Terror Trail: Twin faces of 21st-century Jihad


After the successful Jihad against the Soviets, AQ’s battled the Christian-Jewish hegemony, which was epitomised by the US. During the run-up to 9/11, AQ targeted Americans. This is evident from the 1992 bombings in Yemen, 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, 1998 attacks on the US embassies in East Africa, and the 2000 suicide attack on the US missile destroyer, USS Cole.

Only after the West tracked and destroyed AQ and its global cells that bin Laden consciously waged a war against all infidels, who either supported America or were dubbed non-Muslim. The latter included liberal Muslims, Shias, Sufis and other ‘heretical’ sects. This led to the 2004 Ashura massacre, 2006 Sadr city bombing, and 2007 Yazidi Communities bombings. The three violent attacks targeted the Shia and Kurd communities in Iraq.

Culture of terror

In a recent piece, Alexander A Bauer, a New York-based anthropology academician, said that the stated goal of the destruction of archaeological sites and monuments by terror groups “is to eradicate idolatry seen as blasphemous to a particular religious perspective.” He referred to the “horrific destruction of the archaeological site of Palmyra” by the IS and the outfit’s earlier “ransacking of the Mosul monument and the sites of Nineveh.”

According to Bauer, the religiosity behind monuments’ destruction was historical and “have occurred since antiquity”. The logic of the aggressors is that such destruction attacked the “very identity of a group that might see such monuments and works as constitutive of its culture.” A mirror logic determines the politics of building monuments – the aggressor wishes to leave behind physical icons to remind the local population of its legacy.

AQ has used, and continues to employ, the culture of terror to woo new followers, and retain the existing ones. However, bin Laden’s idea of cultural icons were those that defined the western society. His idea of targets were the global financial centres, like the twin towers in New York, international political epicentres, like the Pentagon in Washington, and diplomatic focal points, like the US embassies. For the former head of global terror, the destruction of physical identities that epitomised western capitalism and imperialism were important.

Leadership of terror

Both bin Laden and IS’ current chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, look at themselves as the global leaders of Sunni Muslims. According to recent profile in Newsweek, the followers of al-Baghdadi call him ‘Commander of the Believers’, which was a “title reserved for caliphs, the supreme spiritual and temporal rulers of the vast Muslim empire of the middle ages.” In fact, his supporters look up to him as the modern-era Caliph. At this peak, bin Laden was referred as the Emir, or the spiritual leader and king of the Muslim world, albeit only by the Sunnis.

The duo’s childhood was similar. Newsweek’s article said that al-Baghdadi, who hailed from a lower middle class Iraqi family, was nicknamed ‘the Believer’ in school. “When he wasn’t in school, he spent much of his time at the local mosque, immersed in his religious studies; and when he came home… he was quick to admonish anyone who strayed from the strictures of Islamic law.” A few family members were “adherents of an extreme, puritanical form of Sunni Islam.”

bin Laden’s father was a billionaire, who was close to Saudi Arabia’s royal family. For a brief period, he was the country’s minister of public works. He was a devoted Muslim, who insisted that his children followed a strict religious code. According a bin Laden profile (www.pbs.org), bin Laden’s father “took the task of rebuilding the Al-Aqsa mosque…. Interestingly, the bin Laden family say that they have the credit of building all the three mosques”, including the ones at Mecca and Medina.

However, both bin Laden and al-Baghdadi became Jihadists because of different reasons. Within two weeks of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, bin Laden went to Pakistan and met militant leaders. By 1982, he was inside Afghanistan, armed with money and construction machinery, to help the Afghani Mujahedeen in their Jihad against the Soviets. In 1986, he set up his own camps in Afghanistan, and formed AQ within a couple of years.

Like bin Laden, al-Baghdadi had close links with the Muslim Brotherhood, a largely peaceful transnational organisation that inadvertently gave birth to dozens of radical outfits. But he drifted towards the extremist elements within the Brotherhood. He was ready for Jihad in 2000, but the extreme radicalisation happened when he was arrested by the Americans in 2004. Although his prison files classified him as a ‘civilian detainee’, he became a true Jihadi there.

Inmates at Camp Bucca, the US detention facility in South Iraq, where al-Baghdadi spent months, claimed that the place became a Jihadist factory. According to an article in the Guardian, there would have been no IS without the prison, which “built” the Jihadist ideology. When al-Baghdadi was released in December 2004, “he had a virtual Rolodex for reconnecting with his co-conspirators,” who had written “each other’s numbers in the elastic of their underwear.”

Clearly, while bin Laden and al-Baghdadi spawned from the similar modern seeds, which took roots in the Middle East decades ago, they received different water and fertiliser. Hence, they grew differently, and their ideologies diverged. However, it should not surprise experts and observers if, in the near future, the duo’s thinking and organisational philosophies converge. And al-Baghdadi emerges as the new bin Laden in a different body.