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Al-Qaeda is an infamous terrorist organization whose actions have shaped global politics in the last three decades. The terrorist group has relied on spreading an anti-Western Islamic ideology by calling on its followers to wage war against governments in Islamic lands and beyond. Al-Qaeda’s ideology focuses on establishing an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East and other areas with large Muslim populations to stem the influence of the U.S. and its allies.
However, there is a larger challenge because the top leadership of the group has constantly differed with its affiliates on their modes of operations (McCants 26). The group has consistently used various media channels to spread the propaganda of its true purpose to win new followers.
It has used audio, video and social networks to insist that it has taken up the responsibility of avenging Muslims who died in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq, in the hands of Israeli, American or British troops. As a result, this propaganda has made some Muslims perceive the involvement of the U.S. and other western countries in Middle Eastern affairs as an act of imperialism.
This paper will discuss the extent to which al-Qaeda influences various Islamic societies and how this has enabled the organization to further its agenda across the globe.
Roots of Hatred
Al-Qaeda’s political ideology is guided by three major principles: the creation of Islamic states ruled by Sharia principles, kicking out oppressors from Islamic lands and respect for personal liberties of every Muslim. The extremist position taken by al-Qaeda in its ideology has labeled people from other religions as inferior infidels (non-believers) whose actions go against the Holy Quran.
More importantly, they also criticize governments in Islamic lands for serving as puppets to western oppressors who do not have respect for Muslim’s dignity. The group was formed in the mid of the 1990s comprising bin Laden and other supporters who shared an Islamic ideology that focused on limiting American influence in the Middle East (Atwan 54).
Since he hailed from wealthy family background, bin Laden was able to finance the group’s activities and encouraged other affiliate groups to adopt radical Islamic leanings. Consequently, the term ‘jihad’ became the alternative interpretation of terrorism by the group.
Al-Qaeda’s ability to use both the propaganda and the militant tactics to achieve its objectives has made it difficult for many governments to understand its complex organizational capabilities. The terrorist group has relied on its extensive networks with other terrorist groups that operate in different countries to promote its agenda.
As a result, affiliate extremist groups in Africa, South East Asia, and Europe have launched attacks against key government officials and civilians to gain attention and credibility. Violent attacks that constantly occur in Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, and Afghanistan are carried out by extremist Islamic groups which are linked to al-Qaeda.
For instance, Boko Haram has waged a violent campaign in Nigeria to oppose formal education. The group’s militants attacked the Christians, government officials, and students in schools in northern Nigeria because they insisted that their main objective was to establish a new Islamic state (Acharya 76).
Information technology platforms are widely used by terrorists because this enables them to get in touch with their counterparts in different parts of the world. As a result, al-Qaeda easily spreads its radical ideology to gullible young Muslims and non- Muslims in different countries.
The organization uses social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to engage with its followers by misleading them to think that all the forms of jihad are justified. This approach has made it easy for al-Qaeda to recruit militants who are used to execute terror campaigns in their own countries and abroad (Acharya 79).
More importantly, this has allowed the organization to decentralize its operations because its radical ideologies inspire many young people to adopt militancy as the main way of addressing various grievances. Consequently, the group has shown a lot of dynamism by relying on its affiliates to engage in different acts of terror against governments and other perceived enemies.
Traditional and social media have helped al-Qaeda deflect attention from various violent incidents it commits against innocent people. It rationalizes its actions by claiming that it serves the will of Allah (God). More often than not, al-Qaeda leaders have insisted that the violence unleashed by the group’s militants protects Muslims and their lands from desecration by non-Muslims (Trofimov 43).
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It constantly uses the narrative that Muslims have a more special purpose on Earth, and they need to stand together to overcome social, economic as well as political challenges they may face.
The rise of political Islam, as advocated for by al-Qaeda, has brought to the fore sharp cultural differences between western nations and Middle Eastern nations and how they influence relationships between the two groups. Therefore, this shows that al-Qaeda has capitalized on the failure by western governments to appreciate complex cultural issues that shape global politics.
