BRUSSELS – The battle over the future of global Islam will be fought and decided in Europe.
Whether or not it is responsible for the attacks on London, the al-Qaeda nebula is now configured as a relentless jihadi recruitment mechanism, profiting from the fact that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has been added to its original mix of extreme Wahhabism and Silicon Valley (which al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, visited in the early 1990s).
“Al-Qaeda” is a mutating virus, proliferating secretly in unexpected places. It used to thrive on subterfuge, evasion and deception. Now, the virus is attacking on three fronts. The Internet spreads the lethal, remixed Koran of jihad’s aims and ideology; Iraq has become the university for a new, deadly generation of internationalist jihadis; and Europe is the latest battleground where the new generation is bound to strike. The Euro-jihadi is here to stay.
“Al-Qaeda” is now a metaphor for global, deterritorialized jihad – indeed a “database” (as its original name implies) that strives to represent the microcosm of the whole Islamic umma (community). This is a political war conducted by a revolutionary vanguard. It is also a social war. It is definitely not a religious war. Whether religious war may succeed it depends to a large extent on the Muslim population of Europe, and whether it can isolate the Euro-jihadis.
No one is innocent
The killing of innocents, or massacre of infidels – as in London’s attacks – is not considered terrorism by either Osama bin Laden or Zawahiri: as bin Laden himself has made clear, it is seriously regarded as only a minor reparation for all the crimes committed against Islam since the end of the 600-year-long Ottoman Empire in 1923.
Al-Qaeda may be a revolutionary vanguard, but it is always careful to cloak its war as a war against unbelievers. In December 2002, Zawahiri published a crucial pamphlet in the London daily, al-Quds al-Arabi, widely reproduced on the jihadi Internet. He quoted a Koranic verse to justify the accidental killing of Muslims in attacks against unbelievers: the Muslims should not be there in the first place. Because it is ostensibly a war against unbelievers, al-Qaeda cannot but stress that if Muslims are associated with unbelievers, Islam itself is in danger.
Many clerics used this scholarly doctrine – al-wala wal-bara (“loyalty and separation”, in Arabic) to explain why Baghdad fell to the Mongols in the 13th century, as well as the Spanish Reconquista of Andalusia. Zawahiri used it to legitimize any “collateral damage” by jihad. The measure of Zawahiri’s influence is offered by the new, lethal and even more nihilistic generation of jihadis operating in Iraq: they have no problems justifying the killing of fellow Muslims and innocent Iraqi civilians, because for them these people are “associating with unbelievers”. Zawahiri made it clear in 2002 that any Muslim ally of America was by definition an apostate: “Jihad against Americans, Jews and their allies among the hypocrites and apostates is mandatory on all Muslims.”
The London investigation followed three leads: the attackers might have come from the Middle East, from Northern Africa, or they could have been British. Now Scotland Yard has established they were four men aged 18 to 30, “cleanskins” – with no criminal record – and British-born, of Pakistani origin. In short: the new, lethal, generation of suicide-bombing Euro-jihadis.
Most EU counter-terrorism analysts in Brussels – indeed, all over Western Europe – are stunned. This is what many had feared for a long time. As for rumors that London was part of a plan hatched by former Iraqi Mukhabarat agents to use British jihadis and thus retaliate inside British territory, EU analysts say they have no evidence – at least not yet – that Ba’athists were involved. But the jihadi component of the Iraqi resistance may well be. EU analysts tell Asia Times Online, “At the moment we have no evidence that former Iraq intelligence was involved, but we are studying the possibility of Zarqawi agents being infiltrated in Britain, or having come to Britain to conduct an operation.”
If “al-Qaeda”, the virus, really did perpetrate the London bombings, it won’t be confronted with the huge public relations problem posed by the Casablanca attack in Morocco. Then, al-Qaeda’s ideology – disseminated by Salafist sheikhs – had contaminated a group of lumpen proletariat Moroccans, who decided to turn their impotence into terrorism. The problem is that only fellow Moroccan Muslims were killed. The attacks on Madrid in March last year – perpetrated by Casablanca-linked Moroccans – was a different story: the victims were scores of “infidel” Europeans. These jihadis were trained by al-Qaeda. The same pattern, according to EU counter-terrorism analysts, may have played itself out in London.
