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Al Qaeda is one of the most feared terrorist organizations that has ever existed. The attacks carried out on September 11, 2001 forever changed the world’s view of terrorism and entirely transformed the agenda of international affairs, forcing perhaps the world’s greatest superpower to launch two long-lasting wars (Gerges, 2011). It can be argued that the devastating events of that day helped Al Qaeda to do more than kill several thousands of people—the goal of the violent act was to disseminate terror in the Western world (Seib & Janbek, 2011).
The reports and images of the September 11th events were quickly circulated by the media, thereby advancing the political agenda of the group. The attacks inexorably shifted the focus of global politics, forcing the world to recognize a “small group of Muslim extremists” as a threat to Western values, even to the point where the latter became the embodiment of a terrorist organization for all Westerners (Gerges, 2011). Its leader, Osama bin Laden, became a symbol of Al Qaeda and its pernicious ideology of global jihad (Seib & Janbek, 2011).
The Emergence of Al Qaeda
Al Qaeda started as a part of the anti-Soviet movement in Afghanistan in the early 1980s (Byman, 2015). The politics of the region were already turbulent at the time; however, the Soviet invasion, which was meant to help to strengthen the burgeoning communist regime in the country, led to the wide-spread uprising of Islamist and tribal fighters. These groups were supported by President Carter who, along with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, provided them with funding and training (Byman, 2015).
However, it is widely considered that jihadist ideology existed before that time, even though it was not anywhere close to what we observe today. The militarists fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan gave rise to the broader jihadist movement in their local communities. They were supported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) throughout the 1980s, even before the Soviet troops had invaded the country (Byman, 2015). According to Byman, the United States, along with Saudi Arabia, provided the groups of anti-communist fighters (collectively known as the mujahedin) with military aid, the cost of which amounted to several billions of dollars (Byman, 2015).
The counterinsurgency operation launched by the Soviet forces resulted in the deaths of around one million civilians and more than 75,000 mujahedin (Byman, 2015). Therefore, many residents of Afghanistan had to seek refuge in Pakistan, making that county an epicenter of anti-Soviet resistance. Renowned Islamic activist Shaykh Abdullah Azzam made a visit to Pakistan, where he supported the mujahedin. He also asked his fellow Muslims to assist Afghanistan in fighting the Soviets. It can be argued that the anti-Soviet struggle turned him into the most prominent ideologue of radical Islam. In 1984, Azzam wrote a religious decree titled “Defense of Muslim Lands” (also known as fatwa), where he claimed that a territory rightfully belonging to Muslims had been desecrated by infidels (Byman, 2015).
He argued that the fight against the Soviet troops was a communal duty of all Muslims. The ideas of Azzam quickly gained traction because of the brutality of the Soviet military operation that completely devastated Afghanistan. The notion that all Muslims constitute one community that was only developing at the time became widely popular among numerous Islamist groups of the region (Byman, 2015). Many jihadists from Pakistan, Libya, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia were inspired by that idea and decided to join the struggle of Afghan fighters. It is widely considered that Azzam was a mentor of bin Laden, who used his lessons for “mobilizing the collective will of Muslims” (Gerges, 2011). After the Soviets lost the war, Azzam created the “Services Office” in Afghanistan that produced propaganda literature and was involved in transporting jihadists to battlegrounds (Byman, 2015).
At the same time, bin Laden opened a training camp called Maasadat al-Ansar that prepared a ragtag group of fighters for a new war. Even though the two ideologues of radical Islam were initially united by the same ideological roots, later they had a major disagreement over the course they should take in their struggle. Azzam was concerned with toppling the communist regime in Afghanistan and also wanted to liberate Palestine from what he saw as a non-Muslim occupation (Byman, 2015). Bin Laden, on the other hand, wanted to take part in the intra-Afghan fight. Therefore, after amassing an enormous amount of wealth, which further complicated the relationship between the two Islamists, he decided to establish an organization that would start a movement that would radically differ from that of the Afghan Arabs. To this end, he announced the creation of Al Qaeda at a secret meeting in Peshawar in 1988 (Byman, 2015).
At the time, Al Qaeda was a unique terrorist group in the region. The organization borrowed many political strategies from the Cold War doctrines of the Soviet regime (Ryan, 2013). A careful study of their writings reveals that some of them take the form of Islamic prayers and even mention numerous verses from Quran; nonetheless, the majority of the arguments presented there are similar to the justifications communist insurgents used for their subversive activities. The political-military policy of Al Qaeda could not be squared with the moral framework of traditional Muslims (Ryan, 2013). The defenders of Al Qaeda organization who could not justify some of the despicable actions of the group with the teachings of Quran referred to sunan kawniyyah or universal laws that allowed them to excuse the use of despicable warfare tactics (Ryan, 2013). The introduction of secular reasoning into the doctrine of Al Qaeda made it radically different from other Islamist terrorist groups that existed in the region at the time.
