So why did militants turn to attack the West? One important reason is to be found in Saudi Arabia.
As a state, Saudi Arabia owed its foundation to the alliance of the battle-hardened latter-day followers of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who had preached an austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam in the Arabian peninsula since the late eighteenth century, and an ambitious, capable tribal leader called Abdulaziz ibn Saud.
In 1979 came three events that shook the Saudi monarchy:
the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by a group of local extremists,
the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets
and the Iranian revolution.
Each involved a different enemy — violent local militants who branded their rulers apostates, atheist Communists and Shia Islamists — but each revealed a new and potentially deadly threat to the reign of the house of Saud.
One response of the kingdom’s rulers was to use a substantial amount of the vast wealth generated by their oil revenues to expand the proselytisation of the Wahhabi creed, one of the most rigorous, intolerant and conservative existing in Islam, throughout the Sunni Muslim world. This had been a policy for some time but now the effort was massively expanded in an updated though much more far-reaching version of the original strategy that had brought them to power sixty years before. The aim was to reinforce their own religious credentials at home while increasing their influence overseas, allowing them to reassert their claim to both religious and political leadership in the Islamic world.
Over the ensuing decades,
tens of thousands of religious schools, mosques, Islamic universities and religious centres were built worldwide.
Hundreds of thousands of scholarships to Saudi universities were offered and stipends paid to preachers.
Tens of millions of copies of holy texts and, more importantly, deeply conservative interpretations of them, were published and distributed.
The turning point was in October, 1981, argues Jason Burke. Prior to the 1980s the most well-known terrorists were Leila Khaled and Carlos the Jackal. Religious agendas were very rarely found in the mix of ethnic, nationalist, separatist and secular revolutionary agendas.
The terrorist act that changed all this was the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in Cairo in October 1981. Sadat’s killers were very different from most of the terrorists of the decade before. (p. 24)
An ideological movement had taken root in the broader Muslim world — “a generalised rediscovery of religious observance and identity, coupled with a distrust of Western powers and culture.”
The historical matrix
History is necessary to enable us to understand. Burke points to the century between 1830 and 1930. These years saw the Russians, the Han Chinese and especially the Europeans invade and subjugate the Muslim regions from Morocco to Java, from the central Asian steppes to sub-Saharan Africa.
Almost all the invasions provoked a violent reaction among many local people. Resistance took many forms but, naturally enough in a deeply devout age, religion played a central role. Islam provided a rallying point for local communities more used to internecine struggle than campaigns against external enemies. (p. 25)
European armies and their local auxiliaries fought rebels whose motivations ranged widely but who all shared
a profound belief that they were acting in defence not only of their livelihoods, traditions and homes but of their faith.
The superior technology of the foreign powers guaranteed the defeat of the rebels but these defeats were interpreted by the devout as evidence that they had neglected to please God and lost his favour.
Though by the twentieth century most movements had withered away a few remained active: British India’s North-West Frontier, Italian Libya, Palestine. The Afghans were not ruled by foreigners but in the 1920s they did throw out their king who had attempted to introduce foreign ways into his country.
Others chose withdrawal to open revolt, and to isolate themselves from the corrupting influences of alien cultures: e.g. the Deobandi school of India.
Some, however, fully embraced Western ideas in a spirit of rivalry. They sought to out-do their invaders: e.g. the University of Aligarh.
Ed Husain (author of The Islamist and previously posted about here) recalled as a boy growing up in a mainstream Muslim household when and the context in which he first heard the name Maududi:
“I liked Grandpa. Most of all, I used to delight in watching him slowly tie his turban, wrapping his head with a long piece of cloth, as befitted a humble Muslim, though he also seemed like a Mogul monarch. (Muslim scholars and kings both wore the turban in veneration of the Prophet Mohammed.) Whenever Grandpa visited Britain to teach Muslims about spirituality, my father accompanied him to as many places as he was able. My father believed that spiritual seekers did not gain knowledge from books alone, but learnt from what he called suhbah, or companionship. True mastery of spirituality required being at the service, or at least in the presence, of a noble guide. Grandpa was one such guide. . . .
