Jihadists Failing to Win Muslim Minds

By Gilles Kepel

Los Angeles Times

September 9, 2004

Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the hostage-taking in North Ossetia and its horrendous outcome and the capture of two French journalists in Iraq have shed new light on the challenges facing Islamist terrorism.

In his 2001 pamphlet, "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner," Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's chief ideologue, reminded his readers that the "jihadist vanguard" was always at risk of being isolated from the "Muslim masses." He wrote that the jihadists needed to find ways of mobilizing those masses toward the supreme political goal: the triumph of the Islamic state and the implementation of Islamic law worldwide.

Zawahiri considered the 1990s a decade of failed opportunities. Jihad had been unsuccessful in Algeria, Bosnia, Egypt and Kashmir because militants had proved unable to galvanize civil society. To reverse this trend, he came up with the idea of using spectacular terrorism to shock the enemy and make the Muslim masses see the jihadists as knights. The Sept. 11 attacks were concei ved by Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden as a way of "magnifying" jihad against Israel and "burning the hands of the U.S.," Islam's "faraway enemy" and ally of the Jewish state.

But three years on, this ideology has not achieved its goal. Although Al Qaeda has resisted Cold War-inspired U.S. military strategy (Bin Laden and Zawahiri remain on the run) and directed a succession of bloody terrorist attacks from Bali to Madrid, jihad activists have not seized power anywhere. They have lost their Afghan stronghold, and U.S.-led coalition troops have pursued the war on terror to Iraq, occupying Baghdad, erstwhile capital of the Muslim caliphate.

For the ulema, the Islamic scholars, this is a catastrophe. Instead of making inroads into enemy territory, jihad has backfired and led to what they call fitna — a war within Islam, pitting Shiite against Sunni, Arab against Kurd, Muslim against Muslim — and brought nothing but chaos. Among Palestinians, jihad has also so far led to fitna: The Palestinian Authority has lost influence while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has built a fence that blocks most suicide bombers and will choke the Palestinian economy.

Jihadists are at a crossroads: They are looking desperately for new slogans and modes of action to trigger mass mobilization. This is the context for the North Ossetia massacre and the abduction of the French journalists in Iraq.

Even though large numbers of Chechens resent Kremlin policy and desire independence, only a few identify with Islamist radicals, who have tried to hijack the Chechen independence movement. Taking hundreds of children hostage was supposed to show that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's policy toward Chechnya had failed; jihad activists had hoped to compel Moscow to come to terms. But even before bombs exploded, the tactic had alienated Muslim opinion. Putin could have exploited this revulsion without storming the school and turning the Beslan massacre into the worst terrorist incident since Sept. 11 in terms of casualties.

Russia's politicians have demonstrated that they do not understand the nature of the challenge. They are using obsolete methods and weapons designed in Soviet days to curb dissidents, but these are ineffectual in ending 21st century Islamist terrorism. The United States, despite its "smart" weapons crafted to win the Cold War, has fared no better in its attempts to destroy the Al Qaeda leadership.

The abduction of the French journalists by the "Islamic Army in Iraq" provides another opportunity for an alternative approach to fighting terrorism. The group tried to blackmail French President Jacques Chirac into canceling the law banning religious symbols in French schools and met near unanimous condemnation by the Muslim world. Even Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah have been adamant in their denunciation of the hostage-taking, not out of love for impious France but because they believe the kidnapping will provoke fitna.
The Islamic Army thought it had a winning strategy: On Arab television stations, Islamist activists daily portray French secularism as persecution of Muslims. But the strategy backfired. France's policy in the Middle East, its criticism of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and its view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more important to opinion in the region than its stance on secularism. Scores of French citizens of Muslim descent have appeared on Arab TV since the kidnapping, vehemently opposing the Islamic Army's claims that it speaks in their name. Jihadists have had to backpedal and are now seeking a ransom rather than a change in the law.

The Muslim reaction to these incidents suggests that Al Qaeda could be beaten at its own hearts-and-minds game. Instead, by concentrating on the military option, Russia and the U.S. are missing an opportunity to mobilize Muslim civil society against Islamist terrorism and dry out the social swamps from which it springs.


Gilles Kepel is the author of "The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West" (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2004). This essay appears by special arrangement with the Financial Times.