Juan Cole / Salon – 2005-07-10 00:52:05
(July 8, 2005) — Credit for the horrific bombings of the London Underground and a double-decker bus on Thursday morning was immediately taken on a radical Muslim Web site by a “secret group” of Qaida al-Jihad in Europe. By Thursday afternoon, as the casualty toll rose above 40 dead and 700 wounded, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw was saying, “It has the hallmarks of an al-Qaida-related attack.”
Although US President George W. Bush maintains that al-Qaida strikes out at the industrialized democracies because of hatred for Western values, the statement said nothing of the sort. The attack, the terrorists proclaimed, was an act of sacred revenge for British “massacres” in “Afghanistan and Iraq,” and a punishment of the United Kingdom for its “Zionism” (i.e., support of Israel). If they really are responsible, who is this group and what do they want?
The phrase “Qaida al-Jihad” refers to the 2001 decision made by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad al-Islami, to merge his organization into bin Laden’s al-Qaida (“the Base”). The joint organization was thus renamed Qaida al-Jihad, the “Base for Holy War.” (Zawahiri and bin Laden had allied in 1998.)
The group claiming responsibility for the London bombings represents itself as a secret, organized grouping or cell of “Qaida al-Jihad in Europe.” It is significant that they identify themselves as “in Europe,” suggesting that they are based on the continent and have struck from there into London. This conclusion is bolstered by their description of the attack as a “blessed raid.”
One raids a neighboring territory, not one’s own. Whether this group carried out the attack or not, the sentiments they express do exist among the radical fringe and form a continued danger. Jihadi internet bulletin boards expressed skepticism about the group, and pointed to an inaccuracy in the quotation from the Quran. But al-Qaida wannabes are often engineers without good Arabic or Islamics training.
Most probably, then, this group consists of a small (and previously obscure) expatriate Muslim network somewhere in continental Europe, which has decided to announce its allegiance to Qaida al-Jihad. It is highly unlikely that al-Qaida itself retains enough command and control to plan or order such operations. They could have found many cues in al-Qaida literature, however, that London should be attacked.
The United Kingdom had not been a target for al-Qaida in the late 1990s. But in October 2001, bin Laden threatened the United Kingdom with suicide aircraft attacks if it joined in the US campaign in Afghanistan. In November of 2002, bin Laden said in an audiotape, “What do your governments want from their alliance with America in attacking us in Afghanistan? I mention in particular Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Australia.”
In February of 2003, as Bush and Blair marched to war in Iraq, bin Laden warned that the UK as well as the US would be made to pay. In October of 2003, bin Laden said of the Iraq war, “Let it be known to you that this war is a new campaign against the Muslim world,” and named Britain as a target for reprisals. A month later, an al-Qaida-linked group detonated bombs in Istanbul, targeting British sites and killing the British vice-consul. Although bin Laden offered several European countries, including Britain, a truce in April of 2004 if they would withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, the deadline for the end of the truce ended in mid-July of that year.
Ayman al-Zawahiri recently issued a videotape, excerpts of which appeared on al-Jazeera on June 17, which stressed the need for violent action as opposed to participation in political reform. True reform, he said, must be based on three premises: The rule of Islamic law, liberating the lands of Islam from the Occupier, and the freedom of the Islamic community in managing its own affairs. He thundered that “expelling the marauder Crusader and Jewish forces cannot be done through demonstrations and hoarse voices.”
Al-Zawahiri’s videotapes have often been issued just before major terrorist actions, and some analysts believe that they are intended as cues for when they should be undertaken. Abdel Bari Atwan, the London editor of the Arab newspaper al-Quds, warned that the appearance of the tape signaled an imminent attack.
The communiqué on the London bombing is unusual in appealing both to the Muslim community and to the “community of Arabism.” “Urubah,” or Arabism, is a secular nationalist ideal. The diction suggests that the bombers are from a younger generation of activists who have not lived in non-Arab Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and think of Arabism and Islam as overlapping rather than alternatives to one another. The text makes relatively few references to religion, reading more as a statement of Muslim nationalism than of piety.
In accordance with al-Zawahiri’s focus on violence as the answer to the “marauding” of occupying non-Muslim armies in Muslim lands, the statement condemns what it calls “massacres” by “Zionist” British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of them Muslim lands under Western military occupation (and, it is implied, similar in this regard to Gaza and the West Bank under Israeli control). These bombings, it says, are a form of revenge for these alleged predations. The language of revenge recalls tribal feuds rather than Islamic values.