“He often read aloud in Urdu, and explained his points in intricate Bengali, engaging the minds of others while I looked on bewildered. As they compared notes on abstract subjects in impenetrable languages, I buried myself in Inspector Morse or a Judy Blume. I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticized, an organization named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All of it was beyond me.” (The Islamist, p. 10, my bolding)
What interests us, however, are those who took the middle road. The first was the work of Abd Ala’a Maududi [Abul Ala Maududi/Maudoodi/Mawdudi]:
In India, a political organisation called Jamaat Islami was founded in 1926. It sought religious and cultural renewal through non-violent social activism to mobilise the subcontinent’s Muslims to gain power. This approach involved embracing Western technology and selectively borrowing from Western political ideologies, while rejecting anything seen as inappropriate or immoral. (p. 26)
Like the South Asian Jamaat Islami, it combined a conservative, religious social vision with a contemporary political one. For its followers, the state was to be appropriated, not dismantled, in order to create a perfect Islamic society. This approach was later dubbed Islamism.
There were others across the Muslim world who rejected the compromise and non-violence of Jamaat Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood as the means to achieving their common goals.
By the early 1960s European powers had for most part withdrawn from the Muslim world leaving behind new regimes that had adopted Western ways and ideas: witness the new states founded in varying degrees of secularism and socialism. And of course there was Israel:
The establishment of the state of Israel, now recognized by the international community after a bloody war and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from lands they had worked or owned for generations, acted as a new focus for diverse grievances among Arab and Muslim communities. Anti-Semitism had long existed in the Islamic world but, fused with anti-Zionism, gained a new and poisonous intensity. Defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 deepened a sense of hurt, loss and humiliation. (p. 27)
Something more important was happening within the newly independent nations themselves: “immense demographic change”.
Urban population mushroomed and rural populations relatively declined
Urban areas of poverty and unhealthy conditions proliferated — inadequate electricity, sanitation, education, health services, policing
Food in short supply and expensive
Previous decades had produced many university graduates whose future expectations were now dashed
Traditional communities were being shattered: new shanty towns and apartment blocks meant that extended families were broken up, village communities were vanishing, traditional leaders lost their authority
“For the older people there was loss. For those young enough not to know anything of the former rural life, there was disorientation.“
Egypt’s President Sadat represented to many the worst of these changes. Sadat was opening up Egypt to the new capitalism and foreign investment that accelerated the extremes of the rich-poor divide. Middle incomes declined dramatically.
Worse still, a growing economic gap between rich and poor was accompanied by a growing cultural gap. During the riots in Cairo in 1977, favourite targets for arson and vandalism were nightclubs — of which more than three hundred opened during the decade — and luxury US made cars — of which imports had gone up fourteen times. Both were symbols of the lifestyle of an elite that was enjoying greater connection with the rest of the world, and particularly the West, but which was increasingly detached from the majority of Egyptian population. By the end of the decade, more than 30 percent of prime-time television programming was from the US, with episodes of Dallas repeated ad infinitum. Inequality was combined with a sense of cultural invasion. It was an explosive mix. (p. 28 – my bolding in all quotations)
Amidst those swayed by Western influence nationalist and socialist commitments were those who turned to their religion in various ways, some withdrawing into mysticism, for example, others looking for wider change. Islamism was spreading through the universities and professional bodies.
Islamism promised to re-establish confidence and pride and to provide a solution to the many pressing challenges now faced by tens of millions of people. (p. 28)
Reason 1: It is convenient and reassuring to think of al-Qaeda as a traditional terrorist group. It promises an sure victory once the organization is defeated.
Reason 2: Repressive governments can avoid international criticism by labelling their opponents as having links with al-Qaeda. Jason Burke notes that in the autumn of 2001 previously undetected al-Qaeda cells were “discovered” in scores of countries:
Uzbekistan (Tashenk suddenly branded U’s local Islamic Movement as ‘al-Qaeda’)
China (the longstanding independence movement among the Uighar Moslems was branded an ‘al-Qaeda’ branch)
Thailand (bomb blasts in the south of Thailand by groups for many years in turf war between police and military over smuggling and racketing, and in which local Islamic gropus were sometimes involved, were now blamed on ‘al-Qaeda’)
Macedonia (8 illegal economic immigrants shot dead at a border were accused of being ‘al-Qaeda’)
Tunisia (left-wing opponents of the Tunisian government were re-labelled as ‘al-Qaeda’)
Philippines (The Abu Sayyaf group, a local independence movement many decades old, that has largely abandoned militant Islam in preference for crime, especially kidnapping western tourists, has been branded ‘al-Qaeda’)
Kashmir (As tensions mount between Pakistan and India over Kashmir claims of bin-Laden hiding there always arise.)
