Recognizing the Political Thought of Al Qaeda

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hamid Reza Esmaeili


Due to its Salafi and radical nature, the political thought of al Qaeda is considered among political thoughts of Islamist forces which are based on Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. The superficial religious knowledge of al Qaeda, which attaches the most importance to appearances, along with radical characteristics of its members, has introduced jihad as the most important component of the political thought of al Qaeda in modern times. Also, such religious culture has caused followers of al Qaeda to have a tunnel vision toward other Muslims considering other Islamic schools of thoughts, like other religions, infidels, pagans, and hypocrites who should be fought against.

The ultimate goal of al Qaeda ideology is establishment of a jurisprudential and Salafi form of rule whose political system would be a mix of monarchial and aristocratic systems. They seek to revive the glorious days of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates and are against democracy. On the other hand, since the ideology of al Qaeda has been focused on fighting to establish Islamic caliphate, its leaders are very interested in using tools.

Although strategies used by al Qaeda have been changed in the course of time due to changing external conditions and emergence of new opportunities, the viewpoints of their leaders have changed likewise. At present, the most important strategy adopted by al Qaeda to achieve its ideological goals is to start to fight inside the Islamic lands. If the first phase proves successful, al Qaeda will spread the war to other parts of the world. Therefore, despite their proclaimed policy of “fighting the United States and Israel”, they have preferred to fight Muslims in their “practical policies”.

1.    Introduction: Reflections on Application of “Fundamentalism” for al Qaeda

At present, al Qaeda is one of the most famous groups and currents in the Muslim world. This organization, which should be introduced as a theoretical current, has been presented as one of the most important Islamic tendencies. However, despite importance of this issue, domestic researchers have never seriously studied the political thought of al Qaeda. Therefore, this paper aims to discuss the political thought of al Qaeda. At first, we must pay attention to the concept of “fundamentalism” which forms the gist of the political thought of al Qaeda.

Most Western authors, as well as some Muslim ones, have divided existing currents in the Muslim world into three major categories: fundamentalist, traditionalist, and Western-minded (modernists), which are further subdivided into smaller groups. That classification is based on the dominant trends in the political culture of the West.

From the viewpoint of those authors, fundamentalism is characterized by rejection of democratic values and Western culture as well as efforts made to establish a totalitarian, religious government which would give priority to enforcement of the rules and moral codes of Islam. They are also willing to avail of innovations and technology to achieve their goals. Fundamentalists are staunch foes of the West, especially the United States, and aim to annihilate modern and democratic values. Those authors present a totalitarian and belligerent interpretation of Islam which does not avert violence to achieve its goals. They say that fundamentalists are trying to gain political power in order to promote their own version of Islam. [1]

In order to keep various fundamentalist groups under the same title, the said authors have had to subdivide them into smaller groups like fundamentalists who act on the basis of religious commands and radical ones. They say the first group has a powerful ideological basis, but the second group has less to do with fundamental ideas of Islam and, intentionally or unintentionally, go beyond the teachings of Islam and are not usually affiliated to any religious institutions, but act upon their own interpretation of Islam. They also present selective interpretations of Islam which allow them to ignore many stipulations in the Quran and Sunna about lenience and tolerance and pass new rules and regulations [2]. Through their general understanding of fundamentalism, such authors sometimes put groups with different viewpoints like Hezbollah and al Qaeda in the same category of radical fundamentalists [3].

The concepts introduced by Western authors who are not familiar with the existing currents in Muslim societies or who have not a good grasp of Islam and its denominations, cannot be sufficient for Muslim researchers who study the existing theoretical currents in the Muslim world. Even if those authors are not writing partially and in favor of political interests of Western governments, at least, their understanding of Islam and Islamic currents is defective because they rely on Western values when judging Islam and the Muslim world.

In addition to the above shortcomings, the concept of fundamentalism is also ambiguous in other respects. Thus far, no comprehensive definition of fundamentalism has been presented which would apply to any case and in most instances they use it in a negative sense and equate it with radicalism and violence, which is not necessarily in line with its actual meaning. Religious fundamentalism is a return to fundaments as well as unchanging principles of religion obedience to which would guarantee salvation for its followers. However, those fixed principles are not the same to all fundamentalists and most of them do not have even similar answers to the question about the nature of those principles. Some contemporary Muslim thinkers have considered the following items as the principles that are fixed with all fundamentalist groups:

  1. The fundamentalists value argumentative wisdom only for extracting truth out of the holy Book and traditions and only in limited instances;
  2. They are followers of religious stipulations and traditions;
  3. They are loyal to sharia law and jurisprudence;
  4. They consider the above instances as being unchangeable and eternal;
  5. They aim to establish a society where sharia law and jurisprudence are enforced in their most complete forms;
  6. Since non-religious governments are an obstacle to realization of the above goals, they try to overthrow such governments;
  7. They endeavor to establish governments based on sharia law;
  8. They do not believe in religious and political plurality;
  9. They consider religion as having answers to all human needs both for this world and the Hereafter. [4]

There is no reason, however, to believe that all fundamentalist groups are common in all the above principles or interpret them in the same manner. Therefore, the idea of “fundamentalism” which is a product of “tradition vs. modernity” discourse of Western thinkers cannot be used to expound the ideas and ideology of al Qaeda and researchers who want to have a more profound understanding of it would avail of more diversified concepts. Or if they want to use that concept, they must attach a complete explanation to it, so as to elucidate what they mean by fundamentalism and prevent unwanted concepts to be mingled with it. Therefore, since Salafi thoughts are the main breeding ground for al Qaeda and they prefer radical methods to achieve their goals, we would try to use a “Salafi and radical” concept to recognize and explain the political thought of al Qaeda.

