Interview with Guido Steinberg

The Close and the Distant Enemy: Islamic Terrorist Networks

Guido Steinberg is the author of a wide-ranging and detailed study of Islamic terrorist organisations. Steinberg has succeeded in providing a work that is both historical reference and documentary source book. Youssef Hijazi interviewed him

Guido Steinberg is the author of a wide-ranging and detailed study of Islamic terrorist organisations. Steinberg has succeeded in avoiding the emotionalising or moralising pitfalls common in writings on this subject. He talked to Youssef Hijazi

Videotape of Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, right-hand man of Al Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden, on Pakistani TV (photo: dpa)
Al-Qaeda's internationalist ideology has not found a great deal of favour in the Arab world. Saudis and Egyptians have continued to fight, though mostly against their own government, says Steinberg

​​Mr Steinberg, you chose the title "Der nahe und der ferne Feind. Die Netzwerke des islamistischen Terrorismus" (The close and the distant enemy: Islamic terrorist networks) for your book. What made you choose such a populist title?

Guido Steinberg: The book was never intended to be a purely scholarly one, though it was thoroughly and academically researched and is comprehensively and critically annotated. It also takes up the challenge of making a complex topic accessible, in other words understandable for the educated layman.

In any case, I don't agree with the notion of the book's title as populist. It would not be out of place in a purely academic work. It exactly describes the tensions that have operated on and within Islamic terrorism over the past 20 to 30 years, the tensions created by the struggle against the government at home – the close enemy – and, at the same time, against the West, the USA and Israel – the distant enemy. So I find the title very appropriate.

Is it not rather likely that Europeans will associate their Muslim neighbours with the idea of the "close enemy" and think of the "distant enemy" as referring to the Middle East?

Steinberg: That is not actually what is meant. It could be understood in that way, but I think the possibility of that misunderstanding is something I can live with. The intention behind the title will become clear to those who actually read the book.

You are not of the opinion that this is about a clash of civilisations; you see it more as a matter of fractures internal to Islam?

Steinberg: Islamic terrorism also has an anti-West orientation. In the opinions of many Islamic terrorists it is just that – a fight between the West and Islam. However if you look a little more closely at what they write, what they say and what they do, then you very quickly come to the conclusion that most groups are, first and foremost, attacking governments within the Arab world itself.

Guido Steinberg (photo: Youssef Hijazi)
Steinberg: "Al-Qaeda is more a Saudi-Arabian, Egyptian and Yemeni phenomenon than an expression of a global clash of civilisations"

​​It is not a global, but rather, to a great extent, a regional, Arab-internal phenomenon, though one whose consequences have been felt in the West for a number of years. Al-Qaeda is more a Saudi-Arabian, Egyptian and Yemeni phenomenon than an expression of a global clash of civilisations.

Is that why you suggest in the book that al-Qaeda would be better described as: "Islamic Militants with an Afghanistan Connection" or "Transnational Islamic Militants"?

Steinberg: We need to make a distinction between two phenomena. On the one hand there is the al-Qaeda organisation itself, which existed and indeed continues to exist, but which needs to be much more narrowly defined than it is in the West. Al-Qaeda is an organisation founded in 1997 and dominated largely by Saudis and Egyptians. It has been pretty much a spent force since 2002/03.

All those groups that exist around and alongside al-Qaeda are not a part of al-Qaeda and should not be referred to as al-Qaeda. To name just one example, the "Egyptian Islamic Group" (Al-Jama'a Al-Islamia) renounced the use of weapons in 1997 and without a doubt were part of the context of Islamic terrorism, but they did not in any sense belong to al-Qaeda. Their aim was always to topple the Mubarak regime – the close enemy – they never joined forces with al-Qaeda because they always resisted the internationalising of the fight against the distant enemy.

In this respect the book is intended to emphasise just how diverse Islamic terrorist groups are. We have to get away from this idea that some sort of global organisation or worldwide network is directing terrorist actions. That is a myth.

