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October 11, 2005


Seth Smith

My own take on the situation:

A new report by Reuven Paz of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements has shed some light on a new player on the jihadist intellectual justification and tactics team. Abu Musab Al Suri ("the Syrian") maintains some ideological affinities to Al Qaida and its allies in Iraq. But he also significantly departs from their strategies.
Al Suri urges a jihad based on attacking western targets in the Arab world, and Arab governments. Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, has always prominently placed Shiites in his laundry list of targets, along with the perennially popular Crusaders and Jews. Furthermore, Al Zarqawi is a big practitioner of the Takfiri style of jihad, which conveniently allows self-appointed Muslims to decide whether other Muslims are in fact Muslims. For instance, jihadists in Iraq find it easy to extra-judicially kill their fellow Sunnis, based on the fact that they are not true Muslims. One guesses that the population of the whole Middle East would be whittled down to about one-one hundredth of its current size if the practitioners of Takfir were able to fully implement their definition of a Muslim.
Al Zarqawi, along with Zawahiri and friends stuck in Afghanistan, are interested in creating a mini-Islamic caliphate in Iraq, as a beachhead from which they can set out to capture more territory. This emphasis on quick results betrays an impatience on the part of the old Al Qaida leadership, and perhaps a yearning to return to come in from the cold of the Afghan mountains.
Al Suri, taking the longer view, counsels patience. He argues that attacks on tourists, embassies and other manifestations of Western culture will eventually drive the West from Muslim lands. It is at that point that the new caliphate can be created.
While all terrorists could be characterized as bloodthirsty, Zarqawi's style is considered particularly abrasive, even by the standards of Zawahiri. A recent letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi chastised the Jordanian in Iraq for making video after video of beheadings. Zawahiri has come to believe that the beheadings are a public relations disaster, sullying the Al Qaida brand. When one of the world's most recognized terrorists finds your methods overly terrifying, you might want to reconsider your marketing.
Zarqawi has reportedly personally taken part in some beheadings, and is viewed as a courser character all around, able to rally the troops but not politically adept. The fact that Zarqawi first found fundamentalism in a Jordanian jail after being convicted of sexual assault should tell us something about his character. A leader of men, to be sure, but without the intellectual heft of a Zawahiri or an Al Suri.
Zawahiri's letter, and two recent appearances on videotapes shown on Al Jazeera, may signal a push for more public visibility by the man who has always been viewed as second to Bin Laden. There is some speculation that Zawahiri and Bin Laden are not in touch, or don't know each other's whereabouts. On the other hand, an Al Jazeera journalist recently said that Bin Laden is actively seeking an interview with a journalist from the popular satellite station, as opposed to the usual Al Qaida model of video tapes and audio tapes. This may mean that Bin Laden feels that he is losing support among the Arab public, and feels a need to launch a direct appeal.
What this means to the future of jihad is unclear. A few facts have become apparent, however. First, that there is significant coordination between jihadists in Iraq and the Al Qaida's leaders in Afghanistan. Second, Zawahiri is keenly aware of the effects on potential and active supporters that Zarqawi's actions are having. He is trying to act as a moderating influence. Third, Zawahiri has changed Al Qaida's rhetoric to suit the times, as any astute politician does. He is aware of reform and democratization movements in several Arab countries. Although he rejects them wholeheartedly, he understands that his message has to compete with theirs, and so has co-opted some of their language.
As for Al Suri, his influence is only now beginning to emerge. His advocacy of attacks on purely Western targets, and rejection of Shiite and especially Sunni targets will probably gain support. Zawahiri can be seen as moving toward this position himself, due to his reading of the Arab public mood. The availability of funds, and the ability to fundraise is an under-remarked aspect of the terror nexus, and the money men probably have some say in the global jihadists rhetoric and actions, if only by pulling the purse strings.
Neither of the schools of jihadist thinking discussed above are particularly welcome in the West, the Arab regimes or anyone interested in peace. They prove that the jihad movement is now centered in the Middle East, far closer to the West's strategic interests than Afghanistan ever was. On the other hand, they do show some progress in that the jihadists now feel the need to address other reform movements that have cropped up in Arab societies. They no longer have a monopoly on anti-regime discourse, and are now faced with movements that have a much more productive view of the future. In many Arab societies, these movements are still in their collective infancies. One hopes that they will grow up quickly, as they are desperately needed.

Neil Levine

Not as long or erudite a comment as Seth's above but more to the point of the implicit question in your "Discuss" invitation at the end of the article which is "does this sound like a good idea?"

Whilst I agree with your more general comments that the West should look to co-opt some of the more progressive elements in Arab society, such as Al Jazeera, rather than instinctively opposing them as a default reaction, I think stepping back to allow Jihadists to conduct an internal dialectic, unopposed and unfettered, in the hope that it produces schisms and reduces the attractiveness of the cause is morally dangerous. This may well be the outcome but this is a -possible- outcome and not a definite one. What happens if the internal discussion produces a more coherent and scholarly message to attract people with? Should we build a policy on what we hope to be the outcome?

When given the choice of shutting down a website which calls for suicide bombings or not shutting it down, the latter should be taken, no differently to what would happen to a White Supremicist or Far Right website. If we are looking to defend our Western values this should not mean we should sit back and passively hope the Jihadists dilute their effectiveness. If they do so by their own volition then fine, and if we can encourage it without compromising the message we need to be getting across, even better. But the probable outcome of leaving websites online (more recruits) is probably worse than shutting them down (forcing them to conduct the conversation elsewhere).

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