2.    Religion and fighting in al Qaeda ideology

Since al Qaeda is considered to be an Islamist current, study of religious approaches taken by its leaders is of utmost importance because such approaches would affect their other actions. From the viewpoint of al Qaeda, religion is a simple legal system which has been ordered by God to be used by human beings to save them from punishments in the Hereafter and bring them suitable rewards in Paradise. This approach to religion is mostly reminiscent of feudal relations. If humans listened to God and acted according to Salafi and Wahhabi interpretation of religion, they would be rewarded. Otherwise, the punishment from the Master of this world would engulf them. From this viewpoint, the religion has not only provided means of a pleasurable life in the Afterworld, but has provided men with many worldly pleasures.

“If people obeyed us, we would promise them a Paradise which has been offered to heavens and Earth and if they disobey and follow their wonton whims, we would promise them the divine punishment.” [5]

It is difficult, in this viewpoint, to gain the satisfaction of God who is “Ruler of the World” and in most instances it would be impossible without sacrifices.

“I have decided to kill Americans and enemies of religion in order to help the God’s religion and venerate the blood of my brethren. By God, we will never forget the blood of my brethren which has been spilled by the treacherous Jews, the sons of pigs and monkeys, who are brazenly supported by the leader of the world infidels. The religion of my Lord will not be assisted until through spill of bloods and bodies tearing apart. O God! Take our bloods to be satisfied. O God! Don’t allow any tomb or soil to enshroud our bodies, or a headstone to cover those bodies until our bodies are promised the Paradise in the Day of Resurrection.” [6]

Therefore, the element of jihad is of high importance in al Qaeda ideology and is considered the most important concept of that ideology, so that, al Qaeda leaders consider it to be more important than other religious obligations as prayer, fasting or Hajj pilgrimage. They maintain that a Muslim who has not prepared himself for theoretical or practical jihad is not a true Muslim [7]. Abdullah Izam who is believed to be a founder of al Qaeda has enumerated some reasons behind the necessity of jihad as follows: “Preventing infidels from dominating Muslims, fear of the Hell, obeying with the obligation to wage jihad, answering the call of God, continuing on the path of the pious predecessors, establishment of Islamic society, protecting the oppressed of the Earth, martyrdom, obtaining high degrees in paradise, preventing dishonor of the ummah, protecting dignity of the ummah and thwarting enemy plots, protecting Islamic lands and preventing corruption, creating security for sacred lands, and increasing the wealth and prosperity of the Muslim ummah.” [8]

Ayman Al-Zawahiri maintains that “Muslim youth should not wait for permission from anybody because waging jihad against the Americans, Jews and their allies, that is, the apostate hypocrites is an obligation for all Muslims…. Any Muslim who loves Islam should not accept any call for cessation of jihad; the ummah cannot be made to change its mind on this.” [9]

According to al Qaeda ideology, the boundaries among human beings are determined by their belief or disbelief and those who do not follow this school of thought would be treated with austerity as infidels, polytheists and hypocrites. Therefore, ideological sympathizers are “friends” and others are “enemies”.

We believe that the most important sedition which is threatening the Islamic thought of monotheism is the idea of diversion from friendship with the faithful and animosity toward infidels. Therefore, the author of these writings has tried to warn the Muslim ummah to be watchful of attacks launched by the American crusaders and Jews against the Islamic ummah… (because according to warnings by) ibn Taymiyah, being kind to the faithful is an obligation even if they wrong you, and animosity toward infidels is also an obligation, even if they do you good.” [10]

Al Qaeda, however, has taken such a narrow approach to “friends of God” that it mostly includes Salafi, especially radical Salafi, currents. They have defined enemies before starting jihad and those enemies are divided into three major groups: infidels, polytheists, and hypocrites. Then they have presented their own version of jihad and martyrdom. Christians and Jews, who are collectively called crusading enemies, as well as followers of other religions, are infidels. Some followers of Sunni Islam and Shiites are sometimes called hypocrites and sometimes as polytheists. In other words, al Qaeda has tried to provide religious justification for fighting its enemies and has paved the way for jihad by attributing every one of them to one of the above groupings.

