(Professor at Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and was visiting professor at Georgetown University (Washington, DC). The French History convention awarded in 2008 its main prize to his “Apocalypse in Islam”, that will soon be published in English by the University of California Press. His last book, “The Nine lives of Al-Qaida” was presented in Athens on May 19, 2010, at the French institute).
When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 27, 1979, the resistance rallied under the banner of jihad against foreign occupation, putting aside ethnic and linguistic differences. This Afghan jihad was the last of a long series of anti-colonial insurgencies against European domination and one could follow this string of popular guerillas, led by charismatic figures like Abdelkader in Algeria (1832-1847), Shamil in the Caucasus (1834-1859) or Umar al-Mukhtar in Libya (1911-1931). The Afghans basically fought to liberate their country and, in nearly ten years of anti-Soviet struggle, they never exported their violence outside of the Afghan borders.
The Afghan mujahideen requested their fellow Muslims to support politically and materially their nationalist uprising, but they needed much more weapons than volunteers, since the anti-Soviet fighters were more numerous than well-equipped. Nevertheless, two former militants of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jordanian Abdallah Azzam and the Saudi Usama Bin Laden, established in Pakistan, in 1984, the Services Bureau, an international network to channel Arab funds and recruits to the anti-Soviet jihad. The operation was launched at a very low key and developed only in 1986-87. Thousands of Arab militants were welcomed in training camps in Western Pakistan, but only hundreds of them crossed the border to actually fight in Afghanistan, where their contribution to the liberation of the country, in February 1989, was negligible.
Azzam respected the Afghan freedom struggle, while Bin Laden planned to organize independent Arab units of jihadi militants. He radicalized this vision under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri and the militants from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ): the liberation of Muslim lands from foreign occupation was only one dimension of an all-out jihad, whose ambition was to topple the Muslim regimes, branded as “apostates”. This accusation of apostasy, or “takfir”, alienated this group from the rest of the militants and was central in the clandestine founding of Al-Qaida (“the Base”, in Arabic), in August 1988. All the members of Al-Qaida had to pledge personal and absolute allegiance to Bin Laden. Azzam had no place in this grand design and, anyway, he was killed in a booby-trapped bombing in November 1989.
Al-Qaida tried to hijack nationalist struggles for promote its own agenda of global jihad. But the jihadi volunteers that traveled to Bosnia, after the dismantlement of Yugoslavia in 1992, were contained by the regular Bosnian army and eventually expelled in the fall of 1995. Al-Qaida was still a codename, used only by insiders, but global jihad went public when Bin Laden and Zawahiri announced, in February 1998, the launching of the “World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders”. In their manifesto, they urged any Muslim individual, anywhere in the world, to strike anytime at any American or any American ally, without distinction between civilian and military targets. This global jihad was clearly a modern invention, contradicting fourteen centuries of Islamic practice and tradition: jihad had generally been a collective duty, the consensus of the ulama and the religious leaders was a prerequisite to turn it individual, and only in very specific and limited circumstances. Al-Qaida’s free-for-all interpretation of jihad was without precedent, it cut the historical link between jihad and a community (to mobilize) or a territory (to defend), while Bin Laden and Zawahiri lacked any dogmatic credential to substantiate such an innovation.
Al-Qaida could flourish in Afghanistan under the protection of Mullah Umar’s “Islamic emirate”. A new generation of jihadi volunteers flocked the training camps, this time not to fight an invading army on a specific territory, but to export global subversion worldwide. The attacks on New York and Washington, on September 11, 2001, were planned to trigger a wave of revolutionary jihad all over the Muslim world, while Al-Qaida was betting on American reprisals against Afghanistan and hoping the US would be defeated on that battlefield like the late USSR. Bin Laden’s strategic gamble collapsed with the quick demise of the Taliban regime and with the general outrage against the 9/11 attacks. So Al-Qaida, increasingly isolated, went underground to prepare its own terror campaign against Saudi Arabia. Launched in May 2003, this series of bombings generated a backlash against the jihadi ideology and most of the activist networks were dismantled in less than two years.
It took the US invasion of Iraq, in March 2003, for Al-Qaida to reconstitute some of its potential, collaborating with the nationalist insurgency. But the local guerrillas resented Zarqawi’s use of Iraq as a platform to export terror in the neighboring countries, like in Amman in November 2005. So tensions escalated and the national jihadis ultimately expelled Al-Qaida from its stronghold in the Western province of Anbar, in 2007. The defeat of Bin Laden’s followers, not by the US army, but by Sunni guerrillas, was a devastating blow for the global jihad and sent shockwaves all over the Muslim world, weakening Al-Qaida’s prestige and franchises.
This showdown between global and national jihad reached new rhetorical heights when Al-Qaida, frustrated with its absence from Lebanon and Palestine, started a propaganda campaign against Hezbollah and Hamas. It accused them of having “sold” their land and their cause to Israel by accepting ceasefires or elections. It urged Hamas to establish an “Islamic emirate” in Gaza, but Bin Laden’s sympathizers were crushed by Hamas forces. Al-Qaida repeatedly used sectarian slanders to attack the Shi’a guerrillas in Lebanon, without reaching a breakthrough on the ground. Global jihad turned increasingly virtual and relied heavily on Internet, while national jihad was pushing deep its militant roots.
So Al-Qaida, unable to sustain a revolutionary jihad in Saudi Arabia, also failed to divert national jihad in the Middle East. The crisis of the global jihad was worsened when even the most radical of the jihadi scholars withdrew their support from Al-Qaida (including one of its founding members, the Egyptian “Doctor Fadel”, aka Sayyid Imam al-Sharif). Bin Laden and his followers were portrayed as having “betrayed” the core values of Islam. They reacted by stressing the privilege of the jihadi fighters, even without any religious background, to decide what is right and wrong in Islam. Al-Qaida is therefore promoting a new cult, transferring the theological legitimacy from the ulama to the militants, who can exclude any Muslim from their vanguard community. This escalation of symbolic violence matches the fact that the overwhelming majority of Al-Qaida’s victims are Muslims, killed on Muslim lands.