Reason 3: “Intelligence services lie, cheat and deceive. Propaganda is one of their primary functions.” (p.19) — e.g. the British intelligence dossier of 4 October 2001 claimed substantial bin-Laden links with the drug trade. Fact: everyone involved in the drug trade from Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere, including UN experts monitoring drugs production, deny bin-Laden’s involvement. The lie was akin to propaganda about German atrocities in World War 1. Similar false stories circulated about Saddam’s links with al-Qaeda.
Reason 4: The media knows what sells. Ironically information from security services is widely seen as having greater veracity and is exempt from normal journalistic scrutiny. A story containing bin-Laden will sell easily.
Reason 5: Bin Laden is happy to encourage myths about his power. He rarely confirms or denies his involement in any operation.
“Myth breeds more myth” (p.21)
I would add another here — that a few groups may well want to proclaim a link with al-Qaeda to provoke more fear than their real clout warrants. Such may be the case of the group claiming responsibility for recent bombing in Algeria (if indeed they did claim this and that news was not concocted by the Algerian government).
3rd element: the idea, the worldview, ideology of ‘al-Qaeda’ and those who subscribe to it.
Bin Laden does not have power to issue orders that are instantly obeyed.
Bin Laden does not kidnap young men and brainwash them. People voluntarily travelled to the Afghan ‘al-Qaeda’ run military and terrorist training camps (1996-2001) and none was kept there against their will.
Bin Laden’s associates spent much of their time selecting which of the myriad requests for assistance they would grant. These requests were for help with bombings, assassinations and murder on large scale. (Burke, p.17)
These people share the same worldview as bin Laden and the ‘al-Qaeda hardcore’. They may or may not belong to any radical group. What unites them is the ‘way of thinking about the world, a way of understanding events, of interpreting and behaving’. (p.17)
2nd element: “a network of networks” — a wider circle consisting of other militant groups linking with al-Qaeda
What these links are not:
They are not a vast international network of groups answerable to bin Laden or the al-Qaeda inner hardcore.
There are in fact scores of militant groups around the world, each separate with local goals and acting independently. They may see bin Laden as an inspirational figure or a symbol of their collective struggle, but reject his or his inner circle’s leadership and goals. (Compare the many groups in the West who demonstrate with pictures of Che Guevera.)
What these links are:
Some members of some militant groups who trained in al-Qaeda camps since 1996;
Some leaders of some militant groups who have had contact with senior figures in the al-Qaeda hardcore;
Or received funds;
Or other help from bin Laden himself or from his associates
Such links are not unique with al-Qaeda. All Islamic militant groups have similar links with others.
These links are always tenuous and compete with other sources of training, expertise and funding.
The groups and individuals involved generally have multiple associations and lines of support.
Their interests are often deeply parochial and they will not subordinate their leadership to any outside leader or organisation, including al-Qaeda. — e.g. Lebanese Asbat ul Ansar & Islamic movement of Uzbekistan
Many have long been openly hostile to the tactics and goals of al-Qaeda. As many are in rivalry with al-Qaeda as are allied with al-Qaeda.
At various times some groups – or some individuals within different groups – will cooperate with bin Laden if they feel it suits their purpose.
Within individual movements different factions can have different relations with ‘al-Qaeda’
One example: The Ansar ul Islam is one movement but with 3 differ relations to ‘al-Qaeda’:
Ansar ul Islam group in Kurdish Northern Iraq in northern Iraq emerged autumn 2001 with 3 different factions. 2 of these factions went to Afghanistan to meet senior al-Qaeda leaders spring 2001;
the 3rd faction rejected dealing with bin Laden or those around him;
By the end of 2001: Arab fighters fleeing US invasion of Afghanistan – some of these had been close to bin Laden.
