Al-Qaeda: A New Phase of Soft Power Ideology?
(Mint Press)— Seventeen documents released from Osama Bin Laden’s personal correspondence give new insight into the ideology and strategies of the weakened al-Qaeda organization. The documents, totaling 175 pages, were recovered during the American raid on Bin Laden’s Abbatabod compound last year.
The deceased terrorist leader remained an elusive figure, evading the U.S. military for more than a decade following the devastating 9/11 attacks. The letters, however, do not have the tone of the charismatic, powerful figure who orchestrated mass killings; rather readers see a distraught figure, vexed by the disorganized, fractured al-Qaeda organization and worried about its future.
While al-Qaeda, the international terrorist group responsible for the worst attacks on American soil may be on the decline, their proliferation of ideas in the English speaking world allows similar, but unaffiliated groups to carry on with attacks against the West.
Al-Qaeda, A fraying network
The documents released earlier this week are part of a much larger cachet of flash drives, cds and computer files seized in the dramatic raid on the Pakistani compound that left Osama Bin Laden and members of his family dead.
Bin Laden was born into a wealthy Saudi Arabian family and gained combat experience fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980’s. However, it was the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that put the nascent al-Qaeda network on the intelligence community’s radar.
Most Americans didn’t know of Osama Bin Laden until the attacks of September 11, 2001, the worst attack on American soil by a foreign enemy. However, the once powerful leader issuing fatwas and threatening messages against America appeared more reserved and contemplative in his correspondence with other al-Qaeda members. At one point he openly lamented the losses his group experienced during American incursions in Afghanistan. Concerning to him as well was his lack of control over the rogue, offshoot groups that did not have the discipline or training of his closest cohort.
Citing “increased mistakes” by his “brothers” in Yemen and Iraq, Bin Laden warned against attacks that could lead to the deaths of Muslim civilians, urging militants to carefully target attacks against America, and American infrastructure abroad. These mistakes, he noted, have lead to an increasingly tarnished image in the Muslim world where once sympathetic communities turned against his radical ideology and brutal killings.
His condemnation was not unfounded, as more than 10 years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, it became clear that Bin Laden had lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the global Muslim community. Opinion polls conducted in 2011 by the Pew Research Center show plummeting approval of al-Qaeda among Muslim communities with approval as low as 5 percent in Turkey, and less than 2 percent in Lebanon. Jordan, along with other Muslim majority countries showed double digit drops in approval ratings in the 10 years following the 9/11 attacks.
Religious war and building new alliances
Recognizing the waning public support for al-Qaeda, Bin Laden frequently wrote to the cadre of al-Qaeda leadership: Ayman Zawahari, American born Anwar Awlaki, and others about the need to seek conversions in the Christian world. Invoking language that frequently referenced The Crusades, Bin Laden challenged the Vatican, charging it with losing an ideological battle with the Islamic faith.
Passages from his writings reveal a disciplined approach to considering which Christian communities would be prime candidates for conversion. Young, disaffected Irish Catholics were considered because they had, as Bin Laden saw, deep held sympathies for the “Palestinian cause.”
Writing about scandals in the Catholic Church, Bin Laden opined, “The other matter is the increasing anger in Ireland towards the Catholic Church…after exposing a number of sex scandals and others. The people there are moving towards secularism, after it was the most religious of atheist Europe, and why do we not face them with Islam?”
Bin Laden also sought to create a message to Arab Christians of the Middle East, “calling them to Islam” and “cautioning them against cooperating with enemy invaders.” However, when considering the tactics about how best to do this Bin Laden acquiesced to the idea that attacks on Christians in the Middle East would not draw many converts to Bin Laden’s conservative brand of Sunni Isam saying, “But the attacks on the Christians in Iraq, like the Baghdad attack and what took place earlier in Mosul and others does not help us to convey the message. Even if the ones we are talking to have some grudge against the mother church, they will not grasp in general the targeting of their public, women, children, and men in their church during mass.”
Al-Qaeda, not surprisingly, has made few inroads into Christian communities across the Middle East and Europe. The overt appeals to other religious communities are perhaps part of a transitional phase for al-Qaeda. The once hardline terrorist group it appears, is serving more as an ideological inspiration for other international jihadist movements.
However, it is their attempt to reach out to the English speaking world that has prompted some to say that al-Qaeda is becoming a “soft power”, focusing on providing spiritual inspiration to those who will carry on their battles against the West.
Boko Haram, Taliban, and al-Shabaab carry on work of al-Qaeda
Bin Laden, resigned to the fact that he no longer commanded the same authority, penned copious letters to other like-minded terrorist organizations across the world. Bin Laden remained in close consultation with Mullah Omar (leader of the Taliban) while also facilitating the merger between his own al-Qaeda organization and the al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia during 2010. Although Bin Laden thought about changing the name of his organization, he opted to keep news of the merger a quiet and retained the al-Qaeda name.
Like al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab are a hard-line Islamic fundamentalist group that has sought to overthrow the western backed government in Mogadishu. Seeking to implement their conservative interpretation of Shari’a law, the group has carried out numerous attacks against military and civilian targets.
Similarly, The Boko Haram of Nigeria are responsible for dozens of attacks against Christians and government buildings in recent months. Sectarian violence in Nigeria is nothing new, and the revelation that Bin Laden had been in contact with the group comes as no surprise to those in the intelligence community.
Inspire Magazine: an appeal to recruit in the English speaking world
In an attempt to reach the English speaking world, al-Qaeda launched the online publication, “Inspire” in June 2010. Catering to a community of sympathetic, but unaffiliated members of the broader jihadist community, “home grown terrorists” born and raised in Western countries could become the “new” al-Qaeda. These new domestic threats are part of a diffuse, decentralized community of like-minded terrorists, sharing ideas through online publications.
Jihadi fundamentalism, of course has roots preceding Osama Bin Laden. The Egyptian academic Sayyid Qutb is widely credited as being the spiritual and philosophical father of the radical ideology popular amongst various terrorist groups today. Writing about the excesses and indecencies he observed in the United States, Qutb offered his own conservative Islamist path that he thought would create an ideal, moral society.
By using the internet to disseminate Islamist texts (many of them authored by Qutb), individuals with no actual connection to al-Qaeda or their leadership have been able to organize and plot their own attacks. According to a 2010 report by the Rand Corporation there were 46 incidences of “domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism” in the U.S. between 2001 and 2009. These cases involved 125 people, many of whom were born in the United States.
The marked increase in attacks by U.S. Muslims, experts caution, is of concern but does not warrant a new policy that aggregates all American Muslims into categories of “terrorists” and “radicals”. In fact, of America’s estimated 2-5 million Muslims, only a small minority is thought to have become radicalized.
The “Inspire” publication is perhaps part of a PR campaign, to show the resilience of the original, now nearly defunct al-Qaeda organization. Anwar Awlaki, the American born editor of the publication, was killed last year in Yemen during a U.S. drone strike.
While it is difficult to determine if al-Qaeda will work to regroup and rebuild their organization, the careful release of these 17 documents offers a startling snapshot of a group perhaps transitioning to a “soft power” that is, an ideological inspiration for others, rather than a firebrand militant group.
President Obama, seeking reelection this November, has claimed the Osama Bin Laden killing as a major success for his administration. These documents, indicating a weakened al-Qaeda have been released during the beginning of what will likely be a hard fought campaign against assumed GOP rival Mitt Romney.
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