What Does Al-Qaeda Ultimately Want?
Al-Qaeda has shrewdly seen to it that, along with the sword, they also employ the pen in their Holy War. In order to vindicate their actions and rally support, they have orchestrated a series of carefully constructed messages. These messages fall into two distinct genres, each revealing a different goal.
The West is familiar with one of these genres: those many al-Jazeera communiqués and internet statements. Strategically directed towards the West, the gist of these messages is always the same: all the injustices inflicted upon the Muslim world by the West, every conceivable grievance Muslims have experienced at the hands of their adversaries. The litany always includes: unqualified support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Western occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the deaths of one million Iraqi children due to sanctions, U.S. support for dictatorial regimes in the Muslim World, and so forth. Every message sent to the West by al-Qaeda always includes these core grievances.
This first sort of message usually culminates with al-Qaeda stating that it’s the Islamic world’s duty, in the face of this unprovoked aggression, to defend itself. Osama bin Laden commonly makes statements as follows: “After all this, does the prey not have the right, when bound and dragged to its slaughter, to escape? Does it not have the right, while being slaughtered, to lash out with its paw? Does it not have the right, after being slaughtered, to attack its slaughterer with its blood?”
The point of this first type of message is twofold: to demonstrate to the world that, by retaliating, al-Qaeda is merely trying to defend Muslims from unjust persecution; and to show the world exactly what injustices and humiliations the Muslim world suffers. On the one hand, they are meant to vindicate retaliation, on the other, weaken Western resolve.
So much for the messages to the world. But there’s another genre of writing, directed solely to Muslims, and whose clandestine nature rarely makes front-page headlines in the West. Here the theme is not so much how bad the West is but what Muslims, according to their faith, are required to do. To that end, the two fundamental sources of Islam, the Koran and Tradition (the Word of Allah and the example of the Prophet), are tirelessly cited in al-Qaeda’s writings to remind Muslims of their religious duty — unlike the messages directed to the West, which contain emotional appeals and arguments evoking Western standards of universal justice.
In these writings, Muslims are reminded of the history of Muhammad and his warrior-companions in the glorious first years when Islam was launched by the sword. Militant verses are continuously hammered out. Muslims are reminded that these verses are not just historical, but contain literal Truth that transcends time. Moreover, in contrast to the messages directed to the West, the tone here is much less compromising and concerned with trying to find an amicable and peaceful solution with the West. Far from depicting the Islamic world as a wounded and hunted animal fighting back for its very life, statements such as this by bin Laden are much more aggressive and uncompromising: “Did the Prophet, his Companions after him, and the original forefathers of Islam wage jihad against the infidels [all non-Muslims] besieging them all over the world in order to place them under the suzerainty of Islam, to live in submission and humility, or did they try to make an amicable peace, convenient for both parties?”
Thus while al-Qaeda tells the West that it is launching a defensive war, that is definitely not the culmination of Islamic teaching on jihad. The fact is, defensive war — that is, “terrorism” — is all that they are capable of for the present. But just as they justify defensive war through the Koran and Tradition, so too do these sources justify offensive war, until the whole world either embraces Islam or lives under its authority in complete submission and humility [Koran: 9:29].
Since al-Qaeda always makes it clear that its only motivations are to fulfill the teachings of Islam, clearly, if and when the Islamic world is capable, it will eventually launch an offensive war. For the same infallible sources that instruct Muslims to wage defensive war also instruct them to launch an offensive war. Thus if Islam’s ubiquitous apologists tell us that jihadists like al-Qaeda misinterpret Islamic teaching about offensive war, then surely it must misinterpret Islamic teaching about defensive war.
In light of this fact, Westerners should always be cognizant of what al-Qaeda ultimately wants as they consider the long list of alleged wrongs the Islamic world has suffered at the hands of the West. In other words, if al-Qaeda’s demands are met — if Israel ceases to be, if the U.S. evacuates Iraq and Afghanistan, if the West keeps its nose out of the Islamic world’s affairs — will that be enough to satisfy al-Qaeda? Certainly, it would be a start. But based on their words and convictions that all injunctions of the Koran must be fulfilled, it seems that their jihad would merely shift from being defensive to being offensive.
The only reason there hasn’t yet been an offensive jihad is simply because the Islamic World is currently incapable of initiating one — not because they have consciously forfeited the command to establish Islam all over the world by any means necessary. The last time an Islamic people was capable, it fully engaged in conquest, as memories of the Ottoman Empire’s religiously sanctioned invasions and genocides attest.
So, in a sense, the infidel West is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. If the West voluntarily concedes to the demands of al-Qaeda, that will be perceived as a weakness and will eventually only encourage an offensive jihad. And if the West actually loses the War on Terror, that too will provoke an offensive response, one seen as the natural next stage in the struggle towards the total victory of Islam. Either way, that lethal combination of revenge and religion will ensure jihad from the Islamic World in order to fulfill what was started in the 7th century.
This is an important reminder to those many who, while condemning al-Qaeda’s methods, agree or sympathize with their grievances. The current battle at hand may ostensibly revolve around those grievances; but the eventual war will ultimately be about militarily establishing Islamic supremacy over the entire globe.
Some will discount this possibility as implausible since it seems so distant. But the wild vicissitudes of history prove otherwise, and we owe it to posterity to be vigilant now, when the threat is distant and hardly realizable — if in fact it is — and to take actions to ensure that it never have the capacity to come to fruition.