Special briefing: How radical Islamists see the world
Persistent suicide bombings in Iraq. Attacks on London subways. Explosions at an Egyptian resort.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Whether related or not, these recent incidents have heightened global concern about the spread of radical Islamist militancy. And they raise questions about the current reach of Al Qaeda and groups with similar ideology. Today and tomorrow, the Monitor examines the origins of Islamic terrorism and how it is evolving now.
In some ways it is less like the Al Qaeda of 2001 than like the Al Qaeda of the mid-1990s, before it was able to build up organizationally with a base of operations in Afghanistan. It is best understood as a radical ideology loosely inspiring a disparate and very decentralized set of localized Islamist extremist organizations.
For some terrorism experts, Al Qaeda as an organization simply no longer exists. Its Afghan training and indoctrination sites are gone. Key leaders have been killed or captured, or are on the run. Yet Al Qaeda as an ideology of global confrontation and jihad, "struggle" or "holy war," still exists.
"That is why I speak of 'Al Qaedaism' as more of a factor today than Al Qaeda," says Magnus Ranstorp of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Osama bin Laden, still at large, founded the organization in 1988, along with Mohammed Atef (aka Abu Hafs al-Masri), an Egyptian who was killed in a US airstrike in Afghanistan. The group has a shura, or consultative council, the composition of which is unknown. But some of the people "most wanted" for organizing operations under Al Qaeda's name or ideology, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, are not believed to be part of any centralized leadership.
The Al Qaeda leadership may maintain some command-and-control capability from suspected locations in or near Pakistan - despite Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's recent declaration about a smashed Al Qaeda. One possible example: In a tape released June 17 by the Arab television network Al Jazeera, Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri called for revenge against Britain for allying with the US. Some experts believe such tapes are directives to proceed with an operation. In any case, the London bombings soon followed.
For Islamist militants, the long-term objective is an Islamic superstate, or caliphate. Narrower objectives include the end of the state of Israel and toppling secular Middle Eastern regimes like Egypt's. It is an article of faith that the US and all secular Western states stand in their way, and weakening those states is seen as positive for all their objectives.
The global jihad has long named two types of targets: the "near enemy" (Israel or secular Arab regimes) and the "far enemy" - America and its allies. Zawahiri was always more interested in the "near enemy" that stood in the way of an Islamic state in his homeland, Egypt. Bin Laden was more interested in the "far enemy," because he felt success could not be achieved closer to home until US financial and military backing for these regimes was eroded. When Zawahiri merged his Egyptian Islamic Jihad with Al Qaeda in 1998, the two trends were brought together.
They want a society that applies the Koran literally and adheres to the social practices that prevailed at the time of the prophet Muhammad. It would not be democratic in any modern sense, though there are provisions for shura, or consultation - generally interpreted to mean the leader should take advice from trusted community members. In their interpretation of Islam, women and men have defined roles, and women generally have fewer rights.
Their views stem from the Salafi movement within Islam's Sunni sect, the religion's largest. For a Salafi adherent, interpretation of the Koran stops 1,300 years ago, with Muhammad, his companions, and the three generations that followed them.
While many in the West use the term Wahhabi, practitioners of this Sunni school reject the notion that they belong to any particular sect. To their thinking, they are simply following the true path of Islam. They are Salafi followers of Mohammed ibn abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century Arabian preacher. Although the vast majority of Salafis are not involved in violence, almost all attacks linked to Al Qaeda have been carried out by people under the Salafi umbrella. The House of Saud helped this school become Saudi Arabia's dominant interpretation of Islam. Many Saudis refuse to view Osama bin Laden as a Wahhabi, rejecting his thirst for overthrowing the Saudi regime. Wahhabis are supremely intolerant of Shiites, seeing practices such as the veneration of historic Imams Hussein and Ali as a breach of monotheism.