By Robert Spencer
“I believe you are what Americans call Al-Qaeda.” National Guard Spc. Ryan Anderson gave this response when two undercover agents he thought were Islamic terrorists asked him: “What organization do you think we are?”
Anderson, who is now under arrest for attempting to betray his country and join the jihad, chose his words carefully. A convert to Islam who had spent considerable time cruising for radical Muslim Internet sites, Anderson knew that what Americans think of as one unified organization — Al-Qaeda — is in reality a loose affiliation of many organizations, or even an American conceptual grouping of people who share common motives and goals.
This misunderstanding by many is what makes questions revolving around a link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda so crucial: if Iraq had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda, the assumption goes, it had nothing to do with terrorism, and American armies never should have gone there. The war must have started to protect American oil supplies or create jobs for Halliburton or avenge Saddam’s attempt on President Bush’s father.
But Saddam could have had, and did have, many ties to terrorism.
In March of 2002, the Iraqi dictator arranged a public ceremony to pay roughly $500,000 to terrorists in the West Bank, paying $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers and $10,000 to those whose family members were killed in other clashes with the Israeli army. If Saddam never had anything to do with Al-Qaeda (which is still an open question), he was clearly a supporter of terrorism. Because of the politically correct blackout in the mainstream media on serious inquiry into the roots of Islamic radicalism, many Americans still believe that the terrorist enemy is limited to an organization named Al-Qaeda, and that the threat will end once that group is neutralized or eliminated; in light of this, Saddam’s well documented connections to terrorist groups other than Al-Qaeda are ignored.
The question of the nature of Al-Qaeda, and of the Islamic terror threat as a whole, carries important policy implications In reality, the terrorist threat and the Al-Qaeda threat are far from synonymous. The roots of today’s war on terror lie in the creation not of Al-Qaeda, but of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the prototypical Muslim radical group of the modern age, was founded in Egypt by Hassan Al-Banna in 1928. The Brotherhood emerged as a response to the abolition of the caliphate by Turkish secularist pioneer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924. Al-Banna and the Brotherhood considered Islam to have an essential political and social character that needed to be reasserted in the face of the societal ills that had come to the Islamic world with secularism. Al-Banna excoriated Ataturk for separating “the state from religion in a country which was until recently the site of the Commander of the Faithful.” Sounding notes that Osama bin Laden would echo decades later, Al-Banna characterized the abolition of the caliphate as just part of a larger “Western invasion which was armed and equipped with all [the] destructive influences of money, wealth, prestige, ostentation, power and means of propaganda.”
Al-Banna’s Brotherhood had a deeply spiritual character from its beginning, but it didn’t combat the “Western invasion” with just words and prayers. Al-Banna decried the complacency of the Egyptian elite: “What catastrophe has befallen the souls of the reformers and the spirit of the leaders? . . . What calamity has made them prefer this life to the thereafter [sic]? What has made them . . . consider the way of struggle [sabil al-jihad] too rough and difficult?” When the Brotherhood was criticized for being a political group in the guise of a religious one, al-Banna met the challenge head-on:
“We summon you to Islam, the teachings of Islam, the laws of Islam and the guidance of Islam, and if this smacks of ‘politics’ in your eyes, then it is our policy. And if the one summoning you to these principles is a ‘politician,’ then we are the most respectable of men, God be praised, in politics . . . Islam does have a policy embracing the happiness of this world. . . . We believe that Islam is an all-embracing concept which regulates every aspect of life, adjudicating on every one of its concerns and prescribing for it a solid and rigorous order.”
Al-Banna’s vision was in perfect accord with that of classical Muslim scholars such as Ibn Khaldun, who taught in the fourteenth century that “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” In a similar spirit, Al-Banna wrote in 1934 that “it is a duty incumbent on every Muslim to struggle towards the aim of making every people Muslim and the whole world Islamic, so that the banner of Islam can flutter over the earth and the call of the Muezzin can resound in all the corners of the world: God is greatest [Allahu akbar]! This is not parochialism, nor is it racial arrogance or usurpation of land.”
Al-Banna would doubtless therefore have looked kindly upon the Palestinian Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi’s 2002 call to believers: “Oh beloved, look to the East of the earth, find Japan and the ocean; look to the West of the earth, find [some] country and the ocean. Be assured that these will be owned by the Muslim nation, as the Hadith says . . . ‘from the ocean to the ocean.’”
According to Brynjar Lia, the historian of the Muslim Brotherhood movement: “Quoting the Qur’anic verse ‘And fight them till sedition is no more, and the faith is God’s’ [Sura 2:193], the Muslim Brothers urged their fellow Muslims to restore the bygone greatness of Islam and to re-establish an Islamic empire. Sometimes they even called for the restoration of ‘former Islamic colonies’ in Andalus (Spain), southern Italy, Sicily, the Balkans and the Mediterranean islands.”
Such talk may have seemed laughable then, but it isn’t so much now in these days of increasing jihadist activity in Spain, the Balkans, and elsewhere in Europe. And even at that time, the Brotherhood had weapons and a military wing. Scholar Martin Kramer notes that the Brotherhood had “a double identity. On one level, they operated openly, as a membership organization of social and political awakening. Banna preached moral revival, and the Muslim Brethren engaged in good works. On another level, however, the Muslim Brethren created a ‘secret apparatus’ that acquired weapons and trained adepts in their use. Some of its guns were deployed against the Zionists in Palestine in 1948, but the Muslim Brethren also resorted to violence in Egypt. They began to enforce their own moral teachings by intimidation, and they initiated attacks against Egypt’s Jews. They assassinated judges and struck down a prime minister in 1949. Banna himself was assassinated two months later, probably in revenge.”
