Inside the mind of Al Qaeda

The group's key goals are aimed at cultivating new members and a militant spirit. But Islamic reaction has been lukewarm.

Osama bin Laden's feelings, like his whereabouts, remain a mystery. But if he were to suddenly surface tomorrow to deliver a State of the Jihad speech, it might sound something like this:

"Fellow members of Al Qaeda - Islam is in mortal danger from the West.

"Americans are the new Mongols, successors to the infidel hordes who sacked Baghdad and other Islamic capitals in the 13th century. They represent both a physical and a spiritual threat, as their materialistic ideology, their emphasis on the individual and the secular, can seduce believers away from the true path of Islam.

"Jihad is the antidote to this poison. As a real war, it offers an opportunity to strike the infidels. As a state of being, it offers participants a way to prove their worthiness before God."

Three years after the attacks of Sept. 11, the United States is still struggling to identify its main adversaries in the war on terrorism.

The US knows their identity, of course. They are the members of Al Qaeda and its associatedjihadist groups around the globe.

But knowing who they are, in terms of grasping the way they look at the world, their philosophies, their hopes, and their plans, is another story.

When Osama bin Laden looks out from his probable Pakistani mountain redoubt, does he approve of the tide of world events? Is he happy about Iraq, or frustrated? Is he eager to disrupt the US election, and to attack more capitalist monuments? Or, as some experts suggest, does he have a different agenda, one that reflects his own values system?

As both chambers of Congress move toward votes on bills overhauling US intelligence, lawmakers might keep in mind that one of the 9/11 commission's key recommendations dealt not with bureaucratic structure so much as with the need to ensure that intelligence agencies can see the world through adversaries' eyes.

After all, Sept. 11 may have been a failure of imagination, among other things. Not enough people foresaw that such attacks could, and might, occur.

"It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination," concludes the 9/11 commission final report.

During the cold war, the US national security establishment tried to understand the world as the Soviet Union might see it. This "red team" approach aimed to predict how Soviet leaders would react to US arms development, treaty proposals, and other geostrategic moves.

Now the US is increasingly focused on "red teaming" Al Qaeda. One prominent effort is an unclassified one undertaken at the Pentagon's behest by RAND terrorist analyst Brian Jenkins.

The "State of Jihad" summary above was drawn from Mr. Jenkins's work. Among his points: Al Qaeda's objectives are broad - to Western eyes, so broad as to seem almost fantastical: The group wants to drive infidels from the Middle East, topple what they see as apostate regimes in Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations, and foster an Islamic religious revival. The goal is to build a following, not to take ground. The group is vague on when its goals might be reached. It has no road map for victory.

"We regard war as a finite process, with a beginning, middle, and end. For our jihadist foes, it is a perpetual condition," said Jenkins at a recent RAND terrorism conference in Washington.

The code of jihadism emphasizes process, not progress. Their objective is action - the more spectacular the better. A continuing terror campaign boosts their self-image as jihad's cutting edge, notes Jenkins. And action purifies jihadists, focusing them on a spiritual purpose and shielding them from the temptations of materialism. To Al Qaeda, the individual heroism can be more important than an operation's outcome.

The last three years have certainly challenged Al Qaeda. Afghan training camps have been dismantled, and many top leaders killed or arrested. Cash flow is dwindling and the operational environment is squeezed.

What's worse, to Al Qaeda, may be what the leaders see as a lukewarm reaction on the part of Islam. Jenkins notes that a lengthy January message attributed to bin Laden deliberately portrayed Muslims as "guilty of substandard zealotry," and therefore needing to be aroused to action.

Still, Al Qaeda may see itself as having survived the worst the US could dish out. Successful operations, such as the Madrid train bombings, continue. And most experts believe Al Qaeda is responsible for the bombings in Egyptian Red Sea resorts last week that killed at least 33 and wounded 149. America's invasion of Iraq has provoked Muslims and even split infidel nations - while opening a potential new front for jihad.

What will happen in the long run, under Al Qaeda's theology? Discontented youth will flock to the group's banner. They will practice the ancient warfare of Arabs - fulfilling the Koran's charge to lie in wait, beleaguer the enemy, and attack him when he is inattentive.

The goal is "war until judgment day," according to Jenkins.

The source for this and other assessments is largely the terrorists themselves. Some of it comes from the interrogation of captured Al Qaeda members, but much of the Islamist worldview is in plain sight, in communiqués issued over the years by bin Laden and his top lieutenants.

Whenever a new audio or videotape purporting to come from Al Qaeda is released, excitement races through the US intelligence community, according to the recently released book "Imperial Hubris," written by an anonymous serving CIA official. Analysts pore over obscure items, such as lichen on rocks or the shape of individual trees, to try and figure out where the tape might have been made. They listen to vocal tone to try and gain clues about bin Laden's health.

Amid this scurry, "bin Laden's words are the most overlooked part of the tape," writes the "Imperial Hubris" author, who has been named in news reports as Michael Scheurer.

Thus "bin Laden's post-[9/11] rhetoric again shows he knows us, and how we will react, far better than we know him," writes Scheurer.

Bin Laden's rhetoric often focuses on perceived injustices inflicted on the Islamic world. He portrays Muslims in Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and the former Central Asian republics of the USSR as victims of a US-led crusade.

He seems to feel that his theological credibility rests on convincing Muslims that they are everywhere under attack. He tells Americans that he knows many are "good and gentle people," but that he is at war with their government. He even urges US citizens to convert to Islam so as to rid themselves of their "dry, miserable, and spiritless materialistic existence."

Hard-pressed by US forces, bin Laden - a former management student - may have adapted by decentralizing his operation, says Dr. Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. Leaders who function as regional directors may now be charged with raising their own cash and planning their own operations.

Al Qaeda "has become more of an inspiring ideology, rather than maybe an organized network," says Dr. Post, who also ran the CIA's psychological profiling unit.

In the most recent bin Laden video, made public last winter, he looked gaunt, and said that it did not matter whether he lives or dies - but that what he started must carry on.

"Perhaps he was seeing himself at the end of his life and wants to go down in radical Muslim history as the major actor in this insurrection against the West," says Post.

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