Modern Jihad Draws Strength from History

By Hiel, Betsy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

Modern Jihad Draws Strength from History


Hiel, Betsy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


CAIRO, Egypt -- The ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mohammed Atta, left behind a letter that told his fellow hijackers what to do, right up to the moment their attacks changed the world.

His instructions, based on religious rituals dating to the Prophet Mohammed, detailed how to dress, how to pray, even how to take symbolic war-plunder -- in this case, a glass of water.

"It was as if they were fighting in the 7th century and the Prophet was behind them," says Reuven Paz, who directs the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements, based in Herzliya, Israel.

Five years later, that historical sense of heroic symbolism still guides the global jihad movement.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has toppled regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq; Israel and Hezbollah have fought in Lebanon; Palestinians have battled against Israeli occupation.

No new attacks have hit America.

Yet terrorists abound in the Islamic world -- striking Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey -- and terrorism has become the bloody hallmark of Iraq's insurgency. Nor has Europe been immune: Homegrown Islamists hit Madrid and then London, where another 9/11-like plot was averted last month.

Since 2001, Paz sees a "significant" rise worldwide in "supporters of the cause" -- not just followers of al-Qaida, but "self-radicalized jihad-seekers."

'A river of blood'

Because of the horror of the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans tend to think of it as the first shot in the global jihad.

Yet the "holy war" began long before. The West just wasn't paying attention, experts across the Middle East agree.

Yoram Schweitzer, a counterterrorism expert at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, describes today's threat as "the sour fruits that we are now harvesting for ignoring what happened in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001," when al-Qaida flourished under the Taliban regime.

Al-Qaida "sees itself as a pioneer and a guiding force" of the global jihad, he says.

In reality, many factors have inspired and sustained it.

The humiliation, poverty and rage found on the Arab world's streets spawned jihad's thinkers and foot-soldiers. Ideologically bankrupt political parties in most Arab countries have helped radical Islamic parties to attract growing numbers of disillusioned Muslims.

Many Arabs claim American arrogance and overreaction to the worst- ever attack on U.S. soil encourage extremism, too. Adding fuel to this fire is anti-U.S. anger for what Arabs perceive as a "Crusader war" against Islam and unwavering support for Israel.

Such sentiment is readily found in Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the region.

"The effects of Sept. 11 will never be solved by killing more people," says Samir Habashneh, Jordan's former interior minister and an appointed member of its parliament, who proclaims himself a "friend of America."

Still, he is not optimistic.

"There are 2 billion Muslims in the world, and there are 2 billion Christians," he says. "It will never end, and it will be a river of blood."

A 'changing enemy'

Jamil Abu Baker, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, ticks off a list of reasons he believes the United States is waging war on Islam.

He recalls that, after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush called the war on terror a "crusade" -- a phrase that resonates deeply in a region where historic symbolism is the norm.

"The way they deal with Islam in the (United) States and the outside world," he says, is by "chasing Islamic movements and accusing Islam itself of encouraging terrorism."

His comment is heard often in the region -- and shows how even language provokes anger and hate.

More recently, Bush's use of the phrase "Islamic fascists" to describe Hezbollah "revealed the true feeling of the head of the strongest nation on earth," says Dr. Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst. …

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