The context of the Eilat attacks and the threat to Gaza

Israelis who today for some reason feel safer because Gaza is getting bombed, might pause to consider this question: why would a member of the group that launched attacks outside Eilat yesterday — a group supposedly based in Gaza and sworn to the destruction of Israel — today blow himself up in an attack on Egyptian soldiers?

Many Israelis might avoid attempting to answer such a question and respond that it’s a jungle out there beyond Israel’s borders, as does commentator Yigal Walt, who writes:

The halcyon days of Oslo and dreams of a “New Middle East” and open borders between Israel and its neighbors are long gone; instead, we are facing a Mideast that is crueler and more dangerous than ever. As it did in the face of Palestinian murderousness in the past decade, Israel’s government must embark on a national project aimed at building large, effective fences around much of the country.

The notion of fences may be unsavory to many of us, but ignoring reality would not be a wise move. Should we fail to protect our villa by all means necessary, we shall find ourselves increasingly vulnerable to the Arab jungle around us.

As for those who have an interest in evidence, rather than taking comfort in deeply ingrained prejudice, the evidence suggests that the men who attacked Israelis yesterday and Egyptians today are in conflict with both states. More than likely, this has much less to do with Gaza or the Palestinian national cause than it has with the aspirations of radical groups based in the Sinai.

Those responsible for maintaining Israel’s security quickly claimed they knew exactly who was behind yesterday’s attacks in Eilat and duly dispatched the Israeli air force to rain down missiles on Gaza. No one explained why, if Israeli intelligence was so good, they had not prevented the attacks. Even so, the domestically perceived legitimacy of a security state depends less on its ability to thwart terrorism than its willingness to make a timely show of force. Indeed, the occasional tragedy has obvious political utility. The attacks in Eilat serve to remind Israelis that the state created as a safe haven for Jews can only remain safe so long as everyone remains afraid.

The problem with fear though, is that it inhibits curiosity — a population that lives in fear has a visceral need for security that overrides the cognitive need for understanding. Once hit, the reflex to hit back marginalizes the need to understand who, how and why.

In attempting to understand attacks that took place on the edge of the Sinai, the likelihood is that the explanation about who launched the attacks and why, would be found not elsewhere but in the Sinai itself.

The day before the attacks, CNN reported:

The Egyptian army and police are cracking down in an “anti-terror” operation in the Sinai area of Egypt, state-owned media reported on Tuesday, as reports emerge of Osama bin Laden’s doctor surfacing in the area.

Police said they found hand grenades, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition in the operation that targets Sinai “terror cells” suspected in attacks on a gas pipeline to Israel and a police station in the border town of el-Arish.

One person was killed and 12 were arrested on Monday, the first day of the operation, said Hazem al-Maadawi, a police officer involved in the offensive.

Citing an unnamed security official, state news agency EgyNews said authorities are targeting 15 more people who participated in attacks at an el-Arish police station — some of whom are members of the extremist Jaish el-Islam group, which is affiliated with al Qaeda.

The crackdown comes amid new developments on the whereabouts of a bin Laden associate.

Ramzi Mahmoud Al Mowafi, the doctor of the late al Qaeda leader, escaped from a Cairo prison during the Egyptian revolution earlier this year and has resurfaced in the country’s North Sinai area, an official said.

“Al Mowafi, also known among his fellow Jihadists as the ‘chemist,’ escaped from a maximum security prison in Cairo on January 30 while serving a life sentence,” Maj. Yaser Atia from Egyptian General Security told CNN Monday. According to prison records, Al Mowafi was sentenced to life for a “military case” — but more details were not immediately known.

Bin Laden’s longtime personal doctor and an explosives expert, Al Mowafi was born in Egypt in 1952. He left for Afghanistan to join al Qaeda, according to the data listed in his prison records.

“Al Mowafi was seen in Sinai by several Jihadist(s) according to witness testimonials,” Gen. Sameh Seif Al Yezen said. “I know he is very dangerous and that he had set up his own laboratory in Tora Bora with bin Laden. A full report will be published on this matter in the upcoming week.”

A general in Egypt’s intelligence service, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak with the media, told CNN that “Al Mowafi surfaced in el-Arish and communicated with several ‘terrorists’ from the Egyptian Takfir wal-Hijra and the Palestinian Islamic Army.”

