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Special Briefing: Jihad: Who's joining, and why?

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / August 3, 2005

In Tuesday's edition, a report in this space looked at the origins and goals of Islamist militancy, and of Al Qaeda in particular. This briefing explores how the movement is evolving at a time of concern about terror cells in Western cities such as London.

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Is the global jihad spreading to Europe?

It seems clear that this is happening. Events like the London bombings, as well as online postings by Islamist extremists calling Muslim brethren in Western countries to action, suggest to many counterterrorism experts that the global jihad has entered a new phase. All of the members of the London terror cells were longtime residents of Britain, and some were born there, confirming the view that Islamist extremism has taken root. While attacks appear to have ebbed in places such as Indonesia, they have spread to what experts consider the fertile ground of the "ummah" or Islamic community of Europe.

Who is joining the jihad?

Experts don't foresee jihadism becoming a mass movement. Still, if the Al Qaeda ideology hooks a few hundred followers in countries with many Muslim immigrants, that is enough to wreak havoc. Recruitment in Europe is fueled by the sense of isolation and disappointment in Western culture.

Another factor may be freedom of speech. Hate-filled rhetoric and extremist ideals have been spread in European mosques and over the airwaves, some experts point out, even as the governments of these countries have pressed Muslim nations to curb the freedom and teachings of radical clerics.

Is the same thing happening in America?

Perhaps not, or at least not as fast. Mainstream Muslim organizations in America note that US Muslims differ from their counterparts in Europe - they are generally more prosperous (often from more prosperous backgrounds in their home countries) and less confined to Muslim ghettos. Still, experts point out that the British Islamist bombers were not living in poverty. The key problem appears to be alienation that opens minds to radical thinking. And in that sense, America may have a problem. Recent cases in Virginia and California involving clerics allegedly recruiting young Muslims for jihad suggest the dissemination of extremist ideals exists in isolated cases.

Are new groups emerging as Al Qaeda franchises, such as in Egypt?

The word "franchise" can be useful, hinting at how Al Qaeda might inspire or indirectly fund an attack without organizing it. But the word is misleading if it implies that terrorists are organized into neat, understandable groups. For instance, if the "Abdallah Azzam Brigades" were in fact behind last month's resort bombing at Sharm el-Sheik, its surviving members are now on the run. If they manage to evade capture, they may well emerge to strike again, but could do so under a different name. Conversely, the brigades' claim of responsibility could have come from an uninvolved sympathizer. The key question is the overlapping personal relationships of those involved.

It's useful, therefore, to think of Al Qaeda as an ideological force that reaches beyond its organizational structure. While groups like Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiyah (Islamic Group) and the pan-Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) have some doctrinal differences with Al Qaeda, they have overlapping interests.

Are the goals of jihadists changing?

Not much, experts say. The targets and tactics may be influenced by current circumstances - such as the US presence in Iraq - but an unchanging worldview underlies it all: The jihadists see Muslims as locked in a life-or-death struggle with a West that hates Islam. While the goal of an Islamic superstate remains central, the impetus for jihad can shift. Ideologues motivate adherents by citing specific cases of perceived injustice. The Southeast Asian militants behind a deadly October 2002 attack in Bali wanted to undermine the Indonesian state in order to create an Islamic caliphate there. They also subscribed to the broader vision of an eventual caliphate running the whole globe.

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