By Michael G. Knapp
18 November 2017
Al Qaeda and Transnational Jihad:
A New Twist on Old Complaints
Before his emergence as the prime suspect in the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden had described his goals and grievances and the tactics of his transnational al Qaeda network in great detail in a series of statements and interviews. Taken together, these statements provide insight into an ideology that may seem abhorrent or crazy to Americans but has been carefully crafted to appeal to the disgruntled and dispossessed of the Islamic world.28 Bin Laden’s ideology, however, is really more political than religious.
At the heart of bin Laden’s philosophy are two declarations of war— jihad—against the United States. The first, his Bayan (statement) issued on 26 August 1996, was directed specifically at “Americans occupying the land of the two holy places,” as bin Laden refers to the cities of Mecca and Medina that are located in his native Saudi Arabia. Here he calls upon Muslims all over the world to fight to “expel the infidels... from the Arab Peninsula.”29 In his fatwa of 23 February 1998, titled “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders,” which he issued along with the leaders of extremist groups in Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, bin Laden broadened his earlier edict. In the fatwa, he specifies that the radicals’ war is a defensive struggle against Americans and their allies who have declared war “on God, his Messenger, and Muslims.” The “crimes and sins” perpetrated by the United States are threefold: first, it “stormed” the Arabian peninsula during the Gulf War and has continued “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places”; second, it continues a war of annihilation against Iraq; and third, the United States supports the state of Israel and its continued occupation of Jerusalem. The only appropriate Muslim response, according to the fatwa, is a defensive jihad to repulse the aggressor; therefore, borrowing from classical and modern Islamic scholars (because it is defensive), such a war is a moral obligation incumbent upon all true Muslims.30
Bin Laden’s anger at the “American crusader forces” who are “occupying” his homeland stems from an injunction from the Prophet that there “not be two religions in Arabia”; the presence of foreign forces on holy soil is thus an intolerable affront to 1,400 years of Islamic tradition. In his 1996 statement of jihad, bin Laden blamed the serious economic crisis then gripping Saudi Arabia (due to falling oil prices and widespread corruption) on the presence of these Western “crusader forces.” Two years later, in his 1998 fatwa, bin Laden charged that the United States was not only occupying and plundering Arabia, but was “using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighboring Islamic peoples.” In bin Laden’s war, the goal of expelling the “Judeo-Christian enemy” from Islamic holy lands should occur first on the Arabian peninsula, then in Iraq (which for 500 years was the seat of the Islamic caliphate), and third in Palestine, site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (which is sacred to Muslims as the place from where Muhammad ascended to heaven).31
Although the initial attacks associated with bin Laden occurred in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, East Africa, and Yemen, he increasingly made clear that he would bring the war to the American homeland. Al Qaeda is believed to have aided the first attack against the World Trade Center in 1993, and bin Laden told an ABC News reporter in May 1998 that the battle will “inevitably move . . . to American soil.”32 Although he appears to be fired by the religious zeal of Saudi Arabia’s puritanical Wahhabi movement, bin Laden’s targets have not been offending religious and cultural institutions, but political, military, and economic targets. Additionally, though he quotes selective (but incomplete) passages from the Qur’an to establish the basis for the jihad, bin Laden’s motivations are really not that different from the anti-imperialistic doctrines that sustain religious and nonreligious extremist groups all over the world.33
In return for joining the jihad against America, bin Laden has promised his followers an honored place in paradise, in accordance with a statement in the Qur’an that “a martyr’s privileges are guaranteed by Allah.” Bin Laden and many of the other Islamic militant groups in the Middle East are able to draw on large numbers of enthusiastic and waiting recruits for their war against the United States—impoverished youths who are ready to die simply for the idea of jihad.
“Jihad Factories”: An Enduring Legacy of Hatred
It is estimated that more than one million young men from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Muslim parts of China are attending madrasas, or private Islamic religious schools, every year in Pakistan. Madrasa students spend most of their day in rote memorization of the Qur’an in Arabic (this is not their native language, so few understand what they are reading) and interpreting the Hadith. Only theology is taught; there is no math, science, computer training, or secular history.34 The young men at these schools are drawn from the dire poor of the societies they come from, kept in self-contained worlds that are isolated from outside influences, and indoctrinated with a powerful, not-so-academic radical message: their highest honor and duty is to wage jihad to defend Islam from its attackers, and the United States is the chief enemy of Islam.35
Madrasas, which have a tradition in Pakistan that dates from colonial days of promoting political independence along with their religious teaching, fill a significant gap in the underfunded public school system by offering free tuition, room, and board. Madrasas received state funding during the Afghan War when they were used to groom the mujahedin who were being sent to fight the Soviet invaders.36. Many of these schools were emptied in the 1990s when the Taliban needed assistance in military campaigns against its Northern Alliance foes, and many students sent to the front did not return. The graduates of these madrasas have also turned up in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, and the Kashmir, and the survivors of those conflicts have taken their battlefield experience back to their home countries where it is being put to use in jihads against their own not-Islamic enough governments and societies.