Takfir wal-Hijra is a militant Islamist group.

The general added, “Al Qaeda is present in Sinai, mainly in the area of Sakaska close to Rafah.”

Andrew McGregor provides more historical background on the region.

As the meeting point of Asia and Africa, the Sinai has always been important to Egypt’s security. Though the Sinai has been, with brief interruptions, a part of Egypt in one form or another since the time of the First Egyptian Dynasty (c. 3100 – 2890 B.C.E.), it has also been regarded as something apart from the Egypt of the Nile and Delta, a remote wasteland useful for mineral exploitation and strategic reasons but otherwise best left (outside of Egyptian security outposts) to the unruly Semitic and Bedouin tribes that have called the Sinai home since ancient times. The effect of these policies is that the Sinai Bedouin form only a tiny minority of Egypt’s total population, but retain an absolute majority in the Sinai.

In recent decades, however, Cairo has attempted to impose the deeply infiltrated security regime that existed in the rest of the country up until last January’s revolution. Many Bedouin involved in traditional smuggling activities found themselves in Egyptian prisons serving long sentences in often brutal conditions. The attempt to impose a security regime on the freedom-minded Bedouin led to a greater alienation of the tribesmen from the state, and the Egyptian uprising presented an opportunity to quickly roll back decades of attempts to impose state control on life in the Sinai. Most importantly, it opened the door for those influenced by the Salafist movements of neighboring Gaza to begin operations.

There are roughly 15 Bedouin tribes in the Sinai. In the politically sensitive northeast region (including al-Arish and the border area) the most important are the Sawarka and Rumaylat. There are also significant Palestinian populations in al-Arish and the border towns of Rafah and Zuwaid.

Local Bedouin took the opportunity of storming the Sinai’s prisons, freeing an unknown number of Bedouin smugglers and Palestinian militants. In nearly all cases they were unopposed by prison staff. One of the escapees was Ali Abu Faris, who was convicted for involvement in the Sharm al-Shaykh bombings that killed 88 people in 2005. Others freed included Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners convicted more recently of planning terrorist operations in Egypt (see Terrorism Monitor, June 12, 2009). Since emptying the prisons the tribesmen have warned the police to stay out of the main smuggling centers on penalty of death and the region has been effectively operating without any type of government.

But even if Israel faces a threat emanating from Egypt, Gaza presents a more convenient target of retaliation — even if this now opens a new risk of escalation.

Tony Karon writes:

There was a time when attacks such as those in southern Israel on Thursday might have been assumed to be the work of Hamas, out to torpedo the peace process. But there is no peace process to torpedo; it sank without trace some years ago without any help from Hamas. And Hamas is facing a potential crisis because its Syrian patron, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, may be on its way out of power, jeopardizing the status of the Hamas political leadership and headquarters in Damascus. The situation in Syria, and the new possibilities opened up by the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the growing influnence of Hamas’ Egyptian founding organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, give Hamas nothing to gain and much to lose by making life difficult for the military leadership in Cairo. Attacking Israel from Egyptian soil makes little sense for Hamas given its current political and diplomatic needs.

And a new crisis in Gaza hardly suits the agenda of President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority: They plan next month to seek U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines, and it hardly helps their case to have the fact that they have no control over events in Gaza — a substantial part of the state they are claiming — so graphically demonstrated.

But for a bit player like the PRC [Popular Resistance Committees] — if, indeed, it was responsible — or any other smaller groups challenging Hamas’ authority and pressing their own claims, the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February and the weakening of his police state created a new opportunity to slip the shackles of Hamas’ cease-fire by leaving Gaza and launching an attack from Sinai. As our own Abigail Hauslohner has reported, Sinai has become a playground for Bedouin smugglers and various jihadists since Mubarak’s fall, with salafist groups (who share an ideology with al-Qaeda) believed to have been behind repeat attacks on the natural gas pipeline that runs through Sinai to Israel.

Thursday’s attacks came just days after 1,000 Egyptian troops launched an operation in northern Sinai against Islamist cells believed to be inspired by al-Qaeda, which had challenged Hamas in Gaza. Israel gave its approval for the operation — the 1979 Camp David Agreement requires Israeli approval for Egypt to deploy significant numbers of troops in Sinai — and so did Hamas.

