There is no one mastermind behind al-Qaeda, says Jason Burke. And, while its roots are centuries deep, it is a very modern phenomenon

More than four years after the attacks of September 11, 2001 we are finally beginning to understand al-Qaeda. The immediate aftermath of the atrocities in New York and Washington DC was marked by a singular lack of accurate and intelligent analysis of the threat posed by contemporary militant Islam. Al-Qaeda, it was rapidly decided, was a structured and hierarchical organization, with an identifiable leader, command and control structure, cells around the world and an obvious physical infrastructure.

This analysis may have been partly true when applied, with a very narrow focus, to the specific group that was responsible for September 11. However, strategists and governments would have done better to take a broader and longer view to understand modern, violent Muslim radicalism. It is a dynamic, historical phenomenon with roots that go back decades – if not centuries – in the Islamic world and in the Islamic world’s interaction with the west. These days few – outside America at least – still believe that al-Qaeda is like a global corporation with headquarters, departments and employees.

The dominant analysis, at least in Europe and the Middle East, now holds that al-Qaeda is more of an idea than an organization. There is less talk now of “sleeper cells” and far more of “freelancers” and “autonomous actors”.

This analysis has imposed itself due to a variety of factors. Scholars and reporters have unearthed critical evidence about the activities of Osama bin Laden and others in Afghanistan that indicates that they concentrated and facilitated existing strands of radical activism as much as instigated any new ones.

The enemy within

Many of the claims by individual governments that domestic insurgencies were somehow linked to “foreign masterminds” have been debunked. Investigations of huge attacks in Casablanca (May 2003), Madrid (March 2004), London (July 2005) and Egypt (July 2005) have not found any serious links to foreign organizations, whether the small and seriously degraded group of operatives who are still working with a fugitive bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or other agents. Instead, investigations have revealed networks of self-forming, self-motivating terrorists.

The result has been that the threat is now recognized as “homegrown”. The danger comes from people acting in the name of al-Qaeda, in the style of al-Qaeda and along an agenda pushed by al-Qaeda. They act with the means to hand, whether that be a kitchen knife in the case of the young Dutch Muslim who stabbed a controversial film director in Amsterdam in late 2004, or the home-made bombs used by those who attacked the transport network in London last July. If they could use weapons of mass destruction, they probably would, though practical difficulties prohibit such attacks for the moment.

None of these people is a member of any group called “al-Qaeda”. Nor are any of them involved in the rash of attacks seen over the past four years from the Maghreb (Arabic-speaking north Africa) to the Far East. Nor are they active in the Caucasus, the Philippines, southern Thailand and elsewhere where there are struggles – many with their roots in the expansion and establishment of states in the colonial era – that long predate the recent wave of violence. Nor are they attacking American or other coalition allies in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

Modern grievance, ancient myth

This vast movement of violent activism clearly cannot be explained by the activities of one man or one organization, however cleverly he or it manipulates modern media technology to reach massive audiences. Instead of asking: “What is al-Qaeda?” we should be asking: “What is al-Qaedaism?” and then asking: “Why is it so attractive to so many people?”

Al-Qaedaism is a mix of the modern and the historical. Or to be more precise, it is modern grievances expressed in the language of historical and religious myth. In this it is not new, as Islam has continually thrown up dissident movements that claim to offer justice and peace through conflict and struggle, and which look back to a supposed golden age.

Al-Qaedaism’s fundamental message is that Muslims around the world are under attack from a belligerent and expansionist west that is set on the division, subordination and, perhaps most importantly, the humiliation of the ummah, or global Islamic community. According to the militants, it is the actions of the west and their local proxies, along with the failure of most Muslims to adhere sufficiently to a particularly rigorous interpretation of Islamic practice, that are to blame for all the problems in the world. This is as true of poor sanitation in Saudi Arabian cities (bin Laden 1996) as of the plight of the Palestinians.
What is also clear is the coincidence between many of the militants’ grievances and those held more widely by nationalist, leftist or anti-globalization activists. Mohammed Atta, who led the 9/11 hijackers, railed against the growing of cash crops in his native Egypt. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s closest associate and strategic mentor, has listed multinational corporations and international media groups as his targets. The anti-Semitism of the militants’ language, strangely tolerated by many Middle Eastern governments, has its parallel in that of fascists and leftists too. Yet all is expressed with reference to the great heroes of the Islamic empires of the Middle Ages or early modern periods or the Prophet and his Companions. It is this mix of modern and archaic that is so powerfully attractive. There are many reasons why, but one clue can be found in the profiles of militants. A high proportion come from the educated middle classes, the most modern of any society’s social groups. These are people who are contemporary in their lifestyles and aspirations but who miss the certainties of an older, traditional world. They are engineers, pharmacists, information technology specialists, doctors and other scientific professionals, not boys from madrasahs. None of the many medical surveys of terrorists has ever found that such men are psychologically ill.

An enormous number of militants are migrants. In the great age of urbanization and economic growth in the Middle East and south-west Asia throughout the post-war period, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, militant leaders had often been born in the countryside but grew up in cities. Nowadays, many are international migrants themselves or the children of international migrants. These are people who are seeking to bridge the old and the new, to meld their places and cultures of origin with the reality of life elsewhere, to gain all the advantages of modernity and technological progress without losing a sense of self.

Search for identity

All over the world there is a search for identity and authenticity in the face of an increasing cultural and economic homogenization. Radical Islam, like radical nationalism and other religious fundamentalisms, must be seen in that context too – as a function of our modern, globalized, interconnected world – and not as a relic of the seventh century that has somehow survived.

Fifteen years of travel in the Islamic world has taught me that there is no clash of civilizations. For every one occasion when I have met hostility or violence, there are 100 where I have been welcomed. Conflicts within the west and within Islam have caused more deaths than any battles between these two supposedly homogeneous blocs.

Bin Laden and his ilk are, like any radical political activists, set on drawing all those Muslims who have so far resisted his extremist call to his banner. So far, despite the provocations, the majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims have ignored his words of hate and violence.

CV Jason Burke

Jason Burke has reported from the Middle East for 15 years, most recently for The Observer. He is the author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam.