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Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror

Militant groups have long used terrorist tactics to achieve political goals. But new groups have emerged whose aims are as much religious as political. Known variously as jihadists or Islamists they have staged spectacular attacks in places as far apart as New York, Madrid and Bali.

Although the term "jihad" is very old, it was the Afghan-Soviet war that translated "jihad" into the Western languages and political consciousness as "holy war".

In the 1980s, groups of armed fighters in Afghanistan - among them a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden -- launched an insurgency against occupying Soviet forces. Often operating with U.S.-supplied arms, these Muslim fighters said they were carrying out a "jihad" against Soviet occupation, and called themselves mujahedin, which translates into English as "holy warrior."

Jihadists' Mission

But scholar Mary Habeck, who has just published a book on jihadist ideology, says jihad originally meant something else when the Islamic faith arose some 1,400 years ago. “I would say that probably in the first few years of Mohammed's mission, it meant something like struggling or striving to understand what I'm talking about, to be more pious, and so on. But in later years of his mission it began to take on another significance, which was to struggle or strive in order to spread God's word, in order to spread God's just laws. And that involved fighting, in some cases, against aggressors or fighting to spread this against people who were trying to prevent the spread of Islamic law or God's word,” says Habeck.

Today many radical Islamists refer to themselves as "jihadis" while many Westerners label them "jihadists." Whatever term is used, these radicals believe that non-Islamic nations are inherently corrupt and that the West is trying to take over the Islamic world.

Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who once led the hunt for Osama bin Laden, says U.S. policies, no matter how well-meaning, have reinforced that concept among the jihadists. “Frankly, the activities of the United States and our foreign policy has added to the strength of those ideas. Whether it's our unqualified support for Israel, our now military presence in Afghanistan, in the Philippines, and Iraq, our presence on the Arabian Peninsula, our physical presence is pushing that even further, the idea that jihad needs to be waged in defense of Islam. And we miss that point in America very frequently,” says Scheuer.

Scheuer adds that the jihadists also see governments of Islamic states that cooperate with the West as illegitimate, which explains in part why there have been terrorist acts in places like Saudi Arabia. “The people that are fighting with Osama bin Laden or allied with them are indeed freedom fighters in their own context. Their main aim is to overthrow police states, such as that run by Mubarak in Egypt, by the al-Saud family in Saudi Arabia. And a lot of the hatred that accumulates for America is because we are seen as their protectors,” says Scheuer.

Salafism Sect

Many of the jihadists are adherents of Salafism, which analysts say is the fastest growing sect in Islam today. Scheuer says it preaches a kind of true Islamic fundamentalism that calls for a very austere and, in their view, more authentic version of Islam. “Salafism is a strain of Islam that expresses a desire to be authentic in terms of how the Prophet and his companions lived. It's very economically austere. It is martial to a certain extent. It has a strong military tradition. But it strips away all of the accumulation of different rituals and prayers and procedures in Islam that have accumulated since the Prophet's death and tries to go back to a very pure practice of the religion, as the Prophet did,” says Scheuer.

Mary Habeck says that in Salafi view, democratic processes like elections are not only illegitimate, but must be resisted. What they're saying is that a political process, as espoused by many Islamists, or Salafis, is wrong, and that we have to return to what they believe is the method of Mohammed, which was to struggle, or strive, through fighting. And they argue that political parties, some sort of elections, or things like this, have to be rejected entirely. And anyone who does participate in elections or who attempts to use some sort of political process is in fact sinning, if not outright an unbeliever. So they reject any kind of gradualism, any kind of compromise or any kind of political process in order to impose their vision of Islam,” says Habeck.

Jihadists vs. Moderate Muslims

Analysts say there is also an ongoing internal struggle within Islam between the jihadists and moderate Muslims. As former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage says, the war on terrorism will never be resolved while that struggle goes on. “But in addition to our war against extremism, in Islam itself there is a battle. And it's a battle between the modern Islamists who want, again, their religion to take the proper place on the world stage, as one of the great religions of the world, and those who want to return to an earlier time, about 700 or 800, and have a much more oppressive and regressive religion. That war has to be resolved before we will ever fully get a handle on the war on extremism,” says Armitrage.

The world well knows the people who died in terrorist attacks in New York and London and Madrid. But often forgotten are the Muslims who have died, caught in a war within a war for the soul of their religious faith.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.