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The Fate of Global Jihad a Decade After September 11th

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto. Photo credit: Lowell Gordon Photography

This Sunday it will have been ten years since Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network carried out the most horrific, traumatizing, and infamous terrorist attack ever realized. The dissonant effects of the events of September 11th, 2001 have reverberated around the world with spectacular severity, setting off a decade of dramatic destabilization that does not appear to be settling down anytime soon. The images of commercial aircraft slamming into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, their subsequent sudden collapse, New York City residents running for their lives, a wall of the Pentagon reduced to smoking rubble and debris, these images have become seared into the psyche of America. A vivid collective flashbulb memory, like Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination before it, the September 11th attacks resulted in a shared post traumatic tension, invoking a massive set of reactions, some profitable, others problematic. After ten years of fighting the War on Terror, I suggest that we have essentially defeated the Al Qaeda organization, reducing them operationally to lone wolves.

The threat from Al Qaeda does still exist, but the organization has been severely weakened, and the likelihood of another attack on American soil anywhere near the magnitude of September 11th is much smaller. Al Qaeda does not command nearly the political clout that it did immediately after the attacks. This is because, contrary to popular belief, the support for Osama bin Laden in the wider Muslim world came from the hope that he represented liberation from repressive dictatorships perceived to be Western puppets, like Mubarak in Egypt. The majority of Muslims do not want a worldwide jihad, or a caliphate, but just to live in peace and prosperity in their own fashion. The Arab Spring, and massive popular democracy movement in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA), has recently toppled the long time dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, with immense protests against the regimes in Syria and Yemen ongoing. The citizens in these countries are clamoring for self rule in a free and nationalistic sense, and this is something that Osama bin Laden was never able to deliver on (Fisk). Al Qaeda’s political power was waning even before US Navy SEALS caught up with bin Laden.

On Mayday 2011 Osama bin Laden was killed in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by a US Special Forces raid authorized by President Barack Obama. The mastermind and leader of Al Qaeda, responsible for the worst terrorist attack in history is dead at last, and although bin Laden was no longer as politically or operationally significant as he once was his death was a massive symbolic win for America, in our own hearts and for the world. It needed to happen if Al Qaeda and global jihad were to ever be eliminated. The leaderless terrorist organization soon promoted its second in command, Egyptian doctor Aymin al-Zawahiri, who has sworn revenge for the death of bin Laden. However, al-Zawahiri, who is believed to be hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan, does not hold the same political or symbolic weight as his predecessor. The new US Secretary of Defense, former CIA Director Leon Panetta has recently said that the defeat of Al Qaeda is “within reach”, because the bin Laden raid allowed the US to gather significant intelligence about the terrorist organization’s current structure and plans (Walsh). Panetta suggested this intelligence could lead to the whereabouts of 10-20 key Al Qaeda leaders, and regardless the organization’s capacity to carry out September 11th styles attacks has been seriously curtailed.

This does not mean that the organization does not still have the will to attempt violence, but it has to make a major shift in structure and strategy. This is the view of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, an Al Qaeda leader, media strategist, theoretician, teacher of terror, born in Syria, later to participate in the Islamic insurgency there during the early 1980s in order to overthrow the corrupt rule of Hafiz al-Assad. Current Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is at this moment murderously suppressing the Arab Spring democratic uprising in his country, a trick he learned from his father Hafiz, who ordered the Hama massacre in 1982, a military operation among the most heinous committed by any Arab dictator, in which tens of thousands were killed effectively ending the Islamist insurgency in Syria (Lia “Architect” 47). At this time al-Suri was a member and military commander in the Muslim Brotherhood.

After the Brotherhood failed to defeat the Syrian government at Hama they began to move from violent to political action and al-Suri became disillusioned, seeing them as ineffective and compromising. He moved to Spain and used it as a base for building a network of jihadists throughout Europe, helped train the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, and facilitated the 1997 CNN interview with Osama bin Laden (Lia “Architect” 48, 54, 79, 165). An earlier co-founder of Al Qaeda, al-Suri also wrote a few significant terrorist treatises. Before al-Suri was apprehended by Pakistani authorities in 2005, he wrote The Military Theory of the Global Islamic Resistance Call (Lia “Architect” 347-484) in which he lays out his analysis of the global jihad thus far, and his suggestions for how it should transform into a decentralized campaign of individual and small cell terrorist operations.