The fall of Mubarak had created a vacuum in Sinai into which some of Hamas’ rivals have been able to move to provoke a confrontation that Hamas had been trying to avoid. But once the Israelis are bombing Gaza, Hamas may find it difficult or impolitic to restrain its own armed wing, or other groups from firing at Israel. So the danger of escalation becomes more acute. On the Israeli side, too. Defense Minister Ehud Barak seemed to hint that Israel may be planning a more sustained attack on Gaza, warning on Thursday that Israel sees the territory as “a source of terror, and we will take full-force action against them.”

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The terrorism recruiting myth

After almost a decade of a US-led global war on terrorism, America’s approach to the issue has barely advanced from being a deadly game of Whack-a-Mole.

On CBS, Scott Pelley asked Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton: “I wonder if there’s anything about U.S. foreign policy that needs to change in your estimation to put more pressure on these terrorist groups where they live, like in Pakistan?”

“Well, we are doing that. And we’re increasing it. We’re expecting more from it. This is a global threat. We have probably the best police work in the world. But we are also the biggest target. And therefore, we just have to be better than everybody else,” Clinton replied.

Earlier in the interview she said: “We’ve made it very clear [to the Pakistani government] that, if, heaven forbid, that an attack like this [in Times Square], if we can trace back to Pakistan, were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences.”

The US will start bombing Pakistan? Special Forces will start conducting operations in North Waziristan? Clinton would not specify what form these severe consequences might take.

In response to the Times Square incident, Richard Clarke, former counter-terrorism coordinator for the Bush administration writes:

The reason such attacks are hard to stop is rooted in the identity of the attackers. They often seem to be successful or well-educated members of society, uninvolved in any form of radicalism. But then, the drip-drip of terrorist propaganda — either on the Internet or circulated through friends — has its effect. They quietly make contact with radical groups overseas, perhaps even traveling abroad for training and indoctrination. They throw away the life they have made in the West and agree to stage an attack. Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square terrorist, fits that profile, as have others in the United States and Europe.

For U.S. intelligence and law enforcement authorities, these newly minted terrorists are the hardest to stop. They may not be part of any known cell; there is no reason for their phones or e-mail accounts to come under surveillance. When they buy rifles, handguns, tanks of propane gas or fertilizer, they are doing nothing out of the ordinary in American society.

If they succeed in inflicting harm on us with terrorist acts designed to rivet media and public attention, our political debate may once again be as wrongheaded as it will be predictable. Some elected officials will claim that their party would have done a much better job protecting the country. Critics of America’s Middle East policy — or our energy policy, or our foreign policy writ large — will also fault whatever administration is in power.

Likewise, in a 60 Minutes report that aired last night, the prism through which the issue is filtered is one in which individuals are turned into the tools of a deadly ideology. Vulnerable young men are in jeopardy of being recruited by merciless ideologues and terrorist planners.

But as Scott Atran points out, the idea that Shahzad and those like him have to be recruited, does not fit the evidence.

Shahzad was also apparently inspired by the online rhetoric of Anwar al-Awlaki, a former preacher at a Northern Virginia mosque who gained international notoriety for blessing the suicide mission of the failed Christmas airplane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallib, and for Facebook communications with Major Nadal Hasan, an American-born Muslim psychiatrist who killed thirteen fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in November 2009. Although many are ready to leap to the conclusion that Awlaki helped to “brainwash” and “indoctrinate” these jihadi wannabes, it is much more likely that they sought out the popular Internet preacher because they already self-radicalized to the point of wanting reassurance and further guidance. “The movement is from the bottom up,” notes forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman, “just like you saw Major Hasan send twenty-one e-mails to al-Awlaki, who sends him back two, you have people seeking these guys and asking them for advice.”

The CBS report, stuck on the track that recruitment is a central issue, homes in on the role of the internet. The would-be terrorist is someone whose deadly intent is sure to be triggered by something he sees online.

Phillip Mudd, who until a few months ago was the senior intelligence advisor to the FBI and its director says:

They’re seeing images, for example, of children and women in places like Palestine and Iraq, they’re seeing sermons of people who explain in simple, compelling, and some cases magnetic terms why it’s important that they join the jihad. They’re seeing images, and messages that confirm a path that they’re already thinking of taking.