In addition to the above there is also a 4th relationship. Ansar ul Islam consisted of others not interested in any broader agenda beyond Kurdistan. (1 failed suicide bomber told the author, Jason Burke, that he did not want to go to Afghanistan simply because he was not interested in travel and was focused only in affairs of his own country.) – these people did not care for bin Laden or his vision of an international struggle.
Others have rebuffed bin Laden’s advances:
Algerian GIA in early 1990’s rejected bin Laden because his agenda was very different from theirs.
GSPC (a GIA splinter group) refused to meet bin Laden emissaries summer 2002
The leader of the Indonesian Lashkar Jihad group refused to ally with bin Laden because that would significantly impinge on autonomy
At least one Palestinian Islamic group has rebuffed his advances concerned about such a link to its image at home and overseas.
Like the anti-globalisation movement – some groups aims and methods coincide, often they do not.
Al-Qaeda’s “mature years”: 1996-2001
Bin Laden provided “a central focus for many . . . disparate elements. This was not a formation of a huge and disciplined group, but a temporary focus of many different strands within modern Islamic militancy on Afghanistan and what, in terms of resources and facilities, bin Laden and his three dozen close associates were able to provide there.” (p.12)
The resources he offered: training, expertise, money, munitions, safe haven. He was providing a safe haven and “department store” array of support for different groups who had been looking for some such “service” since the end of the Afghan war.
The 3 elements of al-Qaeda
The al-Qaeda hardcore (approx 12+100) consisted of:
The dozen or so associates who had stayed with him since the 1980’s.
Pre-eminent militants who had difficulties operating in their own countries came to join bin Laden for the safe haven and the resources he could offer: recruits, money, ideas, knowledge.
Many of these were Afgan war veterans. Many had fought in Bosnia and Chechnya.
They totalled about 100.
Many had at some stage taken an oath of allegiance to bin Laden.
They acted as trainers and administrators in Afghanistan.
Occasionally they were sent overseas to seek recruits; more rarely, to carry out a terrorist operation.
But they were not a monolithic group: among them are significant divergences of opinioin over methods, tactics, political and religious beliefs.
1993 New York World Trade Center bombing
Ahmed Ajaj was detained for this attack and in his bag was a manual titled “Al Qaeda”. American investigators translated this (correctly) as “the basic rules”. It was not a group.
American intelligence reports in the 1990’s do not use the term “al Qaeda” in any of their reports about Middle Eastern extremists. After the 1993 NY bombing FBI investigators knew of bin Laden but only “as one name among thousands”.
During the 1995 trials of the WTC bombers bin Laden was mentioned by prosecutors once, but al-Qaeda was not ever mentioned at all.
1997/8 CIA and State Dept memos
al-Qaeda is mentioned only once and only in passing as “an operational hub, predominantly for like-minded Sunni extemists”.
1996 bin Laden returns to Afghanistan
With 50 to 100 experienced militants bin Laden was able to build his first real terrorist group. But it was far from being “a coherent and structured terrorist organisation with cells everywhere.” (p.11)
1998, FBI “creates” the al Qaeda terrorist organization
In August 1998 bin Laden was implicated in the double bombings of American East African embassies. Clinton retaliated by bombing “the network of radical groups affiliated with and funded by Usama bin Laden, perhaps the pre-eminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world today.” (p.11)
FBI sought to prosecute bin Laden, but the relevant laws were designed to deal with tightly organized and structured criminal gangs to which membership was clear cut. Bin Laden was part of a loose network or politico-religious movement where reponsibility for any single act is difficult to pin down. But if bin Laden could be made the member of a structured organization he could be more successfully prosecuted. It is from this time on that FBI documents now speak of a tightly organized al Qaeda organization to which members must swear an oath of allegiance. This completely misrepresented the actual situation but was legally convenient for a prosecution to succeed.
