Special Briefing: Jihad: Who's joining, and why?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Al Qaeda is against democracy as most in the West would understand it. What it wants is the replacement of existing authoritarian regimes with religious states. These would impose a rigid view of the Koran on citizens. In Al Qaeda's view, Western democratic ideas stand in the way of God's will on earth. Al Qaeda ideologue Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - the self-proclaimed mastermind of Al Qaeda in Iraq - have attacked democracy as a "trick" to deny Muslims the full flowering of Islam.
In his most recent videotaped statement on June 17, Zawahiri lashed out at Egypt's democracy protestors for playing an American game. It was an attack on the nation's secular democracy and reform movements such as Kifaya. Analysts also saw it as a thrust at Islamist groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which favors Islamic law and says it is committed to democratic institutions. To Zawahiri, such groups can only thwart the utopian vision of a vast Islamic state.
The Islamist extremists whose rage the world is feeling today are primarily Sunni Muslims. In Iraq, which was ruled and dominated by a Sunni minority since the British created the country in the early 20th century, Sunni extremists are already targeting the ruling Shiite majority. Those extremists see the Shiites as impure and have no compunction about targeting Shiite civilians. For some scholars of Islam, the US, in replacing a Sunni regime with a Shiite-dominated one, faces unforeseen challenges as the shift in power is worked out. Some see wider dangers as its neighbors jockey for influence: What happens if turmoil in the new Iraq leads to an open confrontation between a Shiite-dominated Iran and the Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia?
Experts also see trouble for the US if its eventual withdrawal from Iraq opens the door to a Shiite-led cleansing of Sunni Muslims - the much-discussed "civil war" that some Iraqis, including former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, say has already began.
"It could be very dangerous if the US pulled out entirely," says Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism expert at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "The jihadists would say that is what the US wanted all along, the extermination of the Sunnis in Iraq.... It could mean huge new problems for the US."
Contrary to the complaints of critics, mainstream Muslim clerics have taken steps to combat terrorism. American Muslim leaders have quickly condemned attacks, and have established programs, notably with the FBI, to assist in rooting out extremism.
Such commitments have been amplified since the London bombings. Last week, Muslim scholars in the US and Canada issued a fatwa, or judicial ruling, condemning terrorism and declaring violence against civilians - including suicide bombings - impermissible in Islam. Islamic scholars in Britain have taken similar steps. However, many experts worry that this focus on mainstream clerics is missing the mark, since the radicalized young often do not listen to religious leaders they see as Westernized.
At the same time, debate grows about whether more needs to be done. Some experts argue that jihadist violence can be ended only through opposition from within Islam. So far, such opposition hasn't stopped attacks.
The reason, some argue, is a chicken-and-egg scenario: The climate within Islam might change if Western policy changes. The establishment of a Palestinian state and the departure of US troops from Iraq could leave extremists with fewer arguments that resonate with Muslims.
Thus, both Islam and the West face pressure to change their ways. But both sides confront risks of appearing weak in the process. An apparent retreat by the US and its allies could embolden jihadists. Similarly, mainstream Islamic clerics could lose credibility if a fatwa appears to have come in response to Western demands.