This article first appeared in the 4 October 2005 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
Al-Qaedaism poses a unique threat requiring a series of responses, including a Marshall Plan aimed at helping Muslim states, writes Richard Whelan.
Do the arrest and extradition of a fourth suspect in the July London bombings, the jailing of a Syrian in Madrid for organising terrorism in connection with the 9/11 bombings, the excruciating delays caused by increased security in airports, all mean that we are taking effective measures against al-Qaeda?
No. The measures we have been taking are essential but as the Bali attack shows, on their own they cannot be effective. The weekend suicide bomb attacks on Bali amount to very effective terrorism by members of the greater al-Qaeda family. The three bombs, which killed at least 19 people, dealt a crushing blow to the island’s tourist economy, faltering since the 2002 attacks in which more than 200 people died.
In addition to hurting Indonesia, seen as an apostate Muslim state for its democratic system, the Australian and Japanese visitors, seen as part of the hated West, and the local Hindu villagers also seen as enemies, are “legitimate” targets. Not bad for the price of instant admission to paradise.
Al-Qaeda is a threat to us all and is unique for four reasons. The first is that it is not just a terrorist threat. It is a belief system, a movement, which sees conspiracies everywhere, particularly by the West, starting with the Crusades over 1,000 years ago and continuing up to the present.
The unique element of “al-Qaedaism” is the unfortunate fact that many of the young men who act under this belief system think they are acting out the wishes of God, and that when following the orders of their leaders, they are following the instructions of God. Adding this religious justification to their “me generation” attitudes produces a lethal cocktail where the death of innocent civilians and of the alienated terrorist is actually seen by them as an act of homage to God.
The second reason why this is a unique challenge is al-Qaeda’s desire to cause mass casualties. Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith has said: “We have not reached parity with them. We have the right to kill four million Americans – two million of them children – and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands.
“Furthermore, it is our right to fight them with chemical and biological weapons in order to inflict them with the fatal maladies that have afflicted the Muslims because of the [ US] chemical and biological weapons.”
This threat is not just to Americans. The twin attacks in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224, of whom 12 were American; and wounded 4,574, of whom 15 were American. The vast majority of those killed and injured were Africans – many of them Muslims.
Most terrorist campaigns carefully avoid causing mass casualties to avoid the loss of support for their objectives. Not so al-Qaeda. The strategy promoted on its websites and used is guerrilla warfare targeted directly against civilians. This is on the understanding that mass casualties will eventually force the West to withdraw from all Islamic lands. To inflict such mass casualties, al-Qaeda spokesmen have repeatedly stated their desire to obtain weapons of mass destruction – particularly nuclear and biological weapons.
In October 2004 it was reported that Osama bin Laden had sought religious justification from a senior Saudi Arabian theologian for mass casualty attacks. This resulted in the publication of a fatwa called “Rules for the Use of WMD Against the Infidels” by Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Fahd. We may think this is crazy but they are serious in their intention and tactically very astute.
The third reason why this threat is unique is that the demands of al-Qaeda are non-negotiable. How could European governments negotiate for the return of what the al-Qaeda considers occupied territory in Al- Andalus in Spain, southern France up to the Loire, the south of Italy and significant parts of eastern Europe. Nor would anyone countenance the addition of those parts of Europe to all the existing Islamic states to turn it into one great Sunni Islamic Caliphate.
Negotiating with people who believe that democracy is an evil ideology, that the separation of church and state is a form of mental illness and that most women’s, human, civil and other rights are an affront to God is an impossibility. The historic examples of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the GIA-controlled areas in Algeria show that their beliefs differ fundamentally from ours. In both countries al-Qaeda considered capital punishment appropriate for even visiting the hairdresser or reading national newspapers.
The fourth reason why this threat is unique is the difficulty of identifying where it comes from. The September 11th hijackers were in the main well educated, familiar with Europe and middle to upper class. French authorities now monitor three groups very closely – Muslims in the French penal system, those newly converted to Islam and those radicalised by Iraq or Afghanistan. In Britain, the latest significant recruiting ground is the universities.
These young men can come from any background, class or social milieu, making their identification in advance almost impossible and making over-reaction, with all its negative consequences, likely.
The appropriate reaction to this threat must deal with these unique features.
A key factor in that reaction is to ensure that we do not fall into the al-Qaeda trap. It has deliberately structured its campaign to try to provoke a clash of civilisations. Only with such a clash between Islam and the West will al-Qaeda succeed in hijacking Islam for its own ends – despotic power.
In every century since the death of the prophet Muhammad, more Muslims have been killed at the hands of fellow Muslims than by any external enemy. Al-Qaedaism is simply the most serious such threat and one that is not recognised as such.
Our response should be a mixture of hard and soft power. Hard power to defeat and demobilise militant jihadists but, more importantly, soft power focused on winning the hearts and minds of the worldwide Muslim community – the umma.
This will require a comprehensive programme including political control on globalisation, a Marshall Plan focused on Muslim states and encouragement over the next two decades of the expression of Muslim hopes and grievances in a democratic fashion.
It will also include negotiating with militant members of al-Qaeda outside the original core group itself. These comprise about 90 per cent of the militant activists and are mainly energised by regional/national issues – not “Jewish Crusader conspiracies”.
Bin Laden convinced them to focus on the international struggle. Reversing that by solving local and national grievances would be a major victory.
The world must help Islam to defeat this cancer within itself. If the world reacts as though this is a threat from Islam, rather than from a self-confessed tiny minority of power-hungry fanatics who actually detest true Islam in all its traditional glory, Osama bin Laden will be well on his way to victory.