In STRATFOR's Terrorism Brief on Dec. 29 we discussed the lack of terrorism threats and warnings in the United States during this holiday season, contrary to what we have seen in past years. One significant reason for the current calm is that certain aspects of the U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism appear to be working. Another big factor is the concept of "defensive jihad."
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush vowed to "take the fight to the terrorists." Prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda used that country to train militants and as a base from which to plan and support attacks elsewhere. That safe haven is now gone, and the network has suffered tremendous losses in terms of training camps and command infrastructure.
Although there appears to be some evidence that al Qaeda had redundant systems in place for finance, logistics and communications, the coordinated efforts of the U.S. and foreign governments to hunt down al Qaeda across the globe have resulted in the arrest of operatives, the seizure of assets and have served to generally disrupt the organization's operations. The war on terrorism has greatly affected al Qaeda's ability to shoot, move and communicate.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq also has been a significant development in the U.S.- jihadist war, and has helped to fix the attention and efforts of the jihadists on Iraq and not New York or Los Angeles. The concept of "defensive jihad" is at work here.
Classical Islamic scholarship has identified two types of jihad: the "greater jihad," a spiritual struggle against sin that is fought inside one's self, and the "lesser jihad," the physical struggle fought on the battlefield.
According to the medieval scholars and their modern adherents, the lesser jihad is further broken down into two subcategories: offensive and defensive jihad. Most Muslims see a stark contrast between the two. To many Muslims, even those considered moderate, defensive jihad — defending Islamic lands and people from non-Muslim invaders — is seen as a duty incumbent upon every Muslim. It is believed that there are great rewards in the afterlife for fulfilling this duty — and stern judgment for shirking it. Offensive jihad is a much more controversial subject. A small minority of militants claims authority to declare offensive jihad, but most Muslims argue that only a legitimately Islamic authority, or caliphate, can declare offensive jihad. Many Muslims see the Ottoman Empire, which fell in 1924, as the last vestige of the caliphate. Since there is no longer such a caliphate or authority, many Muslims consider that offensive jihad no longer is possible. Operations to fight invading forces in Muslim lands, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, are seen as defensive jihad, whereas operations outside of Muslim lands are seen as offensive, although al Qaeda has blurred this last point, arguing that it has attacked the United States because of U.S. policies in the Muslim world. Nevertheless, it is easier to justify fighting U.S. troops in Iraq than killing civilians on U.S. streets. In recent years, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and other jihadists have developed and adopted a third concept: jihad aimed at re-establishing the Islamic state. However, publicly, al Qaeda consistently has hung its theological hat on the argument of defensive jihad. In the various declarations made by bin Laden and others in al Qaeda since 1996, the network has gone to great lengths to explain why attacks against the U.S. "crusaders" were defensive jihad. The leadership often cited the presence of U.S. occupation troops in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and U.S. aggression in enforcing the U.N. embargo of Iraq as justification for defensive strikes against the United States. Although many Muslims disagreed with al Qaeda's justification, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and then Iraq changed that equation. The fact that U.S. occupation troops are conducting military operations on Muslim soil is considered by many to be clear justification for defensive jihad. Muslim men who hold jihadist beliefs and some of the more moderate Muslims who are seeking to fulfill their duty to defensive jihad have traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq — to the land of jihad. Although the invasion of Afghanistan drew some foreign fighters seeking to repel the invaders from Muslim soil, the invasion of Iraq struck a much deeper chord with the Ummah, or Muslim nation. Baghdad was the seat of the caliphate for several centuries (749-1258 CE) and, being so close to Saudi Arabia, it is indeed very near the heart of Islam — physically and spiritually. Some Muslims also saw the invasion of Iraq, following the invasion of Afghanistan, as proof that the U.S. war on terrorism was in fact a "war on Islam." As characterized by the efforts of Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who recently was named bin Laden's official representative in Iraq, foreign jihadists have been far more active — and deadly — in Iraq than in Afghanistan. There have been frequent reports of Muslim men from Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia traveling to Iraq to assist in the jihad there. Iraq is now taking the place of Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya as the most significant place to fight jihad and to acquire combat skills and experience. It is in essence, the current Mecca for jihadists. As STRATFOR has reported, Iraq also is becoming an important place for the development — and testing — of improvised explosive devices and the training of bombmakers. Hundreds of foreign fighters reportedly have been killed in Iraq and dozens of them have successfully conducted suicide or "martyrdom" attacks. U.S. troops in Iraq are daily placed in harm's way, but their presence has served to draw the attention and resources of the jihadists away from the United States. Although this concept of defensive jihad has complicated U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, it has diverted the attention and resources of jihadists away from U.S. soil. It is tragic when a suicide bomber strikes a mess tent in Iraq, from a U.S. perspective, but it is far better to have the bomber target military forces in Mosul than civilians in Manhattan.