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Al Qaeda: A Global Phenomenon Reaching Maturity

Ioannis Michaletos, Athens, Greece, January 17, 2008

The fight against Islamic Jihad-Al Qaeda is an enormous task. The enemy is virtually invisible, hidden in the teeming masses of the world's metropolises or in the last vestiges of the world's wildernesses. And they can appear anywhere at any time. (Photo: Shaun Curry / AFP-Getty Images)

Over the past two decades, a new form of terrorism has dynamically spread worldwide. The United States was one of the first countries to become aware of this kind of asymmetrical warfare, but it wasn't until Sept. 11, 2001, that the full strength of Islamic-driven terrorism was shown. The 19 hijackers proved to be a peril to the security of the world, in greater respect than rogue states and Third World dictatorships. The fanatics of Islam have engineered a new way of conducting war through the Salafist jihad, and without restraints concerning civilian casualties. The new terror is composed of networks of individuals spread throughout the world that provide logistic support to the mercenaries and soldier of Islam that perform terrorist actions.

The global wave of violent extremism, from its bases in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, matured in Afghanistan and Sudan and in parallel formed a network of cells in Eurasia. Moreover, a group of second and third generation Muslims in the Western world is being introduced to the jihad so as to penetrate target societies from within, leaving less space for security and intelligence agencies to counterbalance the ongoing pressure of terrorism. Al Qaeda and the new terror are also cooperating with Sunni organizations in Iraq that have gained combat experience from the fighting between Muslims and American and British troops. Actually, Iraq has become a training field for thousands of Islamic extremists who will disseminate their know-how in their homelands once they return. The older Al Qaeda generation was war-hardened in the mountainous Afghanistan terrain, while the new generation gains its experience in the Mesopotamian region. In the 1990's, the Balkans and Sudan provided training for Islamists who fought against Croatians and Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Another phenomenon that greatly facilitates the spread of jihad is the existence of the Internet and the expansion of telecommunications. It is possible to acquire an extensive geographical span by using simple techniques and making use of modern day technology. The basic principles that characterize the new terror are: mass casualties, use of new technologies, international-multinational membership and of Islamic religious base. The basic aim of the jihad is to establish a caliphate by overthrowing moderate Muslim leaders, with the ultimate goal of evolving into a power unit equivalent to the West on a global scale. Al Qaeda is the evolution into one organization of the "mind of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the education by the Pakistani madrassahs, the capital of the Saudi Wahhabis, and the fighting capabilities of Yeminis, Chechens, and Algerians," as a scholar once noted.

Origins of the 'Modern Jihad'

The worldwide Salafist jihad is an extreme version of Sunni Muslims. The etymology of the word "Salafist" originates from "Salaf," which in Arabic means "ancient." It is basically a return to the archaic nature of Islam as it was developed before the Middle Ages. Al Qaeda is the tool  —ideologically and logistically—that other organizations and networks use to strike the West.

The term "jihad" means "fight," but in the sense of living life in keeping with Muslim ideals of prayer, charity, and fasting. In another sense it means fighting against infidels, which is something of a major theological controversy among Muslim theology scholars today. Nowadays, quite a few Islamic religious leaders issue fatwas (orders) against Westerners—or moderate Muslims—thus energizing the people against other nations, in a battle resembling the one between light and darkness in Manichaeism. During the 1980's the Palestinian-born and Egyptian-educated Sheikh Abdullah Yusuf Azzam issued numerous fatwas in order to recruit fighters for Afghanistan and pioneered the use of these orders to conduct global recruitment. Azzam advocated making Afghanistan a purely Islamic state, while Osama bin Laden (who allegedly assassinated Azzam in 1989) was eager to create an international Islamic front and attack several targets simultaneously. As it turns out, bin Laden was a radical and Azzam a conservative. In the late 1980's, bin Laden was able to gain control the Islamic network for his own purposes.

Salafism originated in an 18th-century Islamic sect in present-day Saudi Arabia. Mohamed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a religious leader, preached for a return to the original Islamic tradition and eschewed modernity. He proceeded in cooperating with the forefather of the Saudi dynasty, Mohamed Ibn Saud, to form what is the basis for today's puritanical version of Islam in that country. In the 20th century, Muhammad Abduh, an Egyptian Islamic ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, elaborated on the basics of jihad and called for an abolition of secularism in the everyday life of all Muslim-dominated societies, as well as the overthrow of moderate administrations. The real difference between Al Qaeda and the older generations is the ability of bin Laden and his followers to strike globally, not just locally or nationally. In 1996, bin Laden issued his own fatwa for war against the United States, and in which he also mentioned ousting the Saudi dynasty, reflecting the totalitarian viewpoint of the new terror that ensued. In 2001, his No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, named all the enemies of Islam, which included the West, pro-Western Muslim states, multinational corporations, international media, and charitable organizations. In a sense Al Qaeda aims to topple the world as it is known. Salafism is no longer a movement for stricter enforcement of Islamic principles. It is a global anti-Western campaign conducted through the use of asymmetrical warfare.

