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[infowar.de] Jane's 00.08.02: Al-Qaeda Takes Fight For 'Hearts And Minds' To The Web
Jane's Intelligence Review
Al-Qaeda Takes Fight For 'Hearts And Minds' To The Web
The internet has become a significant weapon for Al-Qaeda as it seeks to
influence radical Muslim opinion and justify its campaign of terror against
the West. Paul Eedle reports.
While Al-Qaeda has found support in the Muslim world with its vitriolic
condemnation of US policies on issues such as Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan,
the organisation's strategy of all-out war against the West has met with a
surprising amount of opposition from Muslim radicals.
Important Muslim radicals in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in particular, have
been criticising Al-Qaeda, arguing that Muslims should avoid alienating
potential supporters in the West and that ultimately Islam can live in
peace with the West.
Al-Qaeda has fought back vigorously on the internet, publishing a stream of
statements and arguments on the website, alneda.com, and although these
articles demonstrate that Al-Qaeda is determined to exploit the so-called
'clash of civilisations' between Islam and the West, two recent episodes
have highlighted the depth and nature of criticism aimed at Al-Qaeda within
The Haznawi videotape
An important argument erupted over a videotape of the testament of one of
the 11 September hijackers, Ahmed al-Haznawi, broadcast by Al-Jazeera
television on 18 April. Since the USA campaign began in Afghanistan in
October 2001, Al-Qaeda has frequently used Al-Jazeera to address Muslims it
wants to woo, and Westerners it wants to frighten.
The Haznawi videotape was transmitted during the battle of Jenin, when the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the highest priority for Muslims. In the
discussion that followed, Muntasser al-Zayyat, a well-known Egyptian
activist, criticised the tape on the grounds that it gave ammunition to the
enemies of Islam at a critical time. Zayyat said: "We know that our
brothers who carried out this action [11 September] were, in their view,
supporting the Palestinian cause. But we are also interested in
communicating well with others. By 'others' I mean those whom we want to
side with us in this struggle." Zayyat went further. He said resistance to
the USA was a religious duty, but added: "I do not go so far down this path
as to target civilians indiscriminately in the way that happened."
Al-Qaeda responded by releasing three articles on alneda.com in April,
defending its release of the video as well as the entire conduct of its war
against the USA and the West. Two of the articles were published in the
name of Qaedat al-Jihad, (the Base of Jihad), and one in the name of the
Centre for Islamic Studies and Research.
There were two main themes in the articles. The first was that the West,
particularly the USA and Israel, has been implacably hostile to Islam
throughout its history. Therefore, the West needs no excuse, such as a tape
claiming responsibility for 11 September, to justify its war on Islam. More
than that, there is no point attempting to influence 'Crusader-Zionist
public opinion' in the West, which fully supports its governments.
Al-Qaeda concludes that the only way to deal with the West is with
violence. The final article in the series said: "We affirm to the masses of
the nation that the way of jihad is the only way at this time to support
the religion of God everywhere. As for negotiations - shame; and requests
for international help - they are the way of the defeated searching for
crumbs. The nation must pay attention to this and not knock at their door
but rise up to carry out the obligation of jihad which is their duty in
Palestine and elsewhere. The West understands only the logic of force."
The second theme was that the attacks on 11 September were fully justified
in Islamic law and Muslims who criticise them are 'hypocrites' - the
Koran's term for internal opponents of the Prophet Mohammed in the earliest
days of Islam. One article, which set out to demonstrate "the legality of
the operations in Washington and New York", laid out seven grounds in
Islamic law on which it is permissible to kill 'sacrosanct infidels' -
essentially civilians - and six grounds on which it is permissible to kill
How we can co-exist
The second wave of criticism erupted in March and was still raging three
months later. In February, an open letter from 60 US intellectuals was
published justifying President George W Bush's 'war on terrorism' on the
grounds that it was a just war in defence of US values which are universal
human values. Signatories included Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of
History, and Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilisations.
In March, Saudi scholar Sheikh Salman al-Oadah published a response, signed
by 150 Saudi academics and professionals, called 'How we can co-exist'.
While it was clear in its condemnation of US policies, the letter caused a
storm in Muslim circles by offering a dialogue with the West and conceding
that the West and Islam did, indeed, share certain universal values. Sheikh
Salman al-Oadah was one of the two main religious leaders of the opposition
movement in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, the other being signatory
Al-Qaeda reacted furiously. In April, alneda.com carried 'Please prostrate
yourselves in private', a 14-page commentary attacking 'How we can
co-exist' almost line by line.
This article was based on two main arguments. Firstly, Islam shares no
fundamental values with the West. "These expressions of yours are based on
the principle of equality in the documents of the United Nations, which do
not discriminate between people on the basis of religion, ethnicity or
gender. But Islam is superior; nothing is superior to it; even a Muslim who
is a slave is better than a million infidel gentlemen." Secondly, Muslims
are committed to spread Islam by the sword. "A person has only three
options - become a Muslim, live under the rule of Islam, or be killed. The
signatories should have made that clear to the West."