September 11 Attacks and the War on Terror
Osama bin Laden’s profile in global politics was raised by the terrorist attacks against the U.S., British, and Israeli installations in different parts of the globe. Henceforth, this changed people’s perceptions of global terror, and it became more defined by suicide bombings, kidnappings, and wanton killings of civilians.
More importantly, al-Qaeda made global governments more aware of the political aspects of Islamic ideology, and they influenced Muslims’ collective thinking. For instance, the twin terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 showed that al-Qaeda’s military and organizational capacity had improved substantially (Trofimov 47). This allowed the organization to align its jihad strategy with well-executed propaganda messages.
Bin Laden and other top leaders were able to publicize the organization’s activities through audio and video recordings. The constant media attention directed to Osama bin Laden made it possible for the group to capture the attention of many people globally. As a result, he was perceived as a hero, who was brave enough to challenge the might of the U.S. by some Muslims.
Al-Qaeda’s popularity in some quarters increased due to their blatant attacks on western citizens and their sympathizers because they were perceived as enemies of Islam. As a result, some people have been misled to think that it is the only organization that is willing to stop the U.S. from imposing its agenda on other states. Additionally, al-Qaeda’s propaganda brainwashed its followers to think that Islam is under the attack of other religions.
Thus, Muslims need to stand up together to protect their rights. One of the turning points that made al-Qaeda achieve global attention was the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York (Quiggin).
Hitherto, the U.S. government did not anticipate that the terrorist group was capable of staging a serious terrorist attack of such magnitude on U.S. soil. This affected the collective American psyche because the attack was an affront to the principles of liberty, justice, freedom, and economic prosperity.
The September 11 terrorist attack was symbolic because it was used to inflict pain on the whole nation to remind U.S. citizens that they were not safe even in their own country. Former U.S. President George W. Bush and his foreign policy, as well as national security advisers, reacted on that by using America’s strong diplomatic and military might to deal with al-Qaeda.
The U.S. government relied on the support of its other allies in the region, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to invade Afghanistan and later on Iraq (Chaliand and Blin 73). The mission was to hunt down bin Laden and his associates who were hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of Taliban rulers. However, the two wars had a lot of casualties, which made it easy for al-Qaeda to inspire more people to become extremists.
As the U.S. and other forces were fighting against extremist militants in the country, the terrorist group was able to activate more cells in different parts of the world. Since then, global terrorism has become a more complex phenomenon.
The aftermath of the War on Terror
The unilateralist approach used by the Bush administration against terrorism made it difficult for the U.S. to win the hearts and minds of the people from other nations who were opposed to the Iraqi war, which toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. More people have adopted extremist ideologies, and they use operational strategies popularised by al-Qaeda to carry out attacks against government institutions in different countries.
This has made it difficult for global governments to fight against terrorism more effectively (Sanfilippo 70). The number of American soldiers that have died in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the hands of militant groups with close ties to al-Qaeda has dumbfounded the U.S. administration.
Moreover, the economic implications of the war have drained a lot of financial resources, and this has considerably weakened the political and economic power of the U.S. Consequently, this has confirmed the assertion that America’s foreign policy strategies failed to appreciate the complex religious and cultural issues at play, which made it easy for al-Qaeda’s message to resonate with millions of people.
Another important factor that has emerged in the new decade is that there has been an increase in political and sectarian turmoil across the Middle East, in countries, such as Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt. Therefore, some Muslims have associated the violence in countries, such as Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as a direct result of America’s imperialist agenda in the region.
Therefore, this has made it easy for terrorist groups that draw their inspiration from al-Qaeda to fill the void left by the death of Osama bin Laden to further their agenda (Forest).
