The tenets of terror
A special report on the ideology of jihad and the rise of Islamic militancy.
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — Hailing from the pancake-flat terrain of Punjab in east Pakistan, Hasan Ali dreams of a Muslim Utopia.
The Islamic law student would like to create - through a holy war, if necessary - an Islamic state that spans the globe. All nations would be under the control of sharia (Islamic law), with the locus of authority in Saudi Arabia, "the center of Islam." And for the first act, he looks to Osama bin Laden, "our hero No. 1, our religious leader, our model, our general."
Hiding somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan, the gray-bearded Ayman al-Zawahiri shares the same vision, and has been working side by side with Hasan's "hero No.1" for more than a decade. Mr. Zawahiri's life tracks the evolution of modern Islamic militancy - from his arrest at age 15 as a member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to his place today as the guiding intellect of Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
Zam Amputan traveled across four time zones from the Philippines to attend a madrassah in Peshawar, Pakistan. He returned home, burning for a jihad. But now he has turned his back on Islamic militancy.
These future, present, and lapsed holy warriors have one thing in common: All are deeply etched by a steel-tipped Islamic fundamentalism that's now shaping international events - from the US-cratered roads of Kabul to clashes in Algeria's countryside to the carnage of Sept. 11 in New York.
President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair stress that the "war on terrorism" is not a battle between the West and Islam. But surely they mean mainstream Islam. If one listens to students, like Hasan, in Pakistan, or Osama bin Laden's latest video footage, one hears the language of a holy war, and the dark strains of a theology that is gaining popular acceptance. Some dub it Wahhabism. Others call it primitive Islam or Salafiyya.
Basically, Islamic experts say, it's a hybrid and simplistic blend of Islamic fundamentalism. This "Islam" seeks to eradicate all forms of Islam other than its own strict literal interpretation of the Koran. It comes packaged with a set of now well-known political grievances, often directed at US foreign policy, and justifies violence as a means of purging nations of corruption, moral degradation, and spiritual torpor.
In one sense, this strain of Islamic ideology has been around for at least the past two decades. It's been taught in the proliferating fundamentalist madrassahs in Pakistan. It has been fueled by petrodollars from Saudi Arabia, and preached in mosques from Egypt to Indonesia. And it continues to inspire militant groups such as Al Queda, the Taliban, Islamic Jihad, Abu Sayyaf, and many others.
What is new - and appears to be gathering momentum with every US air strike in Afghanistan - is the intensity of feelings this ideology has created among younger Muslims. Even in the traditionally more "moderate" Muslim nations of Southeast Asia, a culture of jihad is now spreading.
One's credentials as a "true Muslim" are increasingly based on a willingness to use violence. In just the past year, the walls of buildings throughout northern Pakistan have become hand-scrawled billboards for "jihadi training," complete with phone numbers. And people are calling.
"I never thought I would see a Pakistani or a Punjabi willing to kill himself for Islam," says a local Pashtun journalist, who has interviewed bin Laden. "You used to see a lot of boots, AK-47s, and flak jackets around here. But no jihad. The number of suicide bombers in a group like Lashkar [e-Tayyiba] used to be maybe 10 or 20. Now it is close to 400."
Vali Nasr, a specialist on Muslim extremists at the University of San Diego, Calif., (and a Shia Muslim) agrees. "I've been to Pakistan over the past 20 years, and the Pakistan I see today is unrecognizable to me, even though I've been working on fundamentalism from the beginning," he says. Speaking of the impact of Saudi funds for madrassahs, he says, "a madrassah ... was a seminary where a student spent years at the foot of educated scholars, ulema, and became well versed in all aspects of Islamic jurisprudence, law, philosophy, theology.... In recent years, some are just [run by] petty mullahs with a half-baked understanding [of Islam]."
This generation of poorly educated mullahs look at Islam through the lens of a violent jihad - rather than looking at jihad through the lens of Islam, experts say.
Many Muslim scholars rightly shudder at the free and loose use of "jihad" by the Western media - since they do not want the term, which means "internal struggle for a just cause," co-opted by extremists or used to negatively depict all of Islam.
At the same time, Khalid Ahmed, an editor at The Friday Times, a weekly in Lahore, Pakistan, points out that "jihad is precisely the term being used to captivate youth here. The moderates are going to have to start dealing with that."