While these are extreme views, they are taken seriously in the world of
Muslim political debate. Al-Qaeda is building on a theology of jihad
against the West that has been elaborated in great depth by many different
writers over the decade since the Gulf War in 1991. This literature has
taken over from the previous generation of Muslim radical thinking in the
1970s and 1980s that concentrated on how to establish purist Islamic
governments inside the Muslim world, as in Iran.
For example, Sheikh Naser al-Fahed, a Saudi scholar with a substantial
following, published a long denunciation of 'How we can co-exist' on his
website, and alneda.com published three more critiques, signed by seven
scholars, in its 'fatwas' section.
As a result of the Al-Qaeda standpoint, it now takes great courage to speak
out against this 'jihadi' view. Sheikh Salman al-Oadah told JIR that four
or five people who signed 'How we can co-exist' have subsequently withdrawn
Al-Qaeda's use of the internet and videotapes demonstrate that 'perception
management' is central to the conduct of its war with the West. In fact, it
is possible to view all of Al-Qaeda's operations - including acts of
violence - as one vast perception management operation. Everything Al-Qaeda
does is taped to use later. They claim to have recorded testaments of all
19 of the 11 September hijackers and have videotaped many of their fighters
in Afghanistan in order to have martyr obituary material if they are
killed. An important motive for the murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl in
Pakistan may well have been to produce the horrific video of one of his
kidnappers mutilating his body, which was posted on the internet in May.
The absolutist arguments used by Al-Qaeda in its exchanges with radical
Muslim critics suggest that the aim of this perception management is to
convince both Muslims and Westerners that they are involved in a fight to
the death, a violent 'clash of civilisations'. When Samuel Huntington
published his famous article a decade ago, many people thought the theory
far-fetched. Al-Qaeda wants to make the 'clash' a reality, repeatedly
arguing that its conflict with the West is a black and white struggle of
good against evil in which it is purely following the will of God.
A Muslim activist with well-placed sources in the radical movements told
JIR that the aim of 11 September was to provoke a massive Western response
which would in turn prove Al-Qaeda's argument that the West is at war with
Islam and force Westerners and Muslims to take sides. This would guarantee
that even if Al-Qaeda leaders were killed, the war would continue. In this
view, the USA has played its role right on cue and its support for Israeli
action in the West Bank has been a bonus, cementing anti-US hostility in
the Middle East.
The activist said the next stage of the conflict would be aimed at
undermining public support for the US government and its support of
moderate or secular-minded Muslim countries. At that point, Al-Qaeda
sympathisers could start to overthrow governments in the Arabian peninsula,
Central Asia or Southeast Asia without Western powers intervening to drive
them from power as the USA has done with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Muslim attitudes to the West
Neither Al-Qaeda statements nor the outpourings of radical Saudi religious
scholars can really be used to gauge what is going on in the minds of
millions of ordinary Muslims. It is certainly true that Al-Qaeda is not
engaging intellectually with Muslim radicals in Lebanon, among the
Palestinians or in Iran. Its influence is confined to the radical Muslims
of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and this may prove to be an interesting
weakness. The Iranians, Hizbullah in Lebanon and even Hamas in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip have a record of tempering the use of violence with
pragmatic politics in order to achieve concrete goals such as the
withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon.
However, all the evidence currently on the internet points in one
direction: in Western terms, public debate in the Muslim world is now very
radical. It is axiomatic in this debate that the West, above all the USA,
is hostile to Muslims. The only argument is between those who, like
Al-Qaeda, want total war, and those who want to confront the West using
other means. At the moment, those who want total war are shouting loudest.
Since the internet arrived in the mid-1990s, political debate in the Middle
East, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, has escaped from newspapers,
where governments could control it - and where Western media could monitor
it - to the comparative freedom of cyberspace. While Muslim debate surfaces
on satellite TV channels such as Al-Jazeera, it is subject to filters and
controls. The real arguments take place on websites, bulletin boards,
e-mail lists and in chatrooms.
Al-Qaeda attaches great importance to waging psychological warfare, and has
used the internet as its medium. Alneda.com is clearly produced by a
substantial team of people, rather than a lone activist. The site is a
professionally produced database-driven site with an imaginative webmaster.
The site has been shut down three times, each time when CNN researched a
story about it and contacted the Internet Service Provider (ISPs) for
comment. The original site, www.alneda.com, was hosted in Malaysia and shut
down on 13 May; it reappeared around 2 June at http://220.127.116.11/ hosted
in Texas and was shut down on 13 June; it reappeared on 21 June at
www.drasat.com hosted in Michigan and was shut down on 25 June. In each
case, it seems that the ISPs knew nothing about the content and shut the
site down as soon as they were told what it was.
The website publishes summaries of international news coverage of Al-Qaeda
and its own reporting of fighting in Afghanistan. The site also publishes
articles, fatwas (decisions on the application of Muslim law), and even
whole books from a wide range of different authors.
Al-Qaeda is taking a significant risk releasing material on alneda.com. It
is a public website and there is a strong chance that anyone reading it or
uploading to it can be identified and tracked down. Before the war in
Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda did not take that risk. Using a single, authoritative
website is a new tactic, which Al-Qaeda must believe is worthwhile. Paul Eedle
Paul Eedle is a freelance journalist reporting on the Middle East and
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