Signposts on the Road

A week or two after the skybombings of New York and Washington, DC, on 11 September 2001, Terry Jones, the former member of the Monty Python comedy team, made one of the more memorable remarks about the ‘war on terrorism’ by asking in a radio interview ‘Can you wage a war against an abstract noun?’ The very use of the word ‘war’ in this context makes an important concession to the terrorists by elevating them to the status of combatants, rather than treating them as outlaws and criminals. In Northern Ireland, the British government resisted demands of Republican prisoners to be granted political status for precisely this reason. While the hunger strikes and ‘dirty protests’ eventually led to concessions being made in the prisons, the insistence of successive British and Irish governments on continuing to criminalise terrorism by use of police methods and court proceedings has yielded long-term benefits. Irish terrorism has been (almost) defeated without significant loss to the authority and legitimacy of either of the states involved. To adapt the Maoist metaphor, the only way to destroy pests is to drain the swamps in which they breed.

To state the problem in these terms, however, is to be made immediately aware of the immense difficulty posed by al-Qaeda. The organisation or network, as Peter Bergen discloses with painstaking, documented detail, is a global conglomerate, with limbs or tentacles stretching westwards from the Philippines to the United States. Its operatives are only loosely connected organisationally. In this respect it resembles a ‘multinational holding company, headquartered in Afghanistan, under the chairmanship of bin Laden’. Given that the ‘traditional structure of a holding company is a core management group controlling partial or complete interests in other companies’, the degree of control Osama bin Laden exercises over subsidiary operations is, to say the least, problematic.

According to Bergen, bin Laden formulates general policies in consultation with his board, known by the Islamic term of the Majlis al-Shura (consultative council). This body makes executive decisions for the group. There are other, subordinate committees responsible for ‘military’ affairs

(that is, terrorism), business interests, legal rulings (fatwa) and the media. Once decisions on overall policy have been made by bin Laden and his closest advisers, they are relayed to the relevant committee and then, at the appropriate moment, to lower-level members on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. The ordinary foot soldiers are organised into cells which receive instructions and carry them out without questioning them or being able to see how they fit into an overall strategy. Reports from FBI investigations suggest that some of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attack were unaware of its suicidal nature: they thought this would be an ‘ordinary’ hijacking, which they had a reasonable chance of surviving. As an FBI agent testified at the trial in New York last March of the al-Qaeda members accused of complicity in the suicide bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the lower-level operatives do not necessarily receive their instructions directly from bin Laden.

Bin Laden’s overall complicity in the New York and Washington atrocities may be clear from the gloating videos he has released, as broadcast by the Al Jazeera channel in the Arabian Gulf, and from materials recently found in Kabul. Whether this would satisfy the exacting requirements of a legal system which produced an acquittal in the murder trial of O. J. Simpson is another matter altogether. What with the security implications of a bin Laden trial, not to mention the politically embarrassing disclosures he might make about Saudi and Pakistani complicity in his organisation, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Washington would rather have him dead than alive. In any event, as Bergen makes clear, the death of bin Laden hardly disposes of the problem posed by al-Qaeda.

Bin Laden’s charismatic personality and organisational skills have held the organisation together, but on the ‘holding company’ analogy the different ‘assets’ acquired by al-Qaeda since the early 1990s existed before his organisation took them over. A good example is the Egyptian Jihad group headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who served three years in prison for being implicated in the murder of President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt in 1981. Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon from an upper-class background, joined bin Laden in Afghanistan after he was outvoted in the armed Islamist group he had previously headed in Egypt. During the 1990s, the group and its affiliates were responsible for killing some 1,200 people, notably Christians, government officials, police officers and foreigners, culminating in the massacre of 58 tourists and four Egyptians at Luxor in 1997. Realising they were losing public support, the groups announced a ‘ceasefire’ in their war against the government. Al-Zawahiri and other members, like the Real IRA, dissented and carried on their activities. Their departure for Afghanistan may have caused a sigh of relief in Egypt, but it brought important new blood into al-Qaeda. The softly spoken surgeon is said to be the most powerful mind behind the organisation, and would be well-placed to take over should bin Laden be removed.

