Reformist Islamist Maajid Nawaz explains the true motives of the bomber brothers – and what the west must do to stop similar atrocities.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that the Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston marathon was an ideologically motivated act of terror. It seems these two Chechens turned against their adopted homeland and decided to kill their fellow citizens en masse. But America is not Chechnya’s enemy — Russia is. So why attack America? To understand that, it is necessary to look at how the global jihadist threat has mutated over the past 10 years.
Relentlessly pursued, detained and assassinated, “al-Qaeda Central” is operationally much weaker now than it was in September 2001. But after the assassination of Osama bin Laden the US administration — and much of the world — made the fatal mistake of assuming their target was the men who organised 9/11, not the cause they espoused.
As al-Qaeda Central grew weaker, its jihadist ideology gained strength and spread across the world. These days al-Qaeda is a brand, one that thousands of young Muslims are prepared to sign up to without ever having come into operational contact with the al-Qaeda leadership. Bin Laden may be dead, but the ideological brand he created has gone on to inspire a fully fledged global jihadist insurgency.
A territory the size of France came under jihadist control in sub-Saharan Mali. Jihadists are resurgent in Libya and other north African countries. In Yemen the Abyan province, as well as chunks of land in the southwest of the country, came under direct jihadist rule.
In Syria the uprising to remove the country’s brutal dictator has been all but hijacked by Jabhat al-Nusra, formed by jihadist veterans from Iraq, next door. All this points to an alarming conclusion: al-Qaeda’s brand of jihadism threatens to mutate from the credo of a group to the inspiration for a loose network to the mission of an insurgency able — in some places — to rally a level of popular support. Its ideas are even garnering acceptance in civilian society in some parts. As a result, many more will follow the path of self-radicalisation to action. For this we must be prepared.
In 2002-6 I was imprisoned in Egypt for my own — since disavowed — political Islamist beliefs. I was incarcerated with a north Caucasian from Dagestan, a professional bomb maker who had travelled via Afghanistan to Egypt to train Palestinians in Gaza in how to make bombs to strike at Israel. Here was a global jihadist at his peak. I believe his journey is the key to explaining the thinking behind the actions of the Boston bombers — also from Dagestan.
Jihadists who strike in America believe that by attacking the “far enemy” — that is, the United States — they can weaken American resolve for supporting the “near enemy”, the rulers who stand in the way of a Middle Eastern jidahist superstate.
To achieve this vision al-Qaeda needed to globalise what had been local nationalistic conflicts so that recruits from these conflicts would be prepared to attack American interests in unrelated countries. In other words, Muslims from the north Caucusus — or anywhere else — needed to believe their battlefield was not just Russia (the obvious immediate enemy), but wherever would best serve the interests of establishing the jihadist superstate.
This shift from a local to a global struggle is possible only after the adoption of the jihadist ideological framework. The central tenet of this is that the jihadist’s “people” stop being those of his original nation and become instead “Muslims”. Thus the enemy become “non- Muslims” and there is only one war — that of Islam versus kuffar (non- Muslims). If you accept that, it makes sense for global jihadists to be sending Chechens — whose enemy is not America — to strike at America and not Russia. The aims are to repel American “interference” in those countries where jihadists are deemed to be on the brink of creating their state: the Middle East. But these are not the aims of the Chechen struggle.
This is why the younger brother, Dzhokhar, felt justified, in interviews with federal law enforcers, to give the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as reasons for attacking his home country of America. All this despite his maintaining no ties to the greater Middle East and probably never having visited the region.
The entry point into jihadist ideology for the brothers was probably a rediscovery of their Chechen Muslim identity, which at some stage mutated into the global jihadist brand that has come to dominate the political discourse of so many angry young Muslims.
When jihadist ideas, stripped in some cases of the al-Qaeda name, can be found floating around Muslim discourse in everyday conversation, it is easy for seemingly integrated young western Muslims to become atttracted to it. Last week the European Union anti-terrorism co-ordinator estimated that 500 European Muslims had travelled to Syria to join jihadist groups there. As David Cameron said after the jihadist attacks on the Algerian gas facility in January, this struggle will take generations.
The only solution is to undermine the global jihadist brand by making its ideology as unpopular as communism has become today. Grassroots democratic alternatives must be supported. Counter-narratives must be disseminated and key facts — for instance, that more Muslims have died in Pakistan as a result of Taliban actions than American drones or that the Taliban were behind those who attacked the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai for wanting an education — must be widely publicised.
My organisation, Quilliam, has made a start by founding a youth movement called Khudi in Pakistan to challenge extremist ideas, but we are latecomers to this fight.
Only once this counter-ideology has been popularised will we cease to see young, homegrown western Muslims jumping on this bandwagon. Frustratingly, Barack Obama’s administration is ignoring the war of ideas in favour of surgical strikes. Unfortunately, ideas are bulletproof.
Maajid Nawaz is chairman of Quilliam. His autobiography, Radical, is published this week by WH Allen at £8.99
This article was published in the ‘Sunday Times’ newspaper on 28th April 2013.