Niche vs. Mainstream
May 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >
Niche vs. Mainstream
BY NIBRAS KAZIMI
May 9, 2006
The world heard recently from the top three global jihadists out there: Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, and Ayman Zawahiri, each released propaganda tracts that had analysts scurrying to explain the significance of their timing and wording. Much was made of what has been self-evident for a while: the leaders of terror are competing for top billing.
Although Bin Laden still claims place of pride among them, there is a question mark as to who takes over after his demise. It is less a struggle between personalities than a struggle over strategies: the older generation of Bin Laden and Zawahiri believe that jihad should commence from the periphery of the Islamic world and proceed to the center, while younger hotheads like Zarqawi argue that the ground is ripe to strike at the very heart of the Middle East.
Al Qaeda's initial strategy throughout the 1980s and 1990s was to seize upon popular issues such as rolling back the indignities done to the Islamic world at the outlying points of the former empire. It was a fight to stem the loss of ground, a process that had been going on for the last three centuries. The would-be jihadists as well as sympathetic funds and state-sponsorship were beckoned to places such as Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, and the southern Sudan. At these far-away frontiers, the spirit of the ghazi - the warrior who forays deep into the land of the infidels and strikes fear into their hearts - was supposed to be reawakened. Then these young men were to coalesce as the vanguard of the caliphate, who would victoriously march back into the center of Islam, toppling the many tyrants in their way.
It is very much in this vein that Bin Laden's delivers his latest audio message in a tired and scratchy voice, where he calls upon the angry young men of Islam to head towards the Sudan again and fight for Darfur. Similarly Zawahiri, in a video clip, packs his punches for Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf.
In Bin Laden's eyes, the "Crusader enemy" is fomenting trouble in Darfur for the purpose of enabling the Christians and animists of the southern Sudan to roll back millennia-old Arab and Muslim conquests. To Zawahiri, Musharraf is a traitor who is undermining Pakistan's national security, which is somehow part of an American-Zionist plan in aid of Hindu expansionism. Zawahiri glosses over the sins of the Arab rulers and directs his message to the officers and soldiers of the Pakistani armed services and instructs them to topple the strongman. His 16-minute video even had well-written English subtitles (produced by a jihadist outfit calling itself As-Sahab Media Productions), which seems to be a nod to the English fluency of most of Pakistan's officer class. At one point, Zawahiri even pronounced "enlightened moderation" in English to ridicule Musharraf's "new faith" of "Islam without jihad."
Riding horseback into the bushes of red-sanded Darfur? Following the goat trails up the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains? Bin Laden's and Zawahiri's target audience of young Arabs and Muslims is no longer moved by the romance of frontier fighting. There is a jihadist travel agency that promises even a bigger adventure: killing American soldiers in Iraq, with the option of bringing down hated tyrants and opening up a front onto Israel. Zarqawi enters the picture as someone who can make this fantasy possible, and his promotional 34-minute video was all about that.
There are three very curious scenes in the Zarqawi video: when giving his speech, he is seated cross-legged next to a paratrooper Kalashnikov that is propped up against a wall to his right, very much like former videos of Zawahiri that were released over the last two years. In another shot, Zarqawi is seen surrounded by masked gunmen while "inspecting" his troops in Anbar Province. This evokes the images of a younger Bin Laden doing pretty much the same thing in Afghanistan. In those images, we also see Bin Laden firing a Kalashnikov, while Zarqawi one-ups him by firing an American-made heavy machine gun - empting two magazines with what seems to be a steady grip. In these three scenes, Zarqawi is visually comparing himself to Bin Laden and Zawahiri, two men he is verbally deferential to. But the comparison is not lost on all the young watchers out there, who are fascinated by fancy-looking "toys" such as rifles and rocket-launchers and the confidence on display by the jihadists.
In one of Al Qaeda's anthems from the late 1990s, one verse states that "Kabul is our raised sword in the foreign land," while the chorus repeats "we will fold up the space" between those foreign lands and the very heart of Islam: Mecca and Medina in present day Saudi Arabia. After he is done shooting, Zarqawi turns to the camera and says, "By God, America will be defeated in Iraq" while earlier in his speech he claimed that "we are fighting in Iraq while our eyes are on Jerusalem." Zarqawi is branding his own strategy for a jihad to young Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Syrians as something that can be done in their own backyard. He is selling the idea that the jihadists succeeded in wearing down the strongest army in the world even in a hostile land where the Americans have many willing Iraqi "spies" and that this formula can be repeated elsewhere closer to home.
While Bin Laden and Zawahiri have been reduced to peddling their wares on Sudanese and Pakistani customers, the market of mainstream jihad has been ceded to an ambitious start-up run by a younger upstart. The old-timers can only offer jihad in a niche market, a sort of excursion to a boutique country getaway. Zarqawi offers the real thing, the chance to be part of what he calls the "nucleus of an Islamic state." His project is far more ambitious, and he is challenging the careful approach of Bin Laden and Zawahiri, two men who are in hiding somewhere in a mountain crevice while he prowls the open plains of Mesopotamia.
Sunni bitterness over losing power, as well as American ineptitude and bad luck, gave Zarqawi his big break in Iraq. He was a nobody in the jihadist world, just another flunky who had shown up too late for the fight in Afghanistan. His meteoric rise was sudden, and the Bin Laden and Zawahiri are correct in their cautious distrust of such rapid fortunes. Zarqawi takes too many chances, and will get caught or killed sooner rather than later, but his ambitious legacy will survive him: there is a large pool of jihadists in Iraq who think it is possible to expand the fight into the very heart of the Middle East, and they are setting up shop in Damascus, Beirut, Gaza, Sinai, and Jordan. They intend to create a margin of instability in these lands that would give them the breathing space to perform what would be the most sought-after goal in jihadist fantasies: destroying Israel.
If anything, the recent wave of propaganda tells us that the jihadists represented by Zarqawi have eclipsed the stale strategies laid out by has-beens like Bin Laden. The battlefield will no longer stretch into obscure and forgotten recesses of the globe, but rather the fire will burn at the very toes of global strategic interests. The world must prepare for the consequences of this shift in jihadist strategy.
Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
May 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >