al-Qaeda: Terrorism’s Premium Brand?

bin Laden israel

Franchising The Militant Islamic Jihad – Part One

America entered the Global War on Terrorism with little understanding of the adversary it was facing. While al-Qaeda plays a leading role as a splinter faction of militant Islamism intent, the larger movement of global jihad endeavors to establish its vision of strict Islamic rule in the Muslim world through armed action. Global jihadis have spent more than 40 years refining their philosophy, gaining experience, building their organization, and developing plans to reestablish what they see as the only true Islamic state on earth. In the years leading up to and following the 9/11 attacks, global jihadis have written plentifully on their military strategy for creating an Islamic state. In our multi-part analysis, we will examine the mechanisms by which they plan to neutralize the superpower guardians of world order, claim land and peoples for Islamic emirates out of the resulting chaos, and bring these emirates together to create a rebirth of a true Islamic state.

Defining Global JihadAl Qaeda Terrorist Operative
In the United States, al-Qaeda has become synonymous with terrorism, but in actuality the al-Qaeda organization plays a leading role in a larger political and military movement called “global jihad.” Global jihad is an extremist group within “Islamism,” a broad religious movement that seeks to instill a stricter observance of Islam in politics, economics, and society. In Sunni Islamic tradition, shari’a law has four sources. The primary source is the Qur’an, the word of God revealed by the Prophet to the Muslim community—the umma. The secondary source is the ahadith, a collection of the accounts of the life of the Prophet and his Companions. Shari’a as known today was constructed over a long period of time, and Sunni Islam’s last two sources of shari’a law—analogy and consensus—were processes through which different Muslim authorities created new rulings to account for situations not covered in the primary and secondary sources. Naturally, those last two sources of law, as well as differing interpretations of the first two sources, have brought variation to the body of shari’a as it is practiced by Muslim societies. Global jihadis want to strip away the innovations that they see as having corrupted the practice of Islam, starting with the material that analogy and consensus and some of the ahadith have added to the shari’a, but also including extra-legal practices Muslim societies have adopted through emulating the West. They see the current Western inspired governments in the Islamic world as willing participants in the corruption of Islam; they reject participation in those governments and identify armed action – jihad- as the only way to achieve political power.

A Jihadi World View.Napoleon on the Bellerophon at the Battle of The Nile (August 1-2, 1798).  Although defeated by the British Navy during the during the Battle of Aboukir Bay, Napoleon, had already landed with his army, and moved off to finish his conquest of Egypt, and went on to conquer much of Syria.
Global jihadis share a world view in which the Muslim world is suffering a prolonged, aggressive assault  from the West; led by the United States, in what Abu-Mus’ab al- Suri refers to as the Second and Third Crusader Campaigns. Abu-Mus’ab al-Suri is a global jihad strategist who served as a military instructor and lecturer in the Afghan-Arab training camps, fought in several jihad campaigns, and held other positions in jihad organizations in Europe and the Middle East. According to al-Suri, the Second Crusader Campaign began with Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt in 1798 and ended with the collapse of Arab nationalism in the 1970s. At the beginning of the 19th century, other European powers joined the race to colonize the Middle East, and by the end of World War I, they had dismantled the Ottoman Empire and divided its lands among themselves. Britain established Israel through the Balfour Declaration, and the European powers chose rulers from among local collaborators to oversee their new “colonies.” After World War II, the United States inherited the interests of the European powers, and the Soviet Union continued to add the Islamic communities of Eurasia to its growing empire. Fearing that the Muslim peoples might unite and become strong again, the colonial masters encouraged the formation of nationalist movements in their lands. This illusion of independence ensured that the Muslim people would remain divided and weak because they put loyalty to their country above loyalty to their religion or their community as a whole.

