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Of Backpacks and Assassins

In the March issue of 1994, Vogue magazine recognized the new fashion of the backpack "Today designers are adding a glamorous edge to the once purely practical backpack - with everything from exotic skins to intricate beading." Ten years on, the pretty little backpack is still with us, worn by teenagers as well as by old ladies.

After the Afghan war of liberation from Soviet occupation, modern Islamic terrorism started as an attempt to replicate the successes of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan on regional and global levels, this time against America and the Western powers. In June 1996, the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia's oil capital, were attacked; 19 American servicemen died and hundreds were injured. This event, whose perpetrators remain unknown, marked the start of Islamic terrorism. "Khobar provided the keys that unlocked the new terror world," says one expert. "Everything you needed to know about the new terror network, the cooperation between all the different sects and factions, the rise of Wahhabi radicalism in Saudi Arabia, the changing dynamic of the Middle East — it all was present in that case." (

A handful of creative and well financed activists, probably sponsored by high-ranking officials in a few Near Eastern governments, hijacked a sincere and widespread religious sentiment as vector for the realization of their ambitious goals.

They created a fashion. Old dormant Islam, the equivalent of the humble military backpack of past wars, all of a sudden became a vital, dynamic, sparkling vision of world rule, religious fulfillment and wealth for all believers. Islam, one of the world's most static and conservative religions looked vibrant, young, dangerous and daring. Carrying the backpack, sporting the new religious fanaticism, became chic among the youth concerned.

Eight years on, Islamic terrorism is still riding the crest of the fashion wave. Most Muslim governments have probably stopped supporting it for fear that they cannot control it anymore because what started as a vicious plot by a small group of fanatics has grown into a broad-based popular movement with supporters and activists in many countries, with volunteers for self-sacrifice and successful fundraisers.

There is no need to discuss past mistakes which may have strengthened rather than weakened Islamic terrorism; these policies have been abundantly scrutinized. Instead it is important to analyze the basic character of the movement and deal with it accordingly.

Currently, Western media are offering two diametrically opposed strategies for dealing with the problem of global terrorism. One is the heavy-handed “war on terrorism” pursued by a number of governments in West and East. The other strategy recommends fostering socio-economic development in the countries considered “hotbeds” of terrorism in order to reduce the frustration of the youth which allegedly provides the terrorists with recruits and support.

While the heavy-handed strategy does not exclude an additional supportive “soft” developmental approach, the advocates of a soft strategy accuse the crackdown policies of the “control” camp of being part of the problem, not the solution.

By bringing a bit of common sense to bear on these options it becomes obvious that the soft approach would require, even under optimal circumstances, more time to bear fruit than the world is likely to grant. To bring equality, development and civil liberty to countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Morocco — not to mention Iraq — would require a Herculean effort lasting one or two generations. By then Guantanamo has been converted to a museum, and bin Laden's effigy is settling dust in Mme. Tussaud's wax cabinet, standing between Jack the Ripper and Pol Pot.. Basically, the idea of a soft approach is nice; the strategy should have been launched fifty years ago. Turkey is an example of a Muslim country that started reforming itself after World War I.

In order to better understand the nature of Islamic terrorism it is useful to remember its ancient roots, for instance this one: “The Assassin movement...was inaugurated by al-Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah (died in 1124), probably a Persian, who claimed descent from the Himyarite kings of South Arabia. The motives were evidently personal ambition and desire for vengeance on the part of the heresiarch.... In pursuit of their ends they (the Assassins) made free and treacherous use of the dagger, reducing assassination to an art. Their secret organization, based on Ismailite antecedents, developed an agnosticism which aimed to emancipate the initiate from the trammels of doctrine, enlightened him as to the superfluity of prophets and encouraged him to believe nothing and dare all.” (

Assassination as an art. Self-immolation as an art. Nothing unusual in the Near East. With some charisma, money and pseudo-religious wrapping it should be easy to find fervent followers for any such enterprise. The current venture has two main thrusts: to establish Islam as the only world religion , and to take full control of all “Muslim” oil resources. Both objectives are interrelated. The combined power of 1.5 billion Muslims is needed to wrest the oil from the Western powers and their Near Eastern proxy governments; the oil riches are needed to root out all infidels and heretics and make the preferred brand of Islam dominate the world.

