'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 3 January 2011

Sageman, Hoffman and Anwar al-Awlaki

Karen J. Greenberg of New York University’s Center of Law and Security has said of the well-publicised dispute between Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman:

“Sometimes it seems like this entire field is stepping into a boys-with-toys conversation. Here are two guys, both of them respected, saying that there is only one truth and only one occupant of the sandbox. That’s ridiculous. Both of them are valuable.” (quoted in the NYTimes)

This either/or division of academics and policymakers as they step into either the camp for leaderless jihad or the camp for top-down terrorism must be seen as a dangerous development in the burgeoning field of counter-terrorism: focusing on one negates any possibility of ameliorating the threat from the other. The pertinent question is not which view is right, but, ‘How closely wedded is the leaderless jihad to the militant Islamic groups that exist with known structure?’

The Stockholm bomber, Taimour Abdulwahhab al-Abdaly, was a known user of Islamist Forums and Islamist Youtube pages were prominent on his social media pages. Al-Abdaly is also known to have spent four years travelling in the Middle East, having reached Amman in 2006 and returned to Europe in 2010. Which element here creates the Stockholm bomber? If we remove the Internet activities do we prevent a Swedish martyrdom operation, or is it his travels in the Middle East (and possible interaction with Islamist groups) that led to al-Abdaly’s suicide explosion?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to know, but in the Hegelian tradition, Hoffman’s thesis and Sageman’s antithesis creates synthesis: the Yemeni-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki presents compelling evidence for a blurring of the two worlds, a merging of the two camps. Al-Awlaki utilises social media, especially YouTube, to disseminate his ideology; he is a U.S citizen, fluent in English. It appears that al-Awlaki is both linked to Islamist groups in the Global South, but also instrumental in the burgeoning jihadi network on the Internet. Al-Awlaki’s activities and statements have been scrutinized by the NEFA foundation since it emerged that two of the 9.11 hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mindhar were in contact with al-Awlaki in San Diego. He has since been linked, in the capacity as a ‘spiritual advisor’ or ‘figure of inspiration’ for Nidal Hasan and Umar Farouk amongst others.

Martyrdom Motivation

If there is a bottom up, popular, Internet-based pattern of Islamist terrorism in the West, and if ‘religion is the opium of the people’ then this ‘leaderless jihad’ needs spiritual motivation. Development of English-language motivational material is at the heart of al-Alwaki’s work and considering his global appeal (Sharif Mobley, Faisal Shahzad and Roshonara Choudhry have all cited the impact of al-Alwaki upon their actions) he has achieved success. Consider these points from his 2009 44 Ways to Support Jihad:

29. WWW Jihad
“The internet has become a great medium for spreading the call of Jihad and following the news of the mujahideen. Some ways in which the brothers and sisters could be ‘internet mujahideen’ is by contributing in one or more of the following ways:”
• “Establishing discussion forums that offer a free, uncensored medium for posting
information relating to Jihad.”
• “Establishing email lists to share information with interested brothers and sisters.”
• “Posting or emailing Jihad literature and news.”
• “Setting up websites to cover specific areas of Jihad, such as: mujahideen news, Muslim POWs, and Jihad literature.”

Al-Awlaki perceives the future of the jihad to be disseminated through the Internet: one cannot send a drone to destroy and idea and the Internet is the best medium for the dissemination of ideas. Yet there is an obvious hypocrisy in utilising an American invention to rail against America. The relatively ‘free’ nature of the Internet is one of the great Western technological triumphs. Accessing any of al-Alwaki’s material you are probably using Google’s Chrome, Microsoft’s Explorer or Mozilla’s Firefox, all American inventions.

42. Learning Arabic
“Arabic is the international language of Jihad. Most of the Jihad literature is available
only in Arabic and publishers are not willing to take the risk of translating it. The only
ones who are spending the money and time translating Jihad literature are the Western intelligence services…and too bad, they would not be willing to share it with you. Arabic also happens to be the predominant language of the foreign mujahideen in every land of Jihad so without it you might end up talking to yourself. It is important for the mujahideen to able to communicate through a common language and Arabic is the proper candidate.”

Al-Awlaki recognises the obvious barrier between Hoffman’s Al-Qaeda and Sageman’s ‘bunch of guys’: language. It also shows al-Awlaki’s aim –for the Western ‘jihobbyists’ (Jarret Brachman) and the Islamist fighters to be in contact – idealised Jihadis that will motivate the Western Islamists.

43. Translating Jihad literature into other languages
“As I stated in the previous point most of the Jihad literature is in Arabic. Brothers and sisters who speak a foreign language in addition to Arabic should translate the most important works into their languages.”
“Every movement of change is preceded first by an intellectual change. It is said that the time of Salahudeen was preceded by an upsurge in writings about Jihad. We are seeing this happen today. This revival of Jihad needs to take place among Muslims of every tongue.”

Invoking history is a common theme amongst Salafi ideologues – and Saladin as one of the greatest Muslim warriors is often mentioned, especially given the nature of his reconquest of lands lost to Christian forces.

Al-Alwaki singular talent and focus lies in creating English-language materials that motivates the would-be jihadi. The cleric’s works include a series of lectures entitled Constants on the Path of Jihad, (for influence see for example) echoing the influential book of the same name by Yusuf Al-Ayiri (the late leader of ‘Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia’) — which is believed in the intelligence community to support leaderless jihad: these have been uploaded to YouTube.  Al-Awlaki has produced The Hereafter—(al Akhirah) a CD set that describes the pleasure of the afterlife; it is marketed on alghurabaa as, ‘In breathtaking style the listener hears of the events that occur just before death and the events that come after it’ (Excerpts are also available on YouTube). Further al-Awlaki develops the idea of heroic afterlife in 25 Promises from Allah to the Believer and Virtues of the Sahabah.

Moreover, possibly conscious of the gender-bias inherent in Salafi ideology, he has created Young Ayesha (RA) & Mothers of the Believers (RA)—CD—CIIE in a possible nascent appeal to women. Of joining jihad, al-Awlaki has written that ‘if my circumstances would have allowed, I would not have hesitated in joining you and being a soldier in your ranks’. Yet he does not state the circumstances that prevent him from so doing.

Al-Awlaki is also a compelling figure if you subscribe to the failed states thesis or even if you don’t (see for example., Chowdhury, Arjun (2009) ‘Failed States: Inside or Outside the ‘Flat’ World of Globalisation? Review Essay’, Security Dialogue, 40(6), pp.637-659. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (LSE) has written about the nature of the threat, stressing a ‘country on the brink of failed statehood because of a mix of internal rebellion, a resurgent Al Qaeda presence, dwindling reserves of oil and water and the flow of men, money and arms from Somalia - just across the Gulf of Aden’. Yemen is the poorest or second poorest of the Arabian states (after Mauritania) depending on source used.

Al-Awlaki is thus a well-educated U.S. citizen who currently ‘works out of’ one of the poorest Arab states, as such, whilst it may not be proven that failed states produce terrorists, there have been notable examples of poorer states (lacking a state-centric monopoly of violence over its populus) being safe-havens for figures associated with Islamic militancy (for example, bin Laden in Sudan). It seems logical that tribal-based societies operating in the absence of strong central government afford the better safe havens but Yemen is also his country of origin and he is protected by the Awlaki tribe (For the concept of safe havens in Salafi ideology see here).

Both Sageman and Hoffman could use al-Awlaki to support their theses: Al-Alwaki has apparent ties to Islamist groups in Yemen, but his gaze is always turned to the West. Consider ‘Inspire’, a Yemeni-based Ezine from Islamist groups in the Arabian Peninsula but written in English, holding such sway in the Western psyche that an FT article was moved to opine that, ‘in another possible indication of AQAP’s [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s] intentions, Chicago’s skyline was featured in a recent issue of the group’s English-language magazine, Inspire.’

Hoffman’s Grass-Roots

Hoffman’s stinging critique of Sageman ('The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism', Foreign Affairs) is to exaggerate the latter’s thesis. Sageman posits the ‘bottom up’ approach, the leaderless jihad, but he never suggests a grassroots, ‘Islamist pandemic’. So Hoffman is right and Sageman would agree – there is no grassroots movement, if by grassroots we take the Princeton definition of ‘the essential foundation’, ‘source’, or ‘common people at a local level’. Coincidentally, al-Qaeda translates as ‘the foundation’ but it is not grassroots.

Al-Awlaki sent an encomium in December 2008 to Al-Shabaab, thanking them for, ‘giving us a living example of how we as Muslims should proceed to change our situation. The ballot has failed us, but the bullet has not’. The ballet has failed militant Islam because it lacks wider appeal, as al-Awlaki knows all too well. Olivier Roy recorded the failure of all political Islam, when observing that, ‘Post-Islamism does not imply the emergence of a secular society as such. It is primarily the reaffirmation of the autonomy of the political, of the struggle for power, of the logic of national or ethnic interests, of the precedence of politics over religion.’ [Roy, O. (2004), Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah  (C. Hurst and Co.: London), p.4]

United States Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is wary of the propaganda war when he notes, ‘It is just plain embarrassing that al Qaeda is betting at communicating its message on the Internet than America. As one foreign diplomat asked a couple of years ago ‘how can one man in a cave out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?’

Obama’s presidential campaign was spurred on by a grassroots internet movement among young technical-savvy Americans that operated as a reaction to Bush’s Republicanism. Al-Awlaki would like to create something similar but utilising American vehicles and English-language to rail against American vehicles and the English-speaking world generates a self-evidently hypocritical methodology.  

For more on the debate on failed states as propagators of terrorism:
Ikenberry, G. J. (2004) ‘Why States Fail: Causes and Consequences’, Capsule Review, Foreign Affairs
- (2004) ‘State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century’, Foreign Affairs
Mallaby, S. (2002) ‘The Reluctant Imperialist: Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire, Foreign Affairs
Van de Walle, N. (2005) ‘Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism’, Capsule Review, Foreign Affairs
Lisanti, D. (2010) ‘Do Failed States Really Breed Terrorists?’, Conference Paper, CAPERS workshop, NYU, May 14 

There are now a number of “failed states indices” (quantification of a problem is understanding it?) – see for example: