Like sixteenth-century corsairs sweeping across the seas to raid and raze coastal towns, contemporary Jihadists strike around the globe. Their latest attacks fill the headlines: London, Sharm al-Sheikh, Bali, Delhi, Amman, Karachi. Unlike pirates of the past, however, today's terrorists are not motivated by the prospects of plunder and ransom, but dedicate themselves to death and destruction three hundred dead in the last six attacks, a thousand since 9/11, not counting the carnage in Iraq or the casualties of continuing terrorist campaigns in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Russia, or Algeria. Thousands since Osama bin Laden declared war on the infidels and apostates in 1996.
It is a "war" without battlefields waged against people celebrating at hotels, eating in restaurants, shopping at markets, riding buses or the metro. This kind of terrorism bears little resemblance to the often symbolic and more precisely-targeted violence of past terrorism. The paramount goal now is body count.
The terrorists' playbooks are by now familiar. A car bomb explodes on a crowded street. A backpack or vest, packed with explosives, surrounded with nails, bolts, and ball bearings to create shrapnel is left in a public place or carried into a crowd by a suicide attacker. One terrorist bomb on average yields fifteen to twenty deaths. Multiple coordinated attacks display organizational capability and increase casualties. It matters little who the victims are. They do not become victims because they were targets. They are posthumously labeled targets because they happened to be victims.
But who are these killers in the name of Jihad? What drives them to indiscriminate murder? What do they want? What do they expect to achieve?
It is too easy to dismiss them as crazy fanatics although their behavior can hardly be portrayed as normal. Mentally, they occupy their own universe. Understanding this universe is essential to understanding their mindset, their worldview, their concept of warfare, their operational code.
In previous conflicts, great attention was devoted to understanding the enemy. Staff officers struggled to get inside the heads of enemy commanders. During the Cold War, Kremlinologists dedicated themselves to understanding how the Politburo thought about the contest. Less attention has been devoted to understanding the mindset of our current Jihadist foes, for several reasons.
Historically, efforts to achieve international cooperation against terrorism required maintaining a narrow focus on terrorist tactics. We deliberately defined terrorism according to the quality of the act, not the identity of the perpetrator or the nature of the cause. Inquiries into terrorists' motives risked tumbling into distracting debates about just and unjust causes and whether one man's terrorist was another man's freedom fighter.
Instead, research focused on individual pathology. What led someone to become a terrorist? Was there a terrorist or terrorist-prone personality? Or perhaps an inner ear malfunction that led from late walking to airline hijacking? Extensive studies produced no evidence that terrorists were crazy in the clinical sense, although some clearly were sociopaths. They shared the mindset of most true-believers, seeing the world in black and white, us versus them; they were action-oriented, fascinated with the firearms and explosives guns were their icons. Early research did identify sub-cultures of violence, like street gangs, with their own systems of values and codes of behaviour it remains a useful framework for analysing today's terrorists.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, however, there was little interest in frameworks for analysis. Terrorists were demonized as pure evil, requiring no further inquiry. Explanation risked appearing to give the terrorists legitimacy. Political correctness played a role too. The Jihadists selectively draw their ideology from Islam, making it perilous to explore without giving offence to all Muslims, although Muslims equally are offended by wanton killing in the name of their faith.
It would be foolish to ignore the heavy volume of communications from our terrorist foes. The Jihadists, from Osama bin Laden on down, have a lot to say. Even as propaganda, it tells us about how they view the conflict, how they think about strategy, how they assess their own situation, where they disagree.
The Jihadists see war between themselves and infidels not as a finite undertaking a Western view but as a perpetual condition. For centuries, Islam, in their view, has been on the defensive, under assault. The vast territory it once controlled, from the Pyrenees to India and beyond, has been reduced by invasion and riven by internal dissension.
In the eyes of the Jihadists, the assault that began centuries ago continues. American and allied troops are in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf States, and Central Asia while Palestine is occupied by Israelis who count on Western support. Apostate governments have joined the aggressors. The devout everywhere suffer brutal oppression.
Videotapes of atrocities against Muslims in places like Bosnia and Chechnya are used extensively in Jihadist recruiting efforts while al Qaeda's leaders provide historical context by reminding their listeners of the cruelties of the Christian crusades or the conquering Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century. The message is one of continuing aggression against Islam.
This aggression will continue, the Jihadists warn. Muslims must not wait until the infidels destroy their faith but rally to support on-going Jihads and expand the arena of combat to other zones.
The threat comes not only from external aggression. Pervasive Western culture with its heretical notions of man-made (as opposed to God-given) law, gender equality, licentious behavior, recreational drugs, commercial pornography, prevalent adultery, tolerated prostitution, mandatory assimilation, threatens to corrupt the very soul of the believer.
Violence is justified, the Jihadists argue. Only by embracing Jihad, not as a spiritual quest, but as armed action can Islam defend itself. Action galvanizes and instructs the believers. Action propagates Jihadist ideology. Action unifies the cause. Action shields the soul. It is a powerful polemic, filled with references to humiliation, shame, and honor, and as such messages always are, it is not without appeal to restless young men filled with natural rage.
