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The tenets of terror

A special report on the ideology of jihad and the rise of Islamic militancy.

By Staff writer / October 18, 2001


Hailing from the pancake-flat terrain of Punjab in east Pakistan, Hasan Ali dreams of a Muslim Utopia.

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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.