The War for Muslim Minds
Three new books help explain the al Qaeda movement, before and after 9/11.

Reviewed by Bruce Hoffman
Sunday, December 18, 2005


Why Jihad Went Global

By Fawaz A. Gerges

Cambridge Univ. 345 pp. $27


Wrestling Islam From the Extremists

By Khaled Abou El Fadl

HarperSanFrancisco. 308 pp. $21.95


By Fred Halliday

Univ. of California. 269 pp. Paperback, $12.95

"If you know the enemy and know yourself," the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu advised some 2,500 years ago, "you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." The war on terrorism has now lasted longer than America's involvement in World War II, but we still cannot claim to have fulfilled Sun Tzu's timeless admonition.

The United States encountered many frustrations during the Vietnam conflict, but a lack of understanding of our adversary was not among them. Indeed, as early as 1965, concerted, voluminously detailed Pentagon analyses of Vietcong morale and motivation illuminated the need to win what was then often termed the "other war" -- the ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. Even if the fundamental changes required in U.S. military strategy to overcome the Vietcong's appeal went ignored, tremendous effort and resources were devoted to understanding the enemy.

Today, Washington has no such program in the war on terrorism. America's counterterrorism strategy appears predominantly weighted toward a "kill or capture" approach targeting individual bad guys. This line of attack assumes that America's targets -- be they al Qaeda or the insurgency in Iraq -- have a traditional center of gravity; it also assumes that the target simply needs to be destroyed so that global terrorism or the Iraqi insurgency will end. Accordingly, the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence community is directed almost uniformly toward hunting down militant leaders or protecting U.S. forces -- not toward understanding the enemy we now face.

This is a monumental failing because al Qaeda's ability to continue this struggle is predicated on its capacity to attract new recruits and replenish its resources. The success of U.S. strategy will therefore ultimately depend on Washington's ability to counter al Qaeda's ideological appeal -- and thereby break the cycle of recruitment and regeneration. To do so, we first need to better understand the origins of the al Qaeda movement, the animosity and arguments that underpin it and indeed the region of the world from which its struggle emanated and upon which its gaze still hungrily rests. Each of the three books reviewed here provides a good start in this essential, though lamentably belated, process.

The title of Fawaz A. Gerges's incisive The Far Enemy refers to the al Qaeda term for the United States and its Western allies, but the book's focus is squarely on the internal divisions and ideological disputes that rent the jihadis (a term, Gerges notes, both invented and used by Osama bin Laden and his acolytes to describe themselves) during the mid-1990s. This schism, according to Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College, led directly to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The counterintuitive story presented in The Far Enemy is that of a jihadist movement inclined more toward isolation and introspection about internal Muslim affairs than to supposed external threats to Islam and attacks on U.S. targets. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, al Qaeda once shared this same inward-looking orientation. Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian radical who together with bin Laden founded al Qaeda in the late 1980s, was himself an exponent of "resistance, not expansion or aggression." Gerges notes that Azzam "also eschewed terrorism, targeting civilians, and taking jihad global . . . . One wonders what Azzam would have done had he survived the Afghan jihad." Indeed, it was Azzam's still unsolved assassination in 1989 -- for which bin Laden is believed to be responsible -- that redirected the jihadist struggle onto the very different, transnational path it has since followed.

Gerges credits this pivotal change in al Qaeda's strategy to the growing influence of Ayman Zawahiri over bin Laden as the decade-long campaign against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan neared victory. An Egyptian physician by training who was also the founder and leader of an important terrorist group called Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Zawahiri despaired of his own organization's failure to topple the hated secular, pro-Western Egyptian government headed by Hosni Mubarak. Rather than abandon the struggle completely, Zawahiri instead advocated attacking the "far enemy" (the United States and the West) as a means to undermine and ultimately vanquish the "near enemy" (what he considered the corrupt, authoritarian and anti-Islamic Mubarak regime), as well as similarly unworthy rulers in power elsewhere throughout the Middle East and Asia. The assumption was based on a sort of Islamist domino theory: Once U.S. support for apostate governments in Muslim nations was removed, those regimes would inevitably fall. Emboldened by the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, bin Laden was persuaded to set his sights on the one superpower that remained, the United States -- thereby fundamentally altering and broadening the aims of al Qaeda.

Central to understanding this process is the role that key personalities have long played in the Islamist struggle. "In my conversations with former jihadis, one of the critical lessons I have learned is that personalities, not ideas or organizations, are the drivers behind the movement," Gerges writes. "The most lethal and violent jihadist factions and cells were led by highly charismatic, aggressive, and daring personalities who captivated and inspired followers to unquestionably do their bidding." From this discussion, one can easily comprehend how a bloodthirsty opportunist like Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi could so rapidly emerge from total obscurity only a few years ago to eclipse perhaps even bin Laden and Zawahiri as the world's most feared terrorist.

Where The Far Enemy takes a micro-perspective, concentrating primarily on the divisions within the comparatively small jihadist community, The Great Theft examines the wider schism that has divided Islam itself. According to Khaled Abou El Fadl, rather than having abated or lost momentum, the internal dispute that produced al Qaeda is still raging with full force. Abou El Fadl, an Islamic jurist and a professor of law at UCLA, thus sees the present manifestations of terrorism and bloodshed not as the desperate gasp of a dying movement but as an evolutionary process that is still unfolding.

Islam, in Abou El Fadl's eyes, is in the process of being hijacked by extremists who, though only a small minority within Islam, have a disproportionate impact because of the attention they receive, the fear they generate and the atrocities they commit. Nothing less than what he describes as a massive "counter-jihad" is needed to arrest this perversion -- a process of reaffirming Islam's moral message that must, Abou El Fadl maintains, be predicated on "introspective self-criticism and reform."

Although The Great Theft provides an uncommonly rich, learned and easily accessible framework for understanding the current theological struggle within Islam, Abou El Fadl could have enhanced its value as a "vital vision for a moderate Islam" (as the accompanying publicity notes contend) by providing a fuller and more incisive discussion of how the "counter-jihad" can be organized and achieved than the single page he devotes to it. This criticism aside, The Great Theft provides a compelling guide to contemporary Muslim intellectual discourse.

Abou El Fadl worries that misunderstandings about Islam make a bad situation worse. In a similar vein, 100 Myths About the Middle East offers a comprehensive debunking of some of the most popular -- and pernicious -- misconceptions about that region. Its author, Fred Halliday, is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and an authority on the Middle East. In staccato fashion, he concisely dispatches such popular misconceptions as that Lawrence of Arabia was particularly important in the history of the modern Middle East (myth 74); that Muslim women must wear either a headscarf or veil (myth 90); that water will be an inevitable cause of future Middle East conflict (myth 30); and, in a sign that he's also interested in idiocies popular in the region, the canard that 4,500 Jews were warned to stay away from the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 (myth 10). The space afforded to each myth varies between less than half a page for some and three pages for others.

Each of these books provides much-needed perspective, background and context that will help readers see the wrenching events of the past four years as part of a longer and wider historical and theological continuum. Although all are more explanatory than prescriptive, they establish an incontestably firm foundation for understanding our enemy -- and the origins, environment and mindset of this theologically driven foe. As Sun Tzu knew, only when we know whom we are fighting can we prevail.

Bruce Hoffman is director of the Washington office of the RAND Corporation and holds its corporate chair in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. He is the author of "Inside Terrorism."

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