By the same logic, the destruction of the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, achieved by US bombing, may secure a short-term respite from Islamist terrorism, but not much more. As Bergen points out, it is the training camps which ‘turn raw recruits with a general and inchoate antipathy to the West into skilled bomb-makers’. However, like the poppy-fields and coca plantations, which produce most of the world’s illegal narcotics, terrorist training camps are subject to the ‘balloon effect’. Suppress them in one area, and they will pop up somewhere else. The ‘war against terrorism’ sounds disconcertingly similar to the ‘war against drugs’.

What shocks and surprises most from reading Bergen’s book is not that there should be terrorists who claim Islamic legitimacy for their actions - the history of Islamist terrorism in Egypt goes back 30 years - but that the US security services should have been so easily caught off-guard. The CIA’s special Counter-Terrorist Center (CTC), founded in 1986, works closely with other agencies, including the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Secret Service, the Federal Aviation Agency, the Department of Defence, the State Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). There is an anti-terrorism budget of more than $11 billion. The American people are very far from getting value for money.

One example of many cited by Bergen in this complex trail of ineptitude should suffice: the World Trade Center, the third-tallest building in the world and a primary symbol of American wealth and economic power, was attacked in 1993. Nine people were killed and many others injured in what Bergen regards as a dress rehearsal for the September 2001 attack. Ramzi Yousuf, who masterminded the 1993 bombing, was eventually arrested in 1995 in Islamabad after spending time in Manila, from where he fled after almost blowing himself up with a home-made device. Sheikh Umar Abd al-Rahman, spiritual leader of the Egyptian Jihadist group responsible for the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, now serving a life sentence for his part in this crime, visited New York in 1987 and again in 1990, when he decided to stay. Despite being indicted in Egypt for his part in the plot to assassinate Sadat in 1981, he was given a visa in 1987 and a multi-entry visa in 1990. Later, government officials would claim that the visas were issued as a result of ‘computer errors’ because of the different way his name was transliterated from Arabic; but according to Bergen, at least one of these visas was issued by a CIA officer working undercover in the consular section of the American embassy in Sudan.

The militant Islamist sheikh’s stay in New York from 1990 was arranged by Mustafa Shalabi, a chemist with an electrical contracting business in Brooklyn. Three years earlier, Shalabi had founded the Alkhifa Refugee Center, registered as a charitable organisation ‘to provide for the needs and welfare of the Afghan people, particularly the refugees due to the Soviet invasion’. In fact it had very little to do with refugees, but acted as the recruitment hub for Muslims living in the United States who wanted to fight the Soviet invasion. More than 200 volunteers for the jihad in Afghanistan passed through the Center. Activities such as these, as is well known, received a fair wind from the CIA, even though, as Bergen explains, most of the support for the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan was channelled through the SIS, the Pakistani secret service, since the CIA did not want to hand the Russians a propaganda weapon by having any of their agents caught on the ground. The SIS became the primary supporters of the Taliban, bin Laden’s protectors. Judging from recent press reports, they have continued to support the Taliban against the Northern Alliance despite American bombing and the Musharraf government’s support for the ‘war against terrorism’.

Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Shalabi and Abd al-Rahman had a falling out which was much publicised in New York Muslim circles. Shalabi, who had a reputation for honesty and piety, wanted to consult the donors about what to do with a considerable quantity of cash in hand. The Sheikh wanted to divert it to the jihad against America’s ally, the ‘infidel’ Egyptian government. In his sermons he began accusing Shalabi of being a ‘bad Muslim’. Posters appeared in mosques all over the New York area, accusing him of financial mismanagement. On 1 March 1991, Shalabi was found stabbed to death in his Coney Island apartment, two days before he was due to join his family in Pakistan. No one was charged with the murder. Thereafter, the Alkhifa Center was taken over by the Sheikh’s loyalists. In a country where homicides are commonplace, Shalabi’s murder evidently attracted little official attention, even though the finger of suspicion pointed towards acolytes of a man well known for his extreme views, and the known associate of the assassins of a friendly foreign head of state.