CBS helpfully provides such an image, but predictably neglects to add any commentary.

What are we seeing? An Israeli soldier terrorizing a Palestinian mother and her two girls.

And there we have it: exactly the kind of image the foments terrorism.

Viewed through the American counter-terrorism lens, the problem lies with the propagation of the image and the violent reaction such an image can provoke. Why? Because any serious consideration of the foreign policy issues that the image signals is still off-limits.

But here’s what everyone in the Middle East sees: An Israeli Jew brandishing an American-made weapon, serving America’s closest ally in the Middle East, is threatening a Muslim family. This is the narrative that no amount of spin or cleverly fought battles in a war of ideas, can undo.

Yet here is the foreign policy dilemma for Washington: How can the United States adopt a posture in the Middle East that acknowledges the role America has played in fueling terrorism, without appearing to capitulate to terrorist demands?

The answer is to trust in the universally recognized truth: actions speak louder than words.

What Obama does in Pakistan matters more than what he said in Cairo.

In April 2003, the Bush administration made a step in the right direction when it withdrew American troops from Saudi Arabia. The moved turned out to be of little consequence since it was triggered by utterly false expectations about the war in Iraq. Yet there was an implicit recognition: the presence of American soldiers in close proximity to Islam’s holiest sites sends an ugly message to the Muslim world.

Seven years later, as the Obama administration puts increased pressure on the Pakistani government to launch a major offensive in North Waziristan — an operation that would yet again result in the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians — and as the CIA continues to expand a drone war that has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, what kind of signal is this sending to those who might now contemplate following in the footsteps of Faisal Shahzad?

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Did The American Conservative just get hacked by Zionists?

Did The American Conservative just get hacked by Zionists?

Philip Weiss drew my attention to an article that caught Andrew Sullivan‘s eye: Jihadism, anti-Jihadism and Palestine by Daniel Larison. It appears at Pat Buchanan’s The American Conservative. But if you follow the link at this time (1.20 PM Eastern) you won’t find much — just a GoDaddy.com placeholder.

TAC got hacked. By who?

This is where it gets interesting. The Google cache page shows this — a statement by an ostensibly Turkish pro-Palestinian hacker/group. Here’s a screenshot:

If that looks familiar it’s probably because you read about the hacking of The Jewish Chronicle in Britain a week ago. The text and image appear to be the same:

There is one difference — the claim of authorship. The hackers of the Chronicle identified themselves as “PALESTINIAN MUJAHEEDS” whereas the TAC hackers used this name: “HaCKeD By CWD@rBe”.

So what can we infer? Some Turkish pro-Palestinians don’t know much about the American media? Perhaps.

The American Conservative is certainly a counter-intuitive target to pick. It’s one of the few American publications that acknowledges the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause and it is by no stretch of the imagination an Israel-friendly publication.

So who might the Palestinian Mujaheeds be? A Google search indicates that the name had never shown up until the Jewish Chronicle attack.

The equation between Palestinians and Mujahadins is a strange one to make — unless that is you happen to be an anti-Jihadist of the type that figures in Daniel Larison’s article. He writes:

The Palestinian cause generates remarkable reactions in Western anti-jihadists. For most of them, it is an article of faith that Palestinians, or at least the organized factions that speak for them, are just about as bad and hostile to “the West” as Al Qaeda itself, and so there is no point in attempting to make any deal with them. As far as they are concerned, the correct response is to back Israeli policies to the hilt, and to throw up as many obstacles to anyone here at home who would attempt to use U.S. influence to change those policies. The Bush-era habit of lumping together every Islamic revolutionary, militant and terrorist group under some catch-all term of “Islamofascism” made it easier to lump all these causes together, which is oddly enough exactly what jihadists would like, and once they were lumped together they could be that much more easily demonized together.

Now is that the kind of statement that a pro-Palestinian Turk believes should be blocked from public viewing? It’s conceivable but rather improbable. Much more plausible is the idea that a pro-Israeli hacker finds the expression of such views particularly unpalatable.

It’s not always possible to judge who you are dealing with simply by seeing the colors on the flag that they choose to waive.

