How Bin Ladin’s Message Lures the Vulnerable

by Emile Nakhleh

via IPS News

The surviving Boston Marathon bomber reportedly told authorities the U.S. “war on Islam” drove him and his brother to commit their terrorist act. Their linking the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a perceived global war on Islam is at the heart of the Jihadist message Bin Ladin and Al-Qaeda issued to the Muslim world almost two decades ago.

The message, which continues to lure some vulnerable Muslim youth across the globe, is powerful, simplistic, repetitive, deceptive and violent. It appeals to alienated and angry youth because they see in it a reaffirmation of their self-articulated religious narrative even though such a narrative has very little basis in objective religious teachings.

Of course, the tipping point of moving a young man from anger into killing innocent people varies from case to case. Once he accepts the universality of Bin Ladin’s message, he proceeds with plotting to terrorise regardless of place and cause.

When I was in government, I frequently briefed senior officials on the long-term danger of Bin Ladin’s message because it charted a path for individual radicalisers and radicalised alike without traceable connections to international terror organisations.

We also briefed them that more and more “lone wolf” potential terrorists who would be receptive to the Bin Ladin message live in Western societies and are usually “under the radar”. Part of my responsibility at CIA was to analyse all Bin Ladin’s messages for senior policymakers.

Bin Ladin’s simple articulation of Jihad, which continues to be propagated in the blogosphere by Al-Qaeda and its franchise groups, includes four key themes. First, the Islamic faith and territory are under attack, as exemplified by the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Western-led wars on individual Muslim countries, he told potential recruits, are part of a global “Christian-Zionist” war against Islam.

Second, Bin Ladin asserted that U.S., Western, and “Zionist” policies are anti-Islamic, as evidenced by what’s happening in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, the Philippines, Sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere.

Third, in response to these attacks, he argued all Muslims are duty bound to engage in Jihad against the “near” enemy (Muslim regimes) and the “far” enemy (the U.S., European states, and Israel). In addressing his followers through so-called fatwas and media messages, Bin Ladin claimed such “jihad” is an existential fight for the survival of the global Muslim community or umma. His successor, Ayman Zawahiri, has repeated the same message.

Fourth, the war between Islam and the “infidels” and the “apostates” will last until the “final days” when the “enemies of Islam” will be defeated. Islam will emerge victorious awaiting the coming of the “Mahdi”.

For Bin Ladin and Al-Qaeda, infidels and apostates included, in addition to non-Muslims, Islamic majorities who disagreed with this radical ideology and terrorist methods.

The four-pronged message is theology at its most simplistic level. Many grade school graduates, high school dropouts, and other youth with limited knowledge of their faith tend to accept it blindly as immutable truth. Many mainstream Muslims, including clerics and scholars, have had difficulty refuting Al-Qaeda’s calls for violence because radicalised youth have no interest in reasoned discussion or in learning about their faith.

Many Muslim youth, like their counterparts across the globe, have grown up with the new social media and a worldview grounded in the Internet, Facebook, short texting, and tweets. Longer treatises on religion or any other subject for that matter turn them off.

When Western governments began to implement so-called strategic communications strategies in an attempt to engage mainstream and “moderate” Muslims and refute extremism, radicalised youth were already inculcated with Bin Ladin’s violent rhetoric.

My analysts and I frequently briefed senior policymakers on the need to study Al-Qaeda’s radical rhetoric and fight it with more convincing messaging. Accomplishing such a goal should have been easy since vast majorities of Muslims worldwide rejected violence and extremism. But it wasn’t.

Radicalisation did not succeed because of religion or values. Terrorist groups have cynically used Muslims’ disagreements with specific Western policies to spread their message of terror. They also used the politics of nationalism – including in Bosnia, Chechnya, the Arabian Peninsula, Kashmir, Western China, and Sub-Saharan Africa – for their global Islamic agenda.

They stoked opposition to the United States and other Western countries by exploiting popular anger on the “Islamic street” against invading Muslim countries, Guantanamo, drone strikes, and other “dirty wars” tactics.

Some Muslim youth, immigrants or children of immigrants who live in Western societies find it difficult to adjust to life in their adopted countries. As alienated adolescents and even college-age kids, they become easy prey to radical recruiters, whether in person or on the Internet.

Where do we go from here? The news from Canada about the role of Canadian Muslims in foiling the recent terror plot to blow up a train is a useful guide on how to proceed.

Canada, the UK, some European countries, and Australia have done a commendable job making their Muslim communities feel a sense of belonging to the country where they live. Several U.S. cities, especially New York City and Las Vegas, Nevada, have implemented similar policies.

Real engagement of Muslim communities in Western societies usually begets a sense of belonging, especially if it is accompanied by official condemnation of hate crimes and rhetoric, such as “Islamophobia”. A well-grounded feeling of belonging empowers mosque imams and other community leaders to spot signs of radicalisation in their community and report them to the authorities.

As one Muslim resident of New York City once said, “This is my city and don’t want anything to happen to it.”

The good news is that vast majorities of Muslims oppose terrorism and focus on improving their lives. As the Afghan war winds down, and as Al-Qaeda Central weakens, a time should come when Guantanamo is closed and “dirty wars’’ become subject to public scrutiny. That is when Bin Ladin’s message becomes irrelevant, the threat of radicalisation wanes, and the “See Something, Say Something” slogan gains acceptance among Muslims.

Photo: The aftermath of the first blast of the 2013 Boston marathon bombing. Credit: Aaron “tango” Tang/Flickr 

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


One Comment

  1. Patronizing analysis of Muslim youth’s grievances and simplistic conclusions. The issues between that region of the world and the West are wider than Guantanamo: destruction of Palestine, militarization of the region, fifth fleet, support in all aspects of the Arabian peninsula reactionaries who loot the riches of the region; the list goes on. It is also optimistic in that assumes people forget what was done to Iraq and Afghanistan. We assume that other people will forget what we have done to them once we are out of there. Of course our intentions were all good, and people who lost brothers and sisters should move on. Besides, we are so powerful that not much else those brown people can do.

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