A glance at the words and writings of Abu Musab al Zarqawi will show that a major concern for Zarqawi was to fight Shiites and he had allocated most of his efforts to this purpose during past years. He has mentioned Shiites as his worst enemies and has noted that fighting Shiites takes precedence over fighting crusaders.

“Our enemies are four groups: Americans, Kurds, those loyal to the Iraqi government, and Shiites. From our viewpoint, the last group is the key to all political developments in Iraq. It means that if we targeted their religious, political, and military goals, they would be galvanized into action to show their barbarity to Sunni Muslims. If we succeeded in this plan, we would have alerted the ignorant Sunnis as to the danger posed by this group….” [11]

“Shiites are dormant asps, deceitful scorpions, who have laid ambush with their lethal poison. We are not fighting at two fronts: the first front is vis-à-vis an overt enemy while in the second front; we are fighting a deceitful enemy in the guise of friend. While deep inside, they have nothing but evil, sedition and grudge against us and have been protagonist behind the division that we have witnessed in the history of Islam.

“Historical realities show that Shiism is not an Islamic sect; just in the same way that Jews and Christians are known as People of the Book, they (Shiites) have gathered around the axis of blasphemy…”

Apart from crusaders and Shiites, which are considered infidels, al Qaeda has set aside certain Sunni groups to fight with, though they give less priority to those groups. Conservative Sunni ulema, rulers of Islamic countries, and social movements like Muslim Brotherhood and even the Muslim masses who are dealing with their everyday lives and do not help al Qaeda in its jihad, are considered enemies, or at least, not true Muslims.

The Islamic rulers who have forgotten about the commands of God and sharia and have befriended Jews and Christians are considered to be away from the principle which calls on Muslims to befriend Muslims and distance from non-Muslims. Al Qaeda considers them the biggest factor behind diversions in the Islamic ummah. They maintain that those rulers have gained power through assistance of the Americans, Jews, the French and the British who have helped them ascend to power through gimmicks, secret relations, concessions and intrigues. They say that courtier ulema also issue fatwas that have been dictated to them by rulers and seek to permit domination of foreigners over the wealth of Muslim countries. They even claim that the great mufti of Saudi Arabia has permitted peace with Israel. [12]

At this time, Sunni Muslims have been divided into a number of groups:

  1. The public: They constitute a silent majority. Although most of them hate the United States and wish for it to be annihilated, in practice, they have an eye on a comfortable life. They are good baits for political games;
  2. Ulema and elite;
  3. Muslim Brotherhood: They have dealt in martyrs’ blood and have built their grandiosity on the skulls of the loyal ones. They have put down arms and have said “no” to the call for jihad…. They aim to achieve political posts on behalf of Sunni Muslims…. Their religion is hypocrisy and do not abide by any fixed principle.
  4. Mujahedeen: They are loyal Sunnis and the best in this land which follow the true ideas of Sunni Islam and Salafi school of thought. Two features differentiate them from “immigrant mujahedeen”: firstly, most of them have poor experiences with regard to team work and organizational operations; and secondly, though they plant mines, fire rockets and mortars, they still want to return to their families and wives unscathed.
  5. Immigrant mujahedeen (radical Salafi Muslims): They are true Muslims whose number is small. [13]

“Excommunicating” characteristic of al Qaeda stems from their interpretation of religion and some key concepts of the Quran like “monotheism” and “tyrant”.  In fact, taking advantage of these concepts and interpretations has released huge amounts of energy to fight among followers of al Qaeda.

“O judges! You may think that worship is simply prayers, fasting and alms and say that you are praying for God, fasting and offering sacrifice. However, I tell you that this is not worship, but it is broader than that. The word of monotheism that God revealed onto his messenger was comprised of two parts: one part is negation of all other gods but Allah, with the other part proving that Allah is the only God…. Tyrant is he who has surpassed his limits and denotes everything that is worshiped besides God and is satisfied to be worshiped. Sometimes, it may be an idol or a grave, a human or a law. Ibn Taymiyah believes that if those monks and priests who have changed the orders of God, have done that knowingly; they would be considered polytheists and pagans who have believed in other gods but Allah, even if they have never prayed to those gods or fasted for them. In another place he says that when a person ignores the knowledge which has been extracted from the Book and Prophet’s Sunna and obeys an order which is against God and his messenger, they would be apostates and punishable both in this world and the Hereafter.” [14]

Apart from correctness or wrongness of the above remarks, the most important aspect is their jurisprudential aspect which entails legal responsibility and cannot be compared to mystic blasphemy. [15]

From their viewpoint the following instances institute blasphemy: helping infidels; insulting Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and his close aides especially Abu Bakr, Umar, and Aisha [16]; passing laws; some forms of venerating ulema and the deceased; suspicion of God; fear or lack of zeal about religion; and giving in to the rule of non-Muslims [17]. As a result of this ideology, fighting those groups that are against radical Salafi ideas would be permissible. However, the most important issue for which the leaders of al Qaeda have been seeking a convincing answer is murder of a large number of innocent civilians through terrorist attacks plotted by their operatives. This question has evolved into a crisis for them because they have lost many of their sympathizers in the Muslim world. To overcome this problem, they have resorted to the jurisprudential and Salafi idea of Tattarus (which means human shield). According to some jurists, killing Muslims in such conditions is permissible and the killed ones will be rewarded by God [18]. Zarqawi has inferred the following from the words of past Sunni jurists:

“1. What past jurists have said pertained to old weapons before discovery of gunpowder. Obviously, old weapons allowed for discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims.

