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Are the Jihadists Losing the War? Gilles Kepel Thinks SoLeonard Binder (left) with Gilles Kepel and his new book

Are the Jihadists Losing the War? Gilles Kepel Thinks So

French Arabist Kepel discusses his new book, "The War for Muslim Minds."

By Leslie Evans

Despite car bombings, beheadings, and kidnappings, French scholar Gilles Kepel says the jihadists are losing their hold on the Muslim masses. A professor at the Institut d'√Čtudes Politiques in Paris, Kepel visited UCLA on September 30 to discuss his new book, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Harvard University Press, 2004). "Jihad in the 1990s failed," Kepel declared, and the spectacular actions plotted by Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants have not turned that tide, no matter how shattering they have been. Kepel's talk, delivered to an overflow crowd in a Bunche Hall conference room, was sponsored by the International Institute's Center for Near Eastern Studies. It was chaired by political science professor Leonard Binder, a well-known Middle East scholar and acting director of the Near East Center.

Kepel began with a pamphlet, Knights under the Prophet's Banner, published on the internet in late 2001 and attributed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who serves as Osama bin Laden's principal deputy. "Zawahiri concedes that jihad in the 1990s failed in Chechnya, in Algeria, and in Egypt. It didn't speak the language of the masses." The jihadist strategy of the 1990s was to attack the nearby enemy, authoritarian Arab governments compromised by friendly relations with the West. "But the nearby enemy was resilient."

According to Kepel, Zawahiri proposed a new strategy: "martyrdom operations instead of mass operations, the use of select groups of highly educated operatives who are indoctrinated enough not to question orders." Mohammad Atta, suicide pilot of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center towers, "fits this description." Atta held a degree in architecture from Cairo University and had been working on a master's degree in Germany when he left to prepare for 9/11.

The Debate over the Nearby and Far-Away Enemy

"Zawahiri's pamphlet was to speed up a failing mobilization," said Kepel. At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, "there was a major shift in the Egyptian jihadist movement. They had thought the primary battle was against Israel. That changed. Instead, they had to start with the nearby enemy. The thinking was that if you win against Israel, the winner will be a nearby impious ruler. You should reverse this. This meant to break the nationalist consensus built by the authoritarian Arab regimes."

The 1990s tactic of trying to take on the nearby Arab regimes was inspired by the victory of the mujahideen over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1989. "A decade later Zawahiri sees this as a failure and shifts to the far-away enemy, the United States. Why? Because we have to use spectacular suicide operations that will be big in the media as a way to bypass the lack of mass participation. The strike against the twin towers can inflict shock and awe on the enemy. This is all framed in the language of Hollywood, like out of a movie but for real. No one who saw it will ever forget it."

Kepel commented that the tactic of spectacular visual actions has since been much imitated but not equaled. "A few weeks ago we had the massacre of the school children in Russia. This was not so sophisticated as the twin towers."

To fully resonate with the Muslim masses, according to Kepel, the spectacular martyrdom actions had to also embody a slogan that rang true. "Jihad against Israel is the slogan Zawahiri chose." Kepel asserted that the Bin Laden jihadists began to look for a way to associate themselves with the Palestinian Intifada.

Palestinians and Jihadists

Kepel traced a complex relationship between the Al Qaeda tacticians and the evolution of the Palestinian Intifada. On the one hand, he said, he thought the Bin Laden group had not been much interested in the Israeli-Palestinian issue but had been focused on oil and the Saudi government. The Palestinians became of interest to Al Qaeda mainly as they evolved the tactic of martyrdom operations, which Al Qaeda saw as something they could appropriate that would fit their new scenario of striking the far-away enemy in a spectacular way with a small elite force.

"The second Intifada was not spontaneous like the first one," Kepel said. "This one was organized by the PLO and Arafat. They wanted to pressure Israel for a better settlement. I visited Arafat in April 2001. He was then thinking of the Israeli pullout from Lebanon after the Hezbullah attacks. He saw this as a great victory and hoped to repeat it with the Intifada. But Lebanon was not a central territory for Israel."

Kepel felt that Arafat misread the analogy. "He would attack soldiers and civilians. Israeli civil society would then pressure the government to give in. But Sharon had a neo-con agenda of ousting Arafat and rebuilding the Middle East on a more democratic basis. So controlled violence by Arafat -- to out-jihad the jihadists -- didn't work. It backfired. Then Hamas and Al Aqsa started the martyrdom operations, actions massively condoned in the Arab world."

Al Qaeda, Kepel said, observed that by mid-2001 suicide operations were an accepted tactic for the Arab masses. "9/11 is in that context. It was meant to blend with the attacks on Israel."

