The modern Islamic terrorist movement is largely rooted in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent removal of the Caliph, the Islamic political-religious leader, in 1924. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the more secular and progressive Republic of Turkey came into existence, seeking many modern social and economic reforms. This marked the beginning of a secularization and modernization period for the region as a whole.
The event resonated throughout the Islamic community as the Ottoman Caliph was the strongest entity in Islam at that time. In the vacuum of Islamic central authority that followed, the Muslim Brotherhood grew into formation. This type of formation, a fundamentalist reaction, is common during all times of rapid progress throughout the world and is caused by traditionalists attempting to resist change.
Simultaneously, Western powers, mainly the French and British, were exerting control over large sections of the Middle East after WWI. Many of the arbitrary borders they established split ethnic groups into incoherently formed states with deep social and ethnic divides. Those borders largely remained after Middle Eastern states gained their independence from European power.
This factor has helped stir tensions in the region ever since, and has been a challenge to creating functional states. To the dismay of traditionalists, the formation of Turkey and the later independence of Western colonial Middle-Eastern states ushered in a new era of relative secularism. Nationalism became a replacement for common religious identity within the state, though religion is mostly always present in Middle Eastern politics.
The Muslim Brotherhood took a relatively median political position during that timeframe, seeking to fuse Islamic tradition with the nationalist agenda as a means to limit societal change. Following a crackdown in 1954 after a failed assassination attempt on Egypt’s al-Nasser, the Brotherhood was abolished as a legitimate political movement in Egypt and went underground. As is typical of outlawed political movements and parties, when the movement is pushed underground and access to legitimate means of political influence is removed, the group’s ideology becomes more extreme and they resort to unconventional methods of influence.
The movement helped produce a dissident who is one of the major ideological forces behind the modern jihad: Sayyid Qutb. Qutb rejected nationalism outright and wholly rejected the democratic-capitalism of the West. In short, he claimed the Western system, which was now spreading through the Middle East, perverted society and was against Islamic principles. He sought to restore society to its Islamic roots and traditions. It is upon this ideology and out of the fundamentalist Islamic revival that was already stirring that AQ and eventually ISIL were able to materialize. Qutb heavily influenced Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of AQ and former religious mentor to Osama bin Laden.
Qutb’s ideology resonated further after the 1967 ‘Six-Day War.’ During the conflict, the Israelis crushed the Egyptian and Syrian Air Forces and sent their armies into retreat. The defeat was so decisive that Islamic fundamentalists gained currency, as they attributed the unlikely defeat to Arab rejection of Allah.
To relate this concept to American society, Christian fundamentalist groups often assert that America’s decline is due to our own cultural immorality. Many believe that God is punishing America or, at the very least, is no longer guiding and protecting our interests. Although America’s diverse religious economy marginalizes these ideas, in the Islamic fundamentalist world of religious intolerance, they grow like bacteria in a petri dish, as there are few competing narratives.
The territory gained by Israel during the war spurred an uptick in terrorist action against Israel and, eventually, America by proxy. At this point, Arab nations were powerless in state-to-state conflict with Israel, making unconventional conflict a viable alternative. The Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s served to consolidate the Islamic militancy. Arab fighters from across the region flocked to Afghanistan to defend the Umma, the Islamic concept of a shared Muslim community, which they believed was under attack by the USSR. This is where Osama bin Laden grew his influence within the movement.
After defeating the Soviets, the movement became invigorated, as the defeat of such a major force could only be through divine favor, in their minds. The movement then exported itself around the Muslim world. Fighters returned to their homes as heroes, fully indoctrinated and highly proficient at asymmetric warfare. Most importantly, the motivation to transform Islamic society was now burning inside them and they believed they could do it.
The withdrawal of the U.S. after several international incidents gave bin Laden hope that the process that defeated the Soviets could be repeated in order to remove America and its influence from the region. First, the U.S. closed its embassy in Tripoli after a 1979 attack. In 1983, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was bombed, resulting in U.S. withdrawal. To the jihadists, the perceived U.S. retreat policy spelled victory. After the Soviet-Afghan war, bin Laden attempted to peddle his post-war Arab fighting force to the Saudis as the solution to battle Saddam Hussein, who was occupying Kuwait.