Meanwhile, as TAC deals with the damage done by “HaCKeD By CWD@rBe”, be sure to look at Daniel Larison’s piece which I’ve reposted here. It’s essential reading.

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Jihadism, anti-Jihadism and Palestine

Jihadism, anti-Jihadism and Palestine

A lot of ink has been spilled since 9/11 trying to argue that bin Laden doesn’t really care about Palestine. But that’s always been silly — nobody knows what he “really” cares about, and it doesn’t especially matter since he talks about it a lot and presents it as a major part of his case against the United States. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement surely would not convince bin Laden or al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements to give up their jihad — but it would take away one of their most potent arguments, and one of the few that actually resonates with mass publics. Marc Lynch (via Andrew)

One of the reasons there has been a consistent effort to deny that Bin Laden has any “real” interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that such an interest, sincere or not, suggests jihadist groups are fueled by U.S. and allied policies, or at least that they successfully exploit U.S. and allied policies for propaganda purposes. Washington would then be faced with at least one of two unpalatable truths. Either our policies are correct and necessary, but strategically disastrous in their effects on Arab and Muslim public opinion and jihadist recruiting, or they are and incorrect and unnecessary while also being strategically disastrous. Washington would then have to decide if it wants to live with perpetual, low-level conflict occasionally exploding into major military campaigns every decade, or if it wants to make enough policy changes (and push our allies to make similar changes) to reduce that conflict to a bare minimum.

For most of the last decade, our preference in and out of government has been to deny that U.S. and allied policies had anything to do with jihadist attacks and their ability to recruit and win sympathizers. This acknowledgement would be to “blame the victim,” so that even if it were the correct analysis it was politically incorrect to say it out loud. Instead we have been treated to a whole host of explanations for why jihadist violence exists and why it tends to be directed at the U.S. and our allies. The lamest of these has been rather popular, namely the claim that “they hate us for our freedom,” or modernity or secularism or whatever it is that the person making the argument finds worthwhile about the West and sees lacking in Muslim countries. Then, of course, there is the trusty appeal to the enemy’s insanity. Unlike us, they are not really rational, and so their actions cannot be explained by referring to anything so mundane and normal as political grievances.

Finally, there is the religious essentialist argument that jihadism is what Islam requires at its core, and therefore there is no way to weaken it without some dramatic transformation of the entire religion. This last argument has won more sympathizers because the people trying to challenge it inevitably go to the opposite extreme and simply ignore or dismiss past Islamic conquests as having nothing to do with Islam. If the essentialist argument really held up, however, Algerians would still be attacking France, Central Asian Muslims would still be warring against the Russians, and Saudis would have been attacking American targets long before the 1990s. We do see cases where separatist movements involving Muslim populations’ breaking away from non-Muslim states become intertwined with and dependent on jihadist groups, because these are the groups providing assistance and because they lend an extra religious and ideological veneer to the conflict that wins the separatists more sympathy abroad. As a general rule, when the cause of the political grievances has disappeared, violent resistance also disappears.

Anti-jihadists like to invoke one or more of these arguments. I am reminded again of a quote from George Kennan in which he described the flaws of the popular anticommunism of his day. His words apply to popular anti-jihadism almost perfectly:

They distort and exaggerate the dimensions of the problem with which they profess to deal. They confuse internal and external aspects of the communist threat. They insist on portraying as contemporary things that had their actuality years ago [bold mine-DL]….And having thus incorrectly stated the problem, it is no wonder that these people consistently find the wrong answers.

Even when anti-jihadists are willing to acknowledge that Al Qaeda uses the grievances of Muslim populations in Iraq or Palestine for propaganda purposes, they will usually hold that changing policy or addressing those grievances to minimize the effectiveness of the propaganda is a form of capitulation. We are supposed to be engaged in “global counterinsurgency,” but we must take little or no account of the stated motivations of jihadists and the reasons why many millions more sympathize with their immediate goals while often deploring the means they use.

The Palestinian cause generates remarkable reactions in Western anti-jihadists. For most of them, it is an article of faith that Palestinians, or at least the organized factions that speak for them, are just about as bad and hostile to “the West” as Al Qaeda itself, and so there is no point in attempting to make any deal with them. As far as they are concerned, the correct response is to back Israeli policies to the hilt, and to throw up as many obstacles to anyone here at home who would attempt to use U.S. influence to change those policies. The Bush-era habit of lumping together every Islamic revolutionary, militant and terrorist group under some catch-all term of “Islamofascism” made it easier to lump all these causes together, which is oddly enough exactly what jihadists would like, and once they were lumped together they could be that much more easily demonized together.