2. Based on religious stipulations we must use the most modern weapons to fight the enemies of God.

3. Based on religious texts, we must suppress the enemy through deadly blows in order to promote the word of God on Earth and in order to shatter the enemy’s power.

4. What past jurists said connoted to those cases of jihad which took place when Muslims attacked the lands of infidels and conquered them. Obviously, they are truer when Muslims are fighting to dispel enemies from their own lands especially when enemies have dominated Muslims for years and have been recognized as crusaders.

5. As Qartabi has said, if Muslims did not kill human shield in order to defeat
infidels, the infidels would finally kill that human shield in order to dominate the Islamic society. Our situation now is such that if we did not target the human shield, those people would be convinced by infidels to turn their back on religion and follow the rules of crusaders…. Ibn Taymiyah also believes that killing the human shield is less harmful than spread of infidelity.” [19]

According to al Qaeda ideology every one of the following conditions would permit killing Muslim and non-Muslim civilians: retribution, inability to differentiate between civilians and the military, cooperation of civilians with the military, use of weapons which does not allow discrimination between civilians and non-civilians as well as in case of breach of pacts or formation of human shields [20]. Therefore, Osama bin Laden has noted that it is the right of all Muslims to have nuclear weapons [21].

3.    Caliphate and religious (jurisprudential – Salafi) rule in the ideology of al Qaeda

The ultimate goal of al Qaeda ideology is to establish a jurisprudential rule rooted in Salafi and Wahhabi ideas, which would rule the whole world. Such a religious government is the most important goal of al Qaeda. The rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan was, in fact, embodiment of that goal.

“We have left our homelands to fight for the sake of God and we thank God for the opportunity He has offered us to embark on this sacred immigration. We want to wage jihad to establish the rule of Islam and Islamic edicts. This is our goal and for that goal, we have left our countries.” [22]

Following suit with the Guided Caliphs as well as the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, al Qaeda considers monarchial rule as the best form of government and since they have failed to convince public opinion in Muslim countries in this regard, they have been constantly opposing democracy. Of course, due to historical experiences in the world of Islam and the emphasis put by the first two caliphs on the importance of deliberation, they attach importance to advisory viewpoints of Salafi elite [23]. However, deliberation has never been generalized to other people and groups. Zawahiri has noted that mujahedeen cannot rule by force or directly snatch the power. But the government should be loyal to the Islamic principle of “consultation” and implement the principle of “ordering good and prohibiting vice”. Also, viewpoints offered by ulema should be heeded. [24]

“Democracy has come to tell us that in a democratic system, nation and people constitute the main point of reference and have the last say in all matters. In this system, what is permitted by the nation is permissible and what is prohibited would be considered as forbidden. Every law approved by the public opinion would be authentic and other rules would be invalid even if they have been ordered by God. The motto “rule is for the people” is the basis of a democratic system.

Democracy is based on the following principles:

Firstly, people are the basis on which all three powers, including the legislature, are founded. The legislature is formed through election of deputies by people to pass laws. In other words, under a democratic system, humans are passing laws, not the Almighty God. In this way, the true ‘creator’ who decides what is permitted and what is forbidden is human, not God. This is nothing but paganism and polytheism which is at loggerheads with monotheism ordered by Islam because humans have been considered on the same standing as God when passing laws.

Secondly, democracy is based on freedom of conviction and freedom of religion. Therefore, people can convert from their religion under a democratic system even when it means apostasy. In Islam, apostates are punishable by death.

Thirdly, democracy considers people to be final judges and it is the people who settle disputes between the ruler and the ruled. This is against monotheism according to which God settles disputes. Also, judgment from any institution other than God would be like judgment by tyrants which should be rejected.

Fourthly, democracy is based on freedom of expression and people can insult even God and divine rules.

Fifthly, democracy is based on separation of religion from politics. That is, religion should be confined to mosques and monasteries. People are to decide about political, economic and social affairs. Anybody believing in this would be infidel because it is equal to negating parts of Islamic teachings. Islam is a religion of politics and governance and cannot be confined behind the walls of mosques.

Sixthly, democracy is based on freedom to establish groups, political parties, and different institutions according to any conviction and this is forbidden by sharia law because parties and groups would be recognized with all their non-Islamic ideas and this will led to prevalence of evil in countries. This is quite the opposite of religious stipulations because infidelity should be denied and changed, and should not be recognized…. Recognizing infidel parties is the same as recognizing infidelity and it is equal to accepting infidelity.

