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Al-Qa’ida in Iraq: Between Ideology and Strategy
Suicide or martyrdom operations, most recently in Europe, but most extensively in Israel and in growing numbers in Iraq, leave the Western world astonished, with only question marks in hand. The terrorist attacks in London and Sharm al-Sheikh in July 2005, like other previous attacks by al-Qa’ida or affiliated Jihadi groups worldwide, raise several unanswered questions: What does al-Qa’ida really want? Apart from apocalyptic views and its younger supporters’ desire to see Islamic rule and law spread throughout the world–or at least throughout the Arab and Muslim world–what is its ultimate goal? What is the true effect, weight, and role of the war in Iraq? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the ideology and the strategy of al-Qa’ida or Global Jihad.
In August 1998, al-Qa’ida carried out its first major double attack against the two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Seven years later, the hard core of its leadership is still at large; and there is a new generation of younger operatives who are not ‘Arab Afghans.’ Iraq and Afghanistan were occupied by the United States and its allies, yet still suffered an intensive Jihadi insurgency of between two to three suicide operations per day; large cities and resorts throughout the globe are exposed to indiscriminate terrorist attacks against civilians, both Muslims and ‘infidel Crusaders,’ and more Muslims are targeted by Jihadi terrorism than non-Muslims.
It is necessary that three observations be made. First, Western intelligence communities have been unable to trace the decision-making process within al-Qa’ida or between the organization and its affiliated groups. Some of these groups are involved only in terrorism and are composed of well-educated, politically aware, middle and upper-middle class, yet angry Muslim youth. They are mostly ad hoc groups not involved in other fields of activity, and hence are very difficult to locate or to monitor.
Second, the West in general has difficulties in distinguishing between al-Qa’ida’s ideology and its strategy. Therefore, it is confused as to what course of action is necessary in order to counter this unfamiliar and unprecedented phenomenon. Past terrorism was different. Even Marxist-anarchist terrorism, which was also global in nature, was in fact based upon local groups who only held vague common ideologies and strategies. Nationalist terrorism, even in ethnic-religious conflicts, was local. The PLO, IRA, ETA, PKK, or LTTE were separate groups. Even the Palestinian Islamic Hamas or the Lebanese Hizballah are local movements with limited targets. Other Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb al-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party) or Da’wah wa-Tabligh, which are of a global nature and also have global aspirations, prefer to remain non-violent and focus on local issues, even though they provide an Islamist atmosphere of militant globalization.
Third, the ability of al-Qa’ida to recruit, influence, incite, and appeal to many Muslim youth, primarily in the Arab world, is impressive. It has succeeded to create apocalyptic visions that ignite the imagination of several million young Islamists and that are supported and legitimized by a new class of Islamic clerics, scholars, and even intellectuals. The response by the vast majority of Arab and Muslim governments, publics, and Islamic establishments, which is crucial, is slow, uncoordinated, and, in most cases, hesitant.
AL-QA’IDA –BETWEEN IDEOLOGY AND STRATEGY
In April 1988, Dr. Abdallah Azzam, the spiritual father of al-Qa’ida wrote an article entitled ‘The Solid Base’ which outlined what would later become al-Qa’ida.[i] In this fundamental article he wrote:
The Islamic society cannot be established without an Islamic movement that goes through the fire of tests. Its members need to mature in the fire of trials. This movement will represent the spark that ignites the potential of the nation [Ummah]. It will carry out a long Jihad in which the Islamic movement will provide the leadership, and the spiritual guidance. The long Jihad will bring people’s qualities to the fore and highlight their potentials. It will define their positions and have their leaders assume their roles, to direct the march and channel it. After all the tribulations Allah will install them in the land and make them the outer manifestation of his might and the means to the victory of his religion.
Holding of arms by the believing group before having undergone this long educating training (Tarbiyyah) is forbidden, because those carrying arms could turn into bandits that might threaten people’s security and not let them live in peace.
Azzam, a disciple of the school of the Muslim Brotherhood, outlined a movement with two most significant doctrines: A long period of education or indoctrination–Tarbiyyah–and turning Jihad into an actual target instead of a means to fulfill a religio-political target. Jihad is the target of purification and consolidation of a new class of Islamists. Azzam was an Islamic ideologue, as were two other Palestinian scholars who immensely contributed to the emergence of Global Salafi Jihad–Abu Muhammad al-Maqdesi and Omar Abu Omar ‘Abu Qutadah.’ Yet, the organizational phase of al-Qa’ida and affiliated groups of Global Jihad was in the hands of leaders who were far more operational than ideological– Usama bin Ladin, Ayman Zawahiri, Muhammad Atef, or nowadays Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi.
Moreover, the second generation of al-Qa’ida members, operatives, supporters, or sympathizers is growing in the fields of other Islamist battlegrounds in areas other than Afghanistan or Bosnia, namely, such as Iraq, Europe, Southeast Asia, and worldwide. The modus operandi of al-Qa’ida–to move the battle to enemy soil; martyrdom operations; and the killing of Muslims, legitimized by clerics–is led by the operatives, and affect the imagination of Muslim youth worldwide, giving priority to new strategies over basic ideology. Even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become less important and is no longer a crucial issue, at least relative to the priorities of global Jihad. Ayman Zawahiri wrote several times, adopting the traditional position of Egyptian Jihad, that ‘the road to the liberation of Jerusalem moves through the liberation of Cairo and Damascus.’
