among Palestinians in Lebanon
Harvard University Press, 2007, 360 pp., $28.95
Architect of Global Jihad
Columbia University Press, 2008, 256 pp., $28.95Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 176 pp., $24.95
In the nearly six and a half years since 9/11, the terrorist threat to the United States, its allies and other countries has significantly evolved. Alongside al-Qaeda, whose actual organizational coherence is unknown, a loose network of unconnected cells has emerged, coalescing, radicalizing and dissolving seemingly at random. A July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate charted this transformation:
We assess that globalization trends and recent technological advances will continue to enable even small numbers of alienated people to find and connect with one another, justify and intensify their anger, and mobilize resources to attack—all without requiring a centralized terrorist organization, training camp, or leader.
Although the broad contours of this threat seem clear enough, there is plenty that we do not understand. Many have pointed to the centrality of the Internet in this evolution, but little is known about how the global jihad attracts adherents, who they are, how they organize and promulgate their doctrines, and what their strategic priorities are—if such priorities even exist. However, three recent books add to our knowledge. Taken together, they provide a detailed picture of how jihadi groups attract adherents, organize and operate, how they communicate within and among each other, and where the fault lines and arguments among them lie.
In Everyday Jihad, French academic Bernard Rougier explores the intertwined processes of de-territorialization and radicalization among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Focusing on Ain al-Hilweh, a sprawling, dingy camp in southern Lebanon housing roughly 45,000 Palestinian refugees and their progeny, Rougier examines how a one-time stronghold of the secular-nationalist PLO came to play “an important role on the Middle Eastern map of Salafist Islamism.” One measure of its importance was apparent when one of the 9/11 hijackers dedicated a poem to Ain al-Hilweh’s most prominent jihadist in his videotaped will. More recently, denizens of Ain al-Hilweh’s salafi-jihadi milieu have figured into the network of the late al-Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Critical to Ain al-Hilweh’s transformation from secular-nationalist stronghold to salafi-jihadi epicenter was the construction of a globalized Islamic consciousness centered not in Lebanon, but in Peshawar, Pakistan. In the 1980s, hundreds of Arab volunteers filtered through Peshawar on their way to wage jihad against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan. The most famous among these “Afghan Arabs” was the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, whose tracts urging Muslims to join the Afghan jihad circulated widely throughout the Muslim world. The intense ideological ferment and enduring social bonds of the Afghan jihad began a process whereby isolated conflicts on Islam’s periphery dropped their parochial national or ethnic character and acquired a pan-Islamic religious and therefore transnational one.
Meanwhile the political identity of the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon was changing. Memories of Galilean villages dimmed as elders passed on, and, barred from normalizing into Lebanon and other Arab countries by a web of formal and informal strictures, some Palestinians began to lose their sense of territorial identity, making it easier for some to drift into the global salafi-jihadi dynamic. As Rougier explains, “for a Palestinian dispossessed of his land, to no longer consider Israel a principal enemy marks a symbolic rupture with Palestinian nationalism, including its Islamist version, incarnated by Hamas or Islamic Jihad.”
As certain Palestinians became detached from the struggle against Israel, unexpected contradictions arose. For instance, Hamas’s intractability toward Israel presupposed a relentless focus upon it. But despite Hamas’s radical religious credentials, the focus on Israel contravened the salafi narrative, which placed the struggle against Israel as one of many equally dire threats to the umma. Salafi jihadists accused Hamas of significant doctrinal irregularities, even openly criticizing Hamas’s now-deceased leader Sheikh Ahmed Yasin for refusing to widen the struggle beyond Palestine.
Another area of friction is the salafi relationship with the Shi‘a Islamist movement Hizballah. Despite viewing Shi‘i Islam as heretical, militant salafists in Ain al-Hilweh attempted to ride Hizballah’s coattails following Israel’s troop pullout in 2000 and Hizballah’s stoutness in the 2006 summer war. But that left Palestinian salafists in Lebanon with an unstable mixture: the uncompromising, exclusionary rhetoric butting up against not only the powerful narrative of Palestinian resistance against Israel but also Lebanon’s confessional and demographic realities. As Rougier argues:
The ideology of civil war spread by the camp’s preachers has transformed the figure of the enemy, who is not only an Israeli settler or soldier, or one of the Arab regimes that persecute ‘true believers’, or even the ‘hateful Lebanese communities’ (the Shi‘ites and Maronites): in the camp, that enemy can also be a supporter of Yasir Arafat and a member of Fatah, the organization that played a key role in constructing a nationalist frame of reference in the 1960s. The enemy has become internal as the camp has been transformed into the site of a struggle over the definition of identity.