On the whole, it seems that the more sympathetic to or at least understanding of Palestinian grievances a Western observer is, the less willing he is to endorse standard anti-jihadist arguments. Likewise, the more one agrees with anti-jihadist arguments, the more reflexively hostile to Palestinian grievances one tends to be. When most Western anti-jihadists hear that Bin Laden has tied the Christmas bomber attack to the cause of Palestine and specifically to the treatment of Gaza, or when they learn that the bomber who killed the seven CIA operatives claimed that the Gaza operation early last year had driven him to jihadism, the conclusion they draw is not that there was and is something wrong with U.S. and Israeli policies with respect to Palestinians. There is no sudden revelation that the inexcusable blockade of Gaza is politically unwise as well as morally wrong.

On the contrary, the support Bin Laden expresses for the Palestinian cause makes that cause seem to most Western anti-jihadists to be that much more indistinguishable from Al Qaeda’s goals and therefore that much more antithetical to Western interests. This might very well be another purpose in Bin Laden’s exploitation of Palestinian grievances: to harden Western audiences against Palestinian claims even more by linking his cause to Palestine, which will make Americans in particular less interested in supporting an administration that tries to exert pressure in support of a peace settlement. Bin Laden would like to appropriate the Palestinian cause, which Palestinians definitely do not want, and most Western anti-jihadists would like nothing more than to let him have it. So while Lynch is right that resolving this conflict would deprive jihadists of one of their great sources of effective propaganda, our own anti-jihadists will do their utmost to thwart all efforts to that end.

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Cracks in the jihad

Cracks in the jihad

“Get ready for all Muslims to join the holy war against you,” the jihadi leader Abd el-Kader warned his Western enemies. The year was 1839, and nine years into France’s occupation of Algeria the resistance had grown self-confident. Only weeks earlier, Arab fighters had wiped out a convoy of 30 French soldiers en route from Boufarik to Oued-el-Alèg. Insurgent attacks on the slow-moving French columns were steadily increasing, and the army’s fortified blockhouses in the Atlas Mountains were under frequent assault.

Paris pinned its hopes on an energetic general who had already served a successful tour in Algeria, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud. In January 1840, shortly before leaving to take command in Algiers, he addressed the French Chamber of Deputies: “In Europe, gentlemen, we don’t just make war against armies; we make war against interests.” The key to victory in European wars, he explained, was to penetrate the enemy country’s interior. Seize the centers of population, commerce, and industry, “and soon the interests are forced to capitulate.” Not so at the foot of the Atlas, he conceded. Instead, he would focus the army’s effort on the tribal population.

Later that year, a well-known military thinker from Prussia traveled to Algeria to observe Bugeaud’s new approach. Major General Carl von Decker, who had taught under the famed Carl von Clausewitz at the War Academy in Berlin, was more forthright than his French counterpart. The fight against fanatical tribal warriors, he foresaw, “will throw all European theory of war into the trash heap.”

One hundred and seventy years later, jihad is again a major threat—and Decker’s dire analysis more relevant than ever. War, in Clausewitz’s eminent theory, was a clash of collective wills, “a continuation of politics by other means.” When states went to war, the adversary was a political entity with the ability to act as one body, able to end hostilities by declaring victory or admitting defeat. Even Abd el-Kader eventually capitulated. But jihad in the 21st century, especially during the past few years, has fundamentally changed its anatomy: Al Qaeda is no longer a collective political actor. It is no longer an adversary that can articulate a will, capitulate, and be defeated. But the jihad’s new weakness is also its new strength: Because of its transformation, Islamist militancy is politically impaired yet fitter to survive its present crisis. [continued...]

Yemen offers to strike a deal with al-Qaeda fighters

The President of Yemen said yesterday that he was willing to strike a deal with al-Qaeda if militants laid down their weapons, amid warnings that dozens of foreign fighters were streaming into the country.