Jihadist objectives combine political demands with transcendental dreams. Infidels must be driven from the Arabian Peninsula, from Iraq, from the entire Middle East. Apostate governments must be toppled. Israel must be wiped off the map. National borders must be erased, the caliphate restored, God's word imposed.
Cosmic goals and concepts of continuous struggle reduce the requirement for coherent strategy. At times, Jihadist leaders offer sequential roadmaps: we must drive the infidels out of Saudi Arabia, they say, topple its corrupt rulers, seize control of its oil wealth to pursue the jihad. Or more recently: we must drive the infidels out of Iraq, create an emirate, transform it into a stable caliphate that spreads its power throughout the Middle East.
But these scenarios are notional and opportunistic. Jihadists have no need for timetables. No requirements to measure progress. Allah remains the ultimate strategist. The Jihadist goal is building an army of believers, not taking ground. Strategic objectives do not dictate action action itself is the objective. Continued operations are imperative. They maintain al Qaeda's brand name, bolster its leaders, attract new recruits, encourage financial contributions.
Recruiting is continuous, not merely to serve operational needs, but as an end in itself a missionary enterprise aimed at spreading Jihadist ideology. Joining Jihad is a multi-step process. Only by demonstrating increasing commitment, do young men some alienated, some angry, some adrift, some looking for greater meaning in their lives the progress from acolytes to terrorist operatives, shedding feelings of humiliation and dishonor for membership in a warrior sub-culture.
The Jihadist operational code derives from a variety of sources including those portions of the Koran and Hadith that address the armed struggle of early Islam. Indeed, the verses often cited by the Jihadists reflect the pattern of pre-Islamic tribal warfare that prevailed on the Arabian Peninsula. Warfare then was almost continuous, but this was desert warfare that did not permit large-scale operations or lengthy campaigns. Warfare comprised isolated raids, a word still used by today's Jihadists. There were few great battles. One achieved victory through tenacity and trickery. Combatants lie in wait; beleaguer the enemy, attack when he is inattentive, making his life untenable.
The operational code emphasizes process rather than progress. Fighting is a religious obligation. Its benefits are individual and internal. Strength derives from conviction, not weapons. Jihadists know they cannot defeat the West in open battle, but they believe that their spiritual superiority will overcome the West's superior military technology.
Raids are opportunities to demonstrate personal conviction, courage, and prowess. There is an element of showmanship in all Jihadist attacks multiple coordinated attacks display organizational capability; daring assaults demonstrate warriors' skills; suicide attacks prove faith and worthiness before God. We may ask ourselves, what we would fight for? Jihadists show what they will die for. Heroism and sacrifice are more important than the outcome of the battle, with paradise guaranteed to those who sacrifice all. Death is not defeat, but tactical failure is to be avoided. Operations must appear successful. This may explain the Jihadists' preference for soft targets and their reluctance to deviate from well-established tactics. The 9/11 attacks were a bold gamble.
We are still uncertain about what al Qaeda's planners hoped to achieve from 9/11. Did they believe that a single spectacular blow would prompt a rapid American retreat from the Middle East? Or did they anticipate a ferocious American response that would in turn precipitate a global Intifada? Would 9/11 swell the ranks of the Jihad or send al Qaeda's allies scurrying for cover?
Unity of belief does not banish debate from the ranks of the Jihadists. Apparently, not all thought it wise to launch a terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia, traditionally a pillar of support for al Qaeda. Subsequent communications asserted that the official casualty figures from the terrorist attacks in Riyadh undercounted dead infidels and over counted dead Muslims, an indicator of al Qaeda's sensitivity on this issue.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number two and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda's field commander in Iraq, clearly differ on the wisdom of attacking Shi'ites and beheading hostages. The old veteran has counseled the young firebrand on the need to maintain popular support among all Muslims in the battle to drive the United States out of Iraq. Zawahiri worries about "hearts and minds." He makes strategic calculations, not wanting to anger Iran. Adopting a "If you're not with us, you're against us" posture, Zarqawi responds that he will continue to target infidels and heretics.
This doctrinal debate may reflect personal rivalries. Zarqawi was not al Qaeda's first choice to lead the Jihad in Iraq. Only after finding that he had most of the militant Sunnis under his banner did al Qaeda's historic leaders open negotiations with him. In return for his organization's declaration of loyalty to Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi obtained al Qaeda's endorsement. That made him a rival to Zawahiri over who will ultimately inherit bin Laden's mantle the old Egyptian counselor or the Jordanian field commander.
Zawahiri is at a disadvantage here. Not only is he far from Jihad's central battlefield in Iraq, which Zarqawi reminds us in his communications, but Zawahiri's influence will erode if he appears too moderate. In a sub-culture of fanatics, it is difficult to be less extreme than the most extreme, and retain leadership. Anyone who counsels constraint risks being branded a traitor. Extremists do not moderate their message or their tactics to win votes from the center. They provoke polarization to energize their base and radicalize those on its fringe. In terrorist group dynamics, the most violent eventually replace the ideologues.