The readiness of millions of young men trained in these schools to sacrifice their lives for Islam—and their unquestioning acceptance of anti-American and pro-Islamic extremist propaganda—will continue to be a powerful and enduring weapon against the US-led global war on terrorism, and one that bin Laden and other militants who are bent on attacking the United States and its allies can call on in the years ahead.
Acceptance of Militants’ Ideas and Methods Is Limited
The thrust of the entire jihad tradition which Islamic radicals have “hijacked” makes it clear that not everything is permissible. Although the language in the Qur’an and Hadith and in other classical Muslim sources is overwhelmingly militant in many places, this is a reflection of the Muslims ‘world in the seventh century, which consisted initially of resistance to a variety of more powerful non-Islamic tribes and then successful military campaigns to spread the faith. Besides containing exhortations to fight, however, Islamic sacred texts have also laid out the rules of engagement for war, which (as mentioned earlier) included prohibitions against the killing of noncombatants such as women, children, the aged, and disabled. These texts also require notice to the adversary before an attack, require that a Muslim army must seek peace if its opponent does, and forbid committing aggression against others and suicide.37 Those who are unfamiliar with the Qur’an and Hadith can miss these points when confronted with the propagandistic calls to jihad of militant Islamic groups.
The actions of rebels in the classical period of Islam encountered widespread resentment and condemnation, and this strong sentiment against rebellion remains in modern Islamic thought. Most Muslims agree with the presumption in Islamic teachings on war that individuals are innocent and therefore not subject to harm unless they demonstrate by their actions that they are a threat to the safety or survival of Muslims. On this basis, the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars have for centuries rejected indiscriminate killing and the terrorizing of civilian populations as a legitimate form of jihad.38 Also, at no point do Islamic sacred texts even consider the horrific and random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders that is represented by the 9/11 airliner attacks; most Muslims throughout the world were as shocked by those attacks as Americans were.
The radical message in works such as Hamas’ Charter, “The Neglected Duty,” and the writings of Khomeini and his fellow revolutionary Iranian Shi’a clerics nevertheless finds a lot of acceptance with contemporary Muslims. The reason is simply because of the poor socioeconomic circumstances and lack of human dignity that many Muslim peoples find themselves subject to, brought about by secular failures to attend to their problems.39 Militant Islamic groups, exemplified by Hamas and the Palestinian branch of Islamic Jihad, have been able to use such poor conditions to their advantage. They provide social services (such as operating free or low-cost schools, medical clinics, sports clubs, and women’s support groups), many of which the Palestinian Authority itself often cannot provide, to build public support and attract recruits in the occupied territories.40
Public statements over the last several months by some moderate Muslim religious authorities and commentators that Islamic extremists are corrupting a peaceful religious faith for their own twisted ends are encouraging. Equally positive is the growing recognition in the Muslim world both of bin Laden’s lack of proper religious qualifications to issue any religious edicts that promote jihad, and his lack of success, on a strategic level, in forcing the United States to withdraw its military forces completely from Saudi Arabia or to give up its campaign against Islamic terrorism. A few prominent Muslim scholars have not only condemned the terrorist attacks upon the United States, but have declared the perpetrators of these attacks to be “suicides,” not martyrs. This is significant, since Islam forbids suicide and teaches that its practitioners are sent not to paradise but to hell, where they are condemned to keep repeating their suicidal act for eternity.41
As described herein, jihad in Islamic thought and practice possesses a range of meanings, with Muslim radicals focusing on the physical, violent form of struggle to resist what they see as cultural, economic, military, and political assaults from outside the Ummah and oppression and injustice within. So long as societal conditions within many Muslim states remain poor, with unrepresentative governments (which are seen to be propped up by the United States) that are unwilling or unable to undertake meaningful but difficult reforms, then militant Islamic groups will continue to attract recruits and financial support. In spite of logical fallacies and inconsistencies in the doctrine of jihad of radical Islamic groups, and the fact that most of the broad constituency they are attempting to appeal to does not buy into their ideology or methods, such groups nevertheless remain as significant threats to US interests everywhere in the world.
