This article first appeared in the 13 July 2005 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
Jason Burke, chief reporter for the London Observer and author of a book on the subject, was the first to define the real problem as al-Qaedaism. It is not a terrorist group that the world is dealing with in the London and other bombings and 9/11; it is an ideology or belief system. A majority of experts now see the problem in this fashion, writes Richard Whelan.
Adherents to this ideology, al-Qaedaists as I term them, comprise three separate groups. First, the original core al-Qaeda group led by Osama bin Laden and now based mainly in tribal areas in Pakistan and border areas of Afghanistan.
Second, a range of militants in more than 60 countries worldwide, including Islamic Jihad in Egypt, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the armed Islamic group (GIA) in Algeria, Ansar al-Islam and other groups in Iraq, and a number of groups in western Europe.
The “genius” of Osama bin Laden was to convince all those militant groups that they should focus their attacks in the main on the “far enemy” of the West in general and the US in particular, rather than the “near enemy”, the government or regime in each of their countries.
By focusing all their efforts in this fashion, what bin Laden and the other al-Qaedaists have done is to draw a completely disparate series of terrorist groups, which had been combating different governments in their respective countries, into one unified movement, at least in terms of beliefs and strategic direction.
The third group comprises supporters drawn from the Sunni tradition in Islam, who are willing to offer tangible support to the militants in their terrorist activities and are fully supportive of the ideology.
The core al-Qaeda group and the much more extensive groupings outside the core are thought to number somewhere around 100,000, while the support base is thought to number anywhere between 10 million and 20 million.
There are, of course, others within the Sunni community who support part of the belief system and some terrorist actions, while some support comes from outside the Sunni community, such as that of the currently ineffective rump of the Italian Red Brigades.
Bin Laden is the leader of the core al-Qaeda group only. The other terrorist groupings and the mass of supporters look to him as a figurehead, rallying point and propaganda expert.
The al-Qaedaists, particularly the core al-Qaeda group, see themselves as a vanguard for this ideology. (The word “al-Qaeda” has a number of meanings, but the meaning that they themselves attribute to it is that of “model” or “precept”.) They lead by example, 9/11 being a classic “propaganda by deed” action, and hope to have an increasing mass of supporters follow their lead.
Many are puzzled as to what this ideology wants and why. Many within Islam see Islam as a failure in non-religious terms, relative to its successful past and other societies currently.
There have been many solutions advanced over the centuries to reverse this relative failure, including imported solutions from Europe from both the right and left. All have failed.
Al-Qaedaists now believe that the only way of reversing this failure is a return to their roots, to the form of life of the eighth century when the glory of Islam was being established.
To achieve this return without interference, they wish to re-establish the Sunni Islamic caliphate of old. To do this, they believe they have to overthrow all existing Islamic governments and replace them with Taliban-like regimes.
From that base, they would then be in a position to retake occupied territories in a number of other countries not currently controlled by Islamic regimes.
To succeed in this effort, they have agreed that they should target the “far enemy” through guerrilla warfare targeted at civilians, to remove all Western influence from Islamic lands.
Their ideology assumes that when that occurs each of those regimes will quickly fall under their control, and they will then be close to achieving their long-term objective of the re-establishment of the caliphate.
How can they possibly think they could succeed?
Unfortunately, they believe that they alone were the ones who, through its defeat in Afghanistan, caused the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism.
They see the US as a “paper tiger” which, if forced back into one of its frequent periods of isolationism, will lead to the collapse of European opposition to their plans.
To “justify” their actions, many al-Qaedaists believe the West is involved in a conspiracy against Islam and has been for many centuries. They say that this conspiracy started with the Crusades, then Western imperialism, and now ongoing Western/US support for Israel, UN-approved actions in Afghanistan and East Timor, and the current actions in Iraq.
Al-Qaedaism emanates from the Sunni tradition within Islam and believes this conspiracy includes the largest minority within Islam, the Shia population. This explains al-Qaedaist attacks on Shias in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Al-Qaedaist propaganda frequently refers to the “conspiracies” emanating from “Washington, Tel Aviv and Tehran”. This may sound far-fetched, but repeated statements, videos and actions of the al-Qaedaists confirm that they believe in such conspiracies and have and will act upon them.
The key question then is: how should the West react to this?
The most important thing it must do is not to fall into the trap of playing their game. There is no clash of civilisations. The West is not involved in a conspiracy against Islam.
However, the al-Qaedaists need a clash of civilisations. They can never achieve their aims on their own.
The only way the relatively small number of al-Qaedaists can succeed is if the rest of the world acts as though Islam is to blame.
Only then in a reaction to such can the al-Qaedaists highjack Islam and its 1.3 billion adherents worldwide for their own ends.