Muslim cosmic warriors legitimize their attacks against both military and civilian targets, against both Muslims and non-Muslims, by dividing the world into what bin Laden calls “two separate camps, one of faith…and one of fidelity”: alwala’ wa-bara’. They rely on the doctrine of takfir to justify the slaughter of women and children, the elderly, and the ill. Although they are mostly holed up with the remnants of the Taliban in the tribal regions of the North-West Frontier Province on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, unlike the Taliban, they have no nationalist ambitions. Their jihad is not a defensive struggle against the occupying power but an eternal cosmic war that transcends all earthly ambitions. As [Ayman] al Zawahiri declared, “Jihad in the path of God is greater than any individual or organization. It is a struggle between Truth and Falsehood, until God Almighty inherits the earth and those who live in it. [Taliban commander] Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden—may Allah protect them from evil—are merely two soldiers of Islam in the journey of Jihad, while the struggle between Truth and Falsehood transcends time.”
This battle will take place not in the streets of Baghdad or in the mountains of Afghanistan but in the suburbs of Paris, the slums of East London, and the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and New York.
To its credit, the U.S. military has had a fair measure of success rooting out and killing al Qaeda’s cosmic warriors. In fact, as an international criminal conspiracy, al Qaeda faces nothing short of an existential crisis. Its infrastructure has been destroyed, its rank and file almost totally eradicated. Although al Qaeda may maintain some level of operational control over a few of the jihadist attacks that have taken place around the globe, and it has proven it can still perpetrate horrific acts of violence, it no longer possesses the resources it enjoyed before the 9/11 attacks. Its achievements since then have been chimerical at best. Not a single country has fallen into its hands. Iraq’s Sunni insurgents, once allies of al Qaeda, have turned their backs on the organization because of its complete disregard for Islam’s rules of war. The possibility of a reconstituted global Caliphate under the group’s command is at this point too laughable to be taken seriously.
It has in no way inspired the global Muslim uprising it intended when it changed its focus from the Near Enemy to the Far Enemy. On the contrary, poll after poll across the Muslim world has revealed overwhelming majorities among all classes, ages, and sectors of society condemning al Qaeda’s actions. “Excuse me Mr. Zawahiri,” read a recent post on a popular jihadist Web site. “But who is killing with your Excellency’s blessing, the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria?
Indeed, al Qaeda’s wanton slaughter of innocent civilians and its liberal use of takfir to condemn to death anyone who disagrees with the group has turned even fellow jihadists against it. In 2008, Dr. Fadl, the former head of Takfir wal-Hijra and the man most responsible for the spread of the doctrine of takfir among the jihadist camps in Afghanistan, published a book denouncing al Qaeda and its leaders. “Zawahiri and bin Laden [are] extremely immoral,” he told a reporter with the Saudi daily Al-Hayat. “I have spoken about this in order to warn the youth against them, youth who are seduced by them, and don’t know them.” (Dr. Fadl’s rebuke was so damaging to al Qaeda’s reputation that Ayma Zawahiri felt compelled to publish a 200-page rebuttal of his former mentor.
Yet whatever military success the United States and its allies have had in disrupting al Qaeda’s operations and destroying its cells have been hampered by their utter failure to confront global jihadism as a social movement. Ultimately, the war on terror is an ideological battle aimed not at seasoned militants but at a broad array of young, mostly middle-class, politically active, and socially conscious Muslims who, while they may view the conflict with the United States as a cosmic war against Islam, and while they may consider militant groups like al Qaeda to be the only forces in the Muslim world giving voice to their grievances, are nevertheless unlikely to actually take up arms and join jihad (though, as we shall see, with the right mixture of incentive and indignation, they can be coaxed into action).
For the jihadist militants of al Qaeda, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become central fronts in what bin Laden calls a “Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation.” But while these wars, and the human-rights abuses at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, have provided jihadist ideologues with an invaluable example, one perhaps on a par with the occupation of Palestine, for those Muslim youths who identify with global jihadism as a social movement there is no central front to the war on terror because their identity cannot be confined to any territorial boundaries. Rather, theirs is a transnational identity linked together not by language, ethnicity, or culture but by a set of grievances—both local and global, real and imagined—that has created a shared narrative of oppression and injustice at the hands of the West. The threat of terrorism from jihadist groups like al Qaeda may never fully dissipate. As is the case with any international criminal conspiracy, it may take years, perhaps decades, of cooperation among the military, intelligence, and diplomatic apparatuses of nation-states around the globe to put an end to jihadist militancy. But to adequately confront the social movement that Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri inspired a decade ago will require more than military might. It will require deeper understanding of the social, political, and economic forces that have made global jihadism such an appealing phenomenon, particularly to Muslim youth. This battle will take place not in the streets of Baghdad or in the mountains of Afghanistan but in the suburbs of Paris, the slums of East London, and the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and New York. It is a battle that will be waged not against men with guns but against boys with computers, a battle that can be won not with bullets but with words and ideas.
Excerpted from How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization and the End of the War on Terror by Reza Aslan ©2009. With permission from the publisher, Random House.
Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God. He will be appearing at the New York Public Library on Friday, April 24, with Ari Folman, the director of Waltz with Bashir.