The issue has surfaced again in the recent hotel bombings. Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility, but seeing Jordanians demonstrate against the carnage, the group promptly issued an unusual second statement claiming that the hotels were attacked only after the operation's planners ascertained that they were "centers for launching war on Islam" and "favorite places for the work of the intelligence organizations, especially those of the Americans, the Israelis, and some Western European countries." Zarqawi may calculate that those alienated by the bombings are not likely to be supporters of al Qaeda's brand of Jihad anyway. Zarqawi's constituents do not attend posh weddings at Western hotels. They are more likely to view the attacks as daring blows against traitorous apostates. And if the Amman bombings provoke a wave of repression in Jordan, Zarqawi will recruit its refugees.
The Jihadist enterprise was always more than al Qaeda. It is a universe of like-minded fanatics that contains galaxies of loosely-associated groups spread across sixty countries. It is a network of proselytizers, recruiters, trainers, and itinerant jihad expeditors. Connectivity is murky.
The enterprise is constantly morphing. The loss of accessible bases in Afghanistan and a more hostile operating environment worldwide have forced it to decentralize. Locals play a much larger role in financing, planning, preparing, and executing attacks. We are now dealing with neighborhood al Qaedas.
How much of a role the historic leadership may play in specific operations remains uncertain. Some analysts believe it has been reduced to mere exhortation, but others argue that it would be premature to write off the center. Al Qaeda's leaders continue to communicate publicly and clandestinely from their hideouts. Recruits from around the world still slip off to training camps in Pakistan. Proposals for new operations were still being pitched to the center as late as 2004. Military commanders believe that al Qaeda is playing an increasing role in the insurgency in Afghanistan. It is not known where the leader of the July 7 attacks in London made his final statement, but it was spliced to a message from Zawahiri, although the two men do not appear on camera together. How do we interpret this?
The Jihadist global network benefits enormously from the Internet. One of the most significant technological developments in contemporary terrorism, the Internet allows direct unedited communications between the terrorists and their audiences.
On September 11, 2001, there were a handful of Jihadist web sites. Today there are thousands, evidence of al Qaeda's success in driving ideological debate. Jihadists publish on-line magazines, explain their actions, debate doctrine, and provide instruction from casing targets to making bombs. Al Qaeda even recently posted job advertisements on the Internet, asking for volunteers with knowledge of Arabic and English to fill vacant positions for video production and editing.
Skilled propagandists, the Jihadists aim specific messages at segmented audiences: fighters, potential recruits, sympathetic Muslims, the broader community, those opposed to their own governments' policies.
Just as recruiting videos emphasize atrocities and suffering, web casts of actual attacks assassinations, bombings, and beheadings appeal to violence-prone young men as fulfillment of revenge fantasies, vicarious blooding, and encouragement to violence. The exploitation of electronic communication allows the democratization of violence a supply-side push toward individual extremism. "Buyers" can shop for belief systems that submerge them in a virtual group, encourage and approve their violent behavior.
How would the Jihadists assess their current situation? An aide briefing Osama bin Laden on al Qaeda's balance sheet today would have to admit that it has been a difficult fifty months since September 11. The training camps have been dismantled; thousands of the brothers have been arrested worldwide, including some of the organization's key operational planners. Top leaders are laying low or on the run. Cash flow has been squeezed. It is now more dangerous to send messages, cross borders, move money.
And yet, al Qaeda's leaders might at the same time see positive results. They could claim that the Jihadist enterprise has survived the infidels' mightiest blows. Its ideology has spread. Recruiting continues. And the pace of its terrorist operations has accelerated. Since 9/11, major attacks have been carried out on an average of one every two and half months, not counting the escalating insurgency in Afghanistan, the continuing terrorist campaign in Kashmir, the fighting in Iraq, or Chechen resistance in Russia.
Although American intelligence has dismissed assertions of a pre-war alliance between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, President Bush and Osama bin Laden would agree that Iraq is now the central front of Jihad. As the Jihadists see it, the U.S. led invasion brought them great benefits. It angered Muslims and split the infidels. And America's rapid military "victory" has put its soldiers where they are vulnerable to the kind of warfare the jihadists wage best and Americans hate most an open-ended, slow-bleeding conflict that stretches resources, strains morale, and erodes public support. It took ten years to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Will American troops still be in Iraq in 2013?
In a long fight, many things might happen. A successful attack with heavy U.S. casualties or the slowly mounting toll could tip the scales toward a more rapid American withdrawal. Open civil war might break out in Iraq making America's continued occupation untenable. Revelations of new prisoner abuses could further discredit U.S. efforts. External events natural disasters, new crises elsewhere, or domestic political upheavals might change priorities.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi insurgency attracts new recruits, provides them with valuable field experience, and is creating a new cohort of veterans who will disperse to raise new Jihads elsewhere.
We must expect to live with this phenomenon for years to come. While we have significantly reduced al Qaeda's operational capabilities, we have not dented the determination of its adherents to continue their struggle nor have we affectively disrupted their recruiting. Against the Soviets in Afghanistan, in Afghanistan's civil war, or waging war against the West, the Jihadists have been at this for a quarter century. They beleaguer us, attack when we are inattentive, attempt to make our lives untenable.