The Islamic Jihadist Movement in the Middle East:
The Key Factors Feeding the Continued Fanaticism in its Core since the Late 1980s
A Jihadist, as viewed through a non-Muslim eye, takes on a very harsh image: that of a religious fanatic with a bomb strapped to his body, or a faceless zealot, figuratively and literally, wreathed in a miasma of blood and gore. While this graphic image of the Islamic Jihadist lacks depth at best and intellectual honesty at worst, the reality is that this is how the ordinary non-Islamic people – the so-called “infidels” and “non-believers” – see a Jihadist. Which now begs this question: if a Jihadist is generally perceived as such, what is fueling this kind of Islamic extremism, or what is feeding the fire in the heart of the Islamic Jihadist movement, specifically in the Middle East, that nourishes and sustains its growth?
The phenomenon of the jihad, coupled with the idea of self-sacrifice, is one that is not easy to comprehend. This is especially more difficult to understand when juxtaposed with the essence of the Jihadist persona, that of violence, alongside that of the ultimate goal of the global jihadist movement which is to overthrow secular governments and replace them with Islamist states. But knowing that jihadism is not only deeply rooted in religion but also “enters the political realm,” and that their specific goal, “the reestablishment of a caliphate or unified Muslim state that would do away with present state borders in the Middle East,” will lend a greater understanding of the Islamic Jihadist movement; hence, the fundamental factors that sustain and energize the strength of the jihadist movement in the region will be perceived with less ambiguity.
The accepted meaning of the word jihad in Muslim culture and history today is “war against the enemies of Islam”. While jihad as an Arabic verb has a literal meaning – ‘to strive’ or ‘to exert oneself’ – the rest of the world take jihad’s accepted Islamic term equivalent to the word ‘war’ even if it is not easy to reconcile the words jihad and war with religion. However, Islam is not only a religion but also a political community from the very beginning: Muhammad was also a political leader and military commander aside from a prophet and propagator of the word of God. Hence, if Muhammad is viewed in the context of a political leader and military commander, the non-Muslim may begin to comprehend the extremism contained in the Koran, the sacred text of Islam which is revered as the word of God as dictated to Muhammad, and accepted as the foundation of Islamic law, religion, culture and politics. One such extreme view is the distinction that Islam places between the followers of Islam and non-followers of Islam. The former are called believers and the latter, infidels. It is the duty of every Muslim to propagate their faith throughout the world. If the infidels or non-Muslims refuse to accept Islam, jihad is the way to conquer them; or when fellow Muslims object to this kind of fight, they are considered apostates and should be killed as well. Islam also divides the world into two: the abode of believers or those Muslim states, and the abode of war, that is, lands which are not [yet] under Muslim rule, and must be “conquered by the sword” or jihad.
With violence and the Jihadist ideology firmly entrenched in Islam, and with the Arabs’ deep hatred for Israel, the Jihadists’ animosity for the latter reached new highs with the British mandate of Palestine after World War I, and the subsequent partitioning of Palestine. In 1949, when the State of Israel was created by a U.N. mandate, the radical extremists’ wrath for Israel turned for the worse. Tension between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs escalated to violence; nevertheless, the latter were able to recruit new volunteers into the movement. It must be noted at this point that most Arab/Muslim organizations and parties support the armed struggle against Israel as long as it continues to occupy what the Palestinians claim as their land, while some have promised a truce if Israel will withdraw from the occupied territories; that is, with the exception of Hamas and Islamic Jihad that espouse the radical destruction of Israel. The Islamic Jihad movement justifies their stand by pointing out that a “proper reading of the Koran … would lead to the conclusion that Palestine is the focus of the religio-historical confrontation between the Muslims and their eternal enemies, the Jews.” In other words, the Jihadists have only one thing in mind: the annihilation of Israel.
That Israel, already at the crosshair of every Jihadist’s target in the Middle East, is a staunch ally of the United States does exacerbate its difficult position in the region. It is no secret that anti-Americanism is prevalent among the Muslims in the Middle East. Not only do the Muslims, the radical extremists and the Islamic Jihadists in particular, regard the Americans as purveyors of Western influence and are infidels, they also see the U.S. as “a pampered land with little zeal for bloody struggles,” and a supporter of corrupt, incompetent and oppressive dictators and kings in the Middle East to keep the region “in a perpetual state of confusion.” The violent attacks of the radical Muslim extremists over the years – like the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, the March 1995 assassination of the American diplomats in Pakistan, the June 1996 bombing at the American barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, or the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole near Aden – all point to a kind of ideological hatred that dwells in the psyche of a Jihadist.