Just as in Madrid, the attack was claimed by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades (which honor the Egyptian Abu Hafs, a former security chief for bin Laden and trainer of Arab Afghans, killed by American bombs in Kandahar in November 2001). Then a communique was sent to the London daily al-Quds al-Arabi. Now a communique has appeared on an Islamist website from Dubai.
Zawahiri’s jihad masterplan, elaborated in 2001, was to conduct selected, spectacular strikes whose powerful reverberation on global TV and the Internet would mobilize the Muslim masses. But Gilles Kepel, professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, warns that “apart from some narrow and unlikely alliances with intellectuals or black sheep, a few random Islamic bankers, and young, dispossessed bombers, bin Laden has been unable to unify poor urban youth, the Muslim middle classes, and the Islamist intelligentsia into a coalition capable of repeating the only triumphant Islamic revolution the world has ever seen: the one that took place in Iran in 1979”.
After London, this situation may be about to change. Kepel already talks of “the fight for Europe”.
Over 10 million immigrants from Muslim countries now live in Western Europe. Their children were born in Europe, speak one or more European languages, carry EU passports, are well educated and technology-savvy, and are familiar with the maze of European institutions. Internationalist jihadis are fighting to capture the hearts and minds of these 10 million.
EU analysts, among the doom and gloom, agree that tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims are bound to peak, especially in Britain and France. Some parts of Brussels, the capital of Europe, feel like Morocco. Belgium, as well as Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Scandinavia have all tried very hard to carefully calibrate their policies in terms of keeping potential jihadis under a close watch while at the same time integrating their Muslim populations. France has been too harsh; Britain had thought it kept everything under control by monitoring “Londonistan”. Now the battle for Europe has come – a matter of fitna – sedition, disagreement, war in the heart of Islam. Fitna is Islam’s enemy within – and it’s the jihadis new thrust that is provoking the turmoil.
The question facing the jihadis is whether to force the destabilization of national governments – like those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan – or to go deeper into internationalist jihad. In these terms, “al-Qaeda”, the virus, is not different from any revolutionary vanguard: one is reminded that Stalinists wanted to consolidate the revolution in the USSR, while Trotskyites wanted a permanent, world revolution. Until now, London was a Salafi, and Salafi-jihadi, sanctuary. Now there’s bound to be major repression – and dispersal. “Invisible” Euro-jihadis may be holed up anywhere. The point is not that “al-Qaeda” wants to impose Islam in Europe: what it wants is to impose Wahhabi values in the Arab-Muslim world, and extirpate the West from Muslim lands.
Salafis – closely linked to House of Saud-approved sheikhs – will keep discouraging jihad with a vengeance. They prefer discreet integration. As an example: in France, they did not even protest the law that forbids veiled girls in schools. Sheikh Yousef al-Qardawi – immensely popular because of his al-Jazeera talk show – is against suicide bombing as in September 11 or London, but he approves of jihad in Palestine.
The reverberations of London’s attacks, on the other hand, may embolden more Salafi jihadis in west Yorkshire, Hamburg, Paris or Madrid. Some of these jihadis have been to Bosnia, Pakistan, Chechnya or Iraq and are more than ready to strike in western Europe. Not to mention the new jihadis born in Europe, with clean records, apparently well-socialized, and aged between 18 and 30.
When Zawahiri launched his jihad, one of his basic aims was to punish the West, specifically the Anglo-American sphere. He didn’t foresee that the massive response would include death and destruction in the Middle East, as in Iraq. According to some Middle Eastern media reports, more than 128,000 Iraqis have been killed by the invasion and occupation since March 2003; 55% are believed to be women and children under the age 12. This figure is said to be based on information gathered in Iraqi hospitals and from the families of victims. This is how the Middle East evaluates the occupation. And this is one of the major factors giving jihadis what they see as justification for no-holds-barred retaliation against the West.
This new generation of Euro-jihadis is now turning it all upside down, profiting from widespread revulsion against the Anglo-Americans takeover of Iraq to retaliate as well as advance a Salafi worldview. This could all have been prevented by a very simple move: a real democratic project for the Middle East – before indiscriminate support for every one of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s excesses; before Guantanamo; before Abu Ghraib; before the leveling of Fallujah.
Instead, thanks to Pentagon propaganda regurgitated by corporate media, we now have a cipher, a man nobody is sure even exists – Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – elevated to supernatural status. EU analysts despair: we may be entering the age of one thousand Zarqawis coming from the shadows to haunt not the US, but western Europe. It’s as much a war at the heart of Europe as a war at the heart of Islam.