Net Assessment: The Jihadism Movement

11 MINS READNov 27, 2004 | 02:27 GMT
The net assessment is key to STRATFOR's analytical process. It is not a forecast, but rather a high-level overview of the significant issues driving the current behavior of nations or regions — and from this, forecasts can be drawn. These assessments, which always have been part of the STRATFOR model, now are being published on a regular basis.
In the course of relatively few years, jihadism has burgeoned from a low-key movement seeking the ouster of corrupt regimes in the Muslim world, into a global phenomenon that seeks to eradicate Western influence from that world. Though the movement is encapsulated in the minds of the public by the person of Osama bin Laden, it is important to understand that the phenomenon is not restricted to a particular group or brand of groups, but rather is a broad ideological movement to which many disparate groups — separated by geography, individual motivations and even immediate political goals — may belong.

For our purposes, jihadism is defined as an ideology espoused by a fringe minority of various extremist Muslim groups, all operating on the periphery of the Islamist political spectrum. The movement has appropriated the notion of jihad ("righteous struggle") in calling for the use of force — against either military or civilian targets — by non-state actors whose ultimate objective is to establish an Islamic state.

The movement, which has been propelled by a number of events during the course of the past half-century, today is being driven forward chiefly by two factors: the continued decentralization of al Qaeda and the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Origins of Jihadism

Jihadism is a subset of the overall Islamist movement — a larger, much more moderate movement which holds that Islam should form the political foundation for a state. According to this ideology, secular political institutions and regimes should be ousted in favor of state institutions that are governed by the dictates of the Koran. Theoretically and practically, Islamism would include both violent and non-violent actors; jihadism is the violent offshoot, which developed during the latter half of the 20th century.

Ideologically, the movement can be traced back to the first Arab-Israeli war, in 1948. During the 1970s, however, it gained momentum, with the emergence in Egypt of the Gamaah al-Islamiyah and Tandheem al Jihad — to be followed years later by numerous other groups throughout the Muslim world. Egypt's defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, coupled with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's crackdown against the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, may have been the catalyst that pushed some already radical Muslims toward violent jihad. These events, together with the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the mujahideen victories against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, laid the foundation for the modern jihadist movement. Palestinian scholar-turned-activist Abdallah Azzam, who played a leading role in recruiting Muslim volunteers to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan during the 1980s, is seen as the godfather of the jihadist ideology. Azzam, who worked as a professor of Islamic jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia, initially was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt. His most famous written work is "Join the Caravan," published in the late 1980s, which has been an inspiration for many young Muslims. Several other influential jihadists also hail from Egyptian groups: Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rehman, a blind activist-scholar, was the founder of Gamaah, and al Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri emerged from the Tandheem al Jihad (Jihad Organization), which was involved in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Among al-Zawahiri's works is a scathing attack on the moderate philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood, titled Al Hasad al-Murr: al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoun fi Sittin Aman (The Bitter Harvest: The Muslim Brotherhood in Sixty Years). The movement also has been influenced by the thinking of Egyptian author Abdel-Salam al Faraj, whose most famous jihadist text is Faridah al Ghaibah (The Neglected Duty). All of these men splintered off from the Brotherhood and grew intellectually closer to Wahhabism, a very strict interpretation of Islam. Eventually, in the mid-1990s, Wahhabis under the leadership of bin Laden seized control of the jihadist movement, which crystallized in the form of al Qaeda. Prior to al Qaeda's emergence, the jihadist movement lacked a standard-bearer. Instead, it was a grouping of religious scholars and activists, rallying to various interpretations of the Koran and Sunnah. To some extent, that reality continues today — though the movement as a whole is heavily influenced by al Qaeda's Wahhabi extremism. However, al Qaeda does not represent the sum total of jihadism. Bin Laden views himself and his organization as a vanguard for the wider movement. Ultimately, the jihadists are set apart from other Muslims by their use of jihad as a vehicle to establish an Islamic polity — a departure from the classic conception of jihad as an affair to be conducted by Islamic authorities, such as the caliphates and various local or regional emirates. The philosophy that non-state actors can appropriate jihad as a means to establishing an Islamic polity is an unprecedented intellectual development in the history of Islam. The Decentralization Factor Judging from recent statements attributed to both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri — and even to lesser al Qaeda lieutenants and acolytes, such as the late Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — it appears that al Qaeda is transforming itself from a strictly militant group into a quasi-political organization, and simultaneously making concerted efforts to disseminate its message at the grassroots level. The political evolution is apparent in the most recent tape attributed to bin Laden, as well as in a publication he released in the aftermath of the March bombings in Madrid, announcing a 90-day truce with European states. This transformation signals a practical approach to the group's survival, given the global dragnet that has been under way since the Sept. 11 attacks. The evolution in al Qaeda's communications is more subtle, but can be detected in a careful examination of the rhetoric used by senior leaders. For instance, in the last statement attributed to him, al-Zawahiri called on all Muslims to increase their support for the jihadist movement. He encouraged all to take a lesson from the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and to apply those lessons to their own lands and lives. He also criticized those who restricted their support and activities to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has long been a rhetorical pillar of the jihadist movement. Also significant has been the emergence of more regional and quasi-independent jihadist groups that act with little or no encouragement from al Qaeda "prime" — groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, the semi-independent al Qaeda cell active in Saudi Arabia, and even al-Zarqawi's virtually independent Jamaat al Tawheed wa al Jihad (Monotheism and Fighting Group) in Iraq, which has renamed itself "Tandheem al Qaeda fi Bilad al Rafidain" ("Al Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers"). All of these are Islamist militant groups with some sort of ties to the al Qaeda hierarchy — and though the level of communication maintained is debatable, the evidence that they are carrying on with operations regardless is without question. There is an important explanation for this self-motivation and autonomy. Al Qaeda has always been a relatively small organization in comparison with the size of the movement it sought to inspire. Sources have told STRATFOR that many of the training camps al Qaeda ran in Afghanistan following the Soviet war served, importantly, as a kind of ideological exchange program — a way of exporting the jihadist philosophy to the four corners of the world. Whether the military training that supporters from various countries received ever was translated into militant action was insignificant; groups like al Qaeda rely on rhetorical and ideological support in much the same way that they rely on financial and logistical support. Any small-scale regional activity that can be linked back to al Qaeda only bolsters the image it seeks to create as a global entity representing the entire Muslim world. In Iraq, al-Zarqawi is emerging as a perfect example of this trend. Though he was virtually unknown within the jihadist community before the Iraq war, al-Zarqawi now has nearly as much name recognition as bin Laden himself. His path from anonymity to media star is one to watch, particularly if it should be repeated in another theater of operations. Al-Zarqawi, who trained at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, may or may not have had contact with bin Laden before being essentially cut loose by the organization years ago. He was involved in a variety of jihadist activities in Europe and an unrealized Y2K plot in Jordan before establishing himself — on the strength of several grisly beheading videos and other actions — as a potential rallying point for the global jihadist movement. Part of the explanation for his "success," despite his distance from al Qaeda prime, is the universal applicability of the jihadist message. Rhetorical calls to resist Western involvement and influence in Muslim lands and overthrow "corrupt" Muslim regimes are resounding throughout the Islamist world, perhaps more now than ever. The U.S. Occupation The U.S. invasion of Iraq has given new currency to jihadist calls for action. Despite widespread rhetoric condemning the plight of the Palestinians — and even throughout the successful war in Afghanistan — the response of most Muslims to cries for jihad was one of inertia. Since the Sept. 11 attacks and U.S.-led and -inspired action against suspected terrorists in many parts of the globe, however, the perception that the West is at war with Islam itself has grown. Now, the presence of a bona fide military occupation force in a Muslim country, Iraq, is rousing the masses in ways that previous conflicts did not. Prior to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the rhetorical motivation for engaging in jihad was rather ephemeral. Much of the justification stemmed from U.S. support for Israel in the ongoing Palestinian conflict and the previous Arab-Israeli war. Essentially, the Palestinian struggle was branded as the struggle of all Muslims, and U.S. support for Israel was, by extension, portrayed as oppression of all Muslims. The presence of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia also was cited as a justification — and unquestionably was a primary motivator for bin Laden personally — but this was received by most Muslims as something of a stretch. In their minds, it was more of a call to a primarily offensive operation against a potential future foe — a pre-emptive doctrine of jihad. This doctrine is unappealing to many, who believe that only the state can righteously conduct offensive jihad. Defensive jihad, by contrast, is the duty of every Muslim — and this is the view adopted of resisting U.S. forces in Iraq, similar to the struggles in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia. Jihadist leaders also have pointed to the United States' enforcement of the U.N. embargo of Iraq and America's "cultural aggression" against Muslim lands, but these justifications pale in comparison with the invasion of Iraq, which incensed even many "moderate" Muslims. As a result, many now view the Sunni insurgents fighting Iraqi and coalition forces as legitimate mujahideen (religious fighters). The U.S. military action also apparently has pushed many sympathizers of al Qaeda into taking action of their own. This appears to be the case in the seemingly random violence against Westerners in places like Saudi Arabia, where activists unaffiliated with al Qaeda (mostly youths) carry out targeted assassinations. Ultimately, the Iraq conflict could serve as the next smithy in which future jihadists are molded — much as Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Balkans before. That said, it is important to distinguish between Muslims support for anti-occupation struggles and al Qaeda-style terrorism. The former is a task-specific support — fighting what is perceived as a foreign occupation, as opposed to destabilizing legitimate governments in Muslim states. The majority of Muslims do not support the latter goal — and even in the context of Iraq, al-Zarqawi and other militants who engage in car-bombings targeting non-combatants, kidnappings and executions are frowned upon. Meanwhile, many of the legal reforms and social changes, such as amendments to the curricula of the madrassahs and promotion of more moderate forms of Islam, pushed forward by regimes in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — traditional bases of operations for al Qaeda) are being attributed directly to U.S. influence. In this way, jihadists are gaining some traction even from domestic, intra-Muslim issues in parts of the world where the United States has applied political or military pressure. It is not clear how long this particular trend might continue, but for the time being the occupation of Iraq is providing a much-needed raison d'etre for the jihadist movement — and offers the potential for it to expand and survive.

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