Explaining 20 years of Al-Qaeda

Explaining 20 years of Al-Qaeda

It was almost exactly 20 years ago this month that Al-Qaeda was born in Afghanistan as a movement of zealous holy warriors that was prepared to fight and die to protect the Islamic umma, or community, from foreign assault. The Russian occupation of Afghanistan was the immediate catalyst that sparked its creation, though the formative forces that sent thousands of young men from Arab and Asian lands to join the jihad were usually anchored in local events and personal experiences.


The several phenomena that Al-Qaeda represents – defensive jihad, militant self-assertion, a puritanical interpretation of religious doctrine, cosmic theological struggle, and political struggle to purify tainted Islamic societies – appeal to a wide variety of individuals who gravitate to its call in the same manner that zealots join any such movement of true believers. Coming to grips with the phenomena it represents – especially the continuing threat of terrorism – requires grasping the combination of social, economic and political conditions in local societies from which Al-Qaeda recruits emanate, mainly in the Arab world, South Asia and immigrant quarters of urban Europe.


Al-Qaeda"s 20th anniversary is an appropriate moment to do this, and that analytical timeframe is much more useful that the shorter timeframe commemorating the 9/11 attacks against the United States that has been Al-Qaeda"s hallmark signature event. Al-Qaeda over the past two decades seems to have evolved in line with trends impacting the wider world of Islamist movements, including local crackdowns in many countries and the American-led "global war on terror" that has been defined heavily, but not exclusively, by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


These pressures to disrupt Al-Qaeda have been offset by a continuation of the stressful conditions at the local and national levels in many Arab and Asian societies that nourish these Salafist jihadist movements in the first place. So a more useful matter than addressing "What is Al-Qaeda"s condition today?" is looking at the wider trends in Arab and Asian societies that bolster Islamist radicalism by spurring five related forces.


First, the slow political fragmentation and fraying at the edges of once centralized nation-states like Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon, Sudan, Afghanistan and Algeria – creating vacuums of authority that Islamists and others quickly fill;


Second, the continued sharp disparities in the delivery of basic social services, job opportunities and security throughout much of the Arab and Asian region, creating urgent needs that Islamists are very good at meeting;


Third, the impact of major nationalist issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Anglo-American-led war on Iraq;


Fourth, police brutality and political oppression at the local level in many Arab and Asian countries (the birthplace of Al-Qaeda was both Afghanistan and the prisons of Egypt);


And fifth, occasional external and mostly Western stimuli to those who see themselves fighting a defensive jihad to protect both the honor and the physical existence of the threatened Islamic umma – for example in the Danish cartoons controversy, Pope Benedict"s speech in August 2006 that was perceived as critical of Islam, virulently anti-Islamic movies and books, and a tendency by politicians (such as John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin) to repeatedly speak of an undefined "Islamic radicalism" as a great threat to Western civilization that must be fought for decades.


The combination of these five factors has slowly but persistently fomented several generations of Islamist activists who have mostly joined peaceful movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. Small numbers have split off and embraced the fringe militant and terroristic groups.


Much debate swirls around the condition and status of Al-Qaeda these days, which has clearly suffered operational setbacks with the loss of its Afghan bases, but seems to have regrouped in the northwestern frontier areas of Pakistan where it has widespread support among Taliban-friendly communities. While Al-Qaeda has been disrupted, other similar, smaller Salafist militant groups have sprung to life in Iraq, Somalia, Lebanon, Yemen and Algeria.


An important recent development has seen some of the founding fathers of contemporary jihadist militancy (such as Karam Zuhdi, Mohammed Derbala, and Sayyed Imam Abdel Aziz al-Sharif, alias Dr. Fadl) recant and reject their former embrace of Al-Qaeda-type terror attacks. (Interestingly, many did so in the same Egyptian jails where they were first radicalized; perhaps closing many Arab jails and tempering Arab autocracy would be the fastest way to fight terrorism.)


Any militant movement that endures for 20 years and spurs dozens of smaller clones not only reflects its own organizational prowess. It also reflects the persistence of enabling conditions that breed militants and militancy. If we don"t want to go through that again 20 years form now, we would do well to grasp and change the degrading conditions that feed recruits into terror movements, including Arab jails, socio-economic disparity and abuse of power, Israeli occupation, Anglo-American wars and Western Islamophobia in general.


Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.