If Afghanistan is the birthplace of this jihad, Peshawar is its staging ground. This dusty city of intrigue just east of the Khyber Pass is where many of today's Muslims came to pick up both the Koran and the Kalashnikov. Bin Laden and Zawahiri met here. Hasan Ali and Zam Amputan both studied at schools here funded by Saudi money.
When the Soviets attacked Afghanistan in December 1979, the initial prognosis in the West was that the native population lacked the unity to resist. It was felt that the proud ethnic groups in the country would never unify enough to drive out the communists. The answer, agreed to in Washington, the Middle East, and Pakistan was - Islam. The creation of the mujahideen warriors was the result - fighters that would come from around the Muslim world and take up arms in the name of a holy war.
The project succeeded quite well. A "pipeline" of weapons, warriors, and networks of engaged mullahs was established from the Middle East through Peshawar, Pakistan - and into Afghanistan. Money from the Middle East and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - funneled through the Pakistan Interservices Agency (ISI) - was used to buy food, clothing, supplies, weapons, and intelligence. Local madrassahs became ideological training grounds for those who were termed by everyone from President Carter to President Reagan as "freedom fighters."
Along with the new fervor to fight the Soviet infidels, a new set of insights and pan-Islamic ideals developed, capturing the hearts and minds of young Muslims, along with a powerful new interpretation of an old Islamic idea - jihad. Later, after the war, the Afghan Arabs would take their battle-tested skills and sharp-edged ideology home to Yemen, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Philippines, Kenya, and the United States. "Scratch an Islamic militant group today and you find Afghan Arabs behind it," says a Jakarta-based diplomat.
It was in this frontier city of hard stares and hospitals for wounded mujahideen, goatherds, and CIA agents, as well as shops lined with red and orange kilim carpets that, by all accounts, bin Laden first met Zawahiri in the mid-1980s.
But it wasn't Zawahiri's first trip to Peshawar. The eldest of five sons of a prominent Cairo family, the Egyptian surgeon spent half a year here in 1980, working in a hospital for wounded mujahideen, says Mohammed Salah, author of a soon-to-be-published book on Al Jihad, the Egyptian militant group. He showed the Monitor a copy of a frayed blue airmail letter sent from Peshawar, dated Nov. 24, 1980. In it, Zawahiri wrote an Arabic ode to his mother, a personal plea from a son longing for forgiveness, and some word from home.
She met my bad doings with goodness without asking for any return....
May God erase my ineptness and please her despite the offenses...
O God may you have pity on a stranger who longs for the sight of his mother.
At the time, Zawahiri was a principal member of Al Jihad, the radical Egyptian group. He closes the letter by sending hello to "Mr. Farrag," probably a reference to Mohammad Abd al-Salam Farrag, the leader of Al Jihad in the late 1970s.
Less than a year after the letter was written, President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. Egyptian police scooped up 60 to 70 members of Jihad, including Zawahiri, and put them on trial.
It was Sadat's assassination that started to make Zawahiri a name known beyond the Egyptian secret police.
In the internecine squabbling among militant groups in Egypt, Zawahiri emerged as the chief spokesman to the media - known for the clarity of his thinking and for his good English. His pedigree probably helped, too.
His grandfather was the imam of Al Azhar Mosque, Egypt's most prestigious Islamic institution. At the time, Zawahiri also had a running discourse with Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric now in a New York prison for his involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
"Within the prison walls, he began to campaign against Abdul Rahman's leadership [of Jihad], saying he wasn't a just leader," says Mr. Salah, the journalist. "He wanted to lead the group to greater power." And, more senior Jihad leaders had been sentenced to life in prison, whereas Zawahiri served three years, for possession of a gun, and was released.
A year after being released from prison, Zawahiri returned Peshawar, to care for wounded soldiers, with the Islamic Red Crescent, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross.
Just outside Peshawar, in what is today the Jalozai Afghan refugee camp, is the "martyrs graveyard." There lie some 6,000 mujahideen - most of whom died in the Afghan jihad. Among them is a small marker set with green words that read "star of the martyrs." This is Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian, who, along with his two sons, was killed in a car bomb blast here Nov. 3, 1989. The assailants are still unknown.
But in the mid80s, Mr. Azzam was bin Laden's spiritual leader: Part cleric, part mujahed, and university professor, he is the author of a half-dozen books, and is widely regarded as the figure who was instrumental in introducing Arabs to the Afghan fight.
