The Evolution of Al-Qaeda:
Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Please note:
Trevor Stanley's Weblog has information on the London attacks and the group that has claimed responsibility, Jamaat Tanzim Al-Siri: Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Europa (Secret Organisation Group, Organisation of al-Qaeda (the Base) of Jihad in Europe).


By Trevor Stanley
This article appeared in the April 2005 issue of
The Review and is reproduced by permission.
For most of the past two years, Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been billed as al-Qaeda's commander in Iraq. Yet in truth Zarqawi has stubbornly insisted on maintaining his independence of Osama bin Laden. Thus terrorism experts were somewhat startled on 17 October 2004, when bin Laden's al-Qaeda and Zarqawi's At-Tawhid w'al-Jihad (Monotheism and Holy Struggle) announced they had merged into a single organisation.
This merger merely added to the already considerable public perplexity about precisely what al-Qaeda is and precisely who its members are. The term al-Qaeda has been applied in a generic fashion to describe a whole host of radical Islamic terrorist groups which might, or might not have formal links to Osama bin Laden.
Yet the organisations that are commonly grouped together under the al-Qaeda rubric do share a common worldview. And in that sense Zarqawi was the leading proponent of the 'al-Qaeda' jihadist philosophy in Iraqi, even when he was formally independent of Osama bin Laden. The only way to make any sense of al-Qaeda today is to follow the events and ideas that forged the loose network of Islamist groups who subscribe to this outlook.
Sayyid Qutb's "Milestones"The al-Qaeda paradigm can be traced back to an earlier model normally associated with Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. In his last book, Milestones on the Road (1965), Qutb argued that the Koran presented a blueprint for the establishment of a 'true' Islamic State. Allah, said Qutb, had deliberately revealed this model in sequential stages (milestones). The awakening of a single individual to 'true' Islam was a necessary precondition for the creation of a genuine Islamic movement (jamaah islamiyyah). And this Islamic movement must separate itself from the infidels, which for Qutb meant all contemporary societies, including those in the Arab Middle East. Because the nascent jamaah began in a state of weakness, it was necessary to engage in a hijra: a migration away from the corrupt reality of the modern Arab world based on Muhammad's flight from Mecca in 622AD. Only after the hijra could a 'true' Islamic community be established.
Qutb had intended Milestones to be the first book in a series, but its publication led to his arrest and execution in 1966. Intense debate ensued over the interpretation of Qutb's book, and the Muslim Brotherhood split over such issues as whether hijra and separation meant keeping physically apart from society like a cult,1 or simply referred to a spiritual separation.2 Most subsequent Sunni Islamic revolutionaries have based their models of revolution on Qutb's Milestones. Bin Laden's mentor Abdullah Azzam wrote that "Every principle needs a vanguard to carry it forward . . . this vanguard constitutes al-qaeda al-sulbah (the solid base) for the expected society." 1 Such as Shukri Mustafa and his Takfir w'al Hijra organisation.
2 Such as Muhammad Abdus-Salam Faraj's Al-Jihad and some moderate sections of the Muslim Brotherhood.
AfghanistanThe new paradigm associated with Azzam and bin Laden developed against the background of the war in Afghanistan. The Afghan-Arab mujahideen believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Afghan communist regime resulted from their correct implementation of Qutb's Koranic blueprint. The al-Qaeda paradigm therefore bases the 'milestones' of its theory of revolution on the sequence of events in Afghanistan:
1978Communist revolution in Afghanistan establishes an infidel regime that is a proxy of the Soviet Superpower.
An Islamic awakening takes place.
1979The regime fails to control the uprising, and the superpower is forced to invade and take direct control.
1980sThe Afghan-Arab hijra. By migrating to Afghanistan, Arab fundamentalists were able to establish enclaves beyond the reach of both their own apostate governments and the Soviets. These enclaves are bases from which 'raids' on the Soviets and home regimes can be launched.
1988The superpower withdraws from Afghanistan, defeated
1991The superpower (USSR) collapses
1992The Afghan communist regime falls
1994The Taliban Islamic regime appears
The post-Afghanistan al-Qaeda worldview sees the destruction of the superpower as a necessary precursor to revolution in Muslim countries. This is in direct contradiction to the position of previous Qutbist radicals, who believed that the milestone of overthrowing the national apostate regime naturally came before the establishment of an Islamic state led by a Caliph. This previous paragidm held that the Caliph alone would have authority to authorise war against neighbouring countries. Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader who became bin Laden's second in command, said, "the road to Jerusalem passes through Cairo".
Yet Zawahiri and many other Islamist ideologues altered their line in Afghanistan, seeing the destruction of America (and Asia's 'regional superpower', Australia) as the precondition for the overthrow of nominally Muslim regimes. Thus terrorist 'raids' against Western countries are a means to an end in a struggle within the Muslim world, not a reaction to specific actions by America or Australia. This is why rather than discouraging terrorism, acts of 'appeasement' are likely to add credibility to the al-Qaeda model.
Another important consequence of the war in Afghanistan for Qutbist radicalism was a shift in the interpretation of hijra. An earlier controversy between those who believed that a period of cult-like separation was necessary while the jamaah built up strength, and those who favoured infiltration of the infidel society, was resolved in Afghanistan. In the new 'al-Qaeda' organising model, operatives oscillate between geographical migration to areas beyond the reach of infidel authority (such as failed states) and periods living amongst the 'infidels'.
