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Juan Cole Examines Jihadist GroupsCole—pictured at top right and, with CNES Director Leonard Binder, bottom right—addressed an overflow crowd in a Bunche Hall conference room. (Photos by Jonathan Friedlander.)

Juan Cole Examines Jihadist Groups

Back at UCLA for first of two events, professor and Internet blogger brings sociology of religion to bear on militant Islam's recruiting methods, lending support to view that Iraq invasion revived Al Qaeda.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

The only way [U.S. elites] could convince us to let them tax us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on military things and to throw all this money to their cronies and to take away our civil liberties is if there's a powerful external enemy.

Juan Cole, the University of Michigan professor who is more widely known as the author-moderator of the weblog Informed Comment, Jan. 18 addressed a UCLA audience of about 70 people on militant Islamic movements. The talk was the first of two events this month featuring Cole and co-sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies; the second, a debate on U.S. policy in Iraq between Cole and Stanford University Professor Larry Diamond, former adviser to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, will take place on campus Jan. 23.

A portion of Cole's wide-ranging talk focused on Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician reputed to be the second-in-command of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. (According to Pakistani authorities, Zawahiri was not present Jan. 13 when an unmanned U.S. Predator drone targeting him fired on houses in northeastern Pakistan; 18 civilians were killed, sparking protests.) Cole emphasized the significance of events including the 1967 Six-Day War, which many viewed as a decisive defeat for Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab nationalism, and the Camp David accords of 1978 in radicalizing some members of Egypt's right-wing Muslim Brotherhood. Zawahiri founded Egyptian Islamic Jihad by the late 1970s.

But more generally, Cole sought to describe Islamic militant leaders, recruiters, and defectors in terms set down by sociologists of religion. According to Cole, a historian trained in UCLA's multidisciplinary Islamic Studies degree program, the work of these academics has been largely overlooked by students of the modern Middle East and radical Islam.

Among other things to be said for it, Cole suggested, the academic literature on "new religious movements," popularly known as cults, is useful in debunking common misconceptions about Al Qaeda and Islamic militants, including suicide bombers. Those recruited to kill in the name of Islam are not poorer than average, and their outlook on the world is not, from their own perspective, nihilist. Although recruiters of militants appeal to Muslim power first and to an interpretation of Islam only secondarily, their methods and the conversion experiences of recruits fit the sociologists' theoretical model, Cole said.

All That's Sacred

The converted adopt a carefully constructed, if absurd, world view in which noncombatants do not exist and attacks are attempts to avert tragedy. The central absurdity and tenet of this world view is that the world region called Islam is in imminent danger of being wiped out by America and its allies, Cole explained. One does not arrive at such a conviction merely by arguments, though a narrative about U.S. foreign policy is obviously key. This narrative focuses on Western occupation of Muslim holy sites: Mecca and Medina by virtue of U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, and Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. Cole observed that U.S. news media outlets avoid mention of long-winded speeches on Jerusalem by Osama bin Laden, even when they register his other obsessions.

In Cole's view, the flawed historical narrative and the cause advanced by bin Laden got a tremendous boost from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Cole said Al Qaeda's popularity had been diminished by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, overwhelmingly condemned by Arabs and non-Arab Muslims, and that the Iraq war—far more than the U.S.-backed ouster of the Taliban government in Afghanistan—fit the group's vision of a West that, without provocation, insists on targeting, antagonizing, and killing Muslims.

"In many ways," Cole said, "the invasion of Iraq was a fulfillment of all of the predictions of bin Laden."

First-Year Film-Schoolers for Terror

Recruiters for militant Islam rely on recruiting videotapes that make strong emotional appeals. With extensive use of close-ups, slow motion, and other film-editing techniques, the tapes are "a little bit like the first-year products of the USC film school," Cole said. The tapes repeatedly show large tanks and images of Western military power. Israeli soldiers brutalize Palestinians, and in other conflict flashpoints from Kashmir to Chechnya to Iraq and elsewhere soldiers beat children and women in Islamic dress. The videotapes convey the message that the West commits and encourages violence against Muslims, that the violence depicted and described has no aim beyond the destruction of Islam, and that all conflicts involving Muslims, whatever their concrete historical and political contexts, are aspects of a grand struggle with Western power.

Widely circulated footage of the fatal shooting in 2000 of a Palestinian boy who was caught between Israeli troops and armed Palestinians in Gaza Strip gunfight appears in some of the recruiting tapes. On the tape, the boy's father attempts to shield him from the cross-fire.

Cole said that recruiters of militants are patient and "psychologically savvy," spending time hanging out, playing sports, and working out in gyms with potential recruits found through networks of more-or-less sympathetic organizations.

During the question period following the talk, Cole also noted a difference between some of these Jihadist groups and the fringe religious movements described by sociologists: Jihadist recruiters have knowledge of Soviet and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency spy tradecraft from their experiences in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. They learned not only to win converts but also to pull off "false flag" deceptions designed to enlist the help of people seeking to cooperate with authorities.

Defections from Al Qaeda have also occurred, in spite of the danger for defectors, and Cole noted that such cases fit the established pattern, generally requiring a second "conversion" on the part of recruits.

Cole theorized that Zawahiri, in order to punish Britain for its key role in the invasion of Iraq, worked through the Pakistani organization Jaysh Muhammad to recruit the bombers who attacked London's transportation system on July 7, 2005. Cole has offered support for this view on his blog.

Who Needs Enemies?

Even at their peak of support, Jihadist groups are fringe elements within societies, Cole said. During the question period, he rejected the notion of a so-called U.S. global war on terror springing from, in political scientist Samuel P. Huntington's phrase, a clash of civilizations. Certainly, he said, Jihadist groups and the very different regimes in Syria and Iran do not add up to an enemy for so sweeping a conflict.

"The whole thing is a mirage," he said. "Basically, I think the Washington power elite lost their bugbear when the Soviet Union fell, and the only way they could convince us to let them tax us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on military things and to throw all this money to their cronies and to take away our civil liberties is if there's a powerful external enemy."

Cole charged that the federal government had taken advantage of the attacks of 9/11 to raise the specter of "this lurking, menacing civilization out there that's throwing up these threats to the United States."

Center for Near Eastern Studies