One global idea, many local terrorist cells. Al Qaida’s attacks are a response to the vacuum created by the mainstreaming of Islamic movements. By Reinhard Schulze
One global idea, many local terrorist cells. Al Qaida's attacks are a response to the vacuum created by the mainstreaming of Islamic movements. By Reinhard Schulze
Last week 29-year old Yusuf Polat was arrested in Turkey, suspected of having been the mastermind behind the November bomb attacks in Istanbul. Investigations have shown that two Islamic groups are claiming responsibility for the assassinations: a local splinter group, the "Islamic Great Eastern Raiders' Front" (IBDA-C), which has existed for almost ten years; and the global terrorist organization Al Qaida. The terrorists responsible for the attacks seem to all have been of Turkish background.
What does this tell us about the relationship between local and global terrorism? And what does it tell us about what motivates young, militant Muslims in different parts of the world to join in arms with a global idea such as Al Qaida?
The emblem of Al Qaida no longer represents first and foremost the terrorist organization financed and led by Bin Laden; it has come to represent a certain idea. And in Turkey there is apparently a segment of society that is susceptible to this idea.
Radical Islamists – a change of strategy
When Bin Laden founded Al Qaida in 1988 as a recruiting office for Arabic volunteers to fight against the Soviet invasion, it was nothing other than a partnership of convenience for religious warriors who made recourse to a radical, mythically-oriented Islamic language. When Bin Laden put out his notorious call to create an "Islamic world front against Jews and Christian crusaders" in 1998, it seemed as if he were trying to give his loose network a more concrete shape.
But apparently very few were interested in joining a centralized organization. What remains is an idea that serves to legitimate the attacks which have shaken the world at discontinuous but regular intervals.
Whether we call it a network, a leitmotif, or an idea, Al Qaida is ultimately the expression of a deep-reaching change in the Islamic scene which can be traced back to the 1980s. The fact that the name of Bin Laden's group could become a symbol for this new orientation is related to the attacks of September 11th, 2001. These new forms of terrorist attacks – a kind of "propaganda of the deed" – have been able to mobilize Muslim youth who broke away from the classical Islamic movements, as represented for example by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
A new kind of role model: the Islamistic local hero
The new splinter groups that have sprung up in many Islamic countries have a few things in common: They are mostly followers of a local idol who is seen as an unyielding hero, and they identify existentially with Islam. They no longer follow the old Islamist strategy, the goal of which was to create an Islamic society. Instead, they define their existence as an expression of ideal Islamicity.
The concept of "Jihad" thus becomes an emblem for a fundamental way of life. The young adepts demonstrate their Islamicity not only by performing cult-like duties, but above all by existentially linking their personal destiny to the fate of what they understand as "the one and only Islam." Their opponents are, on the one hand, the classical Islamist organizations, which they accuse of having developed into parties with conservative values.
In Turkey, the current government party AKP has led the way in this politically successful trend. On the other hand, there are also what they see as contemptible Islamic intellectuals known as "democrats." And finally, there are the many public symbols that they see as representing an "anti-Islamic" institution.
A new generation of radicals coming up
The leading conservative tendency within Islamist movements is embodied in the generation of parents who were witness in the 1980s to the political failure of the social utopias fomented by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. But Islamism was not able to lead to improvement in the social and economic situation in Iran or in other Arabic countries.
The children of this generation of Islamists, who have been raised by their parents toward a puritanical way of life, have now realized that this education no longer opens the door to social careers. A radical minority criticizes their parent's generation and distances themselves from them symbolically by prescribing themselves a "life in Islam." Afghanistan, Bosnia, or the Northern Caucasus offered them destinations where they could experience this life existentially.
After September 11th, Al Qaida became a symbol for this idea—which as an idea does not necessarily define a relationship to the organization itself. But there was and still is contact with the Al Qaida organization. Emissaries from Bin Laden's inner circle exploited the situation and tried to contact young "Jihads" and motivate them to action. Local idols served as a good point of entry, they seem to be in a good position for inciting youths to demonstrate the existential link between their own lives and Islam by carrying out "great deeds."