It can be argued that Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other forms of Islamist terrorism are not only unique in their approach to terrorism as a political weapon, but also are more pernicious and lethal than their predecessors. According to Hoffman, Al Qaeda has mutated into new and more dangerous forms (2008). He argues that it happened because of the exceptional value of its propaganda, reinforced by the determination of the organization’s leadership who managed to survive (Hoffman, 2008). Moreover, “the imperative of individual jihad fused with collective revenge” completely changed the notion of responsibility for radical Islamists around the world (Hoffman, 2008). In the words of bin Laden, “warding off the American enemy is the top duty after faith” (Hoffman, 2008). Spreading the idea that jihad is obligatory for Muslims of the world, he managed to stoke resentment against their murder in Iraq and Palestine. Al Qaeda’s propaganda materials disseminated the message of noble vengeance, thus making the idea of guerrilla warfare more attractive for many jihadists who wanted to engage in battle (Hoffman, 2008).
There was no historical precedent for what we observe today as a commonplace method for cultivating fear among target populations. During recent decades, suicide bombings have transformed from an uncommon tactic of terrorist organizations to a habitually used one (Byman, 2015). However, it is important to keep in mind that the Quran exhorts believers not to kill themselves (Byman, 2015). The religion of Islam strongly opposes the act of taking one’s own life, regardless of the underlying objective of the deed. Suicide bombings were not used by terrorist organizations until 1983, when Hezbollah employed this tactic to destroy the U.S. embassy and military facilities in Lebanon (Byman, 2015). The findings of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism reveal that support for suicide attacks among Islamist groups was relatively modest in the 1980s (Byman, 2015).
However, during the 1990s, the world saw dozens of violent attacks, with the use of individuals who personally detonated explosives in order to inflict the maximum possible damage (Byman, 2015). In 1995 alone, the number of suicide bombings reached its highest point, making it the worst year of the decade (Byman, 2015). It is worth noting, however, that only a couple of those attacks were perpetrated by Salafi-jihadists. Most of these were carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a secular organization that wanted to liberate Tamil (Byman, 2015). The tectonic shift in the attitude toward suicide bombings happened when Palestinians used them against Israel to devastating effect in the 1990s (Byman, 2015). A prominent leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad Zawahiri ordered a violent attack with the use of a suicide bomber against Egypt’s prime minister in 1993 (Byman, 2015).
Even though the attempt to eliminate the official failed, the event helped to popularize the warfare tactic among other Islamist groups. Numerous members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad joined Al Qaeda and played a key role in influencing bin Laden’s position on suicide bombings (Byman, 2015). One year after the Egypt attack, a group of Al Qaeda fighters was sent to Lebanon to participate in joint training with Hezbollah (Byman, 2015). Even though the ideology of Lebanese combatants differed from that of Al Qaeda, the leadership of both organizations shared an enemy—the United States. That is why, despite the religious differences between Shi’a and Salafi jihadists, the two became allies. Lebanese Hezbollah shared the details of the Marine barracks attack with Al Qaeda, providing them with the necessary knowledge for carrying out future bombings (Byman, 2015).
It can be argued that the new warfare tactic, which became a hallmark of the organization, made this form of Islamic terrorism unique and exceptionally dangerous. The use of suicide bombers in terrorist attacks reached a critical point in 2000 when Hamas employed this method of spreading terror during the second Palestinian uprising, also known as intifada (Byman, 2015). Another front for the use of suicide bombing opened when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 (Byman, 2015). Al Qaeda employed this warfare tactic against American troops and their supporters in Iraqi government, as well as numerous members of the Shi’ite sect, who were hated by Salafi-jihadists.
Many Islamic theologians developed a theoretical underpinning for the use of suicide bombings. Well-known expert in Sunni theology Yusuf al-Qaradawi employed syllogistic reasoning in order to support those attacks. He argued that self-killing during bombing cannot be considered suicide, which he called an act of despair, but rather should be treated as martyrdom (Byman, 2015). Therefore, he reached the conclusion that a suicide bombing is a “heroic act of choosing to suffer death in the cause of Allah, and that is why it is considered by most Muslim scholars as one of the greatest forms of jihad” (Byman, 2015).
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The spread of a highly contagious form of Islamic terrorism could be seen in Syria, which recently became “the center of the world for jihadist militancy” (Lister, 2015). According to Lister, the Syrian conflict has become more than a clash between rebels and the country’s government, and now it attracts a large number of disparate radical groups willing to fight for the political-military cause of jihad (2015). Around 30,000 men of non-Syrian origin have joined opposition forces in Syria since 2011 (Lister, 2015). An intelligence report from the United Kingdom shows that almost 700 U.K. citizens have left the country in order to join Syrian jihadists (Lister, 2015). That is why it can be argued that Al Qaeda and other forms of Islamist terrorism are much more dangerous and lethal in their current form.
The Challenge of Conceptualizing Terrorism
Even though the term “terrorism” entered political discourse in the late 1960s and early 1970s, its concept remains widely contested to this day (Weinberg, Pedahzur, & Hirsch-Hoefler, 2004). Even at the time of its appearance in the media, many scholars pointed to the fact that articulating an exact definition of terrorism that would acquire a wide recognition of those who are directly involved in the study of the subject was extremely difficult (Weinberg et al., 2004). Walter Laqueur went so far as to argue that terrorism had so many different manifestations, and the circumstances of its occurrence varied so much, that it was impossible to come up with a comprehensive definition of the phenomenon (Weinberg et al., 2004). Another prominent writer concerned with exploring the field stated that, since the beginning of terrorism studies in the late 1960s, not much progress in conceptualizing the controversial issue has been made (Weinberg et al., 2004).
