his education, as the capital’s best school it allowed admission only if a highly selective exam was passed and was so bent on merit-based admission that it filtered out some of the Saudi King’s own sons. Granted there were a lot of them, but still.

In one of the world’s most openly nepotistic nations, this was no little stunt.

Such a school attracted not only the most qualified students, but the region’s most charismatic and dedicated teachers. One of these was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in early twentieth-century Egypt by Hassan al-Banna – the Thomas Aquinas of militant Islamic theology to Sayid Qutb’s C.S. Lewis. It’s believed that because of him, Osama stopped watching his favorite Western television shows and refused to wear Western clothes outside of school where he only wore them because it was required by mandate.

The Muslim Brotherhood has played a prismatic role in the Middle East, expounding a vast range of Islamic interpretations whose only common point is that they’ve always demanded their members follow a rigorous set of strictures. They were something between a rotary club and a charity, but never quite managed gain control of significant means of coercion without being summarily castrated by the state – at least until just recently in Egypt.

But they played a key role in the region at the time, especially in terms of defining Muslim identity. And in the 1970s, much as is the case now, one of the common rallying points of Arab identity was the situation in the Palestine. It had turned Sayid Qutb against American policy, Ramzi Yousef against the American people, and it would bring bin Ladin’s destiny terribly into collision with ours.

Osama’s mother noticed a distinct change in him after he met that member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of sitting in front of the television and enjoying his favorite show – which, oddly enough, was Bonanza – he would sit in front of the television and watch the news out of the Occupied Territories. And weep.

Given president George W. Bush’s penchant for appealing to folksy western values, bin Ladin’s love for Bonanza, the second-longest running western series ever on American television which embodied the Texas cowboy ideal better than perhaps any other show, becomes more than a little ironic.

This early teenage passion for a noble cause wasn’t seen as terribly exceptional by his family, indeed it seems to be a phase that many teens the world go through. Realizing their lucky place in the world, and wanting to help others who are less fortunate. Bin Ladin, though, was particularly determined to live up to his new ideals, fasting twice a week in emulation of the Prophet, going to bed immediately after the evening prayer, waking up to his alarm at one in the morning every day to prayer alone in his room, wearing pants instead of shorts during soccer games, and showing his brother what five fingers say to the face when Osama suspected he’d been flirting with a maid.

Bin Ladin soon joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and soon after entering college at King Abdul Aziz University found himself more concerned with campus proselytization than his studies. It was during these college years that Osama bin Ladin began to make Islam his own.

One of the most popular lecturers at the University was the kid brother of Sayid Qutb, his generation’s next great salfi thinker who’d come to America and whose place in the cannon of Islamic literature had been assured after he swung from the Egyptian gallows. Mohammad Qutb was one of the University’s many Syrian or Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who gained popularity from the Saudi students because they challenged old ideas of the dry Saudi professors. Additionally, Mohammad Qutb also got the added credibility that came from actually having been imprisoned for his views.

Well, not really his views, but those he had adopted because of the writings of his older brother, Sayid. And, as you’d expect from someone who was willing to go to jail for the very beliefs that had led to his brother’s execution, Mohammad Qutb passionately made the appeal to the students that being a Muslim was much more than a simple profession of faith.

At the core of Sayid Qutb’s writings was the argument that being a Muslim meant being willing to fight and die in the course of establishing the just and right order that God had ascribed for mankind. The conventional Muslim establishment countered this by insisting that the only requirement necessary to belong to the community of Muslims was – just like the established Christian orders now formally demand – a profession of the faith.

For Sayid Qutb, you didn’t get to consider yourself a Muslim if all you did was say a short phrase. You had to demonstrate that you truly believed in what that conviction meant, that you were willing to go to battle against those who would keep you and those in your community from being able to live the path God, in his grace and wisdom, had set before you.

Sayid Qutb’s writings resonated with Osama bin Ladin, who adopted his views after seeing that so much was wrong with the world that he lived in. Bin Ladin, inspired by Qutb’s views, decided that violence was the only possible way to bring justice to the world. To strip the corrupt of their riches. To stop the manipulation of religious faith for soulless political power. To end the persecution of the innocent. And to free the oppressed.