"Azzam was the man who developed the idea of jihad in a complete way," says Mukahil ul-Islam Zia, a professor at the Islamic Center at Peshawar University, who has a set of Azzam's works on the shelf behind his computer screen. "Azzam enshrines the need for armed struggle as part of daily life, to deal with problems deemed by Islamic legal scholars to be unjust. He first starts with an anti-Israel agenda. But then he takes it further."
Azzam's home was the first stop for many Arabs just off the plane. He worked to integrate them with the Afghan fighters, and helped start the Jihad Training University at the Jalozai camp. In 1984, bin Laden and Azzam worked together, setting up training camps in Afghanistan. By the time of Azzam's death, his Al Had group was in healthy Arab recruiting competition with another Peshawar-based group - bin Laden's Al Queda, which eventually absorbed part of his mentors group.
"Osama would have been nothing without Azzam," says a Taliban expert. "Before he came to Peshawar, Osama was a kind of playboy, a dilettante, not serious, not what we see today."
For years, Arab and Muslim intellectuals had dealt with the question of how their tradition and faith could survive the onslaught of a modern world, and of post-colonial anomie. There was disaffection with corrupt Arab tyrants running military states that dealt indifferently with Islam. With the Israeli project to take over Palestinian villages and later the West Bank. With a post-war America pouring out images of Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, and the bikini.
Nowhere did Islam seem "protected," flowering, safe from the influence of the modern world and the secular infidel.
It was not until the creation of the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s that the disparate elements, mullah and foot soldier, dreamers and doers, came together to be forged in a fighting force. Peshawar was the place where sweet Pakistani "milk tea" and an ethnic Pashtun brand of Islam, Deobandism, were served. Deobandism is a 19th-century Indian school of Islam that was tied closely to the anti-British movement, and that had always been more severe and strict than the milder South and Southeast Asian Islamic variants.
What Azzam did was to begin melding - in a practical ideology - the Arabic forms of Islam with the Deobandi versions. It was an ideology of jihad.
Azzam's own inspiration was an Egyptian writer, Sayyid Qutb, who in the 1950s began to divide the world into the sacred (a perfect Islamic state), and the profane (the non-Islamic world). Mr. Qutb, in works like "Signposts on the Road," and "A Muslim's Nationality and his Beliefs," confronted modernity. He read Freud, Darwin, and Marx. He visited the US in the 1950s, and found that Western ideas of commerce, civil society, the nation-state, and free expression couldn't be harmonized with absolute Islam. He opposed treaties, agreements, and other liberal forms of statecraft as weakness and capitulation. He began to articulate the need to overthrow Muslim rulers, and was executed in Egypt in 1966.
Like many of the students in today's Pakistani madrassahs, and many in the Taliban ranks, Qutb had a faith that Islam is peaceful and moderate - but that this needed Utopia, a world like the one the prophet administered for 30 years in Mecca and Medina, and must be achieved by force.
"In the world there is only one party of God, all others are parties of Satan and rebellion," Qutb wrote in "A Muslim's Nationality." "Those who believe fight in the cause of God, and those who disbelieve fight in the cause of rebellion."
Zawahiri, too, would have been quite familiar with Qutb. The year that Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser ordered Qutb hanged, Zawahiri was arrested for being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Qutb's books became so popular on the university campuses of Cairo in the 1970s that the government banned them.
"Qutb is considered ... the founder of Islamic religious groups, especially the violent or jihadi groups," says Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher of Islamic militant groups at Egypt's al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies. While other Islamists at the time were looking to change their societies from within, Qutb was an influence on Zawahiri and others like him, "to launch something wider."
Back in Pakistan in 1985, Zawahiri started calling on his cohorts from Egypt to join him. He sought out freelance mujahideen, mercenaries on the side of Islam against the Soviets. In Peshawar, sources say, Zawahiri became a natural magnet for the movement. It is there that he met bin Laden, though the two at first may have seen each other as competitors in the business of mujahideen training and succor. He put out a newspaper, Mujehedoon, to spread his ideas, and to keep a running commentary on the latest thinking on jihad.
Those newspapers became the forerunner of a variety of jihadi magazines that are now published and sold widely in Pakistan - and read the way American youth read "Boy's Life" in an earlier era. They tell of mujahideen battlefield feats and of the need for strict observance.