The Brotherhood was no gathering of marginalized kooks. It grew in Egypt from 150 branches in 1936 to as many as 1,500 by 1944. In 1939 al-Banna referred to “100,000 pious youths from the Muslim Brothers from all parts of Egypt,” and although Lia believes he was exaggerating at that point, by 1944 membership was estimated as between 100,000 and 500,000. By 1937 it had expanded beyond Egypt, setting up “several branches in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Morocco, and one in each of Bahrain, Hadramawt, Hyderabad, Djibouti and,” Lia adds matter-of-factly, “Paris.” These many thousands, dispersed around the world, heard al-Banna’s call to “prepare for jihad and be lovers of death.”
One of the Muslim Brotherhood’s principal children is Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that glorifies the murder of innocent civilians in Israel. Hamas identifies itself in its Charter as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brothers in Palestine. The Muslim Brotherhood Movement is a world organization, the largest Islamic Movement in the modern era. It is characterized by a profound understanding, by precise notions and by a complete comprehensiveness of all concepts of Islam in all domains of life: views and beliefs, politics and economics, education and society, jurisprudence and rule, indoctrination and teaching, the arts and publications, the hidden and the evident, and all the other domains of life.”
Only at this point does Al-Qaeda come into the picture. According to Jane’s Intelligence Review, one man — Sheikh Abdullah Azzam — was both “an influential figure in the Muslim Brotherhood” and “the historical leader of Hamas.” Azzam was a Muslim scholar who shaped Osama bin Laden’s view of the world. Raised in a pious Muslim household, Azzam earned a degree in Sharia from the Sharia College of Damascus University in 1966. In 1973 he received a Ph.D. in Islamic jurisprudence from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest, most respected, and most influential institute of higher learning in the Muslim world.
Azzam then joined the jihad against Israel, but soon grew frustrated. His fellow mujahedin spent their off-hours gambling and playing music, both forbidden activities according to Islamic law — particularly in the interpretation of the Shafi’i school which holds sway at al-Azhar. Ultimately Azzam decided that “this revolution has no religion behind it” and traveled to Saudi Arabia to teach. There he taught that the Muslim’s philosophy in conflicts with non-Muslims ought to be “jihad and the rifle alone. NO negotiations, NO conferences and NO dialogue.”
In 1980, attracted by the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, he went to Pakistan to get to know the movement’s leaders. He taught for a while at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, but soon resigned in order to devote himself full-time to jihad. Azzam and his “dear friend” Osama bin Laden founded the Mujahedin Service Bureau in order to give aid to those fighting in Afghanistan. However, “this was not enough to satisfy Sheikh Azzam’s burning desire for Jihad. That desire inspired him finally to go to the frontline.” There he was killed in 1989 under mysterious circumstances in Peshawar. His followers hail him as a martyr and as “the main pillar of the Jihad movement in the modern times.” Said Osama bin Laden ten years later in an interview broadcast on Al-Jazeera television: “Sheikh Abdullah Azzam was not an individual, but an entire nation by himself. Muslim women have proven themselves incapable of giving birth to a man like him after he was killed.”
Azzam truly was extraordinary. It is remarkable indeed that this academic who earned degrees from two major Islamic universities and taught in four countries would have ended up fighting alongside Osama bin Laden. Why wasn’t he upbraided and dismissed by the faculties of any of these universities for his radicalism? Why wasn’t he convinced that the way he was thinking of jihad was out of step with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet?
The obvious answer is that his view of jihad was not a newly-minted heresy, held only by his colleagues in Al-Qaeda, but something believed much more broadly. This fact was underscored by the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Of course, Jimmy Carter’s feckless policies made the Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumph possible, but Khomeini himself, a Shi’ite who had no involvement in the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, was absolutely clear about the Islamic character of his revolution. “Islam,” he declared, “makes it incumbent on all adult males . . . to prepare themselves for the conquest of [other] countries so that the writ of Islam is obeyed in every country in the world. . . . But those who study Islamic Holy War will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. ... Islam says: Kill in the service of Allah those who may want to kill you! … There are hundreds of other [Qur’anic] psalms and Hadiths [sayings of Muhammad] urging Muslims to value war and to fight.”
Khomeini’s words are echoed today by operatives in dozens, if not hundreds of other Islamic groups around the world that are dedicated to jihad. Al-Qaeda is involved with some, but not all. Some are even rivals of Al-Qaeda, although they will always work together against a common non-Islamic foe rather than allow themselves to be diverted into fighting one another. In fact, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the terrorist mastermind in Iraq whom the CIA says murdered Nicholas Berg, is not an Al-Qaeda operative. Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke of the Nixon Center explain that “though he met with bin Laden in Afghanistan several times, the Jordanian never joined al Qaeda. Militants have explained that Tawhid [Zarqawi’s own radical Muslim group] was ‘especially for Jordanians who did not want to join al Qaeda.’”
Recent reports confirm that, far from emanating from a single, hierarchical organization, Islamic terrorism is being perpetrated today by widely dispersed groups that share only a similar view of the world and how they would like to transform it. In a piece on Moroccan terrorists, the New York Times noted that their “networks are dispersed throughout Europe and are very autonomous.” This pattern recurs among Islamic militants worldwide.
There is even a continuing threat from an old source: the Muslim Brotherhood. Just last Sunday Egyptian police arrested 54 members of the group on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities. Although its younger, flashier children grab more of the headlines, the Brotherhood is by no means a spent force. It ongoing involvement in violence (combined with American unwillingness to acknowledge how compelling the radical vision of Islam is to Muslims) is just more evidence that today’s fixation with Al-Qaeda could be dangerously misleading.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and the author of Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Regnery Publishing), and Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (Encounter Books).
Martin Kramer, “Fundamentalist Islam at Large: The Drive for Power,” Middle East Quarterly, June 1996.