Seventhly, democracy is based on the viewpoint of majority. That is, whatever the majority accepts would be adopted, even if it is blasphemy. Therefore, democracy equates majority to truth and this is rejected by Islam. In Islam, truth should conform to the Quran and Sunna whether it is accepted by the majority or not. Anything that is against the Quran and Sunna would be invalid even if the entire world has accepted it. [25]

The above material reveals a lot about the political thought of al Qaeda. The most important of those points are as follows:

  1. No other source, but Salafi and Wahhabi jurists are qualified to issue fatwas and pass laws to run social affairs. Also, making laws on the basis of human wisdom is rejected;
  2. Freedom of conviction cannot be accepted because it would lead to blasphemy;
  3. Rulers derive their legitimacy from God and leaders of different societies should be authorized by religion;
  4. Freedom of expression is not acceptable because it may lead to insult against God and divine rules;
  5. Religion is not separate from politics and government;
  6. Political parties are not supported by Islam because they pave the way for activities of non-religious elements.

Al Qaeda ideology has been focused on establishing Islamic caliphate; therefore, its followers are victims of that ideology. According to that ideology, no human being, whether Muslim or non-Muslim is considered original and originality should be based on Salafi ideology. Therefore, such ideology will offer nothing to humanity but some obligations that have been derived from Islam. This politicized viewpoint held by al Qaeda has downplayed mystic and beautiful aspects of religion and has depicted a picture of it which is confined to fighting and killing. The ideology of al Qaeda begins with jihad and ends in jihad. Their works show that human life is an arena in which one should constantly fight other people’s thoughts and ideas. In this way, instead of setting a direction for politics, it can be affected by the least important social or political matter. Therefore, the important point about such ideologies is that they may incline toward instrumentalism. Some evidence shows that, at least, some leaders of al Qaeda are more instrumentalists than being loyal to a radical Salafi ideology and their emphasis on Salafi slogans is just an instrument to help them achieve power and fight the West and other opponents. One of those instances is efforts made by them to revive Arab nationalism under the aegis of Salafi thought.

According to this viewpoint, Arabs should seek to revitalize the past glory of Abbasid caliphate. They maintain that Islamist ideas and Arab nationalism are two flip sides of the same coin.

“O nation! God has glorified Arabs through this religion and has guided them from darkness toward light and from worship of idols to worship of a single God, thus giving them superiority over other humans. By God, the rise of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) among Arabs was a great bounty for them.” [26]

Al Qaeda has pursued this approach in its jurisprudential inferences and religious fatwas and they considered a jurist, who is away from social and political activities and focuses on reading books, as disqualified. Zarqawi quotes Seyed Qutb as saying: “The Islamic jurisprudence will only thrive through dynamism and cannot be expected to sit in a corner and watch. Those who simply read books to extract jurisprudential rules and to use those rules for emancipation of humankind from the worship of other gods have actually not realized the true nature of this religion.” [27]

Regardless of what Seyed Qutb meant by the above remarks, Zarqawi has noted that he meant a dynamic jurisprudence is one which deals with everyday concerns of Muslims and which would progress in parallel to al Qaeda ideology in order to pave the way for the establishment of religious rule. In fact, when Zarqawi sees that most Sunni jurists are not interested in their ideology, it rejects them as true jurists. Therefore, due to powerful role of politics in al Qaeda ideology, some of their leaders have become instrumentalists.

“This group (jurists) has derived their ideas from a combination of ideas which have been already discarded by dignitaries of Islam. They have mixed ideas in such a way that would enable them to legitimize the worse form of infidel and non-religious governments. They are treading the path of Kharijites in excommunicating mujahedeen of Islam and leveling all kinds of charges against them. For example, the great mufti of Egypt is paid by the government to give legitimacy to a secular system that obeys Jews and mistreats Muslims.” [28]

4.    Strategies of al Qaeda

The German Der Spiegel newspaper has printed quotes from senior leaders of al Qaeda which delineates various stages that should be taken before their ideals are achieved. The first stage is awakening, which would take from 2001 to 2003 (from 9/11 terror attacks to downfall of Saddam Hussein). Therefore, the main goal of 9/11 attacks was to instigate the United States to declare war on the Muslim world followed by general awakening of Muslims. Al Qaeda strategists maintain that the first stage has been successful.

The second stage of “opening the eyes” would take until 2006. In this stage, al Qaeda aims to turn the “organization” into a “movement”. They invest on mobilizing young men in this stage and have determined Iraq as a base for global operations where an army of mujahedeen should be established with bases across Arab countries.

The third stage would occur between 2007 and 2010. In that period, combatants who are based in Iraq would be ready to focus on Syria. Attacks on Turkey and Israel are planned to make them popular while other neighboring countries of Iraq would be potential targets.

The fourth stage, which would include the most decisive goals of al Qaeda, would be completed from 2010 to 2013. Its main goal is downfall of hated Arab rules, which will ensure sustainable growth of al Qaeda. They will also attack US interests and oil pipelines in that period.

The fifth stage is expected to take from 2013 to 2016 during which the Islamic caliphate would be proclaimed. In that period, Israel would be very weak and they can even announce a new world order.
The sixth stage will arrive after proclamation of Islamic caliphate and it is the time for absolute confrontation between the army of Islam and non-Muslims which is supposed to occur in 2016.

The seventh stage will arrive in 2020 with final victory of Muslims and establishment of the global rule of Islam. [29]

Even if the above stages have not been clearly announced by leaders of al Qaeda, all of them agree on those stages as their ideal action plan. For example, Zawahiri has explained four stages as follows. In the first stage, Americans will be expelled from Iraq and if the United States followed the Vietnam model, this may happen even sooner than expected. In the second stage, all Sunni lands of Iraq should be brought under control in order to become the center for the Islamic emirate. In this stage, mujahedeen should fight to make Americans leave Iraq. Zawahiri has warned about empowerment of other groups in Iraq because if the United States left Iraq in a hurry, the country may be controlled by another organization with better structure and plans. The new emirate should also anticipate a war with a belligerent country which would try to destabilize it. The third stage would include spreading jihad to neighboring countries of Iraq followed by the fourth stage which may involve a conflict with Israel. [30]

A very important point, which should be taken into consideration, is that despite its declared policy of fighting Israel and the United States [31], al Qaeda should first start infighting and stress on foreign enemy is put to attract more Sunni youths to al Qaeda. In order to secure a foothold among Muslims, al Qaeda should first phase out rival groups, both those that are opposed to secularism and the West and those that have interacted with the West. Therefore, al Qaeda will have to start its fight among Muslims due to its ideological characteristics.

5.    Strategic differences inside al Qaeda

There are differences among al Qaeda members as to how they should achieve their goals and some scholars have called them “strategic differences”. They note that the ideology of al Qaeda has remained unchanged since the group made its debut and talked about “strategic” developments of al Qaeda [32]. In fact, despite ideological stability of al Qaeda, its strategies have been changing due to the following reasons:

A)    Changing conditions outside al Qaeda which have offered it with new opportunities; and

B)    Existence of different viewpoints among its leaders.

A)    Changing conditions outside al Qaeda and new opportunities

Al Qaeda bases were limited to Afghanistan up to early 1990s. However, after establishing contacts with the Islamic regime of Hassan al-Turabi in Sudan, it managed to get closer to Arab Middle East. The change in operational base caused them to put more emphasis on the need to fight Middle Eastern regimes. As the Taliban gained power in Afghanistan, al Qaeda snatched that opportunity to return to that country and use it as a safe basis for spread of terrorist operations. Also, opportunity for jihad in Bosnia, Chechnya, and other areas, changed the overall strategy of the organization. Therefore, the strategy of al Qaeda was influenced by new opportunities for jihad. Since the early 1990s, al Qaeda has adopted a strategy which entailed occasional attacks which aimed at destabilizing Arab regimes. However, that strategy has been dependent on emerging opportunities and has not been a fixed strategy with a stable base. Finally, they escalated their activities in Iraq where the geographical situation of the country provided them with a good opportunity to continue jihad. Such an opportunity had not been extant after the end of the fighting with the Russians in Afghanistan. Iraq is the actual scene of a true war and this is a great opportunity for al Qaeda.

It is the first time that this ideology has found a foothold at the “heart of the Muslim world” and in an Arab country. More importantly, the war in Iraq provides al Qaeda with an unprecedented opportunity to pursue its goals with the establishment of an “Islamic government” as a prelude to future proclamation of the Islamic caliphate. Since Iraq has been the center of the Abbasid caliphate, it is very important to them and a triumph in that country would be a great success for the radical Salafi ideology. The triumph will provide al Qaeda with a base inside the Arab world and in the neighborhood of its traditional target countries, that is, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and the Levant. In this way, they thought that conquering Iraq would have a domino effect which would lead to the establishment of Islamic caliphate [33]. At present, Shiites are the most powerful domestic forces in Iraq and are considered the most important enemies of al Qaeda. Therefore, anti-Shiite nature of al Qaeda has come to the surface for the first time. They are ardently trying to produce and revive anti-Shiite theories and this has ushered al Qaeda into a new period of its strategic history.

In short, as evidenced by its past performance and remarks of its leaders like Izam and Bin Laden, al Qaeda is thinking in terms of various stages in its strategic approach and acts in accordance with opportunities that are offered.

B)    Existence of different viewpoints among its leaders

Another reason for difference in strategies inside al Qaeda is existence of different viewpoints among its leaders about priorities and the best methods to achieve objectives. There are a number of influential currents inside al Qaeda which are different as to strategies. The most important of those currents include:

1)    Egyptians and colleagues of Ayman al-Zawahiri;
2)    Those affiliated to Jama’at ul-Islami Party of Pakistan;
3)    Supporters of Jama’at Ulama al-Islam led by Mowlana Fazl ul-Rahman and Mowlana Sami ul-Haq;
4)    Followers of “Towhid wal Jihad” group led by Zarqawi;
5)    Followers of Lashkar Tayyebah;
6)    Followers of such thinkers as Hassan al-Turabi and Abdullah Izam [34].

