A War of Words?
When President George W. Bush first declared the War on Terror, he famously promised the American people “boots on the ground” to decisively bring those responsible for terrorism to justice. Yet in a January 5, 2009 interview with Foreign Policy, General David Petraeus, Commander of U.S. Central Command, stated that the United States “cannot kill [its] way to victory” in the War on Terror. This war has undeniably different challenges from previous U.S. conflicts: a decade of military action has yet to stop terrorist attacks that continue to maim and murder military personel and civilians alike. As Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, son of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, stated to CNN on November 16, 2009, if the United States and its allies kill 100 terrorists, 1,000 more will enlist in Al-Qaeda’s ranks. Al-Qaeda’s greatest strength is its essentially boundless population base that it can manipulate and radicalize into jihadists; the organization continues to draw support from fundamentalists worldwide. Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations are built entirely upon a narrow, radical interpretation of Islam and the Qur’an that promises salvation for those who die as martyrs. This is the bait that draws misled Muslims, from educated clerics to misguided teenagers, into the deadly embrace of radicalism.
Therefore, the United States must strike at the core of Al-Qaeda by winning the ideological battle for the hearts and minds of these potential recruits. If the United States is able to significantly reduce the number of new recruits to jihadist organizations, it can fatally weaken the worldwide terrorist network. This requires ammunition made not from lead and steel, but from words. The United States could benefit most from attacks on Al-Qaeda’s core ideology in order to blunt the force of the extremists’ impassioned rhetoric. Surprisingly enough, these attacks are coming from areas often considered hotbeds of Islamic radicalism, Egypt and Libya.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) is an organization notorious for their close cooperation with Al-Qaeda and worldwide terrorist activity. Although LIFG and Al-Qaeda have historically maintained close ties, the LIFG has been growing increasingly disillusioned with Al-Qaeda’s “indiscriminate” bombings such as those in London and Madrid. LIFG’s leaders were concerned that Al-Qaeda was diverging from its original mission of securing Muslim nations’ sovereignty. In 2007, the Libyan government jailed almost every member of the organization in a security crackdown. Amid the brutal suppression of a subsequent prison riot, 1,200 incarcerated radicals were killed. Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, son of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi, decided to take a different approach in handling the captured terrorists. He stressed the importance of reconciling with the LIFG and engaged in lengthy dialogue with its leaders. By offering small incentives such as allowing family visits in prison and better living conditions, the younger Qaddafi was able to convince hundreds of incarcerated LIFG jihadists to lay out their complaints in an orderly, nonviolent manner.
After two and a half years, a four-hundred page manuscript, titled The Recantation or Corrective Studies, was produced. It emphasizes that jihad, or defense of the faith, differs from the warfare of nonbelievers; it is for the sake of their religion and comes attached with moral obligations. The Recantation states that Muslims are encouraged to fight for Allah only when a Muslim country is invaded, such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Even in such cases, it states that it is illegal for jihadists to kill civilians. This groundbreaking manuscript goes even further, definitively banning the killing of nonrelated parties, including unbelievers and foreigners. These claims are not only based on traditional standards of morality but on hundreds of diligently cited verses from the Qur’an. This ideological hammer blow to Al-Qaeda’s core values has brought a flood of condemnations against Qaddafi and the LIFG, declaring them to be traitors and infidels. The leader of the LIFG responded to these challenges by demanding thst others to come up with their own counterargument with textual support from the Qur’an.
Another powerful voice against Al-Qaeda’s ideological juggernaut comes from Libya’s neighbor, Egypt. Egyptian Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, known as Dr. Fadl, has released a book titled Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and in the World. This scathing criticism of Al-Qaeda’s interpretation of Islam is notable because of who Dr. Fadl is. He is respected and revered in jihadist circles as “the godfather of modern jihad,” having helped draw up the framework for Al-Qaeda and similar organizations throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. The fact that al-Sharif’s work justified Al-Qaeda’s actions for the last thirty years gives legitimacy and weight to his criticism of the organization he helped found.
Reflecting the author’s personal history, Rationalizing Jihad does not touch upon how Allah stresses compassion and forgiveness like in The Recantation, nor does it renounce terrorist warfare as a means to protect the Islamic faith. On the other hand, it follows a more logical route in arguing against Al-Qaeda’s recent operations. The book asserts that Al-Qaeda has become inefficient, confused in its future direction, and has been ultimately unsuccessful in achieving its goals. Al-Sharif emphasizes that after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the vast majority of the victims from suicide bombers and insurgents have been fellow Muslims. In addition, he asserts that 9/11 has only served to spark a worldwide campaign against Islamic radicalism. He pointedly argues that not only do radical Islamists murder under false Islamic pretext, but that the deaths of these thousands have failed to make tangible progress towards expanding Islam or protecting it from outside attacks. With the formerly allied LIFG and the pioneer of modern jihad, al-Sharif, simultaneously turning against them, Al-Qaeda is coming under increasingly heavy ideological fire from within their own ranks.
This two-pronged attack reveals the emerging cracks in the radical Islamist movement and may lead to serious consequences for Al-Qaeda. As previously mentioned, Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations are nontraditional enemies because they can quickly replenish any casualties with fresh recruits. Jessica Stern, in her essay Mind over Martyr in the publication Foreign Affairs, emphasizes that “de-radicalization” of imprisoned and potential radicals is a priority in defeating terrorism at home and abroad. Jihadist recruitment programs often distribute manipulative materials which claim that the only way to appease Allah is to join the extremists’ cause. Very few recruiters are legitimate Islamic scholars, but those with knowledge culled, as Stern says in Mind over Martyr, from “websites and by self-proclaimed imams from the Middle East who are barely educated themselves.” Many fall sway to the belief that Al-Qaeda is “the brave vanguard against Western oppression.” Two sources, with an overwhelming amount of Qur’anic evidence refuting this kind of radical Islam, will tarnish the radicalist image in the eyes of the budding extremist and perhaps make them think twice about joining such groups.
Reducing the number of new recruits is key to future U.S. defense policy. Saif al-Islam Qaddafi’s example shows that cooperation and dialogue with captured Islamist radicals can be extremely effective in producing results. Among the detainees in Guantanamo Bay, there is likely at least one extremist who is similarly disillusioned with Al-Qaeda. In return for cooperation and ideological ammunition against Al-Qaeda, the United States can simultaneously attack Al-Qaeda’s dogma while helping to wash away the stains of its previously heavy-handed approaches. By showing the compassion that the terrorists do not offer to their victims, the United States can embark on the admittedly long and uphill climb in repairing its image among Muslim populations, one of President Obama’s key declared goals. This will serve to reduce the effectiveness of Al-Qaeda recruiters. The fact that the radical school of thought represents an esoteric and reactionary branch of Islam suggests that once Al-Qaeda’s ideology is discredited, their firebrand leaders will have no one to support them. The ultimate measure of success for the War on Terror will be when the extremists’ caustic speeches proclaiming the United States as an enemy of Allah fall on deaf ears.
Only by relentlessly attacking the ideological framework of Al-Qaeda can the United States hope to emerge the victor in the War on Terror. The United States must capitalize on ideological dissent within Al-Qaeda, such as the two works by the LIFG and al-Sharif, to fundamentally discount its narrow interpretation of Islam. By targeting Al-Qaeda’s ideology, its most vulnerable and divisive aspect, the Untied States can destroy the organization’s capacity to rapidly field new recruits. Extremism may linger as an idea, but it would be stripped of its capacity to senselessly destroy lives.