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Islamist Terror - 1

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

Terrorism and rise of radical Islam is a global problem. Islamic terrorism [also known as Islamist terrorism or Jihadist terrorism] is religious terrorism by those whose motivations are rooted in their interpretations of Islam. Statistics gathered for 2006 by the National Counterterrorism Center of the United States indicated that "Islamic extremism" was responsible for approximately 25% of all terrorism fatalities worldwide, and a majority of the fatalities for which responsibility could be conclusively determined.

Terrorist acts have included airline hijacking, beheading, kidnapping, assassination, roadside bombing, suicide bombing, and occasionally rape.

According to some experts, Perhaps the most resonant incident of Islamic terrorism was the 9/11 attack on the United States. Other prominent attacks have occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Israel, Britain, Spain, France, Russia and China. These terrorist groups often describe their actions as Islamic jihad [struggle]. Self-proclaimed sentences of punishment or death, issued publicly as threats, often come in the form of fatwas [Islamic legal judgments]. Both Muslims and non-Muslims have been among the targets and victims, but threats against Muslims are often issued as takfir [a declaration that a person, group or institution that describes itself as Muslim has in fact left Islam and thus is a traitor]. This is an implicit death threat as the punishment for apostasy in Islam is death under Sharia law.

The controversies surrounding the subject include whether the terrorist act is self-defense or aggression, national self-determination or Islamic supremacy; the targeting of noncombatants; whether Islam ever could condone terrorism; whether some attacks described as Islamic terrorism are merely terrorist acts committed by Muslims or nationalists; how much support there is in the Muslim world for Islamic terrorism; whether the Arab-Israeli Conflict is the root of Islamic terrorism, or simply one cause.

Osama bin Laden is the millionaire son of a construction magnate. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy, is a medical doctor. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaida in Iraq was an uneducated street thug who converted to a radical form of Islam in prison. Recently we saw a female Belgian convert to Islam become a suicide bomber in Iraq. It is difficult to identify what such people have in common other than a willingness to kill — and sometimes to die — for a cause they are convinced is right. No study has so far been able to explain why some people become terrorists and others don’t. Socio-psychological factors and questions of identity seem to be important and the dynamics of various cults have some striking parallels to terrorist cells. One thing we frequently see in the trajectory of terrorists is a conversion experience that occurs within a small, tight-knit group. The dynamics of such groups tend to reinforce personal conviction, especially among individuals whose other social networks have frayed or can’t match the intensity of bonds forged in what is for them an existential struggle.

Often the group is led by a ‘charismatic figure’ such as a ‘jihad veteran’, or jihad entrepreneur who raises funds and recruits for jihad. Such groups are found in many contexts, from prisons to social clubs. Often they are associated with a mosque, but generally they do not hold meetings in the mosque itself. Also the internet is playing a role in this conversion by exposing people to extremist views and the possibilities presented by jihad.

Many of the members of such cells have little history of extremism — or of piety. The most pious are not necessarily those most likely to become terrorists. Indeed, one could argue that for some people it is their poor understanding of Islam — and for the young suicide bomber, perhaps even their naivety — that has made them susceptible to extreme views.

Some analysts have argued that the root causes of terrorism lie not with the psychology or life experience of the individual but with deeper underlying political and economic currents. These root causes are variously listed as poverty, underdevelopment, un-employment, the demography of youth bulges, Palestinian dispossession and so forth.

These so-called ‘root causes’ are relevant but they do not go to the heart of the issue. First, there is the obvious fact that many terrorists are middle class or even from elites. Social studies of terrorists show that they are generally better educated than the broader population.

Secondly, terrorism is not limited to developing countries: look at the history of terrorism in developed democracies such as the United Kingdom. Finally, behind talk of root causes there is an assumption that they are somehow more real than the terrorists’ self-proclaimed motivations, that economic factors are more solid than ideology or identity. But as the protests over the Danish cartoons showed: issues of belief, identity and culture are just as real as material ones for many Muslims, and may well drive the emotions of many even more strongly.