Ali Abdullah Saleh’s offer to negotiate with members of the terror network came as officials said that several al-Qaeda operatives, including Saudis and Egyptians, were travelling from Afghanistan to join fighters in the lawless tribal lands in central and southern Yemen.

Among those said to be in hiding in the area is Anwar al-Awlaki, the influential Yemeni preacher. The US-born imam preached to two of the 9/11 bombers in California and had links to the US army psychiatrist charged with the Fort Hood shootings and the Nigerian man who allegedly tried to blow up a Christmas Day flight to Detroit. [continued...]

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Renouncing Islamism: To the brink and back again

Renouncing Islamism: To the brink and back again

As the summer arrives and London begins to swelter, I sit with most of the “out” ex-jihadis in a slew of Starbucks across the city. We sip iced lattes and discuss how, not long ago, they tried to destroy Western civilisation.

They have different backgrounds: one is a Yorkshire girl with Hindu parents, another is a Northern boy whose father was a Conservative ultra-Thatcherite. Yet they are startlingly similar: they have all retained the humourless intensity of their pasts. And when they describe their Islamist former selves, they are distant and cold, as if describing a rather unpleasant acquaintance they did not entirely understand.

They wreath their stories in clouds of pointless detail: they talk for hours about the intricacies of seventh-century Meccan society, or the fine distinctions in the hierarchy of HT, willing you to understand it. It’s a way of avoiding answering the hardest question – why? But from their scattered stories, I can trace something that seems genuinely new: an ex-jihadi way of looking at the world, that carries lessons about how to stop Western Muslims sinking into jihadism.

As children and teenagers, the ex-jihadis felt Britain was a valueless vacuum, where they were floating free of any identity.

Ed Husain, a former leader of HT, says: “On a basic level, we didn’t know who we were. People need a sense of feeling part of a group – but who was our group?” They were lost in liberalism, beached between two unreachable identities – their parents’, and their country’s. They knew nothing of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or the other places they were constantly told to “go home” to by racists.

Yet they felt equally shut out of British or democratic identity. From the right, there was the brutal nativist cry of “Go back where you came from!” But from the left, there was its mirror-image: a gooey multicultural sense that immigrants didn’t want liberal democratic values and should be exempted from them. Again and again, they described how at school they were treated as “the funny foreign child”, and told to “explain their customs” to the class. It patronised them into alienation.

“Nobody ever said – you’re equal to us, you’re one of us, and we’ll hold you to the same standards,” says Husain. “Nobody had the courage to stand up for liberal democracy without qualms. When people like us at [Newham] College were holding events against women and against gay people, where were our college principals and teachers, challenging us?”

Without an identity, they created their own. It was fierce and pure and violent, and it admitted no doubt.

To my surprise, the ex-jihadis said their rage about Western foreign policy – which was real, and burning – emerged only after their identity crises, and as a result of it. They identified with the story of oppressed Muslims abroad because it seemed to mirror the oppressive disorientation they felt in their own minds. Usman Raja, a bluff, buff boxer who begged to become a suicide bomber in the mid-1990s, tells me: “Your inner life is chaotic and you feel under threat the whole time. And then you’re told by Islamists that life for Muslims everywhere is chaotic and under threat. It becomes bigger than you. It’s about the world – and that’s an amazing relief. The answer isn’t inside your confused self. It’s out there in the world.”

But once they had made that leap to identify with the Umma – the global Muslim community – they got angrier the more abusive our foreign policy came. Every one of them said the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 – from Guantanamo to Iraq – made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world. Hadiya Masieh, a tiny female former HT organiser, tells me: “You’d see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this. What are we meant to do, just stand still and let him cut our throats?”

But the converse was – they stressed – also true. When they saw ordinary Westerners trying to uphold human rights, their jihadism began to stutter. Almost all of them said that they doubted their Islamism when they saw a million non-Muslims march in London to oppose the Iraq War: “How could we demonise people who obviously opposed aggression against Muslims?” asks Hadiya.

Britain’s foreign policy also helped tug them towards Islamism in another way. Once these teenagers decided to go looking for a harder, tougher Islamist identity, they found a well-oiled state machine waiting to feed it. Usman Raja says: “Saudi literature is everywhere in Britain, and it’s free. When I started exploring my Muslim identity, when I was looking for something more, all the books were Saudi. In the bookshops, in the libraries. All of them. Back when I was fighting, I could go and get a car, open the boot up, and get it filled up with free literature from the Saudis, saying exactly what I believed. Who can compete with that?”