"Dschihadis" as local and global actors
In comparison to the classical Islamists, the Jihads do not believe that new social norms can be established simply by erecting an Islamic system. Rather, they understand themselves to be executors of an Islamic will that legitimates an immediate "step into action."
This is the point where global and local perspectives meet. The Jihads are active globally because they understand themselves to be active in a global struggle between Being (Islam) and Non-Being (the world of disbelievers), and this struggle can in principle take place everywhere.
They act locally because they imagine they are in an environment that needs to undergo a puritanical cleansing. These two levels may well be present in the actions of any given individual. But most often there is a difference between the "transnational" and the "local" Jihads, and the two are not always at peace with one another.
The attacks of Bali and Casablanca
The situation was different in Indonesia, where a small group of Jihads had come together under the auspices of a local Muslim priest, Ali Ghufron a.k.a. Mukhlas. This group included six men who were to later carry out the bombings in Bali in October of 2002. This local group was apparently contacted by an emissary from Al Qaida circles.
There was a similar connection in Morocco. The five bomb attacks in Casablanca on May 16, 2003 were carried out by a group of fourteen young men who idolized the imprisoned priest Miloudi Zakaria. Most of them were from the suburb Sidi Moumen, where they had been members of a youth gang.
This group had already drawn attention to itself by violently attacking café guests who were drinking alcohol. This group was active in a very limited area in their Casablanca neighborhood when an emissary introduced himself to them, sent by Bin Laden to recruit Jihads ready for action. He seems to have been successful: The group soon agreed to undertake a suicide mission together.
Losing yourself in the cause of Al Qaida
The social backgrounds of the potential Jihads can be very different, however. The Al Qaida idea demands that the identities of the young recruits are so existentially bound to a singular notion of "Islam" that they equate their lives with Islam. Few are prepared to undergo the radical renunciation of their individual selves which characterizes the sect-like Jihad. The decisive moment leading to this type of devotion will be different depending on an individual's biography.
The Al Qaida idea has given some young Muslims an occasion to radically reinterpret the ruptures in their lives. Most of the younger generations in Muslim societies have found various ways of coming to terms with the failure of the classical Islamist movements. But in countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, different social and political processes have led to the fact that such ruptures in people's biographies are no longer an insignificant phenomenon; they have become a social problem.
The reasons for this are different for each country and each society. In Saudi Arabia, the entrance into traditional careers in Islamic institutions has been increasingly closed off by deep-reaching changes, causing young academics trained in the Islamic sciences such as theology and law to turn to militancy. The Al Qaida idea offers them a framework within which they can interpret their experiences.
In Iraq, the war and the demise of the old regime effected great ruptures in the lives of many young people. The Al Qaida idea also offers them one of many possible ways of interpreting and coming to terms with these ruptures. At critical moments the Al Qaida interpretation can be mobilized, and then some individuals will make a choice for a radical realization of the Al Qaida principle, "I am part of the Jihad, therefore I am." Under certain circumstances this can lead to a willingness to commit suicide as the "ultimate experience of Islam." The road that leads to a coordinated suicide attack, however, is a long one.
The roots of a new kind of Jihad
Often it is the decision for a "life in the Jihad" that brings young people to conflict-ridden areas for the first time, above all the Kashmir, Afghanistan and Chechnya. They return to their countries of origin bearing with them a new willingness to fight, and at home they are perhaps able to find a group of like-minded youths who have also made the decision to lead a "life in the Jihad."
The above process of de-localization is followed by a re-introduction into their local communities, which is a necessary precursor to acts of terrorism. It may thus be that the terrorist group IBDA-C in Istanbul served as a local environment for individuals who had previously already found a context for their "life in the Jihad" in Afghanistan or Pakistan, namely with the support of the Al Qaida network.
These kinds of ruptures in the biographies of Islamist activists increase their susceptibility to the Al Qaida idea. It is certainly not a dominant or popular framework of interpretation in the Islamic world, but given a lack of other forms of coming to terms with biographical ruptures, the Al Qaida idea will long remain an option in certain communities.
© Reinhard Schulze 2003
Reinhard Schulze is a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Bern. He is the author of "A Modern History of the Islamic World" (New York: NYU Press, 2002).
Translated from the German by Christina M. White
This article was previously published by Germany's weekly TAZ.