That said, dysfunctional economies and authoritarian political systems magnify feelings of frustration and anger which, in turn, provide fertile soil for those who manipulate questions of identity and victim hood in the cause of violent jihad.
Since 9/11 the nature of the terrorist threat has changed. It has become more decentralized and amorphous. Al Qaida is still an active threat even if it has not been directly responsible for any major attack for the past two years. Al Qaida is fighting a war that it believes will last for generations. It has not given up its goal of conducting catastrophic attacks in the United States. We should not forget that eight and a half years passed between the first and second World Trade Centre attacks, and that the relative failure of the first attack seems to have acted more as an incentive than a dampener.

One of Al Qaida’s ‘achievements’ has been to draw many groups and Jihadists out of their local struggles and focus them on the ‘far enemy’. Zawahiri, now Al Qaida’s chief ideologist, himself moved from a local, Egyptian preoccupation to a global, anti-US ideology. And the story of Jamaah Islamiyah in Indonesia is about the transformation of a group which grew out of a national Islamist movement — Darul Islam — and has gone on to adopt the global Jihadist view of Al Qaida and others.
The terrorist threat today is best understood as a network of networks.

Sometimes the groups and cells that make up this extended network are held together by formal alliances — the best example is the alliance between core Al Qaida and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaida franchise in Iraq. But most often the links are informal, based on personal contacts. Surprising to some as it may seem, Al Qaida does not exercise command and control over this extensive network.

Consequently terrorists co-operate with each other at a variety of levels. This co-operation may not be ‘official’, and it is certainly not part of a giant global plot directed from a cave somewhere on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Ad hoc cells are formed for particular operations. A terrorist ‘entrepreneur’ with good access to financial donors can supply money. Cells or individual facilitators can provide others with documents or at least with the knowledge of where they can acquire them. A more experienced group can provide a trained bomb-maker to a cell that has a plan but not the technical expertise to carry it out. Veterans can vouch for new recruits to get them into training camps.

This amorphous structure can make it extremely difficult to determine who was responsible for an attack and how it was carried out. After a major attack such as Madrid or London, the automatic question is ‘Was Al Qaida responsible?’

It all depends on what you mean by ‘Al Qaida’ and by ‘responsible’. Certainly Al Qaida’s ideology and its record of attacks may have provided inspiration, but beyond that, the direct fingerprints are harder to find. Because of the nature of this network of networks, it is always possible to find intriguing personal links back to core Al Qaida — such links do not necessarily mean direct command and control. More importantly no direct Al Qaida involvement — for either planning or finances or other help — is needed to carry out successful attacks. Partly as a result of this network of networks structure, we should be careful not to ascribe to Islamist terrorism a monolithic unity. There are connecting threads: the conviction that the “US and its allies are waging a war against Islam”, the contempt for apostate’ Muslim regimes, rejection of liberal democracy as atheistic and decadent and particularly the appeal of the single narrative of Muslim victim hood. But it is also the case that the Jihadist movement is diverse with a large degree of internal disagreement over goals and methods. Nor are terrorist groups exempt from the squabbles over money, personalities, and thwarted ambitions that afflict all organizations. One example of disagreement is the current debate between Al Qaida leaders such as Zawahiri on the one hand and Zarqawi’s network in Iraq on the other over the legitimacy of killing Shia. Various groups have varying opinions on the legitimacy of killing any civilians. There is also the persistent debate over whether to fight the near ‘enemy’ — the allegedly corrupt and apostate regimes of the Middle East or Indonesia — or the far ‘enemy’, the United States which allegedly keeps those regimes in power. We should not however latch onto such disputes as evidence terrorist groups are about to implode. The Jihadist tent is a broad one. Whatever their differences, most Islamist terrorists see themselves as fighting for the same cause: God is one; His cause is one, so His army is one.