According to al-Suri, the first school of Islamic resistance, that of the regional, hierarchical, and secret organizations, failed in its military, security, agitation, educational, and political objectives, as the regimes throughout the MENA used their security apparatus to suppress these movements. The second school was “open fronts and covert operations”, military confrontations using organized guerilla operation from permanent bases such as the jihads in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. The failures of the first school were not repeated by the second school, and many of their objectives were met in al-Suri’s analysis, but with only partial political success in the case of Afghanistan alone (Lia “Architect” 350-351). This was a triumph that was reversed by the US overthrow of the Taliban.

It is acknowledged by al-Suri that in the wake of September 11th, the US has demonstrated overwhelming technological superiority and military dominance, annihilating 80% of Al Qaeda’s fighters within the first two years of the War in Afghanistan (Lia “Architect” 359, 363). The second school must be abandoned in al-Suri’s estimation because of the evolving global security picture, and he uses the analogy of an electric motor that works perfectly well, but is built for an antiquated power grid and if used in the modern grid it would catch fire. So if one stubbornly persists in the strategy of the second school they are going to get burned, not because of any problem with the strategy in principle, just its inappropriateness to the new conditions brought on by the War on Terror (Lia “Architect” 356). With one of Al Qaeda’s brightest strategists admitting defeat in open military confrontation, al-Suri confirms that the decline of the organization started long before the death of Osama bin Laden through the loss of a significant majority of their trained and most experienced fighters.

The third school of global jihad proposed by al-Suri, the only one that has any chance of being effective at this point, is the strategy of individual jihad and small cells. This method of operation is a “system of action” instead of a “secret organization for action” (Lia “Architect” 393), which makes detection by the authorities much easier to avoid. If any individual or cell is uncovered then it will not lead to a discovery of any other cells, and this will allow the system to continue. The vision that al-Suri has is for Islamic youth around the world to commit spontaneous acts of terrorism, giving the impression that a popular uprising is building against the West, inspired and trained virtually with the operational knowledge needed (Lia “Architect” 392-396). Many examples of individual action are cited by al-Suri to give inspiration, and he lays out the terrorist culture and talents needed, the plan for a three level structure, and the requirement for true religious and ideological dedication.

While al-Suri is stashed away in a secret prison somewhere in the world, his inspiration lives on. The most persistent source of Al Qaeda attacks on the US are originating out of Yemen these days, where American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is directing new attacks at the US, including the failed attacks by the Christmas Day underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, plus army psychologist Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan’s killing of 13 American troops at Fort Hood in Texas. While Abdulmutallab was given direct operational assistance by al-Awlaki, Shahzad was inspired by the cleric’s fiery sermons, and Hassan communicated with the cleric by email, illustrating the more decentralized nature of Al Qaeda today. The inspiration that al-Awlaki is providing to the new generation of potential Islamic terrorism has scared the Obama administration enough that they have taken the unprecedented step of ordering the assassination of an American citizen (Anwar). I think it is a mark of the US success in dismantling Al Qaeda that we are considering the biggest current threat to be a cleric who has inspired attacks with much less magnitude than September 11th.

Lone wolf terrorism is a frightening scenario. It makes no difference to the victims of a terrorist attack what method or what reason it is by which they came to be attacked. As we have seen recently in Norway, a lone wolf is capable of killing a substantial amount people and terrorizing a whole country. With Al Qaeda seemingly shifting their modus operandi to the al-Suri model of individual action and small cells, this new lone wolf style is little consolation to many, since the number of terrorists in the world is not as important as their will and capability to commit heinous acts. These threats are much more difficult to detect, and violent ideologies with decentralized campaigns can spread like a contagion if the conditions are present for terrorism to flourish. This behooves us to get a better grasp on the reasons why people can be inspired to terrorism.

Many theories about the causes of terrorism have been proposed, from the perspective of several different academic disciplines. As a complex and evolving phenomenon it is difficult to sum it up with one hypothesis. Shughard (36) has suggested that there have been three stylized waves of terrorism since 1945, of the ethnic/liberation/separatist, left-wing, and Islamist varieties. These classifications illustrate the various justifications given for terrorism, but the particular differences obscure the commonality between them. Relative deprivation theory suggests that the perception that injustice is being perpetrated against oneself, or another victimized group, by a stronger force, justifies the use of terrorist tactics as a form of resistance (O’Connor 14). Aristotle and Alexis de Tocqueville have recognized relative deprivation as a source of political violence, and many modern studies also support this view (Lia, Skolberg 11). Colonialism and globalization are the primary sources for the feelings of inequality and deprivation that have led to the phenomenon of modern terrorism.

Anti-globalization sentiment, within the historical context of colonialism and imperialism, is a strong current underpinning the aims of modern political terrorism (Vallis, Yang, Abbas 17). After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the victors carved the Middle East and Central Asia into new states. These arbitrary borders were drawn without consideration of the traditional ethnic and cultural divides already in place, creating the conditions of strife and failed states (Shughard 36). For example, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri laments the fall of the Islamic Caliphs in 1924, and suggests that it should be obvious to the untrained eye that the “curved and strangely twisted” borders in the Muslim world were drawn by past colonial rulers, and not the people who live there (Lia “Architect” 370). After the First World War, the Atlantic Charter endorsed the end of colonialism, but this promise was not kept. It took the highly symbolic fall of Singapore to the Japanese during World War II to ignite the flame for independence from the West (Hoffman 43), and inspire insurgencies to use terrorist tactics to overthrow European colonial powers in Algeria, Cyprus, and Palestine (Hoffman 45-46). These earlier and successful responses to forcing out the colonialists demonstrated the effectiveness of terror tactics, and since these methods of violence were used to drive out occupiers terror also became a legitimate strategy for the oppressed.

In the aftermath of World War II, the US and the USSR quickly became the dominant powers in a bipolar world, while the European states were left devastated (Ray, Kaarbo 47). The relative decline in Europe’s power, led to the process of decolonization. If a former colonial power did not relinquish control over the nations it occupied voluntarily, violent revolutions precipitated the creation of many new sovereign states (Ray, Kaarbo 61). The Middle East soon became a hotbed for conflict, as the Arab nations battled the new state of Israel. Wars between Israel and its neighbors have allowed it to seize and hold territory, expanding its borders (Ray, Kaarbo 65-66), and this has led to the violent resistance against the occupation of Palestinian and Lebanese areas, and the formation of large Islamic nationalist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, with political and terrorist wings. The willingness to resort to terrorist tactics suggests that national struggles for sovereignty are not just about attaining power, but also about a sense of powerlessness.

Religious motivations alone do not provide an adequate theory of terrorism, but where religion is a factor in the justification of terror the lethality of attacks is typically much greater. Between 1998 and 2004, religiously motivated terrorism accounted for 30% of fatalities but only 6% of total attacks (Hoffman 88). Passages from the Quran are utilized by Islamic groups like Al Qaeda to justify fear inducing terrorism (Lia “Architect” 413), but this justification is cloaked in the rhetoric of resistance to invasion from occupiers and their collaborators (Lia “Architect” 414). Abu Mus’ab al-Suri suggests that terrorism is only legitimate when used to defend oneself or other oppressed peoples (Lia “Architect” 386). The perception that America is robbing Muslim countries of precious resources like oil, while simultaneously exporting immoral culture through market ideology provides the context of justification (Lia “Architect” 399). The fear of Western cultural domination brings with it feelings of dispossession. The 1981 assassination of President Sadat in Egypt was justified by the Islamic Jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood because of his perceived subservience to Western powers and vices (“The Power of Nightmares”). Hence, even where the particular flavor of terrorism is religiously motivated, the causes are still underpinned by perceptions of relative deprivation related to past colonialism and current globalization.

The continuing problem of terrorism is exasperated by many modern trends. The growing influence of religion as a justification for terrorism has increased the possibility that a group like Al Qaeda could launch an attack with a weapon of mass destruction. The evolution of technology, such as the emergence of internet and cell phones, has provided terrorists with better tools for organization and propaganda. However, it is the persistence of weak and failed states that presents the greatest challenge to the reduction of terrorism overall. Terrorism is fueled by failed states through the rise of violent separatist movements and the establishment of safe havens for transnational organizations.

The perceived illegitimacy of an official government is often caused by the presence of two or more rival ethnic groups, where one group dominates the political situation. From 1945 until 2008 the number of countries grew from 51 to 192, and there are still around 70 separatist movements yearning for independence (Beary). When the promise of self-determination for indigenous peoples was not fully honored after World War II, revolutions in Algeria, Israel, and Cyprus used terrorist tactics to overthrow colonial rulers (Hoffman 44-62). Pakistan is an example of a failed state that has lost control over large areas of its rural territory and has a government that is not considered legitimate by a sizable amount of its population. This stems from historical group grievances between the many Pakistani ethnic groups, including Punjabi, Pashtun, Sindhi, Muhajir, and Balochi (Mabry). If minority ethnic groups are frustrated in their efforts to achieve self-determination via the normal political channels they have a greater likelihood of resorting to terrorism.

A unilateral response to the issue of weak or failed states will not be as effective as a multilateral or global solution. States that do not have control over their borders, or that have regions that are ungovernable, present a problem for the international community because transnational terrorist organizations can use these areas as safe havens (Lia “Globalisation” 65-66). Al Qaeda strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri has pointed that areas where chaos reigns, such as Somalia and the tribal regions of Yemen, provide the best opportunity to set up semi-overt training camps. He has also indicated that the use of over training camps is the most effective method for jihadist indoctrination (Lia “Architect” 461). Although the rise of the US as the lone superpower has reduced the areas where terrorists can operate, a unipolar solution to the problem of failed states will not suffice in the long run. As America’s dominant sphere of influence grows, at some point more problems are created than can be solved by one country alone (Weber, Barma, Kroenig, Ratner). In the future it will take a multilateral response to fill the gap in authority left by failed states.

Brynjar Lia (“Globalisation” 59-65) has indicated that a potential source of terrorism is the transition to a democracy. States that are moving in the direction of democratic reforms can generate more domestic terrorism from opposing forces, but can also encourage international terrorism if the liberal transformation is not completed, or does not resolve traditional sectarian divisions, and leads to a collapsed government. With the Arab Spring we are seeing democracy movements topple long term dictators, but there is risk that these movements can become frustrated, fractured, lose credibility, and end up as failed states. The international community has an obligation to help these fledgling democracies succeed while maintaining sensitivity to the local cultures and aspirations.

With the ten year anniversary of September 11th this weekend we are getting new of threats on New York and DC from credible sources, apparently originating from al-Zawahiri. We should take these very seriously, but if the new Al Qaeda leader is not successful in carrying out an anniversary attack, and is not able to avenge Osama bin Laden, then it will be an excellent sign that this American nemesis is no longer a major menace. In the face of lone wolf terrorism, the best response is vigilance and stoicism, since there is not much difference between these types of attacks, and the violent school, mall, workplace, or restaurant shootings that sometimes occur in the US. As far the potential success of a global jihad, we have good reason to forget our fear. America has proven to the world and to the terrorists that we are resilient, and I believe that Osama bin Laden’s hopes of toppling us like the Soviet Union will always remain gloriously unrealized.

Jared Roy Endicott

The Fate of Global Jihad a Decade after September 11th
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Works Cited

Beary, Brian. “Separatist Movements”. CQ Global Researcher 2(4), (Apr. 2008): 85-114. Web. 28 Apr 2010.

Fisk, Robert. “Al Qaeda after bin Laden”. Part 3 of 3. 18 May 2011. Web. 7 Sep 2011.

Hoffman, Bruce, Shareen Joshi, and Tristan Mabry. “Making Sense of the Mumbai Attacks”., Georgetown University. 8 Dec. 2008. Web Video. 1 May 2010.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.

Lia, Brynjar. Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Print.

Lia, Brynjar. Globalisation and the Future of Terrorism: Patterns and Predictions . New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. Print.

Lia, Brynjar, and Katja Skolberg. “Why Terrorism Occurs”. Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt, Rapport -2000/02769. Web. 12 Apr 2010.

O’Connor, Tom. “Theories and Causes of Terrorism”. Megalinks in Criminal Justice. 2009. Web. 12 Apr 2010.

Ray, James Lee, and Juliet Kaarbo. Global Politics. Ninth Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. Print.

Shughart II, William F.. “An Analytical History of Terrorism, 1945-2000”. Public Choice 128, 2006: 7-39. Web. 5 Apr 2010.

Vallis. Rhyll, Yubin Yang. And Hussein A. Abbas. “Disciplinary Approaches to Terrorism: A Survey.” Defense and Security Applications Research Centre, 2006: Web. 7 Apr 2010.

Walsh, Mary. “Panetta: US within reach of defeating al Qaeda”. CBS News, World Watch. 9 Jul 2011. Web. 9 Sep 2011.

Weber, Steven, Naazneen Barma, Matthew Kroenig, and Ely Ratner. “How Globalization Went Bad”. Foreign Policy. Jan.-Feb. 2007. Web. 21 Apr 2010.

“Anwar al-Awlaki”. The New York Times. 9 May 2011. Web. 9 Sep 2011.

“The Power of Nightmares Volume 1”. Part 4 of 6. BBC, 20 May 2008. Web. 7 Apr 2010.

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By  Realizingresonance
posted on 30 September at 22:53
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The US born al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed in a targeted airstrike. Although I am not sure about the legality of this, I am happy to know that this man has been removed from the scene.