November 30, 2004


Understanding Terror Networks (Marc Sageman, November 1, 2004, FPRI)

We all know that Al Qaeda is a violent, Islamist, revivalist social movement, held together by a common vision of a Salafi state. Al Qaeda proper is just a small organization within this larger social movement. We often mistake the social movement for Al Qaeda and vice versa because for about five years, Al Qaeda had more or less control of the social movement.

The segment that poses a threat to the United States came out of Egypt. Most of the leadership and the whole ideology of Al Qaeda derives from Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb (1906–66) and his progeny, who killed Anwar Sadat and were arrested in October 1981. President Mubarak generously allowed them to be released in 1984.

Many of the released men, harassed by the Egyptian police, migrated to Afghanistan. With the end of the Soviet-Afghan War, they continued on to jihad. These Arab outsiders actually did not fight in the Soviet-Afghan War except for one small battle at Jaji/Ali Kheyl, which was really defensive: the Arabs had put their camp on the main logistic supply line, and in the spring of 1987 the Soviets tried to destroy it. So they were really more the recipient of a Soviet offensive, but they really did not fight in that war and thus the U.S. had absolutely no contact with them. I heard about the battle of Jaji at the time, and it never dawned on me to ask the Afghans I debriefed who the Arabs were. They turned out to be bin Laden and his men at the Al-Masada (Lion’s Den) camp.

After the war, a lot of these foreigners returned to their countries. Those who could not return because they were terrorists remained in Afghanistan. In 1991, Algeria and Egypt complained to Pakistan that it was harboring terrorists, so Pakistan expelled them. Thus the most militant of these terrorists made their way to Khartoum, where they were invited by Hassan al-Turabi of the National Islamic Front in Khartoum.

The Khartoum period is critical, because what these violent Salafists basically want to do is to create a Salafi state in a core Arab country. Salafi (from Salaf, “ancient ones” or “predecessors” in Arabic) is an emulation, an imitation of the mythical Muslim community that existed at the time of Mohammed and his companion, which Salafists believe was the only fair and just society that ever existed. A very small subset of Salafis, the disciples of Qutb, believe they cannot create this state peacefully through the ballot-box but have to use violence. The utopia they strive for is similar to most utopias in European thought of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, such as the communist classless society.

In Khartoum, the Salafists theorized that the reason they had been unable to overthrow their own government (the “near enemy”) was because it was propped up by the “far enemy”— the United States. So they decided to redirect their efforts and, instead of going after their own government, to attack the “far-enemy.” In 1996, for many reasons, Hassan al- Bashir, the President of Sudan, had to expel Al Qaeda after the imposition of international sanctions, because the Sudanese Government was implicated in the attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. In August 1996, within two months of returning to Afghanistan, bin Laden issued a fatwa declaring war on the United States.

The fatwa clearly articulated the new goals of this movement, which were to get the U.S. out of the Middle East so they would be free to overthrow the Saudi monarchy or the Egyptian regime and establish a Salafi state. This remains their goal and is why 9-11 happened. This is why the embassy bombing happened. It’s really not so much to destroy the United States, something they know they cannot do right now. This is all why I put the start of the threat against us at 1996. [...]

Until late 2001, the terror network was the project of al- Turabi, who in the early 1990s had invited all the Muslim terrorists to Khartoum. That’s how Al Qaeda learned about truck bombing from Hezbollah. Then when they were expelled from Khartoum, bin Laden had a deal with Mullah Omar where he actually had a monopoly of sanctuaries in Afghanistan — the training camp, housing, funding. Instead of raising their own money, it was much easier to go to bin Laden for it. And so, by his control of training camps, sanctuaries, and funding for five years, bin Laden was able to dominate this movement

But after 2001, when the U.S. destroyed the camps and housing and turned off the funding, bin Laden was left with little control. The movement has now degenerated into something like the internet. Spontaneous groups of friends, as in Madrid and Casablanca, who have few links to any central leadership, are generating sometimes very dangerous terrorist operations, notwithstanding their frequent errors and poor training. What tipped the Madrid group to operation was probably the arrest of some of their friends after the Casablanca bombing. Most of them were Moroccans and the Moroccan government asked the Spaniards to arrest several militants. So the group was activated, wanting to do something. Their inspiration—the document “Jihad al-Iraq”— probably was found on the Web. Six of its 42 pages argued that if there were bombings right before Spanish election, it could effect a change of government and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq, the expulsion of the “far enemy” from a core Arab state. From conception to execution, the operation took about five weeks.

We hear that Al Qaeda plans its attacks for years and years. It may have before 9-11, but not anymore. Operatives in caves simply cannot communicate with people in the field. The network has been fairly well broken by our intelligence services. The network is now self-organized from the bottom up, and is very decentralized. With local initiative and flexibility, it’s very robust. True, two-thirds to three- quarters of the old leaders have been taken out, but that doesn’t mean that we’re home free. The network grows organically, like the Internet. We couldn’t have identified the Madrid culprits, because we wouldn’t have known of them until the first bomb exploded.

So in 2004, Al Qaeda has new leadership. In a way today’s operatives are far more aggressive and senseless than the earlier leaders. The whole network is held together by the vision of creating the Salafi state. A fuzzy, idea-based network really requires an idea-based solution. The war of ideas is very important and this is one we haven’t really started to engage yet.

You hear a lot about this losing the war of ideas nonsense from our government bureaucrats, but on the ground in the region you have an elected government in Afghanistan, Iraqi elections in January, Palestinian elections coming, Libya and Syria trying to get in our good graces, grassroots democracy movements and local elections in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the rest. They sure seem to have gotten the idea.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 30, 2004 10:42 AM
Comments for this post are closed.