what jihadists want

July 11th, 2012

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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.

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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