The terrorists refer to the bombings, which they say they carefully planned over a long period, as a “blessed raid.” They are recalling the struggle between the wealthy, pagan trading entrepot, Mecca, and the beleaguered, persecuted Muslim community in Medina in early seventh century west Arabia. The Muslims around the Prophet Mohammed responded to the Meccan determination to wipe them out by raiding the caravans of their wealthy rivals, depriving them of their profits and gradually strangling them. The victorious Muslims, having cut the idol-worshipping Meccan merchants off, marched into the city in 630. Al-Qaida teaches its acolytes that great Western metropolises such as New York and London are the Meccas of this age, centers of paganism, immorality and massive wealth, from which plundering expeditions are launched against hapless, pious Muslims.
This symbology helps explain why the City of London subway stops were especially targeted, since it is the economic center of London. A “raid” such as the Muslim bombings is considered not just a military action but also a religious ritual.
If the communiqué of Qaida al-Jihad in Europe proves authentic, the London bombings are the second major instance of terrorism in Europe directly related to the Iraq war. In March of 2004, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (French acronym: GICM) launched a massive attack on trains in Madrid in order to punish Spain for its participation in the US-led coalition in Iraq, following on their bombing of Casablanca the previous year.
From the point of view of a serious counterinsurgency campaign against al-Qaida, Bush has made exactly the wrong decisions all along the line. He decided to “unleash” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rather than pressing for Israeli-Palestinian peace and an end to Israeli occupation of the territories it captured in 1967. Rather than extinguishing this most incendiary issue for Arabs and Muslims, he poured gasoline on it.
His strategy in response to Sept. 11 was to fight the Afghanistan War on the cheap. By failing to commit American ground troops in Tora Bora, he allowed bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to escape. He reneged on promises to rebuild Afghanistan and prevent the reemergence of the Taliban and al-Qaida there, thus prolonging the US and NATO military presence indefinitely. He then diverted most American military and reconstruction resources into an illegal war on Iraq.
That war may have been doomed from the beginning, but Bush’s refusal to line up international support, and his administration’s criminal lack of planning for the postwar period, made failure inevitable.
Conservative commentators argue that Iraq is a “fly trap” for Muslim terrorists. It makes much more sense to think of it as bin Laden’s fly trap for Western troops. There, jihadis can kill them (making the point that they are not invulnerable), and can provoke reprisals against Iraqi civilians that defame the West in the Muslim world. After Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, many Muslims felt that Bin Laden’s dire warnings to them that the United States wanted to occupy their countries, rape their women, humiliate their men, and steal their assets had been vindicated.
These claims were not credited by most of the world’s Muslims before the Iraq war. Opinion polls show that most of the world’s Muslims have great admiration for democracy and many other Western values. They object to the US and the UK because of their policies, not their values. Before Bush, for instance, the vast majority of Indonesians felt favorably toward the United States. Even after a recent bounce from US help with tsunami relief, only about a third now do.
The global anti-insurgency battle against al-Qaida must be fought smarter if the West is to win. To criminal investigations and surveillance must be added a wiser set of foreign policies. Long-term Western military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq is simply not going to be acceptable to many in the Muslim world.
US actions at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah created powerful new symbols of Muslim humiliation that the jihadis who sympathize with al-Qaida can use to recruit a new generation of terrorists. The US must act as an honest broker in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Bush and Blair must urgently find a credible exit strategy from Iraq that can extricate the West from bin Laden’s fly trap.
Chicago political scientist Robert Pape argues in his new book, Dying to Win, that the vast majority of suicide bombers are protesting foreign military occupation undertaken by democratic societies where public opinion matters.
He points out that there is no recorded instance of a suicide attack in Iraq in all of history until the Anglo-American conquest of that country in 2003. He might have added that neither had any bombings been undertaken elsewhere in the name of Iraq.
George Bush is sure to try to use the London bombings to rally the American people to support his policies. If Americans look closer, however, they will realize that Bush’s incompetent crusade has made the world more dangerous, not less.
Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of Sacred Space and Holy War (IB Tauris, 2002).
Copyright 2005 Salon.com
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
The Theater of Sacred Terror
Historian of Islam and jihadi expert Juan Cole explains the reasons for the London bombings in an interview with Deborah Caldwell
Juan Cole is a history professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on the “jihadi,” or “sacred-war,” strain of Muslim radicalism–including Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In the wake of the London attacks, we asked Cole to help explain the political and religious motivations behind this latest terrorist attack. He says the jihadists are acting out their version of a sacred drama, in which they are modern-day equivalents of the first Muslims, fighting against the evil and oppressive Meccans.