The meaning of the term “terrorism” significantly changed after the tragic events of September 11, 2001 (Blocher, 2011). Many international security strategies, such as the U.N. High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Changes, the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, and the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy, among others, consider terrorism the biggest threat to the existing world order and its security (Blocher, 2011). The public reaction to the label “terrorist” or “terrorism” reflects the fact that those words are charged with negative emotions related to the desire to diffuse danger. The fear of terrorism is exacerbated by the intrinsic characteristics of the phenomenon, namely, that attacks are often unpredictable and extremely horrific. Taking into consideration that people upon hearing the term “terrorism” immediately make assumptions about the nature of the acts of violence, the subject deserves a serious analysis (Weinberg et al., 2004).
The Search for Definition
Some scholars compared the struggle to find a universal definition of terrorism to the hunt for the Holy Grail (Blocher, 2011). Others argued that it will always remain abstract because “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” (Blocher, 2011).
The term “terrorism” has often been overused, and has accumulated many social and political implications. Those who support different governments facing terrorism use the word to condemn non-state organizations using aggression, intimidation, and other illegal means against states. However, there is also a tendency to claim that state actors are “the real terrorists” (Scheffler, 2006). The accused point to their accusers in order to charge them with political liability associated with violent actions, thereby adding more ambiguity to the polemic.
In the search for an unambiguous definition of terrorism, some scholars have tried to focus on the use of justificatory conclusions for violent acts made by perpetrators. This approach resulted in the creation of an umbrella definition that included all types of “politically or ideologically motivated violence that is directed against civilians or noncombatants” (Scheffler, 2006). This description of terrorism became so popular that it was called the “orthodox definition” by Jeff McMahan (as cited in Scheffler, 2006). However, it can be argued that such a broad definition carries significant border and membership issues that it cannot address (Weinberg et al., 2004). For example, it fails to make a distinction between guerrilla warfare and urban guerilla warfare (Weinberg et al., 2004). Media adds further confusion to the challenge of conceptualizing terrorism by habitually using the term for piracy or assassinations (Weinberg et al., 2004).
The lack of proper synonyms for the word terrorism stretches its meaning to the extremely broad category of violent acts (Weinberg et al., 2004). It can be said that endorsement of the broad definition of terrorism and its subsequent overuse leads to the oversimplification of the complex nature of politically motivated terrorism, adding unnecessary confusion to its moral terrain. To address this issue, some scholars have started exploring the phenomenon in the framework of “physical or social distance between the act in question and the observer” (Weinberg et al., 2004).
Using this approach, they do not identify as terrorism those acts of political violence that have been carried out at relevant proximity to a spectator. On the other hand, incidents that are geographically or psychologically distant from the public observing them do not fall into the category of terrorism and are being labeled with more neutral terms (Weinberg et al., 2004). Another approach to categorizing acts of politically motivated violence as proposed by Alex Schmid significantly reduces the level of uncertainty related to the orthodox definition of terrorism. The scholar argues that non-state terrorism should be separated into four separate discourse categories: academic arena, official state’s statements and legal documents, public arena, and “the discussions of those who oppose many of our societies’ values and perform violent acts” (Weinberg et al., 2004).
Even though there is a consensus on some components of the crime of terrorism, a closer examination of its definition reveals that the term is still highly general and suffers from many flaws (Blocher, 2011; Weinberg et al., 2004). It other words, it is so vague and abstract that it allows the lessening of many properties of different acts of violence and throws them into the broad category of terrorism. This means that in the absence of a proper definition of politically driven violence that would be widely accepted in both public and academic circles, the media might “climb too high on the ladder of political abstraction” and use the lack of consensus among scholars to group a broad range of violent crimes under the umbrella term “terrorism” (Weinberg et al., 2004). That is why it can be argued that its use in the current form has to be curtailed.
Blocher, D. (2011). Terrorism as an international crime: the definitional problem. Eyes on the International Criminal Court. Global Issues in Context, 8(1), 107-116.
Byman, D. (2015). Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the global jihadist movement. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Gerges, F. (2011). The rise and fall of Al-Qaeda. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Hoffman, B. (2008). Al Qaeda, trends in terrorism, and future potentialities: an assessment. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 26(6), 429-442. Web.
Lister, C. (2015). The Syrian jihad. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Ryan, M. (2013). Decoding Al-Qaeda’s strategy. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Scheffler, S. (2006). Is terrorism morally distinctive? Journal of Political Philosophy, 14(1), 1-17.
Seib, P., & Janbek, D. (2011). Global terrorism and new media. London, England: Routledge.
Weinberg, L., Pedahzur, A., & Hirsch-Hoefler, S. (2004). The challenges of conceptualizing terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence, 16(4), 777-794.