An Honest Missive

Zawahiri boasts strategy for “victory of Islam.”

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

The website of the Director of National Intelligence just published a letterfrom Al Qaeda’s number two leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head-terrorist in Iraq. This document repays careful reading, for it explodes much of the received wisdom many people rely on in making sense of jihadist terror.

According to this standard interpretation, Islamic terror is the handiwork of a fanatic minority that has “highjacked” and distorted Islamic doctrine. These medieval throwbacks gain traction from the political autocracy and oppression that dominate the Muslim governments in the Middle East, regimes that cannot provide the freedom and prosperity that would eliminate the frustration and despair breeding terrorist violence. The leftist variation of this analysis lays the blame on Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, and Western, particularly American, imperialist and colonialist misdeeds in the region. Either way, the underlying assumption is that jihadist terror is a sort of cultural neurosis arising in reaction to political or material circumstances. Thus the cure for the terrorist “disease” must be found in improving those circumstances: installing democratic governments or compelling Israel to surrender Judea and Samaria (aka the “occupied West Bank”) so that a Palestinian state can be created.

Zawahiri’s letter, however, offers little that squares with this received wisdom. Its shrewd analysis and careful argument are the signs not of a wild-eyed religious fanatic but of a thinker shaped by his religion’s history and spiritual imperatives. Indeed, Zawahiri is very clear about the traditional jihadist motivation, one that is not a mere reaction to Western misdeeds or a distortion of Islam, but rather squarely in its history and traditional values: the eventual triumph of the true faith over “atheism” and “polytheism,” the latter term code for Christianity. Thus the struggle in Iraq is the site of “the greatest battle of Islam in this era,” another in a long series of “epic battles between Islam and atheism.” However, in Zawahiri’s analysis, “the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world.” For only then can the caliphate ultimately be reestablished: “The goal in this age,” Zawahiri writes, “is the establishment of a caliphate in the manner of the Prophet.” The terror of the insurgents in Iraq is a “large step directly towards that goal.”

Rather than a localized response to American-Zionist imperial adventurism, then, the insurgency in Iraq according to Zawahiri is merely the means to achieving the first of several “incremental goals” aimed at the eventual establishment of the caliphate throughout the “heart of the Islamic world,” that is the whole Middle East. The first “goal” is to “expel the Americans from Iraq” as a necessary precondition to creating “an Islamic authority or amirate [province],” one that will have no truck with infidel Western notions of secular democracy or human rights. Note well: the insurgents are murdering and maiming not in reaction to Abu Graib, not to forestall Western control over oil reserves, not out of frustration with Israel’s defensive wall, not for any of the reasons we in the West cook up out of our own materialist prejudices, but for a spiritual goal: the fulfillment of Allah’s will that the traditional lands once conquered by his armies and subjected to Islam be restored to rule by adherents of the true faith.

After this goal is achieved, the “third stage” will involve expanding “the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq.” And then will come the final stage: “the clash with Israel.” Zawahiri’s references to Israel are significant, and make clear that despite years of propaganda in which Palestinian frustrated “nationalist aspirations” are trotted out as excuses for murder, it is Israel’s very existence, no matter what it does, that makes its elimination necessary. As Zawahiri puts it, Palestine is the “heart” of a “bird” whose wings are Syria and Egypt. The Western powers understood the strategic importance of this location for destroying the unity of the Muslim-Arab world; hence, “they did not establish Israel in this triangle surrounded by Egypt and Syria and overlooking the Hijaz [western Saudi Arabia containing Mecca and Medina] except for their own interests.”

In other words, Israel is simply a weapon in the war of the infidel against Islam, an outpost of the West as much as were the medieval Crusader kingdoms, a state “established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.” That is why Israel must go, not because it has prevented the Palestinians from creating a state. Indeed, Zawahiri implicitly rejects the “nationalist” interpretation of the struggle against Israel: “It is strange that the Arab nationalists also have, despite their avoidance of Islamic practice, come to comprehend the great importance of this province [Palestine] . . . They have come to comprehend the goal of planting Israel in this region, and they are not misled in this, rather they have admitted their ignorance of the religious nature of this conflict.”

Nor is this interpretation the idiosyncratic obsession of a crank, as the existence of numerous Palestinian jihadist terror organizations attests. The West’s failure to recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an episode in the centuries-long spiritual struggle between Islam and the “infidels” continues to this day, as we see with the vast hopes pinned on Mahmoud Abbas and democratic elections, all the while organizations like Hamas, committed like Zawahiri to the destruction of Israel, continue to enjoy significant support among Palestinian Arabs and to function as an autonomous state-within-a-state. The creation of a Palestinian state, then, is merely a stage towards that eventual “clash with Israel” Zawahiri speaks of. Until we recognize this spiritual motivation and compel the presumed “moderates” who sincerely reject it to act on their beliefs –– more bluntly, to destroy the armed terrorists–– there will be no solution to that crisis that does not leave Israel vulnerable.

Zawahiri understands that the pursuit of this traditional Islamic goal must take place in a modern world in which the infidels have an overwhelming military superiority. This means that the struggle must be carried on at the psychological and perceptual level as well. He understands that “half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media” in a “race for the hearts and minds of our Umma [the whole Muslim community].” Suicide attacks on Shiites in Iraq, then, are condemned not on moral or religious grounds, but as tactical errors in the battle for “hearts and minds.” Why a gory beheading when “we can kill the captives by a bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts.” As we have seen repeatedly in Israel, terrorist murder is condemned on tactical, not moral, grounds. Always the larger goal, the restoration of Islamic dominance, is the only standard by which to judge any action.

Finally, Zawahiri makes it clear that the Islamic arrogant assurance of its spiritual superiority and righteousness is validated by the corresponding spiritual dysfunction of an American society that puts material comfort and security ahead of everything else. Zawahiri’s confidence that the “Americans will exit soon,” as he puts it, and so planning should commence for the political order that will arise upon their departure, is confirmed for him historically by Vietnam: “The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam –– and how they ran and left their agents –– is noteworthy.” Indeed it is, but not for the false “quagmire” analogy trotted out periodically by those opposed to the war in Iraq. Rather, the significance of Vietnam lies in how the United States, as a South Vietnamese defense minister put it, “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

In other words, military power may have succeeded in turning back the North Vietnamese, but political and moral weakness undid all the gains earned by the sacrifice of 60,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese. As Zawahiri indicates, the lesson was learned by our enemies: make enough Americans uncomfortable, disturb their leisure and sensibilities with enough grisly images helpfully broadcast by their own media, and eventually they will cut and run. And indeed, if we were to abandon Iraq after suffering there about the same number of deaths as we did in two months in Vietnam, such abandonment would confirm for the jihadists their estimation of our spiritual corruption.

Over and over the jihadist enemy tells us why he wants to kill us, and over and over we dismiss his words or reduce them to our own categories. Paralyzed by our fear of being “insensitive” to cultural differences, and deluded by our materialist preconceptions that reduce religion to an expression of some more “real” cause, we refuse to name clearly the enemy: an Islamic faith that for centuries has killed, enslaved, plundered, ravaged, and conquered in the service of its arrogant assurance of its spiritual superiority.

©2005 Bruce Thornton

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