In their imagination, the people of London — and by extension, all Westerners — are “Meccans” who must be destroyed in order for “true” Muslims to save the world. “There’s no sense of compromise in this cosmic struggle,” Cole says. “For this reason the struggle can be imagined as a very long-term one.”
Deborah Caldwell:Once again, we’re trying to make sense of the relationship between Islam and terrorism. Can you tell us about Muslims in Britain?
Juan ColeThe Muslim community in the U.K. is predominantly South Asian–from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It by now has decades-long roots in Great Britain. There are about a million and a half Muslims, in a population of about 60 million overall. It’s quite a significant percentage of the population in the U.K.
The British Muslim community is a bigger community proportionally [than the U.S. Muslim community] and it’s been there longer. We didn’t have more than 100,000 Muslims until 1965, when our immigration laws changed.
Caldwell:We always hear that, unlike American mosques, London’s mosques are centers of Islamist ideology.
ColeFirst of all, I don’t like the term “Islamist.” What you’re really talking about are radicals. They’re mostly Salafis. The term “Islamist” was invented by a few French social scientists in the early 1980s. In French, Christianity is actually called Cristianisme; they were convinced that what was going on in Islam was unlike what was happening in the other religions, that it was somehow unique. But I disagree with them.
In terms of the mosques, Finsbury Park Mosque is the famous center of Islamic radicalism, which recruited Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid. Its imam, Abu Hamza al Masri, went on trial this week.
Caldwell:Do you think it’s connected?
ColeI can only speculate at this point. We don’t know exactly who carried out the bombings; we have an [Arabic-language] website that claimed responsibility for a splinter group of Al Qaeda. But my best guess is, based on the modus operandi, that this is Al Qaeda, and if it is Al Qaeda, then certainly the trial of Al-Masri–who is Egyptian and from the same organization as Ayman el-Zawahri, an organization that joined Al Qaeda in 1998–then it seems to me impossible that it’s not connected.
Caldwell:I sense that Muslims in Britain feel a kind of racial and ethnic discrimination I’m not sure they feel in the United States. Is that the case?
ColeI know a lot of American Muslims who have the general feeling of being scrutinized and discriminated against here, too. It is more in Britain, though, without any regard for 9/11. Just in terms of the numbers involved, and the patterns of settlement.
For instance, in Bradford, there were race riots. It’s a town of maybe 30,000 that has a very large Muslim population that came there to work, but the local industries declined and they wound up unemployed. So they’re more like the Southern African-Americans who came North to places like Detroit or in some instances like Mexican-Americans in some areas of this country. So some of the discrimination that they face is race and class discrimination, of a sort that we see often in urban situations in the United States. But which seldom involves this particular group here.
Caldwell:If the Muslim population there feels more discriminated against, does it follow then that it would be a breeding ground for a terrorist attack?
ColeNo. My own perception is that most major terrorist attacks by these Salafi groups have been done by outsiders, because long-term rooted residents have reasons for which they wouldn’t want a backlash against their own families and communities. And they’ve come to have a certain attachment to the place. So there’s virtually no evidence of long-term Muslim residents in the United States or Britain with anything like ties to terrorism.
Now, there have been British Muslims, even second-generation ones, who have gone off to fight elsewhere. A couple showed up in Israel and got themselves killed. And several in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of the people in Guantanamo were British. My best guess is that Al Qaeda did this, you’d find they were infiltrators from elsewhere.
Caldwell:What was the aim of this particular terrorist attack?
ColeThe Al Qaeda ideology believes that the Muslim world is weak and oppressed and dominated by the wealthy capitalist West. And that this West uses things like the establishment of Israel or the setting of Muslim against Muslim in Iraq or Afghanistan as a way of keeping the Muslim world weak. Ideally, all the Muslims should get together and establish a United States of Islam, which would revive the Caliphate. (In medieval Islam the Caliph was a kind of pope figure, a central spiritual authority.) Under the Caliphate, you’d have the wealthy Egyptian writers and engineers and you’d have the wealthy oil states come together to make the Muslim world into a united superpower.
Caldwell:Does that dream spring specifically from Salafi theology?
ColeNo, you could be a Salafi and not share that particular ideology.
Caldwell:So where does the idea come from?
ColeIt goes back to the 19th century. The Ottomans, when they were facing British and French incursion, put together this idea of pan-Islam back in the 1880s. They think that for the last 200 years or so, since Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe has been invading their countries, raping their women, subjecting their men, and stealing their wealth.