Al Qaeda Landmarks

In 1987, Zawahiri established in Pakistan-Afghanistan the Islamic Jihad organization and issued a monthly journal, named "Conquest." The editor were known as the "Egyptian group" and functioned as the ideological punch of the later Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden soon placed these men in key sections of his organization and together they created the al-Masada training camp in the town of Khowst, where a new breed of mujahideen were trained. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 was a major victory for Osama bin Laden. His popularity grew in the Islamic world. It was then, on November 24, that Azzam was assassinated with his two sons because he objected to the creation of a global Jihad. Afterward bin Laden capitalized on the 1991 Persian Gulf War in Iraq, along with the stationing of Western troops in Saudi Arabia, and in parallel formed a pact with Hassan al-Turabi, an influential spiritual leader in Sudan. Sudan would become an integral hub for the coordination of attacks in the 1990's. Al Qaeda spread also to London, where it issued a radical paper, named "Al Ansar," and recruited people from across the Arab world that facilitated greatly in dispersing its ideology and mujahideen to all corners of the earth.

The evolution if Al Qaeda is similar to that of a multinational corporation with its peripheral offices, managers, subcontractors, and clients. It also created committees and project groups, while it continued its struggle in the new front of the Balkans during the Bosnian war (1992-1995). This is when it first established a presence in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Albania. In parallel, the first cells appeared also in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris, and Milan. During the Sudanese period, Al Qaeda was also formidable in Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Philippines, and Yemen. In 1996, bin Laden and 150 of his followers were forced to leave Khartoum, Sudan, under Western pressure and returned to Afghanistan. The leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, provided assistance and viewed Al Qaeda as a staunch ally. Soon—in 1998—the first major terrorist hit occurred in Kenya and Tanzania and proved that Al Qaeda had become a peril to the world. No concrete action was taken in response apart from some sporadic missile attacks by the United States Navy.

The American victory in Afghanistan in October 2001 didn't result in the destruction of Al Qaeda. The labyrinth of cells across the world ensured the continuation of  even after the American invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. Members managed to perform other spectacular attacks against targets in Turkey, Morocco, Bali,  Spain, Saudi Arabia, and Britain. Al Qaeda may be responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The organization's loose coordination makes it almost impossible for security forces to identify the leaders behind every action. Moreover, the bonds between Al Qaeda members and Pakistani officials of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency remain, as do the contacts and cells in Arabian Peninsula, Kashmir, Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, and major European cities.

The Mujahideen 'Army'

The worldwide Salafist jihad is a formidable network of capital and human resources aimed at conducting terror strikes against the West. The main culprits and organizers of the jihad are mostly of Saudi, Egyptian, and Pakistani origin, and the organization has members from virtually every country that has a Muslim segment in it. Also, it is interesting to note that the majority of the Al Qaeda members are rather affluent and educated and do not constitute a group of people of disadvantaged status. They are adept in the new technology and quite a few of them have completed numerous studies in technical schools that have proved to be of advantage when organizing terrorist attacks.

Moreover, the terrorists do not exhibit in most respects the characteristics of paranoid personalities. They are able to blend in with the rest of the society, adopt foreign costumes superficially, and stay in tune with the wider developments in the world. They are also trained internationally by Al Qaeda. Before 2001, they could travel easily in foreign countries. In short, they do not represent the majority of the Muslim world.

Globalization of the Jihad

Since Sept. 11, Al Qaeda has managed to muster popular support in the Islamic world for its actions because it is seen as the defender of the faith and the only power that challenged the West. The most important organizations of the Islamic Jihad against the West presently are: Al Qaeda, Al Jama'a Al Islamiya, Islamic Jihad, the Armed Islamic Group (G.I.A.), and the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi organization in Iraq. The G.I.A. in Algeria is gradually being absorbed by the Group for Dawa and Combat. One of the leading Islamic figures that played a role in directing jihad on a global scale is al-Zawahiri, who was very much influenced by the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.

The main reason why the jihad passed from local theaters of conflict to a global one is the one-way option it faced if it didn't want to be annihilated by conventional forces. By using the processes of globalization, it could facilitate its survival by following the flow of international commerce, immigration, communication, and transport. Despite the fact that Arab regimes such as those in Libya and Saudi Arabia have cooperated spectacularly with the West, Islamic Jihad is far from being disrupted and continues to strike almost annually somewhere in the world. The war in Iraq is stimulation for an expansion of its global role since it recruits fighters from different states there.

Will Al Qaeda Survive Bin Laden?

One of the main questions surrounding the enigma of Al Qaeda is its potential to maintain its tempo in the event of bin Laden's death. There are speculations that bin Laden is already dead, and quite a few analysts agree that this would not have any operational effect on Al Qaeda, which functions as an ideological rallying pole and not just as typical terrorist organization. Actually, if bin Laden were dead, he would serve as a model of martyrdom.

Al Qaeda still has a significant amount of capital. (It is not certain that bin Laden's death would constitute a financial blow for the organization.) Already the Islamic Jihadist organizations around the world accumulate capital by dealing narcotics and by being involved in illegal arms smuggling; therefore, their income is not affected by bin Laden or any other leading Islamic figure.

Also, the use of new technologies and especially the Internet proves to be a major advantage for Al Qaeda, which has created a virtual recruiting-training space that multiplies its potential.

Al Qaeda has functioned at an operational level for two decades and has accumulated vast experience of an international level. It has the ability to survive the loss of its leadership because of its "flowing network" mode of operation; it will most certainly constitute a real threat after bin Laden's death.

Another factor of the diminishing role of bin Laden in Al Qaeda's operations is the existence of the " war on terror" campaign launched by the United States and many other nations all over the world. Secret services and law enforcement authorities have as their main target the capture of bin Laden, who is presumably hiding in the intractable mountainous areas of northwestern Pakistan's semi-autonomous regions.

Increased electronic surveillance severely handicaps bin Laden's ability to form comprehensible attack strategies by hampering his ability to communicate effectively with his followers throughout the world.

Given these facts, it appears that bin Laden has lost his leadership posture, at least as far as the Western notion of leadership is concerned.

Conducting guerilla warfare on such a wide geographical scale does not require a centralized structure with an all-encompassing leader like bin Laden. In fact, that would impair the ability of the organization to be flexible and adaptive and in general to become an asymmetric threat to the well organized and heavily prepared state infrastructures of the Western states.

A typical control and command posture would simply be useless in this kind of war; instead, bin Laden's importance is as a spiritual guide, especially when considering the nature of this 21st-century war.

The hypothesis, then, is that bin Laden is not a leader of Al Qaeda but a figurehead who acts as a sentimental leverage for a variety of terrorist groups including. He is steadily becoming in a frighteningly distorted way a kind of modern "prophet," alluring to the hopeless masses of the Muslim world.

The Prophet image is a strong collective archetype in the Muslim world, and in that sense Bin Laden's leadership role in Al Qaeda may be of a more subtle, intriguing, and perhaps even solid nature, not merely that of the operative head of the terrorist network.

Current Terrorist Trends

The fight against the Islamic Jihad-Al Qaeda is an enormous task for the world community. The enemy is virtually invisible, hidden in the masses of metropolises or in the last vestiges of the world's wildernesses, such as the northern African deserts. Yet, they can appear anywhere at any time. And they long to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Evidence obtained in Afghanistan shows that Al Qaeda experimented with biological warfare and sought to obtain nuclear technology. The main threat for Western policymakers is  terrorist attacks with WMDs, as the recent autobiography of ex-C.I.A. Director George Tenet revealed.

The danger is greater for Europe than it is for the United States. Muslim minorities are more radicalized there than in the States and are a short geographical distance from the Islamic Jihad bases in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. Moreover, Europe's intelligence and security apparatus and techniques are less capable than those of the United States, and its liberal administrations are deemed "softer" targets.

The globalization process steadily increasing the ability of Al Qaeda to amass considerable funds and that is a problem hard to solve for the time being. It is certain that Al Qaeda will continue for the near future to rely on the informal economy for its financial support.

Another possible line of action for the Islamic Jihad is to proceed with a long-term penetration of Western societies. It is the only way they can get concise intelligence on their opponents.

The region of the Balkans is a potential hot spot for jihadist action. Right now, it is being used as a transit point and logistic base, and they will seek to expand their role by increasing their local influence. The Kosovo-Albanian mafia that controls some 70-80 percent of the heroin sold in Europe cooperates strongly with jihadist networks in order to ensure the flow of drugs to the continent from Central Asia and Afghanistan. Further empowerment on a political level in the Balkans is a possible outcome, taking into account the geopolitical placement of the region.

Iraq is also a focal point for Al Qaeda. Jihadists want to inflict great casualties on the American side in order to force it to withdraw its forces so it can then claim a victory similar to that in Afghanistan in 1989. A result like that would be a first-class catastrophe for the West.

Another possible trend over the coming years is the evolution of terrorist networks, which could become far more complicated in nature and more in tune with the necessities of the contemporary unconventional warfare. It should be noted that when Al Qaeda was first formed it consisted of a score or so of people and in less than 15 years it has became a global loose network from which an unknown number of sub-networks have emerged.

The only certainty for the years ahead is that Al Qaeda and the Islamic Jihad will seek to continue making spectacular attacks. They show no sign of retreating from their original goals and aspirations.

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