Assad of Syria hosts Ahmadinejad of Iran in Damascus. Relations between the regional powers have improved in the aftermath of the collapse of Saddam in Iraq. Syria is presently engaged in a major arms deal to supply Iran with soviet air defense technology. According to al-Suri, the Third Crusader Campaign began in 1990 and continues to the present time. In his view, the United States leveraged the collapse of the Soviet Union to establish a new world order through which it dominates all aspects of the Muslim peoples’ lives. He holds the United States responsible for the ascensions of Bashar al-Asad to the presidency of Syria and King Abdullah to the throne of Jordan and the overthrow of Pakistan’s government that put President Pervez Musharraf in power, characterizing these events as American political aggression. On the economic front, he accuses a U.S.- controlled International Monetary Fund of manipulating local currencies to make sure no Muslim country can attain self-sufficiency. Concurrently, the West extracts oil and metals from the Middle East, overseeing their transportation and limiting their prices in Western banks. He accuses the United States of having driven millions of workers from the Middle East to the United States and Europe to provide cheap labor. Cultural domination includes “programming the mass media and the child rearing, educational, and cultural instruments so as to westernize our societies and reshape them according to the colonists’ desires.” Most significantly, in 1990, he alleges the United States “lured” Saddam Hussein into attacking Kuwait in order to provide an excuse for increasing their troop presence in the region to over 500,000 and followed up with the Madrid Peace Accords, forcing the recognition of Israel on the Muslim peoples.

Opposing Ideology
Though the global jihad strategists write primarily to motivate followers and display their vision, they occasionally refer revealingly to actions their enemy takes that work against their movement. Actions that call into question the internal legitimacy of the movement are deemed particularly effective, and include statements by Islamic religious authorities opposing global jihad, deaths of Muslim civilians caused by jihad, and conflating their movement with those of jihadis that even they consider to be misguided extremists. (An example of the last is Algeria’s ISAF soldier displays a captured improvised explosive device (IED) attached to a cell phone used to remotely detonate the weapon.Armed Islamic Group [GIA] which regarded the Muslim communities that live under the current secular government to be complicit in their rule, and carried out massacres that killed tens of thousands of Muslim civilians.) Mujahidin targeting of  Iraqi Shi’a Muslims repeatedly raises the specter of the deaths of Muslim civilians caused by jihad, prompting an uneasy dialogue within the movement. In a captured letter to former al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu-Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri cautioned against the practice as it did not play well to their Muslim audiences. Others, like al-Ayiri, consider the Shi’a to be renegades and collaborators with the West and therefore justifiable targets.

The al-Qaeda Brandbin Laden presides over a vast network of jihadist resources that stretches across the entire world.
al-Qaeda’s name has been applied liberally to numerous individuals and groups believed to be engaged in jihadist terrorism. However, while al-Qaeda does provide logistical and financial support to jihadist cells and continues to serve as the inspiration for countless jihadist groups across the globe, bin Laden does not allow any group to carry the brand name “al-Qaeda” without his approval. Groups wishing to join al-Qaeda officially must meet certain requirements before they are granted the right to adopt the name.

The path to receiving acceptance from al-Qaeda’s leadership can take several months. Consider the process for the Algerian jihadist group, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat.

In September 2006, both Ayman Al-Zawahiri and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat in Algeria proclaimed that the group was joining al-Qaeda. In his pledge of allegiance, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, the emir of the group, gave up significant autonomy to bin Laden, conceding, “We will give him the proceedings from our hands and the fruit from our hearts, to continue our jihad in Algeria as soldiers under his . . . instructions. He can use us to strike whomever and wherever he wishes, and he will find nothing but obedience from us and shall only receive what pleases him.”

However, the group continued carrying out terrorist attacks under its own name. It was not until the end of January that Abdul Wadud announced that the group was officially changing its name to al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. Abdul Wadud explained that the four-month gap between its pledge and the name change was due to waiting for bin Laden’s approval: “We cared about this matter since the first day of the announcement of the joining, but nothing prevented us from concluding it, only after the consultation of Shaykh Osama, may Allah preserve him, and with his permission and choice. This obstacle was removed today with thanks unto Allah.”

The reason for this delay is to protect the value of the “al-Qaeda” brand name, which continues to carry the most weight in the global jihadist community.

Should al-Qaeda prematurely allow a group to adopt its name, that group may embark on actions contrary to al-Qaeda’s ideology that could damage its reputation and embarrass its leaders. al-Qaeda needs to be sure that groups bearing its name operate in line with its long-term vision to protect its status as the leader of the global jihadist movement.

This was evident in the formation of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq until his death, engaged in eight months of negotiations with the leaders of al-Qaeda before pledging his allegiance to bin Laden and merging his Tawhid wal Jihad group with al-Qaeda in October 2004. The reasons for the lengthy negotiations were probably in part due to the difficulty of transmitting secure messages between Zarqawi and the al-Qaeda leadership. However, both sides also likely hesitated due to conflicting beliefs in strategies and tactics on how to wage jihad.