So they have a two-fold plan. In order to establish a united Muslim country, you’d have to overthrow the individual secular regimes that now exist—Algeria and Egypt, and so forth. Then you’d have to unite them all under Salafi Islam. And every time they’ve tried to overthrow the Egyptian government, they’re checked, in part because the Americans back [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak.
So then they put forward the theory in the 1990s of hitting the foreign enemy first. Basically there are two major impediments to their plan. One is the local secular military governments, which resist being dissolved into this Islamic state. The other is the Western superpowers that back the military regimes. So they became convinced that in order to go forward with their plans, they would have to find a way of pushing the United States and the other powers out of the Middle East—make them timid about intervening, make them pick up stakes and go home, leaving Mubarak and others to their fate. So the attack on London is part of this strategy—getting the British out of Iraq and Afghanistan, weakening British resolve for having a strong posture in the Middle East a la supporting the United States. Having gotten rid of Western dominance, they believe, they can then polish off the secular enemies and go forward with their plans for a revolution of the global south.
Caldwell:If the West pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, would that end the terrorism or slow it down?
ColeThe people who already hold these ideas are unlikely to have their minds changed. They look around and see Western influence everywhere. Certainly the U.S. occupation of Iraq is a great recruiting tool for al Qaeda. They can go to the mosques and find unemployed angry young men and say they are oppressed by Westerners and say, “Look what they’re doing in Fallujah.” So the images are very good recruitment tools.
Caldwell:Why do they think terrorism will work, since it’s unlikely Britain will change its policies?
ColeThe British were already planning to draw down their troops from 9,000 to 2,000 in the next nine months. I think the British will do that, and these bombings will not change British policy. The British have been bombed before and have not been timid; they’ve soldiered on in their activities. I don’t think Spain withdrew from Iraq mainly because of the Madrid bombings, either. The Iraq war had always been enormously unpopular—92 percent of the population didn’t want it.
But these people don’t do these bombings for immediate political purposes. Sacred terror has a lot to do with symbology. They’re like big theatrical events. As I said, they couldn’t even operate in Cairo; they would be arrested. So they feel very powerless. All the powers in the world are against them, and they feel very sure God is with them. What do you do if you’re a tiny fringe who is completely right and indeed only if your plan succeeds is the world saved? And you’re opposed by all of these massive states and powers? One of the things they’re doing is giving themselves heart. They’re saying we can make a difference, we can intervene in history, the enemy is not invulnerable, and we can strike it.
Caldwell:What is the psychology of sacred terror?
ColeWhat’s different about sacred terror and ordinary political terror is sacred terror tends to be more based in absolutes. The IRA wanted England out of Northern Ireland, but the IRA didn’t think England was evil. It just wanted it out of Northern Ireland. Al Qaeda thinks the U.K. is evil, that it is a corrupting, oppressive influence for Muslims. So there’s no sense of compromise in this cosmic struggle. For this reason the struggle can be imagined as a very long-term one; it can go on for hundreds of years from these people’s point of view, and the signs of victory can be read in symbolic ways. So these bombings are a kind of victory of a sort that the early Muslims had against their much more powerful foes in Mecca.
Caldwell:So they view themselves as the early Muslims against the Meccans?
ColeThis is very clear in their literature. And remember, Mecca was a big center of trading in Western Arabia. It made its way through the caravan trade. So similar cities like London and New York are configured in the minds of these people as “Meccan.”
Caldwell:And therefore considered secular, pagan, and anti-Muslim?
Caldwell:Why is Islam—as opposed to other world religions–today the breeding ground for spectacular sacred terror?
ColeMuch of the Muslim world is relatively close to Europe and therefore was early on deeply colonized. Whereas many countries when they decolonized in the course of the 20th century could feel that they gained a great deal of autonomy—China or even Vietnam after 1975—most countries in the Muslim world are close enough to Europe that even when they de-colonized they suffered from neo-colonialism. If you look at Egypt, how many autonomous decisions does it make? Egypt gets $2 billion a year from the United States, and it has all kinds of relationships with the European Union. It cannot strike on its own very easily.
I would argue neo-colonialism is at the root of terrorism. But I should also point out that these groups are not just reactive. They have their own vision and ambitions and aggressions that are not always in reaction to something else.
Caldwell:Is there anything the West, or the Muslim world, can do to stop terrorism?
ColeYes. You resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict with a Palestinian state that the Palestinians are happy with. You end the US presence in Iraq, and put efforts into properly rebuilding Afghanistan, which has not been done. If you did those three things, 90 percent of it would go away.
Deborah Caldwell is a senior editor & national correspondent at Beliefnet.
Posted in accordance with Titel 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.