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Recognizing The Two Fronts of al-Qaeda Rhetoric

In The Two Faces of al-Qaeda, Raymond Ibrahim makes a successful attempt to succinctly identify and describe the two profoundly different messages al-Qaeda transmits.

One message is for Western consumption and part of a wildly successful propaganda campaign intended to cloak al-Qaeda's true motivations in words that have a greater chance of resonating with a Western audience largely inclined toward critical self-reflection at times of crisis. That message seeks to position al-Qaeda in the minds of Westerners as simply a reactive force that is itself a victim of US foreign policy and aggression. While this is unlikely to cause overwhelming sympathy for the terrorist group, it does fuel often debilitating Western self-criticism over its own policies.

Ibrahim writes:

After the events of 9/11, my increased interest in Arabic language and history led me to enroll in Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Before and during my studies at Georgetown, I avidly read any and all posted Al Qaeda messages. The group's motivation seemed clear enough: retaliation. According to its widely disseminated statements, the West in general, and the United States in particular, had been — overtly and covertly — oppressing and exploiting the Islamic world. The accusations included: unqualified U.S. support for Israel at the expense of Palestinians; deaths of Iraqi children due to U.N. sanctions; U.S. support for dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world; and, most recently, Western occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Every single message directed to the West by Al Qaeda includes most of these core grievances, culminating with the statement that it is the Islamic world's duty to defend itself. "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?" bin Laden asks. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Even the 9/11 strikes are explained as acts of reprisal. After describing the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, where several high-rise apartment buildings were leveled, reportedly leaving some 18,000 Arabs dead, bin Laden, in a 2004 message directed at Americans, said: "As I looked upon those crumpling towers in Lebanon, I was struck by the idea of punishing the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America — giving them a taste of their own medicine and deterring them from murdering our women and children."

But those policies - and al-Qaeda's claims of being the vanguard of Muslim self-defense against them - have little to do with al-Qaeda's true motivating factors and, in fact, rarely are evident in al-Qaeda's other message, the one it communicates to fellow Muslims. Rarely conveyed is s sense of victimhood or "reciprocity." In that message, it is a sense of religious duty that is appealed to and - as bin Laden has clearly stated - the belief that God has determined that there will never be, can never be, shall never be peace between Islam and the "kufr," chiefly Christians and Jews.

Again, Ibrahim makes this point well.

It soon became clear why these particular documents had not been directed to the West. They were theological treatises, revolving around what Islam commands Muslims to do vis-à-vis non-Muslims. The documents rarely made mention of all those things — Zionism, Bush's "Crusade," malnourished Iraqi children — that formed the core of Al Qaeda's messages to the West. Instead, they were filled with countless Koranic verses, hadiths (traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), and the consensus and verdicts of Islam's most authoritative voices. The temporal and emotive language directed at the West was exchanged for the eternal language of Islam when directed at Muslims. Or, put another way, the language of "reciprocity" was exchanged for that of intolerant religious fanaticism. There was, in fact, scant mention of the words "West," "U.S.," or "Israel." All of those were encompassed by that one Arabic-Islamic word, "kufr" — "infidelity" — the regrettable state of being non-Muslim that must always be fought through "tongue and teeth."

He goes on to quote bin Laden's own message in response to an open letter from a group of Saudis that stated, "The heart of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is justice, kindness, and charity." Bin Laden's response to this, as Ibrahim astutely quoted, is impossible to misinterpret.

As to the relationship between Muslims and infidels, this is summarized by the Most High's Word: "We renounce you. Enmity and hate shall forever reign between us — till you believe in Allah alone." So there is an enmity, evidenced by fierce hostility from the heart. And this fierce hostility — that is, battle — ceases only if the infidel submits to the authority of Islam, or if his blood is forbidden from being shed, or if Muslims are at that point in time weak and incapable. But if the hate at any time extinguishes from the heart, this is great apostasy!

Ibrahim references Hassan Butt, who in July wrote a column for the Daily Mail after the failed London and semi-successful Glasgow attacks. In that column, his words are true to the title, "I was a fanatic...I know their thinking." Hassan Butt notes how the radicals he associated laughed when the West would convulse in self-criticism while they continued on their path which had little at all, in reality, to do with the issues debated in the West.

When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network - a series of British Muslim terrorist groups linked by a single ideology - I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.

By blaming the Government for our actions, those who pushed this "Blair's bombs" line did our propaganda work for us.

More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.

Butt goes on to describe how, in the British Muslim community, a reluctance to engage in internal theological debate over the religious sanctity - if any - of acts of terrorism in the name of Islam "has left the territory open for radicals to claim as their own." As he describes it - and as can be seen from afar - the radicals own the debate, as they engage it largely unopposed.

And thus, the two fronts of al-Qaeda's rhetoric, one engaging a reliably over-self-critical Western audience, and the other engaging the faithful, largely unopposed.

One could - and should - argue that al-Qaeda's message to the West goes largely unopposed, as well. For if you ask the American to your left and the American to your right why al-Qaeda attacked us on September 11, 2001, the response will overwhelmingly and reliably follow the notion of "revenge." Yes, al-Qaeda has been quite successful at dictating the debate, as Raymond Ibrahim - with an assist from Hassan Butt - clearly illustrates.

The articles linked here should be read in full if they have not yet been by ThreatsWatch readers.

Raymond Ibrahim - The Two Faces of al-Qaeda
Hassan Butt - I was a fanatic...I know their thinking