In order to fight such a movement successfully it is important to exploit its main weakness: its fashion character. Time is the terrorists' lethal enemy. How long will the fashion last? Ten years? Twenty? After twenty years a new generation will have grown up in the young, fast-lived Near East. For this new generation bin Laden will be a great-grandfather, and his campaign a fad of the grandfather generation. Why follow in their grandfathers' and perhaps fathers' steps when new, exciting alternatives may have cropped up? Morocco might already be a member of the European Union, and both Israel and Egypt are perhaps negotiating membership. Iran might be a secular democracy and the Ayatollahs safely locked up in Qom and Meshhed. Who knows? The Internet will have penetrated all balad villages, and jihad might be played on game consoles.

Over time, the modern Assassin movement will run out of steam. The big question is: what to do until the movement implodes? There are two parts to the answer. One is to try to minimize the damage done by the terrorists whilst they are at work. The other strategy is to try to accelerate the fashion's demise.

The first strategy requires a mix of both defensive and offensive action ranging from “homeland defense” to “stamping out terrorism.” Both involve practical action, hardware and funding in the ad hoc manner which has been labeled “war on terrorism”, ranging from arresting all and sundry suspects to bombing suspected terrorist coves and invading entire countries.

The second strategy is by definition of a psychological and political nature requiring perhaps funding but no hardware or physical action. The main objective should be to weaken the positive image religious terrorism is enjoying in the eyes of its disciples and potential recruits. Under certain circumstances this might involve offering alternative socio-economic choices to potential recruits.

First, governments and religious authorities should brand religious terrorism as criminal rather than pious action thus trying to make being a “soldier of Allah” appear less chic. Usually, governments (especially those of Muslim countries) only act when directly threatened. The Casablanca bombs galvanized the Moroccan government into action, and the Riyadh bombings turned the Saudi government from a discrete sponsor to an active enemy of terrorism. The same holds true of Bali and Indonesia. A few bombs in Damascus, Islamabad, Sanaa or Tehran would probably convince Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and Iran to become more active members of the international coalition of the victims of terrorism.

The polycentric nature of Islam makes it difficult to induce the clergy to pronounce itself meaningfully against terrorism. As long as the likes of bin Laden can issue religious fatwas it is difficult to inspire counter action. However, the Saudi government was successful in leaning on its clergy, and the Egyptian government did the same. Which, of course, does not mean that too obviously government-inspired fatwas will be taken seriously. They might be better than nothing but it is necessary to realize that, at the same time, the seeds of Islamic revival are sprouting in a myriad of mosques and medresse in both Islamic and Western countries. The more police and secret services eavesdrop, the more are they shocked by the hatred that is being preached in many places. There can be little doubt that what started as a perversion of Wahhabism , the religion of Saudi Arabia, has become, in a diluted form, a mass phenomenon facing all countries with Islamic majorities or minorities.

However, some recent events, especially the Beslan school massacre seem to have struck a chord in many muslims that this is not the kind of Islam they want to be associated with. For the first time, moderates are rebelling and publicly criticizing terrorism. Real change, of course, will only arrive when many among the Islamic clergy — who thus far had no problem condoning bloodletting among innocents — change tune. That is likely to take time — and probably many more massacres.

What about democracy in Islamic countries? Hosni Mubarak, the grand old man of Egypt, allegedly commented that introducing democracy in Arab countries would mean Islamist governments everywhere. Since fundamentalist movements are usually well organized, well funded and aggressive, they can easily overpower other players. Even when starting from a weak base of mass appeal they can quickly rise to the helm as is currently demonstrated in Iraq. Once they have established themselves in a country they are almost impossible to get rid of, as exemplified by Iran. Hence Egypt's, Algeria's, Syria's and Tunisia's efforts to suppress the fundamentalists whereas Jordan and Morocco groom them as a minor partner in the national balance of power.

As long as the fundamentalists continue to pursue their goals with vicious energy, it is difficult to imagine a change from the current crop of dictatorial regimes typical of the Near East. It is useless to infer a chicken-egg syndrome by suspecting that those regimes bred the fundamentalism in the first place. At this point aggressive fundamentalism exists and needs to be dealt with, irrespective of possible historic mistakes. That should, of course, not be understood as an excuse for continuing bad practices such as creating fake Islamist movements to serve as agent provocateur and justify ruthless persecution of all religious groupings by the government.

Whereas the religious goals of Islamic terrorism are fairly straightforward to understand, the petroleum policies are more complicated. The can be no doubt that bin Laden's activities have contributed to the currently high level of oil prices. The mess in Iraq, as well as the constant threat to Saudi Arabia's oil installations and the stability of its government, have a lot to do with Mr. bin Laden and the activities of his numerous followers.

In this respect, bin Laden is an ally of the Greens movements in Europe and America. Both consider the current price of petroleum too low and want it to rise, although for different reasons. Bin Laden wants to sell oil to the West only in minuscule quantities at astronomic prices in order to maximize Arab and Islamic revenue over the longest possible timespan. The Greens want to limit current consumption of fossil energy to make global reserves last longer and reduce carbon dioxide output to slow down global warming. Thus far bin Laden has been more successful in raising oil prices and hence Arab government revenues than all Green movements combined.

Bin Laden's terrorism is therefore of double significance to petroleum producing countries. Although it is threatening a few of them it also helps them reaping enormous windfall benefits. Some governments must be thinking hard what this possibly implies for the future.

They may have memories of an unlucky fellow called Mohammed Mossadeq who in 1951 nationalized the Iranian oil industry. The Western powers reacted furiously and Mossadeq was overthrown in 1953. Years later, however, all major oil countries followed his example by nationalizing their oil industries, including Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden's dream of a future in which all Arab or Islamic oil reserves are jointly managed by a strict cartel which can dictate world market prices more effectively than today's fuzzy OPEC is likely to inspire politicians and economists in petroleum producing countries. Could something like that be achieved without bin Laden? How would the West react? Computer modeling helps identify optimum paths for oil prices which are high enough to maximize both government royalties and the duration of reserves while preventing the industrial economies from shrinking and becoming unable to afford the oil quantities earmarked for them. Interesting models, undoubtedly.

Reality, however, has overtaken some models. The current high levels of oil prices have damaged the global economy far less than anticipated by the models. Instead of drifting into recession as the world economy did in the past during every period of high oil prices, it proved resilient this time.

There is a wild card in the oil game: the development of alternative energies such as substitution of oil by liquefied gas, and substitution of gas and oil by nuclear power. These energies are viable and important enough to make oil ministers squirm while other sources such as biomass, wind and solar power are not likely to disturb any oil minister's sleep.

Liquefied gas is already profitable at the current level of petroleum prices provided state of the art technology and enormous investments can be made available.

Inserting this variable in the computer models is likely to put a cap on the desirable oil price levels. In fact, current world market levels might already be too high to prevent large scale introduction of these alternative energies, as was recently exemplified by Australia's agreement to provide China with large quantities of liquefied gas over a twenty year period.

Although bin Laden has undoubtedly been effective in raising oil prices he has not achieved the breakthrough he is dreaming of: chasing the Western companies out of the Near East and establishing an Arab producers' cartel. In fact, despite the current oil boom he is probably farther away from his goal than before because of Saudi Arabia's newly found sense of purpose, America's presence in Iraq, Iran's nuclear and Sudan's ethnic troubles. At the same time, the unexpectedly high oil revenues are permitting Near Eastern governments to beef up their passive and active terror prevention.

The Greens might abandon the pursuit of higher oil prices when they discover that liquefied gas is relatively inexpensive, less environmentally harmful and can replace oil in many of its uses. Meanwhile, in the energy planning of many countries nuclear power is enjoying a new boom.

America is clearly heading towards massive gas imports and more nuclear power production. Who knows: it might one day even decide to make fuel-saving cars and trucks and put a tax on petroleum products because the current Iraq campaign has already amply demonstrated one thing: wars are not always reliable means of keeping oil prices down and supply lines open.

The Iraq campaign has complicated the Islamic terrorism issue. The country acted as a magnet attracting jihadis from all directions who managed to establish bridgeheads especially in the Sunni Triangle. Did Iraq act as a honey pot attracting wasps, thus making the surroundings at least temporarily safer? Or has it provided al-Qaeda, after it was driven out of Afghanistan, with new facilities as well as stimuli and combat training for additional recruits, thus strengthening bin Laden's network and its associated groups? The latter scenario has perhaps replaced the former, some experts believe.

Western media tend to stress the number of foreign civilians and soldiers killed and kidnapped in Iraq. The numbers of Iraqi casualties are also mentioned but often only as estimates. Islamic media and their audiences see a mirror image: they focus on the enormous Iraqi losses and consider foreign deaths and abductions as collateral damage of a war Iraq did not start. As long as this war continues hardly any major change in perception and attitude of the Muslim world can be expected.

Remains one positive thought: a terrorist is resorting to terror because his goals cannot be achieved by ordinary means of peace or war. In this sense a terror movement is by definition a failure. Many such movements have troubled countries for years and even decades before withering away with hardly a trace left of them.

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—— Ihsan al-Tawil