From his numerous interviews with the intelligence agencies, Bergen concludes that the ‘strong religious orientation’ of bin Laden’s followers, combined with its diffuse organisational structure, makes al-Qaeda ‘hard to penetrate’, even on US soil. The Muslim ban on alcohol, according to these agents, posed an additional problem. As one of them explains: ‘In the old days I could have a drink with a secular terrorist - there is no way with the bin Laden guys. Also these guys have a shared history and outsiders are viewed with suspicion.’ What strikes one most about this remark is the parochialism it reveals about the US intelligence community (which may well apply to our own as well). Millions of Americans are teetotallers, among them 5-6 million Muslims, the vast majority of whom are loyal to their country of birth or adoption. Religious discussion groups are legion. Just as the FBI and BATF failed to heed the advice of trained theologians, with disastrous results after the siege of a ranch occupied by a Protestant religious sect, the Branch Davidians, at Waco, Texas, in April 1993, the intelligence community has signally failed to adjust to a contemporary political environment in which religious motivations matter. Sermons delivered in publicly accessible places can have security implications, whether preached by Egyptian mullahs or the ‘Identity Christian’ pastors linked to the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. The culture engendered by the radical separation of church and state, in which religion is supposed to be harmlessly left to its own devices, has deeply infected the official mind.

None of this means, of course, that the security services could have prevented the New York and Washington attacks. The existence of Mohamed Atta, now believed to have been the overall commander of the operation, who flew the American Airlines Boeing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, never came to the attention of the intelligence authorities, despite the lack of interest he showed in take-off and landing techniques at the flying school he attended in Florida. As a former inspector general of the CIA explained in a recent newspaper article, the CIA are woefully short of people with Arabic and Islamic expertise. Yet expertise in both the cultures and languages of modern Islam exists in abundance on American University campuses. The intellectual mentor of modern Islamist terrorism was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), who lived in the United States from 1949 to 1951. Bergen notes that all the key members of al-Qaeda, like Qutb, have been Egyptians: ‘One cannot overestimate the influence of Qutb on the jihadist groups in Egypt and by extension on Osama bin Laden.’ Bin Laden was strongly influenced at university in Saudi Arabia by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian preacher in the Qutbist mould, and by Muhammad Qutb, Sayyid’s brother, who shared many of the Egyptian martyr’s extremist views.

Qutb, celebrated during his lifetime as one of Egypt’s leading intellectuals, has been the subject of numerous essays and monographs by American academics, including Yvonne Haddad, Leonard Binder, John Calvert and Robert Lee (not to mention studies by Europeans such as Gilles Kepel and Johannes Jansen). Binder in particular has explained how Qutb courted martyrdom in order to resolve the tortured contradiction between a personal identity forged in the traditional faith of an Egyptian village and the reality of the ‘godless’ or ‘pagan’ (jahili) world he encountered in America and Cairo. In a book published in 1988 [Islamic Liberalism, University of Chicago Press], Binder suggests that Qutb’s ‘ontological’ or Heideggerian version of Islam was linked to his concept of the ‘ownmost being’ of the believing Muslim, in a manner that urged him ‘to act out, to realise, to practice that faith as an expression of his being’ without regard for the consequences:

When we consider ... that the absolute foundation of Islam, and of the freedom of the individual Muslim to act, is the hakimiya (sovereignty) of God, then the characteristic Islamic act becomes the defiance of jahili activity. Thus is the groundwork laid for acts of martyrdom which appear to be suicidal and/or hopeless acts of political terrorism.

Mohamed Atta, an outstanding student of architecture at the Hamburg Technical University, fitted the Qutbist mould in almost every respect. There is, however, a vital difference between them. Unlike Qutb, a preeminent man of letters whose adherence to the Qur’an was rooted in fascination with its language, Atta, along with almost all the Islamists who followed Qutb’s path, shunned literary-critical approaches to the Islamic scripture. Indeed, Atta, in conversation with a German colleague, Ralf Bodenstein, expressed his approval for the condemnation for apostasy of Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, an assistant professor at the Arabic Department at Cairo University, for applying modern linguistic methods when analysing the Qur’an.

Like Atta, nearly all the ideologues who make up the leadership of the Islamist movements in Egypt are graduates in technical or scientific subjects. One explanation for this is that, while students in the arts and humanities have to deal with texts, whether religious or secular, by making comparisons and exploring ambiguities, students in the ‘hard’ sciences treat texts mono-dimensionally, as sources of factual information. Qutb in his writings eschewed the apparatus of traditional scholarship in his interpretation of the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad’s contemporaries, he wrote in his most influential tract, Signposts on the Road, composed in prison prior to his execution in 1966, did not approach the Qur’an for the purpose of acquiring culture and information, nor for taste or enjoyment. They approached it in order to act on what they heard immediately, ‘as a soldier on the battlefield reads “Today’s Bulletin” so that he knows what is to be done’. There are plenty of verses in the Qur’an which, taken singly and out of context, can be used as ‘operational briefings’ in the Islamist ‘war against paganism’.

What was particularly disturbing about the New York attack - apart from the appalling casualties - was the technical proficiency with which it was executed. As a graduate of Cairo University’s faculty of architecture, as well as from Hamburg, Atta knew exactly where to hit the buildings, using planes at the start of transcontinental domestic flights that were fully loaded with fuel. It was the fires, not the impact of the planes, that destroyed the structural supports, causing the buildings to collapse with devastating loss of life. In terms of sophistication and accuracy, the attack on New York had the ‘surgical precision’ claimed by the US in its bombing of Taliban positions in Afghanistan: the crucial difference being the use of living human brains instead of electronic guidance systems to actually hit the targets. Bergen draws our attention to the use of ‘twenty-first-century communications and weapons technology in the service of the most extreme, retrograde reading of holy war’ as well as to the ‘grafting of entirely modern sensibilities and techniques’ on to a ‘pre-modern’ religious message. But the issue is even more complicated than this.

The Islamist message, though it draws on ‘pre-modern’ readings of the Qur’an and other religious texts, is wholly modern in its revolutionary existentialism. The first Islamist group to emerge in Egypt after Sayyid Qutb’s execution was inspired not only by Islamic writings, but also by the ‘propaganda of the deed’ advocated by ultra-leftist radicals such as the German Baader-Meinhof gang. This unholy alliance between pre-modern and modern pervades the entire Muslim world, where modernist or accommo- dationist readings of jihad (‘struggle’ or ‘holy war’) have been undermined by radical conservatives, many of them funded and supported by Saudi Arabia. As Bergen points out, the ‘Afghan Arabs’ originally recruited for the jihad against the Russians who now form the core of al-Qaeda, were initially funded by such respectable institutions as the Saudi-financed Muslim World League. The ‘pattern of Saudi funding of militant Islamist organisations, known as riyalpolitik, which is supposed to shore up Saudi legitimacy ... actually undermines it, because it funds the very groups most opposed to the Saudi regime’.

This contradiction, however, may suggest that bin Laden’s aims are less far-reaching than is usually supposed. For while he fulminates against the ‘Jews and Crusaders’, drawing his supporters from the quintessential^ modern, alienated, anomic disciples of Sayyid Qutb, who share the Egyptian martyr’s disdain for the materialism and spiritual emptiness of the West and its ‘pagan’ imitators among the ruling elites of the Islamic world, bin Laden’s targets are political rather than cultural. His rage is primarily against Saudi Arabia, particularly at the presence of infidel American troops in the peninsula, the ‘Land of the Two Sanctuaries’: ‘For all his denunciations of the Jews, al-Qaeda has so far never attacked an Israeli or Jewish target.’

British and European governments have made it clear that they believe a Middle East settlement is a prerequisite to keeping the Arab states on side in the ‘war against terrorism’. The Algerian, Egyptian, Syrian, Russian, Pakistani, Indian, Turkish and several other governments have joined the anti-terrorism bandwagon with varying degrees of enthusiasm, seeing in it an opportunity to enlist international support for the suppression of domestic opposition or local nationalist revolts. But if Bergen is correct, the ‘war against terrorism’ - with the very uncertain consequences it holds for the Middle East, and Central and South Asia, not to mention human rights across the world - is an over-reaction to what was admittedly an appalling act of mass murder. The origins of this atrocity, as the bin Laden story makes clear, lies in Saudi Arabia, both in the way the ruling family has tried to buy off religious opposition by sending it abroad, and in the industrialised world’s reckless dependency on inexpensive Saudi oil. No solution which fails to address the Saudi-American nexus at the heart of this crisis can carry much hope for success.

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, 7 December 2001. The book reviewed was:

Peter L. Bergen (2001) Holy War Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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