He says the Saudi message is particularly comforting to disorientated young Muslims in the West. “It tells you – you’re in this state of sin. But the sin doesn’t belong to you, it’s not your fault – it’s Western society’s fault. It isn’t your fault that you’re sinning, because the girl had the miniskirt on. It wasn’t you. It’s not your fault that you’re drug dealing. The music, your peers, the people around you – it’s their fault.”

Just as their journeys into the jihad were strikingly similar, so were their journeys out. All of them said doubt began to seep in because they couldn’t shake certain basic realities from their minds. The first and plainest was that ordinary Westerners were not the evil, Muslim-hating cardboard kaffir presented by the Wahabis. Usman, for one, finally stopped wanting to be a suicide bomber because of the kindness of an old white man.

Usman’s mother had moved in next door to an elderly man called Tony, who was known in the neighbourhood as a spiteful, nasty grump. One day, Usman was teaching his little brother to box in the garden when he noticed the old man watching him from across the fence. “I used to box when I was in the Navy,” he said. He started to give them tips and before long, he was building a boxing ring in their shed.

Tony died not long before 9/11, and Usman was sent to help clear out his belongings. In Tony’s closet, he found a present wrapped and ready for his little brother’s birthday: a pair of boxing gloves. “And I thought – that is humanity right there. That’s an aspect of the divine that’s in every human being. How can I want to kill people like him? How can I call him kaffir?”

Many of the ex-Islamists discovered they couldn’t ignore the fact that whenever Islamists won a military victory, they didn’t build a paradise, but hell.

At the same time, they began to balk at the mechanistic nature of Wahabism. Usman says he had become a “papier-mâché Muslim”, defining his faith entirely by his actions, while being empty inside. “Wahabis are great at painting themselves [an Islamic] green on the outside, but when it comes to that internal aspect, it’s not there. You pray five times a day, but why? Because God’s told you to pray five times a day. You pay your charity – why? Because God’s told you to pay your charity. This God of yours is telling you a lot. And why does he tell you to do that? Because if you don’t do it, you’ll end up in a fire. It’s all based on being frightened. There’s nothing to nourish you.”

They had to go looking for other Islams – and often they found it in the more mystical school of the Sufis. “Wahabi Islam is totally sensory: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” Usman says. “It lays out a strict set of rules to be followed here on earth, every moment of the day. Sufi Islam teaches instead that the realm of Allah is wholly separate and spiritual and nothing to do with the shadow-play of mere mortals. It is accessible only through a sense of mystery and transcendence.” In this new Sufi Islam, Usman found something he had never known before: a sense of calm.

Ed Husain insists: “There are a lot of Muslims who agree with us. A lot. But they’re frightened. They see what’s happened to us – the hassle, the slander, the death threats – and they think: it’s not worth it. But you know what? When I first spoke out, I was alone. I had no idea that, a year on, there would be this number of people speaking out, and many more who are just offering resources and support. Once a truth is spoken, it takes on its own life.” [continued...]

Post-jihadism and the inevitability of democratization

Major ‘Abbud al-Zumur, the former military intelligence officer who served on the governing bodies of both the Jihad organization and al-Gama‘a al-Islammiyya (Islamic Group – IG) in Egypt, published a book entitled The Third Alternative: Between Authoritarianism and Surrender in August 2009. In the book, which analyzes the causes of violent radicalism and prescribes ways of ending political violence within Arab- and Muslim-majority states, al-Zumur strongly argues for the necessity of electoral participation as well as for alliances with the ideological “other.”

The book is the latest development in what can be called a second wave of modern Islamist de-radicalization. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood began the first wave by authoring Preachers not Judges in 1969, during an attempt to dismantle the Brotherhood’s armed wing and de-legitimize takfiri ideology (which can legitimize violence against nonbelievers, including Muslims who are deemed apostates). The IG began the second wave in July 1997, and in recent years has produced some 25 books to de-legitimate violence against the state. Those ideological revisions were followed by similar ones from various organizations including al-Jihad, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and several other Islamist leading figures in the Arab-majority countries. [continued...]

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