Is this where your idea of "leaderless resistance" comes from?

Steinberg: This is a new phenomenon that first surfaced at the time al-Qaeda was gradually being defeated, in 2002 and 2003. Since then we have established that there are groups, here in Europe in particular, that have no ascertainable links to al-Qaeda, for example, the Madrid or the London bombers. None of them seem to have had any direct connection to al-Qaeda, although they were very substantially influenced by their ideology and by their strategic orientation.

Are the Muslims in Europe part of Bin Laden and Zawahiri's target group?

Steinberg: In my opinion, al-Qaeda's internationalist ideology has not found a great deal of favour in the Arab world. Saudis have continued to fight, though mostly against their own government, Egyptians also. On the other hand, the anti-West stance of al-Qaeda, the idea of a global Jihad, has struck a chord with Muslims in the diaspora, including here in Europe.

In my opinion, the diaspora situation is the reason for this. People who feel a sense of attachment to their country of origin, but also, in addition to the country they are living in are more likely to be receptive to internationalist ideologies.

Is that sufficient reason for following Bin Laden and Zawahiri?

Steinberg: That, of course, is only one explanation for why an internationalist ideology should find fertile ground here. Why a European Muslim should decide to act on behalf of al-Qaeda will, of course, in the end come down to any number of particular reasons. One motive is certainly the personal situation in which such a person is living here.

In many cases, such as the Madrid attacks for example, those involved were young people from deprived socio-economic backgrounds. They have major problems living within a society that they perceive as racist or perhaps hostile in a more general sense, something which is certainly true to a certain extent.

I see this relationship between those who later become terrorists and the society in which they are living as crucial. Radicalising influences and ideologies from their home countries add fuel to the flames. In the case of the Madrid bombers the influences came from Morocco, most of those involved were Moroccans.

When you take this into consideration then you can see why the attack was directed against the Spanish state, which is seen as a deadly enemy by Moroccan Islamic extremists. The real reason in this case is not the internationalist ideology. That is only one aspect of what brings an angry young man to develop the motivation for terrorist activities. The real cause is without a doubt the circumstances of his life.

Are you, then, making the case for greater integration? Why do you not say so in the book?

Steinberg: The motivation behind the book was to write about what I think it is important to understand about al-Qaeda. It is an attempt to discover the roots of Islamic terrorism, and I do not believe that they are in Europe. These roots are to be found in places such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria. However, al-Qaeda is becoming ever more of a European phenomenon. Integration is, of course, the remedy.

However, one should not see the integration of foreigners, of immigrants, purely in terms of its value in combating terrorism. The integration of new citizens must be tackled comprehensively at the political level. Were this to be carried out successfully it would lead in the long term to a reduction of terrorist activities. However, one must be careful not to confuse a long-term political task with a short- or medium-term problem like the fight against terrorism.

Readers may very well get the impression that there are millions of Muslims in Europe ready and willing to do whatever Bin Laden and Zawahiri ask.

Steinberg: Not through reading my book, which endeavours to counter such an impression. What it does is to offer a more objective view of the phenomenon by making people much more aware of the fact that Islamic terror is still today primarily a problem of the Arab and the Islamic world. What we are really witnessing is an Arab civil war, in which most victims are also Arabs and Muslims. The September 11 attacks brought this civil war to the West. If one succeeds in making this clear, then one contributes objectivity to the debate.

Interview: Youssef Hijazi

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

© 2006

Guido Steinberg is an expert in Islamic Studies. He has been working for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs since autumn 2005 where he specialises in developments in the Arab world and in Islamic terrorism. 2002-2005 he was an advisor on international terrorism to the federal Chancellery in Berlin.

Guido Steinberg, Der nahe und der ferne Feind – Die Netzwerke der islamischen Terrorismus, is published by C.H. Beck, Munich 2005 281 pages

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