Up to the beginning of June this year, the term world jihad referred to a fairly amorphous assortment of local terrorist groups with some operational autonomy which carried out localized missions under the general guidelines of the al Qaeda hierarchy.
This has now changed.
The international jihad movement is now fully harnessed as a well-oiled recruitment and fund-raising vehicle which is careering ahead on a single-minded mission, “to destroy the American imperialist occupation of Iraq.”
This transition is the latest stage in al Qaeda’s evolution – as revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources and experts. Word of the new holy war has spread with volcanic effect among young Muslims at universities, medressas, and on the streets of their cities. The excitement recalls two epic periods in modern Arab and Muslim history, in one of which Osama bin Laden played a key role.
In the 1950s, the pan-Arab nationalist creed launched by Egyptian ruler Gemal Abdul Nasser caught the imaginations of Arab youth. Its effect was powerful enough for many to toss aside their Islamic allegiances and leave the imams on the sidelines to stage coups against reigning governments in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen.
Thirty years later, young Muslims were conscripted to fight the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan under the Saudi and American aegis. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal (this week named Saudi ambassador in Washington) was in charge of the operation.
That campaign jointly emphasized the missions of territorial conquest and the divinely ordained religious war against the infidel. Their goal was to vanquish the Soviet empire in the mountains of Afghanistan. Fundamentalist slogans were useful for recruiting more than 150,000 young Muslim zealots – who were not told that their training camps in Egypt and Pakistan were run by the CIA which also provided their weapons.
Pressing fiery fundamentalism into service for territorial conquest
After Soviet troops were driven out of Afghanistan, al Qaeda leaders developed the ambition to take on another empire, the United States. They pressed the most fundamentalist, radical form of Islamic ideology into service to draw fervent recruits into the next campaign to defeat “the Crusaders and the Zionists.” and re-establish the Muslim empire.
In many ways, Osama bin Laden is harking back to his original mission, which was more territorial than spiritual, while inflaming Muslim and Arab recruits with Islamist war slogans against the infidel and/or foreign conqueror defiling Muslim Iraqi soil. This brand of propaganda is the fuel stoking the machine al Qaeda is driving to draw young Muslims and Arabs into a new holy war to vanquish the Americans in Iraq as the Russians were routed in Afghanistan.
Just as in the 1980s, established Islamic clerics pragmatically stood aside to let the holy war surge forward, the world Jihad Islami and its offshoots, the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda itself have now melted in to the background of the new jihad.
The heroic icon fronting the contemporary recruitment drive is the super-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s commander in Iraq.
Millions of young radical Muslims are fired by what they regard as Zarqawi’s attainments. While eluding capture, he is seen as not only reversing military setbacks but as running two simultaneous major terrorist offensives inside Iraq and across the Middle East and Europe – in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Britain. He is also credited with gaining for al Qaeda a new territorial base in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, its first since the Americans drove them out of Afghanistan.
(See accompanying map and also DNW 214 of July 15: Zarqawi establishes a firm hold on Anbar.)
It is worth remembering that for the young Muslim born in the second half of the 1980s or early 1990s, Zarqawi is not regarded as he is in the West as a terrorist who is an integral element of al Qaeda. They see him as a great Muslim general, brilliant and gloriously victorious.
Not only does he challenge the 130,000 American and 40,000 other foreign troops, who are armed with the finest weapons produced by modern technology, he runs circles around them.
The Jordanian terrorist faced initial impediments in impressing young Muslim recruits. Some young men were put off by the horrendous video tapes his people kept on releasing through 2004 and early 2005 to Arab television and their Websites depicting the most brutal beheadings of prisoners and hostages with long knives, savage rites that recalled Muslim sacrificial ceremonies.
A butcher reinvents himself as a Muslim general
Then, in early summer, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts noted these grisly releases were discontinued. They were replaced with scenes of large-scale quasi-military assaults. The Egyptian envoy kidnapped in June and the two Algerian diplomats abducted in July were videotaped alive; there was no footage showing how they were murdered. Zarqawi was working on the reinvention of his image from butcher to hero. And he succeeded. The thirst gripping young Muslims to avenge the humiliation of a Muslim land’s occupation by foreigners soon melded into the perception of al Qaeda’s Iraq chief as a military leader capable of liberating Iraq.
That was the turning point in the build-up towards the Iraq jihad.
Since then, the ambition to fight for the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq has overtaken the purely religious issue. The language spoken by today’s young Muslims as reflected in their publications, local media, radio programs, Internet and correspondence, is quite different from al Qaeda’s usages that hinge on fatwa (religious edicts) and scriptural teachings. What they are burning to do is to defeat America in Iraq.
Most of the millions of Muslim youth ready to volunteer for the war will be satisfied with rhetoric and stay home. However, many of those who opt out of the main arena are willing to atone for shirking front line action by performing terrorist operations in their home countries. In this way, they feel they are contributing to the main effort against America and the other foreign armies fighting in Iraq.
This form of atonement was manifested in two rounds of bomb attacks in London on July 7 and 21 and in the triple blasts that tore through Egyptian Sinai resorts on July 23. All three operations were carried out by local terrorists and support teams sent in by the parent movement.
The next article provides details on the mechanics of the new jihad’s conscription apparatus and its method of secretly moving many thousands of fighters from one spot on the globe to another, whether to Iraq or other terror fronts.