Bin Ladin’s genius lies not in originality but in flexibility. The appeal he makes for returning to a basic and pure Islam is one that has been made throughout the history of Islam: from Ibn Taymiya in the 13th century, to Sayid Qutb in the mid-20th century, on through to today.

It is a message that reflects the internal dissonance inherent within a religion that lacks a bureaucratized hierarchy of authority, and is in many ways an inevitable product of Islam’s communal and highly personal nature. Its various manifestations have been embodied by Muslims known first as Salfists, then Wahabis and now most often in the West as Fundamentalists – all of which connotate the same concept: a return to the original Islam and the fundamental tenets of the faith

Throughout Islam’s seventeen-century history there’s been a continuum of men who’ve championed this fundamentalist ideal of returning to early Islam, snowballing into it each generation’s bitter experiences of oppression and defeat. Bin Ladin picked up where it’s most recent proponent, Sayyed Qutb, had left off. Intrinsic in the call for a return to pure Islam has always been a contrast between it and a corrupt and degenerate Other.

An Other once embodied by marauding Mongols but also by the West in Crusader form, first medieval Crusaders proud and aware of their name and later modern ones who carried it as an accidental moniker.

Following their victory over the invading Soviet forces, the Breakfast Club from King Abdul Aziz University that’d come to be known as al-Qaeda was at a crossroads. Expelling the Soviets was about as clear-cut a case for jihad as one could ask for, but now that they’d achieved the impossible – what next? And so finally we’ve come to the debate that may have gotten Abdullah Yusuf Azzam killed.

Some of the group believed that targeting the Near Enemy, Egypt’s apostate government was the prime example, should be the next course of action. Others believed that the Arab World’s apostate dictatorships like Egypt and the oppressive and murderous Israeli regime would never fall without first taking out the Far Enemy which was propping them all up: the United States.  There was also a debate about the nature of al-Qaeda’s next operations, should the training be done at camps sheltered by Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, or should jihad go international – with training occurring wherever in the world it needed to so that the most effective operations could occur?

We’ll never know for sure, but in all likelihood it’s this debate about al-Qaeda’s next direction, either targeting the Near Enemy or the Far Enemy, that led to Azzam’s fiery assassination.  And then a little over a decade later, 9/11 occurred. It would take a decade to sort themselves out, but it eventually became apparent that bin Ladin had struck a devastating blow to the Far Enemy and begun a chain of events that would lead to the end of the Near Enemy as well.

In the months and years after 9/11, America went to war with two predominately Muslim nations, bolstering bin Ladin’s argument that the West was fundamentally at war with Islam. And at least partially as a result of these wars, American money-printing and defense-spending steepened their upwards trends, which fell into line with bin Ladin’s goal to draw the U.S. into a war of attrition that would lead to bankruptcy.

The economic argument is certainly a complex one, but with the U.S. as the world’s leading breadbasket at least some cause and effect can be drawn between our skyrocketing moneysupply and the doubling of some staple food prices in the Arab World just prior to the Arab Spring. It’s doubtful that bin Ladin actually anticipated that the interconnected international economy would ensnare the Arab dictators whose downfall was al-Qaeda’s entire raison d’etre, but there is no separating America’s printing press and the rest of the world’s dinner tables.

Whether or not you think bin Ladin hated us for our freedoms, one thing is indisputable: since 9/11 – whether you’re at the airport, on the internet, or simply walking down the street – the level of freedom in America has gone drastically downhill.

And as our military interventions raged on and we liberated Afghanistan and Iraq back into the stone age the civilian bodycount climbed well into the tens of thousands, and al-Qaeda stopped being a self-contained organization and became an -Ism: an international ideology that anyone could simply state they ascribed to whether or not they’d actually met one of the founding members.

Thing is, destroying America had never been the goal in and of itself, from Ibn Taymiya up to bin Ladin the goal had always been preserving the Muslim world by returning Islam to its fundamental salfi tenets.  Which in the wake of the Arab Spring are precisely what’s washed across Egypt’s ancient sands.