Iraq and Saudi ArabiaIn 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and seemed poised to invade Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden offered the services of his mujahideen veterans to the Saudi government but was rebuffed by King Fahd. Instead the Saudis invited an American-led coalition into the kingdom to wage war for the liberation of Kuwait. In the wake of the Afghan conflict, bin Laden and his colleagues considered Fahd's invitation to the American superpower to be indistinguishable from the invitation the Afghan communist regime had extended to the Soviet superpower in 1978. Consequently, bin Laden's group attempted to encourage an Islamic awakening, then 'migrated', first to the Sudan and later to Taliban Afghanistan, there to prepare for global jihad. In bin Laden's words, "When a Muslim migrates repeatedly he is doubly rewarded."
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Afghan communist government lent support to the al-Qaeda interpretation of Qutb's Milestones. Radicals such as bin Laden and Zawahiri set up terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi applied the lessons of al-Qaeda ideology that he had learned in Afghanistan and prison to set up Afghan camps closer to the border with Iran. But at this stage Zarqawi still maintained his independence from bin Laden. (Zarqawi learnt a great deal in prison from the al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdissy, but later became his rival. Maqdissy published a stinging attack on Zarqawi in July 2004.) While bin Laden repeatedly called for Jihad against the 'Crusader-Zionist' American superpower during the 1990s, Zarqawi was working on his own al-qaeda al-sulbah.
Since Sept. 11The extremely ambitious attacks of 11 September 2001 demonstrated the success that bin Laden's group enjoyed in applying this new model of jihad. Radicals trained at hijra in Afghanistan had infiltrated the lands of the unbeliever and struck the superpower at its heart. These attacks heralded a leap in the activity of Islamic terrorist groups, and affirmed bin Laden and Zawahiri's status as the most successful practitioners of Qutb-inspired terrorism to date.
But this 'honeymoon' period did not last. The destruction of the Taliban regime and bin Laden's terrorist training camps dealt the movement a crushing blow. In July 2003, bin Laden complained bitterly, "[w]e are in a situation of no longer having a country to which to make Hijra."
On the other hand, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 presented two new arenas in which to develop the al-Qaeda paradigm. The invasion itself was analogous to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Zarqawi (like many others who shared the al-Qaeda worldview), 'migrated' to Iraq, where he quickly established himself as an important commander.
On 3 May 2003, Donald Rumsfeld announced that America would remove almost all its armed forces from Saudi Arabia by August. On 12 May, "Al-Qaeda Organisation on the Arabian Peninsula"3 initiated a new terror campaign with five simultaneous attacks on foreign residential compounds in Riyadh. This campaign raged throughout 2003 and to a lesser extent 2004. For bin Laden, the foreshadowed US withdrawal from Saudi Arabia paralleled the 1988 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which presaged the collapse of both the superpower and its proxy regime.3 Al-Qaeda's own name for its Saudi Arabian wing
Although bin Laden's group recognised the potential of the US invasion of Iraq to be a re-run of the Afghan Jihad, it had been fixated on Saudi Arabia since 1990 and continued to concentrate its logistical and propaganda efforts there. That left rivals such as Zarqawi able to build movements in Iraq without ideological competition.
During 2003, Zarqawi discouraged Muslims from fighting in Saudi Arabia. He instead invited them to Iraq, where he reported that targets were plentiful and the mujahideen could organise beyond the reach of the security forces. Thus, two alternative applications of the same theory of revolution were being tested in neighbouring countries.
How Al-Qaeda and At-Tawhid mergedOn 10 September 2004, the newspaper al-Hayat interviewed an associate of Zarqawi, who stated that Zarqawi was operating on the same model as bin Laden. But that lieutenant expressed disappointment that Zarqawi had not pledged allegiance to bin Laden. This fact, he said, was hindering Zarqawi's ability to recruit new members.
That problem was solved in October 2004, when both groups announced that Zarqawi had pledged allegiance to bin Laden. Zarqawi's group assumed the new title, "the al-Qaeda Group for Jihad in Iraq". Since this merger, there have been new attacks in Saudi Arabia, and bin Laden has released a number of new tapes, which give equal weight to al-Qaeda's Peninsula (Saudi) and Iraq branches.
Down but not outWhy did these groups need to merge?
Although bin Laden's network is still capable of global operations, the American-led counterattack against the jihadist movement has knocked al-Qaeda's plans back many years. Without the Afghan training camps and the many cadre who were killed or captured there, al-Qaeda is struggling to regenerate its losses. It desperately needs a new Afghanistan. The sustained campaign in Saudi Arabia, so draining for the group, has so far failed to bring about the conditions for the establishment of a new 'destination for hijra'. To succeed in the long run, bin Laden needs American efforts in Iraq to fail.
That bin Laden is now giving equal propaganda billing to such a small fish as Zarqawi demonstrates how much ground his group has lost since 2001. Zarqawi was also in need of an ally after the loss of Fallujah, and his entreaties to bin Laden demonstrated a level of humility that would have pained the ruthlessly independent commander.
The merging of these two groups is an important development. It gives al-Qaeda a two-way bet in the Middle East and demonstrates that the al-Qaeda ideology retains a resilience that transcends particular individuals or organisations. We can expect to hear more from al-Qaeda in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in 2005.

Trevor Stanley is the editor of Perspectives on World History and Current Events

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