For nearly 1000 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD, Islam accompanied political ascendancy and military expansion throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and into the heart of Europe. But beginning in the fifteenth century, the nations of Europe turned the tide of Muslim expansion, a process that eventually culminated in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the twentieth century. To this day, Islamic cultures, with their emphasis on historical awareness, nurture memories of Islam's past glories. These memories are often difficult to reconcile with the realities of the twentieth century that placed many traditional Muslim lands and ancient Islamic peoples under official Western mandate or de facto economic influence. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, movements appeared within the Muslim community dedicated to reasserting Islam's past greatness, often using the rhetoric or tactics of revolutionary Marxist theory. One of the most important leaders from this period was Sayyid Qutb, an important philosophic influence upon the Egyption Muslim Brotherhood and other radical terrorist groups to follow.
1. Radical Beliefs
Building upon the works of men such as Sayyid Qutb, radical Islamist groups believe their efforts are essential to return Islam to its former greatness. They seek to undermine the authority of secular governments in Muslim countries and replace them with regimes founded upon extreme interpretations of shari'a, or Islamic law. The Taliban in Afghanistan was such a regime, intent upon enforcing its vision of a good Muslim society. Many radical Islamists believe their culture's decline over past centuries has accompanied a greater accommodation with Western values and behaviors. Therefore, they believe that it is necessary to purify their societies of all things Western in order to strengthen them.
The interpretation of Islam expounded by radical groups is substantially different than that advanced by the majority of religious teachers and thinkers over the centuries. For example, in Islam jihad is, above all, a struggle. It can be a struggle against another person, but is more often a struggle against the base elements within oneself, in an effort to achieve greater holiness and become closer to God. When jihad is understood as an armed conflict against other people, it must be authorized by religious leaders. However, radical Islamism promotes a view of jihad as a personal choice that any Muslim can make for himself. Leaders of the radical movement such as Osama bin Laden may recommend jihad, but traditional standards do not recognize such individuals, without any religious training, as having the authority to make such proclamations. While the different definitions of jihad and religious authority are important, they are only two of the many ways in which Islam has been distorted to support radical beliefs and actions.
Societies that have a strong radical presence have adapted to support the violence in their midst. For example, the Palestinian people remember suicide bombers as heroes, placing large posters in public places to preserve their memory. Wealthy individuals and leaders such as Saddam Hussein have offered large financial incentives to the families of suicide bombers. Young men are taught that sacrificing their lives in the jihad will guarantee great rewards in heaven.
one of the primary ways in which this cultural transformation occurs is through education. The government-run schools in many countries are inadequate in number and quality to provide a viable challenge to the conservative madrassahs, schools established and directed by religious leaders. Other governments, such as that of Saudi Arabia, have reached agreements with conservative religious sects to promote a particular ideology and so Saudi schools adhere to the wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Some governments and non-governmental organizations, many with a radical bent, offer financial and material support to schools in other countries, including Western countries, if those schools adopt approved textbooks and curricula. The result is a cycle in which children of the most impressionable ages are instructed in a dangerous ideology by respected adults and grow into the terrorist actors and sympathizers of tomorrow.
Most of the Muslim societies that support terrorist activity are either largely poor or have a drastically unequal distribution of wealth. Young Muslim men will rarely be allowed to marry unless they have a certain level of financial stability. With few other opportunities, they turn to radical groups, where they are surrounded by their peers, instructed in the use of advanced technology, and guaranteed accommodation and food. If they die, their families will receive honor and money, making their younger brothers' and sisters' lives a bit easier. If they live, perhaps they will have garnered enough wealth to marry.
Since the time of Karl Marx, education and sufficient financial means to allow a life of relative leisure have been prerequisites for the leadership of revolutionary groups. Radical Islam is no different. While many suicide bombers are quite poor, the leaders, including bin Laden, have middle class or wealthy backgrounds. The high-tech nature of many forms of modern terrorism also increases the likelihood that terrorists will be well-educated, many having attended college and graduate school. So while it remains easy to find terror recruits in a pool of poorly educated young men with no real opportunity, increasingly terrorism depends upon individuals with great wealth and higher education in order to thrive.
Islamist terrorism against Western targets is largely a development of the last three decades. Following World War II, the countries of the Middle East slowly began to emerge as independent states and many used the ambiguities and uncertainties of the Cold War to develop their economic, educational, and political infrastructures. With the Iranian Revolution and the establishment of the Ayatollah Khomeini's government, the era of Islamism began with the example of the world's first Islamic republic in 1979 and the seizure that year of 66 American citizens as hostages in the American embassy in Teheran for 444 days. The subsequent invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union drew many young Muslim men to defend their faith and gave many the military training they would later use against the United States and Europe. The bombing of the American embassy in Beirut, the bombing of Marine barracks in Beirut, and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 all signaled that a new enemy, with new tactics, had appeared. Attacks continued throughout the 1990's, including the first World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the assault upon the U.S.S. Cole. While many Americans did not realize the gravity of the threat until 9/11, and many still don't, assaults upon American targets have been escalating for more than twenty-five years.
The threat to the United States from Islamist terrorism is not monolithic. Many different groups exist with similar objectives. For many Americans, the most familiar of these is Al Qaeda. Formed by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri following the Soviet-Afghan War, it was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Other groups, some smaller, some older, exist in different regions. Some, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, have attempted to enter legitimate political discourse. Others, such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, have incorporated themselves into larger groups such as Al Qaeda.
It is important when considering terrorist groups to understand the impact of modern communications technology upon organization and hierarchy. Internet and satellite television no longer make it necessary for geographically remote individuals with sympathetic beliefs to listen to leaders such as Bin Laden in person. Instead, they can form local cells with no formal association with Al Qaeda or other groups to achieve objectives that Al Qaeda may condone, but not actually organize or even know of beforehand. This makes the global terrorist threat extremely amorphous, very dangerous, and highly unpredictable and forces analysts to reconsider their traditional views of organization and hierarchy.
The role of women in Islamist terrorist activity is primarily one of support. While some areas, such as Israel, have been subject to suicide bombings perpetrated by women, the overall level of active participation is very low. Instead, they are used as motivational tools for the men in their family. Women who have been indoctrinated into the same ideological system share the conviction of their husbands, sons, and brothers that jihad is a valid means for achieving honor, both for the individual and the family, and that the Western targets selected pose serious threats to Muslim physical or spiritual security. While losing a family member in the struggle may be painful, it also gives great honor and prestige to survivors.
The larger role of women in Islamist social theory and practice is similarly one of support for men. While liberal democratic Islamic states allow and encourage participation by women in professional and political activities, the memories of Afghanistan under the Taliban are still clear. According to this ideology, women must remain shrouded in public and are subject to a set of strict rules governing behavior. Freedom of movement is virtually eliminated, access to education is extremely restricted, and female independence is essentially non-existent, as women are seamlessly transferred from the authority of father to husband. Since the collapse of the Taliban, however, there is no country with such strict rules for women, though some, such as Saudi Arabia, preserve elements of this code, where women must wear the traditional burqa, or floor-length black veil, and are not even allowed to drive a car.
the authority of father to husband. Since the collapse of the Taliban, however, there is no country with such strict rules for women, though some, such as Saudi Arabia, preserve elements of this code, where women must wear the traditional burqa
, or floor-length black veil, and are not even allowed to drive a car.