One such reader today is Hasan Ali, the madrassah student who wants to one day be a lawyer in Islamabad. Short, chunky, bearded, Ali combines an intense demeanor with a mild-speaking tone, and he often lapses into a shy smile when teased by friends. (Ali has a wife and child in his Punjab village, and some classmates say he ought to either bring her to the college or move back to the village - rather than going home every weekend.)
Ali is "very social," meaning that he is constantly attending islamic functions and conferences, and is networking with other students. Some are Afghans who will not let him meet with a Westerner in his dorm room. All the students keep close tabs on what is happening in the jihadi subculture, and they see the Taliban as heroes. Ali is serious enough about his Islam to have attended three different madrassahs around Pakistan. He turns cold when asked if he has gone "for the training," the euphemism for military instruction that many madrassah students see as integral to their education. He will not say. He sips green tea, excuses himself partway through an interview to pray outside at dusk, and then returns.
Ali does say that the Islamic movement, which he sees as one single worldwide movement, needs a military wing. The companions of the prophet had a military wing, even when traveling in places that already had an army. In Pakistan, Ali feels that eventually, the tides of Islam, the feelings on the streets, will "absorb" the military, the army, and that there will be no need for a violent takeover.
"Unlike the West, religion and politics are the same thing in Islam," he says. "The mosque is the place where one worships, where government, legal and military decisions are made." Saudi Arabia, "the center of Islam," is the place where the authority for a single Islamic state - starting in the Middle East, moving to Central Asia, and then throughout the world - should be. Osama, he says, understands the "problems of the Muslims. If America is going to attack us, it will result in America's death," Ali says.
Ali is described by his fellow students as having a "moderate outlook."
Unquestionably, one strain of Islamic thought and practice is found, more than any other, in and around the new fundamentalism: Wahhabism. This is a Saudi Arabian variant of Islam. It follows a literal interpretation of Islam, as strict and forbidding as the baking desert sands of its origins. Saudi cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century sought to remove the multifarious readings of the Koran that evolved in the centuries after the prophet. He was backed by the House of Saud, which eventually took Wahhabist views as national policy. Infidels were to be dealt with harshly. Local customs, laws, saints, or rituals - anything not found in a literal reading of the Koran - were to be abandoned as idolatry. Saudi Arabia, especially, as the home of Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest sites, should free itself of any un-Islamic influence.
Today, Saudi oil wealth gives what would be a minority orthodox faction in the Muslim world a disproportionate amount of influence. Saudi funds pour out, officially and unofficially, across the globe - paying for new mosques from Bosnia to Boston, as well as Islamic centers, university chairs, conferences, and organizations for the promotion of orthodox Islam, primary schools, charities, and visiting scholars.
Exact figures on the petrodollars pushing Saudi orthodox Islam are hard to come by. But few experts say that Saudi funds are directly used for the export of militant training. Indeed, today, the Saudi government does not particularly want to fund fundamentalism that will turn on the government, as has bin Laden (In 1994, the Saudis revoked his citizenship). One of the original aims of funding orthodox Islamic institutions was to check the spread of Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's Shia fundamentalism in the Gulf region in the 1980s.
Nor does Saudi money come labeled as "Wahhabi funding." (Wahhabism in many parts of the world is viewed suspiciously.) Rather, funding for mosques or schools simply comes with the requirements that certain teachings and practices be observed: Women should cover their heads and be subservient, students should focus more on the Koran and less on "worldly" instruction, Islamic law (sharia) should be taught as the only real law, and other forms of Islam should be abandoned. Yet in practice, and even if unintentionally, experts say, the spread of Wahhabist or revivalist Islam, has been a breeding ground for militant behavior, and for an assault on local traditional forms of Islamic practice.
In Central Asia, for example, "you have Tajiks and Uzbeks who haven't heard a sermon in 20 years, and now all they hear is about how fanatical they should be," says Professor Nasr. "Somebody from Southeast Asia ... with a much more culturally rich and syncretic Islamic tradition, with more coexistence between religion and culture, between Hindu, Buddhist, Christianity ... [goes to a Wahhabi-funded] seminary. And even if he doesn't get military training, returns home with the view that there should be no compromise, no cultural coexistence with non-Muslims."
"Osama and the House of Saud don't agree on very much," says a Pakistani human rights worker in Peshawar, speaking gingerly. "But they do agree on the spread of Wahhabism."
"From Algeria to Indonesia, what I see is a move to push sharia law," says Mr. Ahmed, the editor in Lahore, Pakistan. "The harder Arab strains of Islam are behind this move. Indonesia is nothing but a beautiful 'low church' version of Islam with lots of singing and dancing, mysticism. But this sharia movement will try to purge that Islam and make it as pure as everywhere else."