The leaders of al-Qaeda were likely concerned with how a merger with Zarqawi might affect its brand. Zarqawi had risen to fame in Iraq through horrendous filmed decapitations of hostages that generated publicity but alienated many, some of whom al-Qaeda viewed as potential supporters. In a July 2005 letter, Zawahiri reminded Zarqawi “that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Ummah.” Zawahiri chastised Zarqawi for his brutality, arguing, “Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages.” Notably, filmed beheadings from al-Qaeda in Iraq had ceased by the time Zarqawi pledged allegiance to bin Laden, perhaps indicating that even Zarqawi understood that maintaining the name of al-Qaeda trumped any publicity from such gruesome scenes of horror.

The decision to carry the al-Qaeda name is not an entirely easy choice for a group. Bearing the brand requires a certain amount of deference to al-Qaeda’s leadership, both operationally and ideologically, which the leaders of some groups might find distasteful. On a security level, any group touting the al-Qaeda name will instantly become an international enemy to countries around the world combating the jihadist threat. At the same time, however, there are immense benefits. The name is so powerful and widely respected within the global jihadist community that merely being associated with it affords a group instant social support, grants it a worldwide audience, and ensures a steady stream of international Mujahideen willing to fight alongside the group’s members.

Operation Patriot Strike Nets AQI Suspects Photo by Sgt. Ben Brody January 02, 2008  Capt. George Morris, commander of Co. B, 2-502 Infantry, and his Soldiers hit the ground running in the opening salvo of Operation Patriot Strike in Ubaydi, Dec. 29, 2007. The operation netted ten suspected al-Qaeda conspirators, who were detained.
U.S. Army Capt. George Morris communicates with his soldiers in the opening salvo of Operation Patriot Strike in Ubaydi, Iraq. Morris is commander of the 101st Airborne Division’s Company B, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment. The operation netted 10 suspected al Qaeda conspirators. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ben Brody.


Though distinguishing between groups that are officially part of al-Qaeda and those that are not may seem like splitting hairs, recognizing that not all jihadist groups or individuals are members of al-Qaeda helps us to understand that the “war on terror” is not just a war on al-Qaeda or groups affiliated with it. Rather, the war on terror is a war on a global jihadist movement of which al-Qaeda is only a part, albeit extremely influential. The common thread between all jihadist groups is that they share a similar ideology. Because this ideology does not derive its legitimacy from al-Qaeda or bin Laden, the jihadist movement will continue to exist whether there is a group called al-Qaeda or not. It is this entire movement that must be debased simultaneously, not one single group.

The Definition of Winning
To be effective, any challenge to the movement’s legitimacy with respect to its own rules can only come from within the Islamic community. Western planners can benefit greatly from the global jihadis’ strategic writings by viewing coalition actions and strategy in the light of the jihadis’ very different perceptions and philosophy. America’s challenge is great: Though the United States cannot simply absorb strikes crafted to create maximum destruction and refuse to respond, the global jihadis will continue to try to turn any American military response to her disadvantage. While the West cannot afford to neglect the ungoverned regions of the world, the global jihadis will continue to paint U.S. and Western military involvement in the Muslim world as an invasion. The global jihadis make clear that creating instability is a key component of their strategy, and the West must play its role in restoring order and mitigating adverse conditions in regions the jihadis would otherwise try to bring under their sole control. Taliban-style rule should not be the only option offered to the victims of anarchy.

Instead, promoters of democracy should make sure such people have other alternatives, forcing the jihadist vision to compete within an open marketplace of ideas. Finally, America’s declared policy of promoting democracy is problematic as it confronts issues of religion and governance that reach beyond the global jihadis into the much broader Islamic movement. The United States would do better to seek common ground with Islam by emphasizing the core beliefs behind its democratic philosophy: representative government that responds to the people and protects human rights and dignity. The United States must also remember that democracy is no panacea; the phenomenon of increasing radicalization of British & French Muslim youths shows that even the opportunities offered by life in a modern democratic nation may be insufficient to defeat the idea of jihad. Global jihadis’ strategic writings show how they have translated their philosophies and experiences into plans for action; plans they continue to prosecute to this day. To understand and counter their strategy, the United States and it’s allies must take advantage of the insights their writings provide into their ideology, their formative experiences, and their goals.


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1 Response to al-Qaeda: Terrorism’s Premium Brand?

  1. Erica says:

    I appreciate the information you provide with this space.  Everytime I visit I leave with the knowledge that I\’ve learned something important.  Thank you bringing such thought provoking and action inspiring content to the spaces community.

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