The rise of Islamic Jihadism did come, according to many scholars and analysts, in 1979 when the Iranians took over the U.S. diplomatic mission in Tehran and Iranian students took American hostages. A sense of “near-universal solidarity with Khomeini’s Iran” prevailed among the Muslims in general that celebrated the humiliation of the U.S. However, Saudi Arabia, being the Defender of the Two Holy Places, namely Mecca and Medina, was unhappy with the prestige earned by Iran and thus embarked upon a jihad, with the U.S. and Pakistan, against the Soviets who had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The U.S. provided weapons and trained what it called “freedom fighters” while Saudi Arabia and Pakistan supplied logistical support. Little did these countries know that, at the time, while working cooperatively to unite various Islamist groups, a global jihadist network was in the making . When the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia left Afghanistan in 1989 after successfully driving the Soviets out, Bin Laden and his tens of thousands of Arab/Afghan freedom fighters were left behind. With the Jihadists — trained and helped by the Americans, the Saudis and the Pakistanis — having experienced victory against a superpower, the Soviets, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that they, with Bin Laden at the helm, were left “in a shell state in which to incubate al-Qaeda”
That some countries in the Middle East, those that resorted to using jihadist groups in order to defeat other domestic militant Islamist groups, have not only altered their relationship with the Jihadists but have also empowered them is a fact. A classic example is the falling out between Bin Laden and the Saudi royal family, a case of a Jihadist or jihadist group gaining strength and audacity, enough to assert their autonomy. When the 1991 Persian Gulf War erupted, it played a significant role in “creating friction between many of these states and their jihadist proxies.” The Islamist Jihadists’ goals and objectives simply clashed with those of their sponsor-states. However, when the U.S. was attacked on September 11, 2001 by Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, these Middle East countries were forced to act against their jihadist allies, but which resulted in these Jihadists being emboldened and motivated by Bin Laden’s unprecedented attack on U.S. soil. The Jihadists have found their champion who has claimed that “the United States is the biggest mischief maker, terrorist, and rogue in the world . . . and it is the duty of every Muslim to struggle for its annihilation.” Bin Laden has also widely circulated, through his propaganda network, the priorities of al-Qaeda; namely, the mobilization of the Muslims on a global jihad against the West and the overthrow of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan. It is, perhaps, not surprising just how a Jihadist’s mind could turn, and turn virulently, against a former sponsor, as in the case of Bin Laden and Saudi Arabia.
With Bin Laden / al-Qaeda energizing the jihadist movement, more volunteers have come, and are coming, to the region to train as Jihadists. Interestingly, Al-Qaeda is able to entice a large number of converts and volunteers through propaganda including the use of posters, books, pamphlets, radio, cassette tapes, television, and especially the Internet. Occasionally, videotapes of Bin Laden or his deputy expounding on topics such as the “Jews and Crusaders seeking to destroy Islam,” or “armed jihad is the individual obligation of every Muslim,” or the “economy of the United States is its center of gravity,” are circulated. This relentless media strategy has obviously “penetrated deeply into Muslim communities around the world,” and has attracted the likes of a 22-year-old student who has encountered al-Qaeda online, like many other Saudis like him, through its biweekly Web magazine called Sawt Al-Jihad. Enthralled with what he learned about the tenets of Islam, he read all the articles, forwarded it to his peers, and even became a blogger for al-Qaeda. Aside from disseminating al-Qaeda’s messages over the Internet, this terror organization has also published Web manuals on deception, various terror tactics, and recently, it launched a biweekly Voice of Jihad Magazine. Al-Qaeda also uses the Internet as a recruitment tool. With an estimated 4,000 Web sites serving as virtual environments for waging jihad, one could only guess as to how many converts to jihadism those Web sites manage to attract.
