Connecting the terrorist dots of 2009
They show that Al Qaeda does not have a political strategy for establishing an Islamic state.
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Their anger is not the expression of the wrath of a real community, but of a virtual one.Skip to next paragraph
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The generational dimension is obvious: Most of the radicals have broken with their families or become estranged, as illustrated by the puzzlement of many parents, like Abdulmutallab’s father who cautioned the US embassy about his son. Their Islam is a reconstructed one, not one transmitted from the past. They never refer to traditions or to traditional Islam; they don’t mention fatwas from established clerics.
They act on an individual basis and outside the usual community bonds (family, mosques, and Islamic associations). They usually remain aloof from any communal group.
They are lonely travelers not involved in social or political action or even religious predication. They find socialization in personal bonding with alter egos, either from a local closed group of buddies (the 9/11 pilots, the London bombers of 2005), from a training camp in a remote place of Pakistan, or just through chatting on the Web.
After a usual “normal” life, they suddenly jumped into violence. They are psychologically losers, uprooted deterritorialized individuals who can become imaginary heroes of a virtual ummah through their own death.
There is something puzzling in Al Qaeda: While many terrorists are just dispensable, like Jose Padilla or Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” the “one shot” strategy deprives the organization of probably bright people who could have been more efficient in the long run. The case of the Jordanian terrorist who blew up himself for a spectacular but short-term success in a CIA base in Afghanistan is typical. He would have been far more useful as a mole for the Al Qaeda leadership in the long term. Here suicide terrorism is not a tactic; it is an end in itself, a part of the motivation.
What this says of Al Qaeda is that they do not have a political strategy of establishing an Islamic state. Al-Qaeda does not play a vanguard or a leading role in the conflicts of the Middle East but is fighting mainly at its periphery. It has a global enemy: the West, not the local regimes. Instead of promoting a territorial caliphate in the Middle East, Al Qaeda is committed to a global struggle against the world power – the United States – in the continuation of the radical anti-imperialist struggles of the 1960s and ’70s by the likes of Ché Guevara and the Baader-Meinhof gang.
Al Qaeda stresses radical but individual action and addresses a wider audience than just the Muslim community, hence the converts.
Ideology plays little role in the radicalization of the jihadist internationalist youth. They are attracted by a narrative not an ideology: that of a global, indistinct suffering ummah. And that of the lonely avenger, the hero, who can redeem a life he is not happy with by achieving fame while escaping a world where he finds no room.
If the US and the rest of the West gear up once again for another round of fighting terrorists without understanding these realities, they will have as little effect as they have had during the last 8-1/2 years since 9/11. The threat comes not from some soil that can be invaded or occupied, but from within the globalized web in which we are all today entangled.
Olivier Roy is a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He is the author of “Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah” and the forthcoming “Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Diverge.”
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