The fact that the Saudis declined his offer and invited the West to handle the conflict infuriated bin Laden and his followers. In their minds, the infidel had been allowed to enter the Arabian Peninsula with his forces and, even worse, they didn’t fully withdraw when they were done. During the Somalia conflict (’92-93), some AQ forces joined with the warlord Aidid to fight U.S. troops. They even sent battle-hardened experts from the Soviet-Afghan conflict to impart their knowledge of downing helicopters; something they knew carried political consequences.
American troops pulled out soon after the infamous and bloody Battle of Mogadishu. The AQ movement gained confidence in their capability to defeat the U.S. and force our withdrawal from the region. These events lead us to 9/11, though I am skipping over several attacks against America by AQ between the Gulf War and this event. The 9/11 attack was about more than the buildings and the civilian casualties. It was about the message to America: “Get out of our land. If you don’t, you will never be safe.”
The event was also intended, perhaps more importantly, as a seminal event to communicate across the Muslim world in an attempt to mobilize the militancy, “We (Muslims) are at war with America and their evil empire.” The subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq furthered the AQ narrative that the ‘evil American Empire’ sought to destroy Islam, surging Islamic support to defend the umma in much the same way as Muslims flocked to Afghanistan to defeat the Soviets. This list of events, although not fully inclusive, sets the context in which the political will of an Arab movement fused with fundamentalist religious ideology.
A secularization and progressive movement in the Middle East, the Western occupation and humiliation of Arabs after WWI, suppression of fundamentalist political movements leading to them seeking alternative methods of influence, and religiously intolerant societies with a narrow marketplace of competing ideologies are some of the main ingredients that sparked an Islamic revival. Couple these ingredients with the Soviet-Afghan conflict, the Israeli conundrum, and a lack of opportunity for many of the region’s inhabitants, and you produce the largest terrorist movement in world history.
What makes religious movements markedly different than their nationalist or ethnic counterparts is the absolutism of religious doctrine. The movements are prophesied as a phase in a timeless and mythical “cosmic war” as Mark Juergensmeyer refers to it, in which terrorist actors are carrying out the orders of their God to defeat an enemy who is at least implicitly working for the other side. In the mind of the religious militant, the globe is in the throes of a good-versus-evil conflict, and it is their duty to God to respond with violence. In this context, the movement cannot tolerate negotiation because it is impossible to negotiate God’s will.
Compromise becomes an incomprehensible betrayal of the divine. This same concept is inherent in the CSA, AQ, IS, the bombing of abortion clinics, and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. Although the goals are clearly political in nature, religion is the mobilizer of the militants and serves as justification for their often brutal tactics. By dehumanizing their enemies and declaring them “enemies of God,” groups are able to justify almost any act, no matter how horrific. This is not unlike Papal dehumanization of Africans to justify the Atlantic slave trade. The point is, all religions are capable of atrocities if the conditions are right.
The Islamic terrorist movements also carry with them a religious goal, which is to bring about the apocalypse. This piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit the political model nor the definition of terrorism, but it is an important element nonetheless. Though not a predominant message of either movement directed towards the West, the narrative and purpose resonates within the leadership at the very least. Statements confirm bin Laden, Zarqawi (AQI), and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (Islamic State ‘Caliph’) see this as a goal. In the case of bin Laden, the goal was very distant. Conversely, Zarqawi (now dead), and now Baghdadi operate with the intent of realizing this goal perhaps within their own lifetime.
We must take the long view and be willing to accept the magnitude of the conflict. To do so, we must also understand that victory is not a matter of how many EKIA we can score, but a matter of defeating an ideology and providing a long-term alternative to extremism. Peace (the presumed goal) will only happen through robust, locally provided security and long-term economic development of the region, neither of which are easy tasks.
The movement is born out of political frustration and put into the context of religion. We (the world) must remove or alleviate the political frustration in an effort to get in front of the competition. If we keep doing what we have always done, we will continue to get the same result: terrorism. What we know is that if a man has a job, can provide food and shelter for his family, and can maintain his own dignity, he is less likely to strap on an S-Vest, walk into a café or a checkpoint, and detonate himself in the name of God or any other cause.
For those who have already taken up the gun against us, it may be too late. For those yet to be co-opted by radicalism, we may have a chance to intervene. With that in mind, we as Americans must be open to exploring solutions beyond bombs and bullets alone, though admittedly, any viable solution will require the deterrent of a heavy hand that only an advanced military can provide. After all, before anything can be built, we must secure the area and people.