Rougier’s analysis of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon assumed new importance after the armed clashes between salafi militants and the Lebanese Army in early 2007. But its broader implications could be more troubling still. According to the UNHCR, there are nearly 2.5 million Iraqi refugees displaced throughout the Middle East and Europe. Though the Iraq war is in its infancy compared to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rougier’s account shows the radicalizing environment arising from festering refugee problems, a conclusion supported by the well-known role played by Afghan camps in Peshawar to the origins of the Taliban.
However, it remains to be seen if the jihadi agitation in Ain al-Hilweh will spill beyond Lebanon. The emergence of a significant global jihadist narrative there has further divided the Palestinians and provided the battered Lebanese state with one more challenge to its authority. However, very few Palestinians have been counted among the ranks of jihadists active on other fronts—in al-Qaeda, among the volunteers in Chechnya, Kashmir or elsewhere, and currently Hamas and Fatah seem to split Palestinian allegiance between themselves. The full script of Ain al-Hilweh’s contribution to global jihad, it would seem, is still being written.
Refugees tend to bring their conflicts with them, and one of the bloodiest confrontations in the Middle East occurred between the Syrian government and the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Following their crushing defeat at Hama, Syria in 1982 at the hands of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Asad, hundreds of Syrian members of the Brotherhood fled the country. In exile across the globe, some assumed key positions in the global jihadi network in places like Spain and Germany. The little-known but widely influential Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, better known as Abu Musab al-Suri (“the Syrian”), was among them.
Norwegian scholar Brynjar Lia has closely studied al-Suri’s life, including thousands of pages of text he has produced and hours of taped speeches and lectures he has given. Lia’s impressive research is summarized in Architect of Global Jihad, an authoritative volume on a man who is possibly the most important jihadi theoretician alive, notwithstanding his reported capture in Pakistan in the fall of 2005.
Lia’s portrait of al-Suri is that of a rare star in the jihadi Internet universe, “a dissident, a critic and an intellectual” in a discipline that usually brooks no criticism and stifles free thinking. A bookish loner with a difficult personality and an admitted lack of religious credentials, his contribution to global jihad is not bomb-making or public beheadings, but lecturing and planning. He is widely traveled, speaks Western languages with fluency, and appears to have married a Spanish woman out of genuine passion, not to secure a quick path to legal residency—a far more common motive. After his name and face became well known, many journalists and researchers realized post hoc that it had been al-Suri who had been their fixer for arranging interviews with jihadi luminaries—even Osama bin Laden himself.
Al-Suri stands out among jihadi ideologues for his willingness to examine the past critically. He is a rationalist among the superstitious and fatalistic. Consider this passage quoted by Lia, in which al-Suri’s candor will be remarkable for anyone familiar with the turgid, disconnected and self-congratulatory tone of most jihadi texts:
We still remain with the last war, and we lost it. We lost the war of the twentieth century. We have to win the war of the twenty-first century. So we need a regime for warfare for the twenty-first century and weapons on the level of the twenty-first century, and tactics on the level of the twenty-first century.
In 2004, Lia and his colleague Thomas Hegghammer chronicled the emergence of “jihadi strategic studies”, which contain “very little theological exegesis” and instead concentrate on “secular-rational” and pragmatic analyses of the battlespace. Jihadi strategic studies also employs analyses and terms of reference borrowed from Western strategic literature.1 Al-Suri was a pioneer in plumbing Western sources, in particular devoting a series of lectures to Robert Taber’s classic study of guerrilla warfare, The War of the Flea. His work is dotted with references to the “greatest theoreticians in military arts” including “Mao, Guevara, Giap, Castro.”
Inside the jihadi community, al-Suri is best known for his 1,600 page tome on jihadi strategy entitled The Global Islamic Resistance Call, released to jihadi websites and circulated since January 2005. (Lia performs a great service by translating the heart of it in a 150-page appendix.) It is, according to Lia, “the most significant written source in the strategic studies literature on al-Qaeda.” Though it is difficult to measure the spread and influence of al-Suri’s work, it seems to have figured into a number of incidents. The March 11, 2004 attacks in Madrid are often cited as an example of al-Suri’s doctrines put into practice (although Lia point outs that concrete evidence of this has yet to emerge). The failed 2006 attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil refinery and a sequence of attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 2004 and 2005 also bear certain hallmarks of al-Suri’s doctrine of “individualized jihad.”