As the propaganda machine of the jihadist movement keeps a very active multimedia presence to recruit converts, some countries in the Middle East have tried to contain the Jihadists in their midst. Saudi Arabia offered an amnesty and rehabilitation program to Jihadists beginning in 2004, and the amnesty program, since then, has netted about 1,500 Saudis with 500 of them rehabilitated. Yemen has offered the same amnesty and rehabilitation program; 400 Yemenis who promised not to engage in terrorist activities were eventually released. But the program was halted in late 2005 after several of those who were released crossed into Iraq to allegedly “fight in the insurgency.” Being former Jihadists, fighting the insurgency, for these Yemenis who are supposedly “reformed,” might mean doing in Iraq what they have set out to do in the first place.
The key factors which propel the continued fanaticism in the heart of the Islamic Jihadist Movement in the Middle East, factors that nourish its strength, and sustain its growth especially since the late 1980s, are much too plain to see. On top of these factors is the essential nature of the sacred text of Islam which is not only restrictive, repressive and divisive; it also espouses violence with exhortations of “jihad is the way to conquer” infidels. Imbuing this particular Islamic value into children’s mind is a frightening recipe for turning out fanatics and extremists.
The same could be said if the collective hatred towards Israel is taught and inculcated in every Islamist heart and mind. Hatred begets hatred; and hatred, among other vile emotions, could fan the flame burning in a Jihadist’s psyche.
Anti-Americanism, a perverse sentiment that is supposedly prevalent among the Muslims/Arabs in the Middle East, also lends strength to the Islamic Jihadist movement in the region. Just as a cult figure of a successful Jihadist – like Bin Laden – rallies all the other Jihadists into “positive” action, a central hate figure – the U.S. – is able to inflame the Islamic Jihadist movement into doing what it does best, and thus become stronger.
But what really fueled the surge of jihadism in the Middle East beginning in the late 1980s are the consequences of the roles played by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the U.S. in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. These countries co-opted several Islamist groups with a set of ideologies best described as extreme to very extreme, and left them when they no longer had any use for those jihadists. Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the most ominous consequence of the Soviet-Afghan war, rose to become the inspiration of the Islamic Jihadist movement especially in the Middle East, and has been sowing, or endeavoring to sow, countless other jihads, big and small, through Internet-based propaganda.
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 Menahem Milson “Jihad Today.” Jihad and Terrorism Studies Project. December 21, 2007, (411) par.56.
 Monte Palmer “Organizational and Behavioral Limitations on Jihadist Activities.” European Consortium for Political Research., September 2007, 4.
 Kamran Bokhari “State Sponsors of Jihadism: Learning the Hard Way.” Stratfor, July 18, 2007, par.18.
 Michelle Bussenius “Jihadism: The Middle East and Beyond.” Hoover Institution, December 12, 2007, par. 5.
 Menahem Milson “Jihad Today.” Jihad and Terrorism Studies Project. December 21, 2007, (411) par.2.
 ibid, par.4.
 Definition from dictionary.com, accessed October 13, 2008.
 Op cit, par. 3.
 “Leaders: How to win the war within Islam; Al-Qaeda’s global jihad.” The Economist. July 19, 2008, par. 5.
 Op cit. par. 9.
Michelle Bussenius “Jihadism: The Middle East and Beyond.” Hoover Institution, December 12, 2007, par. 7.
 “Introduction.” Palestinian Organizations and Parties. Middle East: MidEast GateWay, accessed October 9, 2008.
 Meir Litvak “THE PALESTINE ISLAMIC JIHAD: ?BACKGROUND INFORMATION.” Moshe Dayan Center ?
for Middle Eastern and African Studies, accessed October 9, 2008, par. 3.
 Fouad Ajami “Infidel Documents.” Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2006, Eastern Edition
Monte Palmer “Organizational and Behavioral Limitations on Jihadist Activities.” European Consortium for Political Research., September 2007, 9.
 Menahem Milson “Jihad Today.” Jihad and Terrorism Studies Project. December 21, 2007, (411) par.40.
Kamran Bokhari “State Sponsors of Jihadism: Learning the Hard Way.” Stratfor, July 18, 2007, par.7.
 David Gardner “War in Iraq will only hinder the war on terror.” Financial Times, January 27, 2003, 21.
 Angel Rabasa et al “Beyond al-Qaeda: The Global Jihadist Movement.” RAND Corporation, 2006, 45.
 Ibid, XVI.
 Ibid, XVIII.
 Ibid, 15.
Terrence Henry “Get Out of Jihad Free.” The Atlantic Monthly, June 1, 2007, 39-40.
 Op. cit, 17-18.
 Op. cit.