Huzaifa Izam, the son of Abdullah Izam, maintains that after suspicious death of his father in the late 1980 and changes in al Qaeda leadership, which led to increased influence of Zawahiri from the early 1990s, al Qaeda has been facing major changes and has become too much inclined toward radicalism. Therefore, he attributes those changes to such factors as the absence of Abdullah Izam, reduced influence of Bin Laden as well as penetration of some intelligence agencies, and increased influence of people like Zawahiri.

“If my father was alive now, he would not have endorsed such terrorist activities because he assessed everything according to its advantage or disadvantage for the Muslim ummah. However, the ongoing terrorist attacks have had no result for Muslims but misery. My father was not only against killing innocent Muslims, but also People of the Book (Christians and Jews) in line with Islamic teachings. Many intelligence authorities of the Arab and Islamic world have told me that assassination of Abdullah Izam has changed the balance against those who encourage the youth to violent acts through their erroneous arguments. Therefore, Israel, in cooperation with the United States and Pakistani mercenaries eliminated Abdullah Izam…. In Afghanistan, apart from a small group which used this weapon against Russians, there were no powerful groups to excommunicate other groups. Those few radicals even went as far as excommunicating my father. Many theories have been produced by al Qaeda about excommunication and I think that the organization has undergone changes which have made excommunication part of its main theory. I know Sheikh Osama Bin Laden. He is not the person to excommunicate other Muslims. This idea stems from jihadist groups in Egypt and Algeria…. I also know Ayman al-Zawahiri.

He was famous for his idea of “excommunication” in Peshawar, but he refused to openly talk about it. I think this theory adopted practical aspects since 1998 when Rabbani was announced as apostate by al Qaeda. Interestingly, Abdul-Rasoul Sayyad exactly did the same for which Rabbani had been excommunicated, but he was not announced an apostate. The year 1998 was the beginning of a new period during which excommunication was put in practice. It was then that al Qaeda overcame its doubts about fighting other Muslims and joined the Taliban in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and a man who considered fighting with Muslims as sedition were changed under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri in 1988.” [35]

Examples of such differences have been evident between Zawahiri and Zarqawi. Zarqawi was among those leaders of al Qaeda who gave special priority to fighting Shiites and killing them. He considered jihad against Shiites a major mission for al Qaeda and tried to theorize that notion. Zarqawi favored extreme violence, while Zawahiri was not agreed to that idea because of the failure that al Qaeda had experienced in Afghanistan. In a letter, which was published on July 9, 2005, Zawahiri tried to present a more logical analysis compared to other leaders of al Qaeda. He raised a number of criticisms of Zarqawi and the current which gave priority to fighting Shiites over Western countries. Zawahiri noted that Shiites are infidels and enemies, but added that fighting Shiites was not a priority. He said the public opinion of Muslims is against such fighting and that public opinion should be respected. While warning about repetition of the Taliban’s mistakes in Afghanistan, Zawahiri called for reduction of differences among various Sunni schools of thought because ordinary people could not understand such differences. He reminded Zarqawi that some prominent Ash’ari or Maliki ulema had played a prominent role in jihad and had assisted Salafi school of thought [36]. Unlike Wahhabis who do not approve of talking lovingly to God, Zawahiri presented a loving interpretation of jihad. [37]

Differences among al Qaeda leaders were sometimes so serious that they were brought up in the media. Abu Muhammad al-Miqdisi, the mentor of Zarqawi, criticized Zarqawi in an interview which was published by Qatar’s Al-Jazeera network, al-Hayat newspaper and a German newspaper and called on him to be more moderate. He added that suicide attacks, beheading hostages, attacking women and children and killing Shiites were mistaken behavior which tarnished the true face of Islam. Miqdisi even issued a fatwa banning Muslim youth from going to Iraq to fight in that country. [38]

Zarqawi had differences with Bin Laden too. For example, he considered all Arab rulers as infidels. However, Bin Laden excluded some countries, especially Saudi Arabia, in early stages of fighting. Also, unlike Bin Laden’s cooperation with Mullah Umar, Zarqawi refused to collaborate with him. Also, unlike Bin Laden who talked about crusades, Zarqawi believed in the necessity of fighting the enemy which is close. [39]


Al Qaeda ideology is based on four pillars of Salafi thought, radicalism, fighting Shiites, and fighting the West. Since the last two pillars stem from Salafi thoughts, it can be called a radical Salafi ideology. From their viewpoint, religion is a simple legal system which has been sent by the “ruler” of the world to relieve humans from punishments of this world and the Hereafter and has considered obligations for them. Therefore, humans should worship God in order to achieve salvation in this world and the next. Jihad is considered by them the most sublime example of worship which is a criterion for recognizing true faith. Since al Qaeda determines boundaries among human beings on the basis of Salafi ideology, they consider their enemies as infidels, polytheists, and hypocrites. In their ideology, no attention is paid to mystic aspects of religion.