In the past 20 years, literally hundreds of mosques have been set up in Southeast Asia for the purpose of teaching "pure Islam." The move is fueled by Saudi funding, and by guerrilla fighters trained in Afghanistan who came back home.
The original leaders of Indonesia's Lashkar Jihad and Islamic Defenders Front, as well as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, all fought with the mujahideen. All are now committing acts of violence in the furtherance of their aims - a sharia-based state.
Indonesia, though majority Muslim, has always been resolutely secular. The Wahhabi-influenced Muslims there feel like outsiders, and often preach that the nation's political elite are "infidels."
Militant Laskar Jihad leader Jaf'ar Umar Thalib dismissed both Megawati Sukarnoputri, the current president of Indonesia, and Abdurrahman Wahid, the past president, as "not real Muslims" when the Monitor met him last year. That may sound strange, particularly in the case of Wahid, who chairs Nadhlatul Ulama, an academic group that is the world's largest Muslim organization. But Wahid is resolutely a traditional Javanese Muslim who also prays to ancestors and ancient seers and visits holy places not mentioned in the Koran.
In the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in Algeria and Egypt, the return of the Afghan vets coincided with an upsurge of Islamic militancy in the 1990s.
When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, and the Afghan mujahideen began fighting among themselves, many Arabs left. Bin Laden moved to Sudan in 1991, and took up his campaign against the Saudi regime.
Zawahiri, according to press reports, shaved his beard, dyed his hair, and went to California and Texas for a few weeks in 1991. He visited mosques and community centers under an assumed name, raising money for "Afghan widows and orphans."
In the 1990s, flush with Afghan vets, the Egyptian Islamic Group, and Jihad (the militant group Zawahiri belonged to), launched a series of attacks on politicians and tourists. In 1997, six Islamic militants massacred 58 foreign tourists and at least four Egyptians in Luxor, Egypt.
The next year, Zawahiri and bin Laden publicly reunited, although terrorism experts say that the two were working together throughout the 1990s.
On Feb. 23, 1998, an Arab newspaper introduced to the world the "International Islamic Front for Combating Crusaders and Jews." The founding document was signed by "Sheikh" bin Laden, Zawahiri "Amir of the Jihad Group" in Egypt, and the leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Group, the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan, and the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh. It condemned the "sins" of American foreign policy for declaring "war on God, his messenger, and Muslims." And it called "on every Muslim ... to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."
Six months later, the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed.
While the allure of jihad and defending Islam against America draws many today, not all the young men who are radicalized stay that way.
As a boy growing up as part of the 5 percent minority in the Philippines, Zam Amputan, remembers feeling that Muslims were destined to be forever marginalized unless they were governed by the Koran.
His father was a respected religious teacher, and the family, by Mindanao standards, was well off. Amputan attended a private Catholic school, and after college, the opportunity arose to attend a madrassah in Pakistan. At the height of the jihad against the Soviets, his trip to Peshawar in 1987, like those of other believers, was sponsored by the Saudi-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth. There he was exposed to the Wahhabi ideology, which he saw as a powerful tool against oppression.
He returned to Mindanao full of zeal, thinking of ways to create a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines.
But as he matured, he says, his ideas changed. Amputan doesn't know exactly what altered his radical route, though he cites a 1995 trip to Iran, in which he began to believe it was a huge mistake to give clerics control over the temporal world.
"I always used my own reasoning, and it led me to a different understanding of the Koran," says Amputan. "The problem with the religious state is that they say religious teachers have the ultimate responsibility to interpret the Koran. I have a different reading: It's each individual's responsibility."
The views of this father of four put him at odds with the growing number of militants in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a separatist group with whom he sympathized. (In March 2000, Amputan survived an assassination attempt by the MILF, while driving home from a radio talk show he hosted.)
"Extremist, intolerant views of Islam have come to monopolize the religious dialogue here, and the moderates have to do more to change that," Amputan says. "My personal jihad is to stop extremism. But few are fighting yet."
Reporting by staff writers Jane Lampman in Boston; Scott Peterson in Douab, Afghanistan; Ilene R. Prusher in Cairo; and Warren Richey in Amman, Jordan; as well as special correspondents Sarah Gauch in Cairo and Dan Murphy in Manila.