When considering ways to curb terrorism after last week’s London bombings, some analysts say that Western leaders aren’t looking closely enough at the terrorists’ historical context and long-term goals.
Professor Robert Pape, director of the University of Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, argues that strategic rather than religious issues are behind al Qaeda’s terror campaigns — specifically, the removal of Western powers from the Arabian Peninsula.
In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Pape said that of the 71 individuals who killed themselves in suicide attacks for al Qaeda from 1995 to 2004, the vast majority came from Sunni Muslim countries where the U.S. has stationed combat forces since 1990.
In contrast, he said, Sudan and Iran, both deeply fundamentalist Islamic nations, have yet to produce an al Qaeda suicide bomber.
Regardless, followers of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden see the strategic issues as serving a distinctly religious goal — the creation of a larger state, or caliphate, governed by Islamic law.
Bin Laden’s philosophy can be traced back to early 20th century Islamists such as Hassan al Banna of Egypt, who gained popularity in response to Western colonialism and its aftermath, according to the BBC.
In his October 2001 speech televised on Al Jazeera, bin Laden said the beginning of Western “degradation” of Islam dates back 80 years.
This coincides with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the Allies in World War I, and the Turkish nationalist movement’s overthrow of the Caliphate — the long line of Ottoman rulers considered to be temporal successors to Mohammad — in 1924.
In its place the modern Middle Eastern states were founded, all colonized by and indebted to the major European powers.
In a October 2001 Newsweek article, Fareed Zakaria said that subsequent attempts to liberalize Middle Eastern governments and economies eventually become synonymous with blatant Westernization and the loss of Arabic and Islamic culture.
Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser became a guiding light to the Arab world in the 1950s, a time when many nations in the region were shaking off Western colonial rule.
Nasser’s visions of modernization, which included the separation of religion and politics, were imitated by almost all Arab nations, but, said Zakaria, these policies failed miserably, and gave rise to impoverished, dictatorial states that offered little chance for political or social participation.
Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbollah offered an alternative, she said, gaining notoriety for terrorist operations even as they provided communities with diverse social services unavailable from regional governments.
“For those who treasure civil society, it is disturbing to see that in the Middle East these illiberal groups are civil society,” Zakaria wrote, and went on to assert that the “one great cause for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism … is the total failure of political institutions in the Arab world.”
Hassan al Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, blamed the social ills of Arabic peoples on secular politics.
According to the Muslim Brotherhood Web page, all of its members endorse violence against occupying armies in the Middle East, and a hard line minority sees violence against civilians as a legitimate.
Al Banna’s works were a favorite reference point for the late Saudi professor Abdullah Azzam, whom the BBC said taught Osama bin Laden and turned him to extreme fundamentalism.
Essayist Rodney Hindery wrote in the March-April 2003 edition of the Humanist that recruiting members of terror organizations requires both large-scale propaganda and one-on-one indoctrination.
He said that five elements of employed to this end include “unwarranted certitude, unmodified self-interest, deceptions by others, exploitations of emotions, and the impact of misled intellectuals.”
Hindery wrote that terrorist groups also use “repetitive formulas and self-hypnotic meditations, binary thinking, and a focus on youth” to win over potential recruits.
This includes cultivating an “us vs. them” mentality that replaces complex truth with concrete fallacies, such as bin Laden’s mentor Azzam grouping Israel, the U.S. and the West into a single evil entity.
The Times of London reports that al Qaeda is recruiting affluent middle class Muslims in British universities and colleges to carry out terrorist attacks in the U.K. These individuals tend to be “loners” and are usually “disillusioned” with their place in British society, and/or British foreign policy.
A 1999 report (PDF) by the U.S. Federal Research Institute on the psychology and sociology of terrorism found that “[c]ontrary to the stereotype that the terrorist is a psychopath or otherwise mentally disturbed, the terrorist is actually quite sane, although deluded by an ideological or religious way of viewing the world. [Recruits] who exhibit signs of psychopathy … are deselected in the interest of group survival.”
In an interview with Newsdesk.org, former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer said that the United States has paid little attention to hard strategic goals articulated by bin Laden prior to September 11.
Scheuer said there are six U.S. government policies that bin Laden wants changed before there will be peace, “unqualified support for Israel; our support for Arab tyrannies, whether they’re in Egypt or in Saudi Arabia; our ability to keep oil prices at a level acceptable to Western consumers; our presence on the Arabian peninsula; American military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Mindanao in the Philippines; [and] our support for governments that are viewed by Muslims as oppressing Muslims, the Russians in Chechnya, the Chinese in Western China, the Indians in Kashmir.”
“[W]hat I recommend is that we debate those policies and see if they still serve American interests. Most of them have been on autopilot for 30 years … And if they are indeed still serving American interests they shouldn’t be changed,” Scheuer said. “But then the American people are going to have to realize that we are in for a very long and very bloody war.”
Additional research & writing by Newsdesk.org staff.
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“Expert says Arabian peninsula the key to al-Qaeda bomb attacks”
Australian Broadcasting Corporation, July 12, 2005
“Analysis: The Roots of jihad”
BBC, October 16, 2001
“Text of Usama Bin Laden broadcast by al-Jazeera”
Robert-Fisk.com, October 7, 2001
“The Ottoman Empire”
“Politics of Rage: Why do they hate us?”
Newsweek, October 2001
“The anatomy of propaganda within religious terrorism”
The Humanist, March-April 2003
“The sociology and psychology of terrorism: who becomes a terrorist and why?” (PDF)
Library of Congress/Federal Research Division, September 1999
“Leaked No 10 dossier reveals Al Qaeda’s British recruits”
The Times (London), July, 10, 2005
“A very long and very bloody war”
Newsdesk.org, March 14, 2005