January 13, 2010


Cracks in the Jihad (Thomas Rid, Winter 2010, Wilson Quarterly)

Perhaps the greatest tension between the local and global levels of the jihad grows out of a divide over appropriate targets and tactics. Classical Islamic legal doctrine sees armed jihad as a defensive struggle against persecution, oppression, and incursions into Muslim lands. In an attempt to mobilize Muslims around the world to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, Abdallah Azzam, an influential radical cleric who was assassinated in 1989, helped expand the doctrine of jihad into a transnational struggle by declaring the Afghan jihad an individual duty for all Muslims. Azzam also advocated takfir, a practice of designating fellow Muslims as infidels (kaffir) by remote excommunication in order to justify their slaughter. Al Qaeda ideologues upped the aggressive potential of such arguments and expanded the defensive jihad into a global struggle, effectively blurring the line between the “near” enemy—the Arab regimes deemed illegitimate “apostates” by the purists—and the “far” enemy, these regimes’ Western supporters.

In the remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan that produce many of today’s radicals, however, local and tribal affiliations are powerful. One U.S. political adviser who worked in Afghanistan’s Zabul Province, a hotbed of the insurgency, describes prevailing local sentiment as “valleyism” rather than nationalism. It is a force that drives the tribes to oppose anybody who threatens their traditional power base, foreign or not—a problem not just for the Taliban and Al Qaeda but for any Afghan government. Al-Zawahiri complained of this in a Even the students (talib) themselves had stronger affiliations to their tribes and villages . . . than to the Islamic emirate.” The provincial valleyists, to the distress of Al Qaeda’s more cosmopolitan agitators, are selfishly eyeing their own interests, with little appetite for international aggression and globe-spanning terrorist operations.

The contrast with the character of jihad in the Muslim diaspora could not be starker. For radical Islamists in Europe, the local jihad doesn’t exist. And they understand that toppling governments in, say, London or Amsterdam is a fantasy. These radicals are less interest driven than identity driven. Many young European Muslims are out of touch with their ancestral countries, yet not fully at home in France or Sweden or Denmark. For some, the resulting identity crisis creates a hunger for clear spiritual guidelines. The ideology of global jihad, according to a report by EUROPOL, the European Union’s police agency, “gives meaning to the feeling of exclusion” prevalent among the second- and third-generation descendants of Muslim immigrants. For these alienated youth, the idea of becoming “citizens” of the virtual worldwide Islamic community may be more attractive than it is for first-generation immigrants, who tend to retain strong roots in their native countries.

The identity problems of these young people seem to have affected the character of the jihad itself. Like the disoriented Muslim youth of the diaspora, the global jihad has loose residential roots and numb political fingertips. One sign of this disconnection from the local is that Al Qaeda’s rank and file does not include many men who could otherwise join a jihad at home: There seem to be few Palestinians, Chechens, Iraqis, or Afghans among the traveling jihadis, who tend to come from countries where jihad has failed, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria.

Al Qaeda’s identity crisis is also illustrated by how it treats radicalized converts, often people without religious schooling and consolidated personalities. Olivier Roy, one of France’s leading specialists on radical Islamism, has pointed out that convert groups assume responsibilities “beyond all comparison with any other Islamic organization.” Roy has put the proportion of converts in Al Qaeda at between 10 and 25 percent, an indicator that the movement has become “de-culturalized.”

These contrary trends, in turn, create chinks in Al Qaeda’s recruitment system. The most extreme Salafists, deprived of identity and cultural orientation, have an appetite for utopia, for extreme views that appeal to the margin of society, be it in Holland or Helmand. Recruitment in the diaspora, as a result, follows a distinctive pattern, not partisan and political but offbeat and outré. The grievances and motivations of European extremists and the rare American militants tend to be idiosyncratic, the product of unstable individual personalities and a history of personal discrimination. Many take the initiative to join the movement themselves, and because they are not recruited by a member of the existing organization, their ties to it may remain loose. In 2008 alone, 190 individuals were sentenced for Islamist terrorist activities in Europe, most of them in Britain, France, and Spain. “A majority of the arrested individuals belonged to small autonomous cells rather than to known terrorist organizations,” EUROPOL reports.

As a result of the change in its membership, the global Al Qaeda movement is encountering strong centrifugal forces. The rank and file and the center are losing touch with each other. The vision of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, who laid much of the ideological foundation for Al Qaeda’s global jihad, blends a Marxist-inspired focus on popular mass support with 21st-century ideas of networked, individual action. Al-Suri’s aim was to devise a method “for transforming excellent individual initiatives, performed over the past decades, from emotional pulse beats and scattered reactions into a phenomenon which is guided and utilized, and whereby the project of jihad is advanced so that it becomes the Islamic Nation’s battle, and not a struggle of an elite.” The global jihad was to function like an “operative system,” without vulnerable, old-fashioned organizational hierarchies. That method is intuitively attractive for a Facebook generation of well-connected young sympathizers, but the theory contains an internal contradiction. Self-recruited and “homegrown” terrorists present a wicked problem for Al Qaeda. As a bizarre type of self-appointed elite, they undermine the movement’s ambition to represent the Muslim “masses.” [...]

The goal of leading Islamists has always been to turn their battle into “the Islamic Nation’s battle,” as al-Suri wrote. Far from reaching this goal, the jihad is veering the other way. Eight years after 9/11, support for Islamic extremism in the Muslim world is at its lowest point. Support for Al Qaeda has slipped most dramatically in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Jordan. In 2003, more than 50 percent of those surveyed in these countries agreed that bin Laden would “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” the Pew Global Attitudes Project found. By 2009 the overall level of support had dropped by half, to about 25 percent. In Pakistan, traditionally a stronghold of extremism, only nine percent of Muslims have a favorable view of Al Qaeda, down from 25 percent in 2008. Even an American failure to stabilize Afghanistan and its terror-ridden neighborhood would be unlikely to ease Al Qaeda’s crisis of legitimacy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 13, 2010 10:43 AM
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