The ultimate goal of al Qaeda ideology is to establish a global rule based on Islamic jurisprudence which is rooted in Wahhabi and Salafi tendencies. That global rule is considered the midway between monarchial and aristocratic systems and is reminiscent of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. It is incompatible with democracy and puts “emir” or “caliph” at the top of power pyramid while obliging him to consult with other elites. This approach, which will lead to politicization of religious ideas, has led to alienation of its followers and instrumentalism of its leaders.

To achieve the above goals, al Qaeda ideology maintains that Islamic countries should be conquered in stages and through a domino-like effect starting from Iraq. After establishment of the Islamic territory (Dar ul-Islam), the final war would begin with infidels in order to establish the global rule of Islam. Of course, due to outside conditions affecting al Qaeda and existence of different viewpoints among its leaders, the leaders of al Qaeda have been always different about strategies which should be adopted.


1.    Cheryl Benard; Civil Democratic Islam: An American Approach, translated by Asgar Ghahremanpour; Tehran, Institute for Strategic Studies, 2005, pp. 16 and 27
2.    Ibid, pp. 26 & 27
3.    Ibid, pp. 88 & 91
4.    Mostafa Malekian, A Way to Emancipation, Tehran: Negah Mo’aser Press, 2002, pp. 99 & 100
5.    Abi Mas’ab al-Zarqawi, Kalimat al-Muzi’a: al-Kitab al-Jami Lihazb and Kalimat al-Sheikh al-Mu’taz Bidinah Abi Mas’ab al-Zarqawi; Al-Buraq al-Islamiyah Network, 1447 AH, p. 4
6.    The Last Satellite Message of al-Qaeda Leaders, the last will and testament attributed to Ahmad al-Huznawi al-Ghamidi, al Qaeda operative, March 25, 2002
7.    Abi Mas’ab al-Zarqawi, op. cit., pp. 212-214
8.    Tom Knowith, "Zawahiri, Not Bin Laden, is the Top Target,
9.    Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Wila wal Bira: Aqida’ Manqoula wa Waqe’ Mafqoud, December 2002, p. 28
10.     Ibid, pp. 3 & 12
11.     Al-Zarqawi, op. cit., pp. 72-73
12.     Al-Zawahiri, op. cit., pp. 22-25
13.     Al-Zarqawi, op. cit., pp. 68-71
14.     Ibid, pp. 5-7
15.     About various meanings of “kufr (infidelity)” see: Mohammad Hassan Qadrdan Qaramaleki, Muslim Infidel and Infidel Muslim, Ketab Naqd, 1st Year, No. 4, Fall 1997
16.     Al-Zawahiri, op. cit., p. 18
17.     Al-Zarqawi, op. cit., pp. 497 & 496
18.     Marwan Shahada, Strategy of al Qaeda in Iraq: Strategy of Fighting to Scare, al-Asr magazine, February 10, 2006
19.     Al-Zarqawi, op. cit., pp. 254-256
20.     Mehdi Bakhshi, Sheikh Ahmad, Jihad from Ibn Taymiyah to Bin Laden, Rahbord Quarterly, No. 39, p. 206
21.     Osama bin Laden, “Bin Laden: I Am Ready to Be Tried at an Islamic Court”, translated by Abbas Emam, Sedaye Edalat, December 10, 2001
22.     Ibid
23.     Hatam Qaderi, Political Thoughts in Islam and Iran, Tehran: Samt, 1999, pp. 12 & 23
24.     Shmuel Bar and Yair Minzili, The Zawahiri Letter and the Strategy of Al Qaeda, Washington DC, Hudson Institute, 2006, pp. 40-41
25.     Al-Zarqawi, op. cit., pp. 5-7
26.     Ibid, p. 12
27.     Ibid, p. 229
28.     Al-Zawahiri, op. cit., pp. 23-24
29.     “What Is al Qaeda Looking for?”, translated by Marziyeh Khadem al-Sharif, Iran newspaper, September 10, 2005
30.     Shmuel Bar and Yair Minzili, op. cit., p. 40
31.     Bin Laden, Declaration of War against American Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places",, 1996/8/26
32.     Christopher M. Blanchard, "AL Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology", Congressional Research Service (CRS), http://Fpc.
33.     Shmuel Bar and Yair Minzili, op. cit., pp. 43- 44
34.     Jalaleddin Madani, Fundaments and Generalities of Political Sciences, Tehran; Paydar Press, 2004, p. 109
35.     Huzaifa Izam, Have Intelligence Agencies Penetrated al Qaeda?” translated by Saeed Aqakhani, Sharq newspaper, October 18, 2005
36.     Shmuel Bar and Yair Minzili, op. cit., pp. 41-42
37.     Al-Zawahiri, op. cit., p. 11
38.     Mohammad Ali Firouzabadi, In the Name of God, Don’t Follow Satan, Sharqi, September 3, 2005
39.     Marwan Shahada, op. cit.

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