Bin Laden enters
Sometime between 1988 and 1989 bin Laden set up a militant group in Peshawar. It consisted of no more than a dozen men. The group was inspired by the teachings of Azzam and were distressed by the disintegration of the international forces who had come to aid the Afghan resistance after the Soviets were expelled. There were scores of such small groups forming at this time in Afghanistan, bouyed with the same hopes after feeling they had defeated the mighty Soviets, had the same concerns and dreams of uniting once again all those who had come together, this time to work together to fight corrupt regimes ruling Moslem peoples elsewhere in the Muslim world and restore an ideal society. Larger groups who formed dedicated themselves to attempting to overthrow their local governments.
Some activists in Peshawar at the time say they knew of a group attached to bin Laden around 1990 known as “al-Qaeda” — but others say they never heard of the term. The 11 volume “Encyclopedia of the Jihad” compiled in Pakistan between 1991 and 1993 never mentions al-Qaeda although it does thank Azzam’s group, Maktab al-Khidamat (offices of services).
1989 bin Laden left Pakistan for Saudi-Arabia (his homeland)
1990 bin Laden and other Afghan vets offered to form an army to help protect Saudi Arabia in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait
bin Laden’s offer was rejected so he spent his time attempting to reform Saudi Arabia
1991 bin Laden fled Saudi Arabia, via Pakistan, to Sudan — until 1996.
In Sudan he was just as interested in arboriculture and road construction as in creating an international army of Islamic militants. His own group was still no more than approx a dozen. He was still reliant on larger militias for resources and know-how. He was not connected with any of the attacks that occurred during this period, 1991-1996.
Not having time to do all the reviews I would like I have decided to do chapter reviews from selected books instead. Opting to start on Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda chapter 1 because I was not happy with my superficial review of the whole book earlier. There is simply too much information of value in this that people ought to know and then challenge their political leaders over for the sake of some hope for sanity in the future….
Chapter 1 is titled, surprise surprise: What is Al-Qaeda?
Al-Qaeda comes from the Arabic root qaf-ayn-dal meaning a base (as in a camp or home), or a foundation (as in what is under a house), a pedestal supporting a column, a precept, a rule, a principle, a formula, a method, a pattern, a method. (p.7)
Islamic, British and American Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan
The word was used by the mid 1980’s by Islamic radicals who flocked from all over the Muslim world to Afghanistan to help the local resistance fight the Soviets. It was a common Arabic word that was used to refer simply to the respective bases from which the military units operated.
In 2002 Arabic language newspapers referred to the British and American base at Bagram (from which they were hunting the Taliban) as “al-Qaeda Bagram”.
The radical association
Abdullah Azzam, mentor of bin Laden, wrote in 1987 of the need for a radical Islamic vanguard (similar to Lenin’s revolutionary vanguard concept) to carry the heavy work and sacrifices required for ultimate victory of achieving a new society:
This vanguard constitutes the strong foundation (al qaeda al-sulbah) for the expected society. (p.8 )
Azzam’s words were similar to many other references to vanguards in other radical Islamic literature and they are all clearly talking about a tactic, a way of operating, not an organization.
When this is required reading for all “coalition of the willing” political leaders and no-one in power can make a public statement or foreign policy decision without having passed a test on their comprehension of it we will at last begin to see the beginnings of rationality and humanity in our dealings with the Middle East. I bought this after reading a piece by Chomsky in which he said this was probably the best book written on terrorism. Burke knows his subject well and gives a clear ground-eye view of who the terrorists are and how they operate. Burke demonstrates that there is no such thing as a Dr Evil type monster out there, but the real danger is our inability to see how our western leaders have so humiliated and raped and despoiled and oppressed (by proxy or directly) the democratic and human rights aspirations of Arabs and how there are literally as a result thousands of would-be suicide terrorists incognito and freelance the world over. I can just add to Burke’s book the comment that it’s not a problem with Islam — otherwise we would have seen this sort of terrorism non-stop ever since the west has encountered islam. The 9/11 plotters and Bin Laden made their aims and motivations very plain (why do so many in the west still remain ignorant — why do our leaders continue to deny it in public?) and the US conceded on their major demand (withdrawal from Saudi Arabia) after establishing new bases in Iraq. And Australia fully supported and backed the US proxy occupation and oppressoin of Moslem holy lands and peoples — hence Bali. No prizes for guessing the motivations of the new wave of terrorist activities since then.