In the Shoes of the Prophet

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 in retaliation for September 11 wiped out Al Qaeda's main base, but the ever-resourceful Zawahiri responded with a video calculated to appeal to the deepest roots of Islam. "They released a video that was aired on Al Jazeera where Zawahiri and Bin Laden appear in costumes from the Prophet's time. The film begins on the sky, for 5 or 6 seconds, a long time. Just clouds. Then it descends to earth, coming down from heaven to the cave. Here are Bin Laden and Zawahiri sitting just like the Prophet after the Hejira. The message is that the caves of Afghanistan were their Medina.... This was a Hollywood-style effort to mobilize the masses" by presenting Bin Laden as a latter-day Muhammad.

Gilles Kepel listed Al Qaeda's assets and liabilities three years after they lost their Afghanistan base. On the negative side, "to this day they have not seized power anywhere. The Taliban was wiped away. There were severe blows to the Al Qaeda organization." On the plus side, Zawahiri is still alive and Bin Laden is not in American custody. And the American invasion of Iraq has provided a focus for jihadist outrage.

"For anyone educated in the Muslim tradition, Baghdad symbolizes the glory of the Arab world. It was the home of the Caliphate." For the jihadists, he said, "the greatest hope for Iraq is that it will be a second Vietnam."

The jihadists have also learned to make very effective use of the webcam and the internet. "Even Al Jazeera doesn't show beheadings, but they are distributed on websites." This is another example of the use of spectacularly brutal and highly visual tactics.

U.S. versus the Jihadists

Kepel looked at some of the long-term weaknesses of both the jihadists and their nemesis in the Pentagon. On the jihadist side, in Iraq, "people will grow sick and tired of what they see. Iraqis who die by the thousands by car bombings, kidnappings -- there is a very deep anti-Americanism there, but there will be a backfire against the jihadists."

On the American side, "the American army was created to fight the Soviet Union…. The hubris in the Pentagon structure is the idea that military power could translate into political power." He suggested that in comparing Al Qaeda to rogue states the Bush administration has misunderstood its enemy. "'Al Qaeda' in Arabic means 'the base,' that is, the training camp. But it is metaphorical also. It can be seen as the database, via the web, an international network. Even the smart weapons of the West have been helpless. You can destroy a rogue state, whereas Al Qaeda is more like a hacker."

Still, despite a number of lesser 9/11s in Istanbul, Madrid, Jakarta and elsewhere, Kepel remains of the opinion that the jihadists have not succeeded in mobilizing mass support. On the whole, Al Qaeda's appeals to follow its example have been taken up by young people far less prepared than the perpetrators of the twin towers and Pentagon actions in 2001. "There was Casablanca in May 2003. Young people from the local slums. None had been trained in a camp in Afghanistan. They did read websites. This led them to mimic the mujahideen: 'Kill Jews, kill foreigners.' They attacked the local Jewish community center. They picked a Friday night, not thinking that this is the eve of the Jewish sabbath and no one would be there. They succeeded in killing the Muslim janitor. They killed tens of Moroccans at another location but missed the foreigners. They did not get any of the people they wanted to kill. This was all very unsophisticated."

The Kidnappers Miscalculate

Kepel returned to his point that for the jihadists to be successful they must link their spectacular action to a slogan that has mass resonance and appears to legitimize their deed. He cited the recent taking of French hostages in Iraq. "They announced that the kidnapped French citizens would be killed unless the French government repealed the law banning headscarves in the schools. They had seen on TV that there were Muslim demonstrations in France against the proposed ban. They thought this slogan would be a winner. They were convinced that it would make them popular. But instead there was a big mobilization of French of Muslim descent who declared, 'We deny you the right to speak in our name.' This had a snowball effect in the Middle East. Even Hamas had to come out and oppose the kidnapping."

A Cause for Optimism

Gilles Kepel concluded that he saw cause for optimism in the failure of the jihadists to gain a mass base. "We now see as we saw in the 1990s, civil society turning its back on violence, and mobilizing to oppose it." Now, he said, it will be crucial for an American leadership to be perceptive enough to effectively speak to Muslim civil society.

Some Replies to Questions

In the question period, Kepel was sharply critical of Western leftists who have made common cause with the jihadists. "A number of former communists and fellow travelers of the left have been supportive of the Islamists. They see the Islamists as the embodiment of the masses. The communist cadres used to call these people useful idiots and the term still holds."

He discussed the social background of the Al Qaeda leadership. "If you read Zawahiri's text, they see themselves as the aristocrats and the vanguard. They are the ones who know. They are not going to learn anything from anybody. Zawahiri is from a very high-ranking Egyptian family. On his father's side they are a prominent medical family. On his mother's side is the founder of the Muslim League and a number of diplomats. These are not destitute people."

Kepel was asked if Sharia law was compatible with democracy. He responded that Islamic majorities or governments could respect democracy, as in Turkey, but not if they adopted Qu'ranic Sharia law. "The sanction for Sharia law is God's word. There is no place there for laws made by men."

Center for Near Eastern Studies