This article suggests that the ideological struggle is where the centre of gravity of the evolving Al-Qaeda transnational terrorist threat lies. The supporters of “Al-Qaedaism” or Salafi-Jihadism worldwide are nowadays largely inspired but not necessarily directed by Al-Qaeda’s embattled central leadership. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has also talked of how Al-Qaeda has evolved from a discrete organisational network into a more amorphous ideological “State of Mind”. It is argued that especially in Southeast Asia, the successful violent radicalisation of an individual often involves interaction between the cultural dimensions of collectivism, large power distance and strong uncertainty avoidance; effective ideological indoctrination – either online or in the real world – by charismatic, skilled Al-Qaedaist ideologues such as Anwar Al-Awlaki; and an appropriate psychological predisposition on the part of the individual, generated by conducive background, trigger and opportunity factors. Three broad options for countering Al-Qaeda as a “State of Mind” are: first, developing the capacity to identify “early warning indicators” of violent radicalisation; second, building the capability to undercut Al-Qaedaism; and finally promoting critical thinking in the wider population, particularly amongst young people within collectivist, large power-distance and ambiguity-intolerant cultural systems.
The Strategic Problem: Al-Qaeda as a “State of Mind”
It has been suggested that violent religious extremist ideology is the key to understanding the threat of terrorist networks like Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. For instance a recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that “tactical efforts to thwart attacks” by terrorist cells needs to be supplemented by “strategic efforts to counter the extremist radicalisation” that fuels the “hatred and violence” animating them. Stephen Ulph of the respected Jamestown Foundation concurs, opining that “the ideological struggle is where the centre of gravity for the jihad lies”. In fact in a 2005 online posting tellingly entitled “The Al-Qaeda Organisation is now Finished”, a jihadist sympathiser pours scorn on the intelligence and security services of the international community, pointing out that they: are still fixated on fighting individuals, oblivious to the fact that they are in reality fighting an idea, one that has spread across the globe like fire and which is embraced even by those whose faith is a mustard seed.
In like vein, the chief reporter for the United Kingdom’s Observer newspaper, Jason Burke, has argued that the Al-Qaeda “worldview” or what he calls “al-Qaedaism”, is in fact “growing stronger everyday”, fuelled by “anti-Western, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric”. Burke points out that the supporters of Al-Qaedaism worldwide are largely inspired but not necessarily directed by Al-Qaeda’s embattled central leadership. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has also talked of how eliminating Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has ceased to be strategically decisive – because Al-Qaeda “has become a state of mind”. For his part, Ulph is eloquent and persuasive in pointing out the insidious potential of Al-Qaeda’s Salafi-Jihadist8 ideology to violently radicalise vulnerable Muslim communities everywhere. In fact, careful study of this “curriculum for jihad” uncovers the essential message and methodology of Salafi-Jihadism or Al-Qaedaism – and how its proponents either online or in the real world:
attract the uncommitted broad armchair sympathiser, detach him from his social and intellectual environment, undermine his selfimage hitherto as an observant Muslim, introduce what the ideologues claim is ‘real Islam’, rescript history in terms of a perennial conflict, centralise jihad as his Islamic identity, train him not only militarily but also socially and psychologically for jihad and doctrinally defend the behaviour of the mujahideen against criticism.
There is much evidence to support Ulph’s cogent assertion in recent times. Thanks to the Internet, jihadist ideologues such as the charismatic Al-Qaeda leader Anwar Al-Awlaki have been able to violently radicalise individuals worldwide. One such individual was Major Nidal Hasan, the United States army psychiatrist who perpetrated the Fort Hood shooting incident in Texas in November 2009, which resulted in the deaths of 13 US soldiers. Awlaki also admitted that he personally guided the failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down an American commercial aircraft en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Awlaki has even been linked to the Al-Qaeda hijackers who undertook the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Awlaki’s own clarion call for unwavering attacks against civilians, hints at why in 2010 he became the first US citizen to be put on a list of militants approved by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for targeted assassination:
A combatant is someone who bears arms – even if this is a woman. Non-combatants are people who do not take part in the war. The American people in its entirety take part in the war, because they elected this administration, and they finance this war... We should examine this issue from the perspective of Islamic law, and this settles the issue – is it permitted or forbidden? If the heroic mujahid brother Umar Farouk [Abdulmutallab] could have targeted hundreds of soldiers, that would have been wonderful. But we are talking about the realities of war (emphasis mine).
