Special briefing: How radical Islamists see the world

Persistent suicide bombings in Iraq. Attacks on London subways. Explosions at an Egyptian resort.

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.

What is Al Qaeda today compared to five years ago?

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.

Who are Al Qaeda's leaders?

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.

Are they still organizing operations?

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.

What do the militants want?

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.

Who is their main enemy?

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.

What Is their ideal society?

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.

What about Wahhabi thinking - is that behind Al Qaeda?

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.

What are the roots of violent jihad?

Ibn Taymiyah, a 13th century scholar, is an intellectual forerunner of the modern Salafis. He rejected Sufi and Shiite Muslims, describing the latter as apostates who deserved death. Appearing in an era when crusaders remained in the Middle East, he advocated a muscular approach to Islam that called on believers to fight infidel invaders. The modern Salafi revival is generally traced to late 19th and early 20th century opposition to colonial rule, and was particularly taken up by Egyptian thinkers, who saw in it a way to oppose Western colonialism and modernize without giving up Islamic values. The foundation of Israel was seen by most Muslims, of all strains, as a hostile act that undermined Islam. For Salafis it was a call to jihad, to regain the land and holy places they felt had been usurped. Frustration mounted with the 1967 Arab defeat by Israel, which many Muslims interpreted as a sign of God's displeasure.

But the Salafi group around bin Laden really took hold after the 1991 Gulf War. Bin Laden was a wealthy Saudi who had helped support Afghans and Arab volunteers in the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, with financial support from Pakistani intelligence and the CIA. He wanted to lead an Arab and Muslim effort to end Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait. He and his followers were enraged and humiliated that a US-led coalition repelled Hussein and that US troops were then stationed in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest places. Citing this issue, bin Laden and Zawahiri announced the "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews" in 1998.

What does the Koran say about violence against civilians?

As with most religions, it is a question of where emphasis is placed. The Koran has fairly clear injunctions against murder, including "Whoever slays a human being, unless it be for murder or for spreading corruption on earth, it shall be as though he had slain all mankind" (5:32). Suicide is warned against even more strongly: "Do not kill yourselves ... whoever does so, in transgression and wrongfully, we shall roast in a fire" (4:29). Warfare in certain circumstances is condoned, even urged, just as in the Old Testament, but there are limits. "Fight in the cause of God against those who fight against you, but do not transgress limits. God loves not transgressors" (2:190) and "let there be no hostility, except to those who practice oppression" (2:193).

In the most widespread interpretations, such verses bar both attacks on civilians and suicide attacks, while allowing Muslims to fight against those who directly attack them. But how does one define the meaning of "those who practice oppression" or "spreading corruption on earth" or even "those who fight against you?" It is here that the minority of Islamist radicals who attack civilians find their wiggle room.

An Al Qaeda timeline

Osama Bin Laden establishes Al Qaeda ("the base") to channel arms and funds to the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance.

Bin Laden becomes involved in movements opposing the Saudi monarchy, fueled by the kingdom's acceptance of US troops after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Bin Laden joins the Taliban in Afghanistan as they seize Kabul. He now has a base for his training operations.

AUG. 7, 1998:
East African attacks: Nearly simultaneous car bombings hit US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, killing 224 on the anniversary of the Saudi King's 1991 invitation to US troops to defend his country from Iraq.

OCT. 12, 2000:
Suicide bombers ram the USS Cole off Yemen, killing 17.

SEPT. 11, 2001:
Al Qaeda hijackers fly jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, while a fourth hijacked jet crashes in a Pennsylvania field. Nearly 3,000 are killed.

OCT. 12, 2002:
In an attack blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian group linked to Al Qaeda, 202 are killed bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali.

2003 through present:
Iraq becomes a locus for radical Islamists, as insurgents battle the fledgling Iraqi government and the US-led forces that ousted Saddam Hussein. A key mastermind, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, aligns himself with Al Qaeda.

MARCH 11, 2004:
Bombs hit four commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,600. Attacks are blamed on Islamic militants with suspected ties to Al Qaeda.

JULY 7, 2005:
A group calling itself the Secret Organization of Al Qaeda in Europe claims responsibility for bus and subway bombings in London that killed 56 people. Two weeks later another coordinated London subway bombing is attempted.

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