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The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global
By Fawaz A. Gerges
When the Egyptian government sent Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb to the gallows in 1966, his execution inspired a whole new generation of extremists committed to jihad. But these religious revolutionaries trained their sights on the secular Arab state - the adou al-qareeb, or near enemy; the far enemy came a distant second.
In fact, Muhammad Faraj, the slain leader of the Jihad Group (later renamed the Egyptian Islamic Jihad), once said he would rather see Jerusalem ruled by the Zionists than liberated by heretics. As for the United States, it simply did not register on the Islamist radar screen, even after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989.
Still, al-Qaida claims there was a natural evolution from Qutb to 9/11, that even as Muslim volunteers were fighting the Soviets, they were planning to attack America next. Revisionist nonsense, says Fawaz Gerges. In The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, Gerges argues that the Osama bin Laden network is a mutated strain of jihadism.
Accordingly, the Sarah Lawrence College professor says neither so-called "moderate Islamists" nor their more violent jihadi brethren pose a threat to America. Furthermore, one can defeat al-Qaida without engaging in the "open-ended war to restructure Arab and Muslim societies and politics" envisioned by neocon democracy-builders.
Gerges begins by critiquing the 9/11 Commission Report: It dissects the tragedy of New York and Washington, he says, but does not address the broader issues. For example, why did the jihadi movement spawn al-Qaida in the first place? How did senior personalities within the terrorist network react to bin Laden's megalomaniacal plans?
Seeking answers, the author goes back to Sayyid Qutb. It was Qutb who interpreted jihad as a permanent revolution to establish Shari'a rule, an idea taken up after his death by Egyptian radicals. For the next two decades, his followers - including future al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri - plotted to overthrow the near enemy, the pseudo-Muslim ruler who sold out Allah and the ummah.
But ultimately, the jihad failed in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere because the theocratic revolutionaries isolated themselves from society. They splintered along rigid factional lines; they dismissed the religious establishment as the puppets of power, and some, the takfeeris, declared all other Muslims - not just the secular government - the enemy.
By the mid-1990s, Islamic terror groups were at a crossroads. Defeated at home but victorious against the Soviets in Afghanistan, militants could either surrender their arms or find a new enemy to fight. The Jama'a al-Islamiya and others chose the former path; al-Qaida instead targeted the far enemy, the United States, which had had troops in Saudi Arabia since 1990.
IT WAS ALL Osama bin Laden's idea. Incensed by the Saudi royals allowing infidels in the Land of the Two Mosques, he concluded that "the center of political gravity and power lies in Washington and New York, not in Cairo, Riyadh, Amman...," writes Gerges. "If real change is to occur, then the far enemy must be forced to retreat in humiliation and defeat from Muslim lands."
Besides, attacking Americans would be popular.
The more experienced Zawahiri thought he could co-opt bin Laden by allying with al-Qaida, but in the end, the Saudi millionaire held the purse strings and chose the targets. By 1998, Zawahiri was co-signing the declaration of war issued by the World Islamic Front against Crusaders and Jews. Three years later, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad merged with the global terror network.
Gerges says most jihadis thought it insane for al-Qaida to take on the United States, so bin Laden had to work hard to convince those around him of his new strategy. In the process, he became a prisoner of his own delusions. Young Saudis flattered him and told him tales of American weakness, encouraging the terrorist leader to push the 9/11 operation over the objections of al-Qaida's own advisory council.
All in all, Gerges presents a well-informed account of al-Qaida - if only he were not so repetitive! Indeed, one wishes that he stopped wasting pages on leading questions and recycled quotations and be less terse when citing his primary sources. A single footnote that reads, "Between 1999 and 2000 I interviewed scores of former jihadis in Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon..." is hardly satisfactory.
More importantly, Gerges seems to force things into categories and timelines.
For instance, he separates so-called "irredentist jihadis" (i.e., Palestinian, Chechen and Kashmiri terrorist groups fighting foreign rule) from those adhering to "a radical doctrine expressing a preference for violence over nonviolent strategies despite the possibility in engaging in the latter..." However, Hizbullah straddles both categories.
Likewise, Gerges wants to keep 1996 as the year the jihad went global, but to do so, he must downplay earlier Islamist attacks on Westerners in the Middle East and Algerian rampages in France. Al-Qaida might indeed be a mutated strain of jihadism, but the Islamic movement is one lush Petri dish. The world has not seen the last of those seeking a far enemy.