By “individualized jihad” or “total resistance”, al-Suri envisions a loose, decentralized and global network of fighters who employ technology and individual initiative to carry out painful strikes on key economic, military and political nodes. According to al-Suri, American technical prowess renders head-on confrontation too risky. The old method of a secretive, hierarchical and regimented organization (tanzim) is unfeasible because of the agility and experience of security services in penetrating and disrupting these organizations. Therefore “the only way to confront the enemy today in light of this reality is the method of secret guerilla war consisting of unconnected cells, numerous and different types of cells.” Al-Suri summarizes his approach with a motto: nizam la tanzim (“a system, not a secret organization”), and urges his associates to think strategically, not emotionally, about their targets. He offers specific suggestions.
Another of Lia’s important contributions is to elucidate the theological and ideological schisms within the jihadi community. Al-Suri paces a track worn by many a jihadist. He has moved from being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to a vicious critic of that organization’s accomodationist strategy and participation in democratic elections. Al-Suri’s enmity is such that he lumps the “democratic Islamic Revivalist Movement” alongside such enemies as “Crusaders”, “Apostate Muslim Rulers”, and—horror of horrors—“Jewry.”
But just as important as the ideological fault lines is the intricate web of interpersonal relationships, rivalries and petty jealousies inside the movement. According to Lia: “Personality clashes and rivalries play an important role in jihadi organizations despite the ideological commitment to sacrifice personal ambition for the sake of jihad.” Take al-Suri’s tumultuous relationship with senior al-Qaeda figure Abu Qatada, as well as bin Laden himself, whose self-aggrandizement al-Suri felt jeopardized the Taliban’s fragile hold on Afghanistan. Al-Suri even went so far as to send an admonitory e-mail to bin Laden, chastising him for catching “the disease of screens, flashes, fans, and applause.”
While Rougier’s examination of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Lia’s biography of Abu Musab al-Suri provide fine-grain analyses of the changing jihadi universe, Marc Sageman’s Leaderless Jihad takes a bird’s-eye view. Sageman catalogued the intimate details of the lives of a large number of jihadists wanted, captured or killed over the years to explore why some Muslims become terrorists and others do not. Though aspects of the material here will be familiar to those who have read Sageman’s earlier book on al-Qaeda, the invaluable Understanding Terror Networks, Leaderless Jihad provides new analysis and important insights.
Sageman classifies al-Qaeda into three “waves”: the old guard, who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan; the second cohort, who joined in the 1990s, drawn to hot spots such as Chechnya, Bosnia and Kashmir; and a third post-Iraq war generation of terrorists. As the jihad has evolved, so have the general characteristics of its members. The average “third wave” terrorist is poorer, younger, less educated, less skilled and comes from a less religious background than his (or, increasingly, her) first- and second-wave predecessors.
Sageman also contends that two entities make up al-Qaeda, not one. There is “al-Qaeda central”, the core group of leaders clustered around Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and there is al-Qaeda the social movement, a loose web of small groups and individuals that function independently of al-Qaeda central. Sageman refers to individuals associated with the social movement as “not members but participants”, which recalls al-Suri’s maxim for the next iteration of jihadi organization as “nizam la tanzim” (a system, not an organization).
It is al-Qaeda as a social movement that most concerns Sageman. Instead of the 9/11-style centrally controlled and planned operations, today the threat has become
a multitude of informal local groups trying to emulate their predecessors by conceiving and executing operations from the bottom up. These “homegrown” wannabes form a scattered global network, a leaderless jihad.
Leaderless jihad can work because, as Sageman demonstrated in his first book, jihad is a phenomenon made possible by interpersonal bonds and small-group dynamics. Worse from the prospective target’s point of view, this interaction has now moved out of the bricks-and-mortar world of mosque basements and coffee shops into the virtual world of the Internet. The Internet, above all, makes leaderless jihad possible.
According to Sageman, “starting around 2004, communications and inspiration shifted from face-to-face interaction . . . to interaction on the Internet.” Now interaction occurs on “active” websites such as multi-member forums and message boards that allow person-to-person contact and create significant social bonds between members. These forums, according to Sageman, are now the center of gravity of the Islamist Internet and “crucial” sites of radicalization.