The present strategy of al-Qa’ida and its global Jihad is mostly the result of processes and developments in the core of the Arab world–oppression by Arab governments; the war in Iraq and the American occupation there; the inability to infiltrate the Palestinian territories because of traditional opposition by Hamas, which has a very different agenda; the relative weakness of the Saudi regime; and rising support in Saudi Arabian society, as well as in other parts of the Arab world, for the insurgency in Iraq. Other processes such as the relative operational freedom in Europe also contributed to its development.
The basic ideology remained the same: To liberate the entire Muslim world from any Western/Zionist/Crusader colonialism, both in its physical presence in the Muslim world and its cultural influence, in order to create a Muslim state or states totally ruled by the Islamic Shari’ah and liberated from any man-made laws. These goals are to be achieved through a long Jihad led by well-indoctrinated avant-garde groups, whose members are more eager to reach the world to come than to live in this ‘worthless’ one.
By contrast, the strategy is in accordance with the developments in the field, primarily Iraq and the Arab world. Iraq became one of the most important elements in al-Qa’ida strategy, a kind of the jewel in the Jihadi crown. Iraq and the insurgency there is also a model of global Jihad’s ability to mutate itself to become independent groups of Moroccan immigrants in Spain, or Pakistanis in the United Kingdom, Jamaican converts to Islam, Somalian immigrants to Europe, etc., who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the global strategy of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Iraq is not an ideological target, yet it is the most important factor directing the rage of Arab or Muslim youngsters towards terrorism. Jihadi-Salafi ideologues of the first generation of global Jihad might not approve of it, as we saw recently, but the control is in the hands of the strategists, who by their indoctrination and incitement became the heroes of this generation, angry and humiliated in its eyes. They are a generation of Muslims whose knowledge of Islam is usually poor, but their apocalyptic notions lead them to blindly follow the strategists, believing that this is true religion and faith. One of the problems deriving a different analysis is the social element behind the rage and the sense of humiliation. An Egyptian sociologist, Dr. Huda Husseini, defined it very well in the 1990s:
They are youngsters at the age of fruitful creativity but under a lot of pressures that push them towards militancy. It is easy therefore, to use them and organize them like soldiers in a group that serves also as an alternative to the old grouping, such as the family or the society that surrounds them. The person who carries out the operation is offered to kill or be killed while death is presented as martyrdom that brings him closer to Allah. The person who plants such ideas in the mind of a youngster turns him into a canon, after his personality has been reshaped according to the needs of the his new social group and its destructive interests. The group programs him in a manner that he could explode any minute as if he is activated by remote control. The new group carries out its indoctrination by totally different means of his natural former social framework. The older plants its values gradually through childhood and youth with the aim of continuance and construction. The new alternative group activates rapid indoctrination by the most sacred means for the soul such as religious belief. Its target is not continuance but to shock the society and the destruction of the existing system. It pours into its instructions and prohibitions a sense of sacred religion so one cannot argue its orders or refrain from carrying them out. That way it achieves maximum discipline and abolishes any self-thinking.[ii]
Dr. Ajai Sahni, an Indian scholar, wrote in March 2004, that ‘The Islamist terrorist agenda is more inflexible than most of us imagine, and its ends are defined, not in terms of the transient political parameters of the discourse of international relations, but by a perspective rooted in religious absolutisms that will endure long after the reverberations of the crises of transition in Afghanistan or in Iraq have come to an end.’[iii]
His words can very well define the fundamental goals of al-Qa’ida or global Jihad. However, these targets might long remain, not only after ‘the reverberations of the crises of transition in Afghanistan or in Iraq have come to an end,’ but also after Bin Laden’s or Zarqawi’s death or imprisonment. In the meantime, the crises in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq are far from coming to an end, and such crises might last for quite some time, affecting the entire Arab world, the cradle of global Jihad’s ideology and strategy. The operatives do not possess the same endurance of the ideologues, but they are the dominant party.
A good example of the tension between the ideologues and the strategists is found in the recent public criticism of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdesi, Zarqawi’s mentor, over his disciple saying, ‘The indiscriminate attacks in Iraq might distort the true Jihad.’ This was not his first criticism of Zarqawi and his group. In September 2004, Al-Maqdesi sent a long message from Al-Qafqafa prison through Jihadi forums on the Internet.[iv] In both cases this criticism generated a wave of responses by Jihadi scholars, clerics, and youth who were both surprised and confused. Zarqawi was not affected by this criticism, and he did not stop his suicide attacks against Sunni officials, Shi’i civilians, nor the more recent attacks on Sufi crowds of praying Muslims. In May 2005, he sent a very long audiotape in which he justified his policy, including the killing of Muslims. In July, he answered him again, basing his arguments on rulings by a new class of Saudi clerics that supports Global Jihad. To sum up–Zarqawi, unlike Usama bin Ladin, is consolidating a class of Jihadi-Salafi clerics who provide the necessary legitimacy for the insurgence in Iraq as a ‘proper Jihad.’ Hence, he is doing what the older generation of Jihadi clerics used to accuse Muslim governments and clerics of–creating the Ulama al-Salatin–the clerics who obey the political rulers.
The U.S. administration is right to claim that Global Jihad attacked Western targets before Iraq and might continue to do so after Iraq. This is the al-Qa’ida ideology. Yet, in the meantime, the ideology is mutating itself according to a strategy totally based upon the developments in the insurgency in Iraq, and the enormous effect of it upon Arab Muslim youth. We should not ignore this effect, which might even grow with the forthcoming open trial of Saddam Hussein. The latter’s image is also ‘mutating’ into a more human and sympathetic one, even by young supporters of Global Jihad in their Internet forums. He is moving from being a tyrant ‘Pharaoh’ to a symbol of an Arab and Muslim fighter against the Americans. Who knows if in a year or two’s time we shall not witness an Islamic ruling against his trial or the anticipated verdict?