Knowing the enemy

May 06, 2007|By Chris Heffelfinger

As we enter into a season of campaigning in which our current wars will be a central issue, the American public needs to understand who its enemy is - in Iraq and elsewhere.

Focusing on the deaths of individual terrorist leaders misses the real story of how to fight the jihadists and can leave Americans with a false sense of what the priorities should be in this fight.

Last week, Iraqi officials reported the death of the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The Islamic State of Iraq, the group through which al-Qaida is operating in that country, soon after issued a statement assuring the mujahedeen that their leader remains alive.

Mr. al-Masri is (or was) officially the minister of war for the Islamic State of Iraq. His identity was always mysterious, since his first mention as successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a U.S. airstrike last June. Unlike his predecessor, who gained infamy for his gruesome decapitation videos, Mr. al-Masri has not been the face of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The death of the elusive Mr. al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, might seem like good news, but it would have little impact on al-Qaida - just as the death of his predecessor changed little about the terror network's goals and operations.

This is not only because Mr. al-Masri can and would be replaced, but also because he is (or was) a minor player in a much larger network that drives the jihadi movement, inside and outside of Iraq. The problem is a lot bigger than al-Qaida.

This network consists of veterans of the jihad, ideologues, strategists, clerics and others who raise funds, indoctrinate, train, organize and carry out operations. For the most part, each element of the network works independently toward a greater goal.

FBI investigations have uncovered these elements operating in secret in the United States. Some of America's best-known Muslim charities - including the Holy Land Foundation and Benevolence International Foundation - were shut down for raising funds for or having financial ties to Hamas, al-Qaida and other Sunni militants.

But U.S. officials still have not grasped the extent of the network, and the element we least understand is in many ways the most important: the Salafi clerics - nearly all trained in Saudi institutions - who write and speak on Islamic law and jurisprudence, not on attacking Americans or entering violent jihad. Although not all branches of the Salafi movement advocate violence, all contribute to the process of radicalization.

There are many such clerics, though they are little-known in the United States. Their writings circulate on Arabic-language Web sites and will continue to after their deaths. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Hamid al-Ali and others are classically trained and seen as scholarly authorities by many Muslims. They also lead some in their audience down an inevitable path toward jihad.

Understanding the role these clerics play in bringing new fighters to the jihad is an important aspect of countering terrorism. But even more important is an understanding of the enemy and its aims in a broader sense.

For the past decade, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have considered themselves the vanguards of a nascent Islamic awakening. They have found success in attempting to overlook ideological differences and move forward with a political agenda that appeals, at least in theory, to a great many Muslims.

But they seek to go beyond removing the Americans from Iraq or the Israelis from Palestine. Their broader goal is to revolutionize Islam. On the model of the 18th-century Salafi movement of Arabia and the teachings of contemporary militant Salafis, al-Qaida has been working to awaken Muslims worldwide. Bin Laden hopes to instill in them, as he was taught by Salafi-trained clerics and mujahedeen in Afghanistan two decades ago, that jihad is a forgotten obligation for Muslims, and the only just response to Western aggression.

In order to counter this, we must understand al-Qaida as part of a global, complex network, not a nihilist force irrationally striking out against the West. It is a revolutionary movement, and just as the United States produced analysts capable of understanding Soviet thinking through the study of Marxism, we must understand al-Qaida through the teachings of Abdullah Azzam, Sayyid Qutb, Ibn Taymiyya and other "founding fathers" of the movement. Unfortunately, that goal may be years away from realization.

We are not at war merely with those practicing the tactic of terrorism. We are not at war with al-Qaida alone; it is one piece of a much larger puzzle. We are at war with a revolutionary movement. It is time we see the situation as it is, and look beyond the withdrawal of troops from Iraq for a means of addressing it over the long term.

Al-Qaida is vulnerable to, and reliant upon, popular Muslim opinion. We must look to genuine leaders in the Arab and Muslim world, and work with them to impede the recruitment of vulnerable Muslim youths into militant Salafi Islam.

Chris Heffelfinger is a Washington-based analyst on militant Islam for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. His e-mail is

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