Paradoxically, the emergence of the Internet as a key conduit of terrorist interaction does not appear to have created tighter linkages between al-Qaeda central and al-Qaeda the social movement. According to Sageman, “no meaningful command and control between the al-Qaeda leadership and its followers” exists. Yet questions remain. Al-Qaeda has been regrouping in Pakistan, taking advantage of deep-rooted social networks and the lack of central authority in areas such as Waziristan. The extent of this retrenchment is disputed, but reports of “homegrown” terrorists, especially from Britain, traveling to Pakistan for training certainly make interaction with al-Qaeda leadership there feasible. Indeed, Sageman observes that, starting in 2003, some third-wave recruits have been turned around by “trainers in Pakistan” and sent back to the West rather than deployed in Middle Eastern or South Asian conflicts. This “turn-around” dynamic may have played a role in the July 7 and July 21, 2005 bombings in Britain, the November 2005 arrests in Australia, the June 2006 arrests in Toronto, and the August 2006 plot to destroy Transatlantic airliners. Ungoverned spaces in Pakistan seem to provide ample opportunity for interaction between al-Qaeda central, either online or face-to-face.
Also important to “leaderless jihad” is the radicalization process itself, especially among Muslims in the West. Adding to a growing literature, Sageman identifies four “prongs” of the radicalization process. The first is some type of moral outrage, such as perceived Israeli persecution of the Palestinians. Second, that moral outrage must resonate with the potential terrorist’s own experiences. Third, this feeling must fit in with a broader global narrative, for instance of a “war on Islam.” All that remains is for the radicalized individual to be mobilized through contact with a network, for instance a group of friends or a familial acquaintance. Importantly, these processes need not be linear—they can occur in any order, or almost simultaneously.
As Sageman builds his own theory of radicalization he counters much of the conventional wisdom about who becomes a terrorist and why. He convincingly rejects popular theories that rely on sex deprivation, poverty, stupidity, brainwashing or psychological abnormalities. Less convincingly, he seeks to disprove the link between tyranny and terror, going so far as to argue that bloodshed in Iraq, sham elections in Egypt, vote cancellation in Algeria, and the boycott of the elected Islamist movement Hamas in the Palestinian territories all mean that “democracy and freedom do not resonate with foreign Muslim audiences.” But numerous polls in the Muslim world have consistently shown high levels of support for democratic reforms. In addition, some scholars have empirically demonstrated a link between autocracy and terrorism.
Unlike Rougier and Lia’s efforts, Sageman’s Leaderless Jihad is directly policy relevant. Underlying his recommendations is Sageman’s analysis of the inherent weakness of leaderless jihad: It must continue to attract adherents through constant action, but the need to act is not matched by the opportunity to act wisely. This will eventually cause the global jihad to peter out, although misdirected U.S. policies could delay this outcome for a long time. To hurry this process along, the United States should minimize military responses to terrorist acts, instead focusing on efforts to “take the glory out of terrorism” by treating terrorists like criminals, and generally denying them the heroic narrative necessary to attract others to their cause.
Asignificant problem in dealing with Islamist terrorism is that it is inherently difficult to learn about. Given the clandestine character of the entire enterprise, reliable data is hard to obtain. It is propagated in low density languages, is occasionally contradictory, and resides in crucial social contexts not obvious to untrained eyes. In the years since 9/11, some progress has been made in overcoming these obstacles, but frankly, not very much—a problem exacerbated by an American Administration seemingly content to let policy be guided by ideology or wishful thinking rather than knowledge. That is why these three books are so important: Each one shows the promise of a different methodology to overcome these handicaps.
Everyday Jihad glimmers with a vividness born of long periods of meticulous and discerning fieldwork. Rougier provides an intimate religious geography of the camps, including topics and explications of sermons, close observation of Ph.D. dissertations and their defenses, and extended interviews with those involved in the propagation of radical Islamist ideology inside the camps. Occasionally putting himself at considerable personal risk, Rougier gained an understanding of the context and inner workings of Islamic radicalism that few Westerners ever have.
Instead of extended fieldwork, Architect of Global Jihad relies on the centrality of the Internet in global jihad. Lia and his colleagues at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (known as FFI) were among the first to recognize and exploit the vast potential of material archived on jihadi websites. By accessing password-protected forums and keeping track of constantly migrating jihadi websites, Lia produced a focused and comprehensive biography of a key figure.
Sageman’s data-driven approach is all too rare in a field dominated by informed (when we’re fortunate) opinion. His large-scale empirical analysis and refined use of social science methodology gives his findings additional weight. Letting the data drive the analysis also allows Sageman to debunk much misleading conventional wisdom about terrorism and show how terrorists actually recruit, organize and function. Not surprisingly, he recommends that government do more to encourage empiricism and rigorous methodology to help understand who becomes a terrorist and why. With any luck at all, the next U.S. administration will be unafraid of reality-based policymaking.
Lia and Hegghammer, “Jihadi Strategic Studies: The Alleged al-Qaeda Policy Study Preceding the Madrid Bombings”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 27 (2004).