Also, the localization of al-Qaeda’s center in North Africa, Nigeria, Mali, Philippines, and Pakistan shows that the ideological influence of Osama bin Laden has continued to grow even after his death. Even though he is dead, some militant groups still rely on his propaganda to attack innocent civilians in different places across the world.
The Boko Haram and al Shabaab insurgents in Nigeria and Somalia respectively are struggling to set up strict Islamic states in their countries. These insurgent groups use the tactics which were popularised by the al-Qaeda, for example, suicide bombings in crowded places, attacks on senior government officials, and brutal executions of people who do not espouse their ideology.
Therefore, even though the terror group has lost its top leadership, its radical Islamic ideology has remained relevant because younger militants are willing to carry on from where the older militants left (Forest). In a nutshell, for global governments to fight terror successfully, they need to counter al-Qaeda’s propaganda to ensure they educate Muslims and other terrorist sympathizers that violence goes against the teachings of Islam.
The U.S., together with other countries, needs to adopt appropriate publicity strategies that enable moderate Muslims to understand the difference between jihad and terrorism.
The U.S. foreign policy has failed to distinguish between propaganda and motive. Since the U.S. has always supported Israel in its political and military struggles against Palestine and other hostile Arab states, it is perceived as an evil empire by al-Qaeda and other Muslims. Therefore, September 11 and other subsequent terror attacks in London and Madrid allowed the organization to increase its global appeal and credibility.
More importantly, since the U.S. is the archetype of western civilization and power, al-Qaeda found it easy to sway people‘s attitudes against liberal ideologies which America is known for (Greenfield). A clash of civilizations between liberal, modernist, and conservative, religious ideologies has made it easy for al-Qaeda to win more followers in different parts of the world.
For instance, the number of young Muslims in the U.S. and Western Europe has been increasing rapidly, which shows that they can easily be influenced to follow extremist Islamic ideologies which justify terrorism.
Global governments need to convince young Muslims who are mainly targeted by al-Qaeda’s propaganda of hate that terrorist group’s actions do not advance the collective interests of Islam as a religion. Since it is known as a religion of peace, they need to make people understand the effects of terrorism and how it endangers the lives of innocent civilians in different countries (Greenfield).
A message of tolerance and peaceful coexistence will reduce high levels of mutual suspicions between Muslims, on the one hand, and people of other religions, on the other. Consequently, this will render al-Qaeda’s propaganda irrelevant, and the terrorist organization will not be in a position to endanger global peace any longer.
The U.S. and other global governments need to make the prospect of engaging in terrorism unattractive. This will dissuade young people from getting involved in extremist activities which endanger peaceful coexistence between people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.
Global governments need to change negative perceptions that have been entrenched in the minds of some Muslims that al-Qaeda is a protector of Islam and its followers. This will go a long way in addressing the jihadist ideologies which have been used by the terror group to win the support of the masses in different countries. This will help to turn the tide against global terrorism, which endangers peace and stability in many states.
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Atwan, Abdel Bari. The Secret History of Al-Qaeda. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. Print.
Chaliand, Gérard and Arnaud Blin. The History of Terrorism from Antiquity to Al-Qaeda. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007. Print.
Forest, James J.F. “Perception Challenges Faced by Al- Qaeda on the Battlefield of Influence Warfare.” Perspectives on Terrorism 6.1(2012): n.pag. Web.
Greenfield, Daniel. “How Al-Qaeda is Winning the War on Terror.” Front Page Mag., 2014. Web.
McCants, William. “Al-Qaeda’s Challenge.” Foreign Affairs 90.5 (2011): 20-32. Print.
Quiggin, Tom. “Understanding al-Qaeda’s Ideology for Counter-Narrative Work.” Perspectives on Terrorism 3.2 (2009): n.pag. Web.
Sanfilippo, Kristin. “Al-Qaeda: A Future in Question.” Xavier Journal of Politics, 3.1 (2012): 69-74. Print.
Trofimov, Yaroslav. The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine. London: Penguin Adult, 2008. Print.