Given the excitement in most Western media outlets about the possibility of “democracy” coming to Egypt, you might expect that Egypt is on the verge of becoming a progressive state that embraces Liberalism, Justice, and Freedom as they’re all understood through our red-white-and-blue colored glasses.  And so it would probably surprised you to learn that when Muslims in Egypt, who account for almost 95% of the population, were polled by Pew Research:

82%  supported stoning to death as punishment for adultery

77% supported hand amputation as punishment for theft

84% supported the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam

All of these concepts come directly and irrevocably from shariah - they’re fundamental elements of Islamic law. Just because the people willing to talk to reporters from CNN and MSNBC seem fairly friendly and modern doesn’t mean that this self-selected group actually provides a representitive view into Egyptian popular opinion.  As John Bradley explains in his bracing and honest book After the Arab Spring:

“Most Westerners understand these countries through their own journalists and pro-democracy activists, who obsessively home in on an English-speaking liberal elite.  There is no great conspiracy at play.  It is just that most of them do not speak the local languages and, whenever possible, understandably prefer to avoid government appointed minders and translators. Even if they do know better, they have little choice but to provide the “they want to be free like us” copy their editors back home demand.”

Egypt may be edging towards democracy, but democracy and embracing Western ideas about civil rights are two separate things. When stoning a woman to death for adultery is punishment sanctioned by the majority of Egyptians, it’s a tad hard to argue that Egyptians have a modern progressive endgame planned for their nation.

And their new president has been a lifetime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded on Sayid Qutb’s writings and teachings, the exact same writings that underpin al-Qaeda’s existence.  Although the two groups may have different outward opinions about what means are permissible, they both seek to reach the same ends: a Muslim world that is firmly entrenched in the precepts of the past.

Looking at how things have gone down in the Arab World in the months since his death, there’s no way bin Ladin is rolling over in his watery grave – if anything, he’s smiling and high-fiving Sponge Bob.

It’s not yet a done deal and further conflict is likely still on the way, but Egypt’s apostate ruler has been ousted and its government is in the process of ceding power to Islamists, Muslims in Syria are in engaged in a violent and bloody struggle against their secular dictatorship, and even in his adoptive homeland of Saudi Arabia there are signs of unrest:

“Saudi Arabia’s Shia east has been thrown into turmoil after two people were killed when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting the shooting and arrest of a popular anti-regime cleric. The detention of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr triggered the worst unrest in the kingdom’s Eastern Province for months, prompting fears that the long-marginalised region could erupt in open revolt. Hundreds of men marched through the centre of the city of Qatif, chanting “Down, Down with the House of Saud” and “Death to al-Saud”, a rare direct challenge to the kingdom’s royal family.

“Amateur video footage showed live gunshots being fired at apparently peaceful demonstrators. But even as some protesters rushed forward to help one wounded man, others resumed their chanting with even greater fervour.”

Although bin Ladin would’ve had little sympathy for Shia political aspirations, he would’ve delighted in anything that threatened to loosen the ruling al-Saud family’s grip on power. Al-Qaeada’s original goal in targeting America was to end our interference in the Middle East, so that the authoritarian regimes we were seen as propping up would crumble and those who aspired to restore salfi Islam would be be able to step in and replace them.

Regardless of how many Muslims outwardly embrace al-Qaeda in the years and months to come, the group cum ideology has inarguably accomplished what it originally set out to do: secular dictatorships that rule over Muslims are on the decline, and salfists are being given the opportunity to stake their claim in the halls of Middle Eastern power.

Whether they succeed or not remains to be seen, but the threat of their ascension is more real now than it’s ever been. And one other thing is certain: if there is a threat to your safety walking down in the streets in America – it’s not from a random outsider attempting to blow something up. It’s from violence that’ll have originated from right here at home.

Category: 9/11, After the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, counterterrorism, current affairs, domestic terror, Egypt, faith, islam, islamist, John Bradley, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Middle East, militant islam, Muslim, news, politics, revolution, terrorism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , 2 comments »

2 Responses to “what jihadists want”

  1. Alex

    The floating social media thing on the left side of the page was so distracting I’m skipping this article.

    TtD: Thanks so much for the feedback, I just locked it in place.

  2. James N

    Very insightful points. the simple math just does not work out in favor of the US being in long expensive wars.


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