The challenge for the US government over the next several years will be to encourage and support lasting reform by Muslim states who are our allies in the Middle East, while maintaining a more balanced and fair-minded foreign policy toward all key regional players. We must also do a better job of countering the Islamic extremists’ widely disseminated version of jihad, while being more persuasive that our own government—and our society—are truly not anti-Islamic. Such actions will do much to deny a supportive environment to our radical Muslim foes. For its part, the US military needs to better understand the religious and cultural aspects of our adversaries’ asymmetric mindset—in this case, how Islamic militants conceive of and use jihad—to be successful and survivable in its global campaign against terrorism.
1. Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), p.72, as quoted in Douglas E. Streusand, “What Does Jihad Mean?” Middle East Quarterly, 4 (September 1997), 1.
2. Streusand, p. 2.
4. Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990), p. 101; as quoted in Streusand, pp. 2-3.
5. Fred M. Donner, “The Sources of Islamic Conceptions of War,” in Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions, ed. John Kelsay and James Turner Johnson (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), pp. 51-52, as quoted in Streusand, p. 3.
6. Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Terrorism Is at Odds with Islamic Tradition,” Los Angeles Times, 22 August 2001.
7. Streusand, pp. 3-4.
8. Johannes J. G. Jansen, The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. xi-xii.
9. Ibid., pp. xii-xiii.
10. The term “fundamentalism” is also used incorrectly in conjunction with Islam to describe this phenomenon, but this concept is really more appropriate to American Christian thought, whence it originated.
11. John L. Esposito, “Political Islam and the West,” Military Technology, February 2001, pp. 89-90.
12. Jansen, pp. xiii-xiv
13. Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhausen, eds., Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), pp. 21-23.
14. Ibid., pp. 23-24.
15. Streusand, p. 5.
16. Sivan, pp. 16-21 and 114-16, as quoted in Streusand, p. 5.
17. . John Kelsay, Islam and War: A Study in Comparative Ethics(Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), pp. 95-97.
18. . Kelsay bases his discussion on the translation by Muhammad Maqdsi, titled “Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) of Palestine” (Dallas: Islamic Association for Palestine, 1990), pp. 17-18. Another translation of this document, by Raphael Israeli, is available on the Internet at www.ict.org.il/documents/ documentdet.cfm?docid=14.
19. Kelsay, Islam and War, p. 98.
20. Ibid., pp. 100-01.
21. Jansen, p.162, as quoted in Streusand, p. 5.
22. Kelsay, Islam and War, pp. 101-02.
23. Ibid., p. 102.
24. Abedi and Legenhausen, p. 89, as quoted in Streusand, p. 6
25. Kelsay, Islam and War, p. 109.
26. Ibid., pp. 109-10.
27. Quoted in Kelsay, Islam and War, p. 108.
28. Michael Dobbs, “Inside the Mind of Osama Bin Laden,” The Washington Post, 20 September 2001.
30. Sohail Hashmi, “The Terrorists’ Zealotry Is Political Not Religious,” The Washington Post, 30 September 2001. For a good analysis of bin Laden’s fatwa, including its historical background, see Bernard Lewis, “License to Kill,” Foreign Affairs, 77 (November/December 1998), 14-19. The translated text of the fatwa itself is available on the Federation of American Scientists’ website at www.fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/ 980223-fatwa.htm.
34. Jeffrey Goldberg, “Inside Jihad U.: The Education of a Holy Warrior,” New York Times Magazine, 25 July 2000.
35. Indira A. R. Lakshmanan, “In Some Schools, Jihad, Anger at US Are Lessons,” Boston Globe, 4 October 2001.
37. TeresaWatanabe, “Extremists Put Own Twist on Islamic Faith,” Los Angeles Times, 24 September 2001.
39. Jansen, p. 2.
40. “Islamic Groups Going for Goodwill,” Daily Progress(Charlottesville, Va.), 18 November 1998, p. A8.
41. Bernard Lewis, “Jihad vs. Crusade,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 September 2001.
Michael Knapp is a Middle East/Africa analyst with the US Army National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has worked in US government intelligence for over 24 years, both as a civilian and (now retired) military intelligence officer in the US Army Reserve. Mr. Knapp’s previous civilian assignments included analytical positions in the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and his military career consisted of active duty in Germany and Texas, and service in the Virginia Army National Guard.