Worryingly, Awlaki’s appeal has even extended to Southeast Asia. In July 2010, Singaporeans were informed that a full-time national serviceman had been detained under the Internal Security Act, while two other Singaporeans were placed under Restriction Orders, all after being radicalised by Awlaki. The national serviceman, 20-year-old Muhammad Fadil Abdul Hamid, had evidently made direct online contact with the Yemen-based Awlaki. Fadil was attracted to global jihadi ideology and reportedly wanted to fight beside Awlaki in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. While Fadil is being detained for two years, two other Singaporeans – freelance religious teacher Muhammad Anwar Jailani, 44, and his student, Muhammad Thahir Shaik Dawood, 27 – were placed under Restriction Orders. It seemed that Awlaki, through CDs of his sermons, had also succeeded in radicalising both Jailani and Thahir.
Deconstructing the Appeal of the Charismatic Radical Ideologue
As the eminent terrorism scholar Walter Laqueur suggests, successful violent radicalisation requires both ideological “indoctrination” on the one hand and the appropriate “psychological predisposition” on the other. In terms of the “ideological input” side, wider cultural factors often interact with the personal attributes of the Salafi-Jihadist ideologue to generate a potent ideological stimulus. In this connection, Olufemi A. Lawal, building upon the seminal work of the prominent Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede,14 identifies a few dimensions of culture that can be used to analyse different societies, including power distance, uncertainty avoidance and individualism/collectivism. Lawal points out that in large power-distance societies, “people accept as natural the fact that power and rewards are inequitably distributed in society”. In collectivist societies, individuals are expected to be loyal to the group and subordinate personal goals to those of the collective. In an age of globalisation and the erosion of traditional social structures and processes, moreover, certain societies may feel particularly “threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity”. It may thus be posited that individuals in large power-distance, ambiguity-intolerant and collectivist communities could well be “programmed”, so to speak, to be susceptible to the theological or for that matter ideological pronouncements of respected religious elders – because of the widespread notion that “power has been naturally concentrated in the hands of a leader”.18 Culturally ambiguityintolerant individuals would – at some subconscious level perhaps – seek a spiritual leader’s clear and unambiguous interpretations of wider social and political developments. Finally cultural collectivists would likely deem it their individual duty and proof of loyalty to the group to execute the spiritual leader’s edicts.
In his essay, Lawal notes that, “non-Western and developing societies” tend to display large power-distance and collectivist orientations. This analysis appears to be borne out in the case of Southeast Asia. Barry Desker has drawn attention to the special status of Hadrami Arab migrants in Southeast Asia, who were regarded as “descendants of the Prophet” and “whose command of Arabic was perceived as giving them an insight into the religious texts”. These Hadrami Arab migrants helped to introduce early Salafi elements into Southeast Asian Islam. It should be noted in this respect that the families of the Jemaah Islamiyah founders, the late Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir have Hadrami Arab roots. Moreover, the most recent two decades or so of Islamic revival have resulted in the further Islamisation of state and identity along Middle Eastern lines. Hence Malaysian scholar Patricia Martinez observes that amongst many ordinary Southeast Asian Muslims today, a “core-periphery dynamic” exists, resulting in the tendency to be deferential to the Middle Eastern-trained and/or Arabicspeaking local alim:
The core-periphery dynamic, with the heartland of Islam as core and Southeast Asian Muslims as periphery, gives rise to an infantile religiosity among many ordinary Southeast Asian Muslims [who cannot] read the huge corpus of theology, philosophy, exegesis and jurisprudence that is the rich heritage of a Muslim [but] most of which are in Arabic.
Martinez points out that as a result, many Southeast Asian Muslims “rely on the mediators of Islam those who are ulama – to interpret and guide”. The power distance hypothesis is certainly relevant in Javanese culture. Many traditional pesantren – independent Islamic boarding schools – which are found in rural Java and in some cities, are usually run, in Tim Behrend’s view, as the “social and intellectual fiefdoms of charismatic syeikh”; that is, “pilgrims who have returned to Java after an extended period of study in Mecca or Medinah”. Behrend observes that such “syeikh” enjoy high status in Indonesian society. Indeed, they play a critical personal role in “constructing the religious psyche” of pesantren students. Such pesantren alumni form extensive social networks long after graduation and even play significant roles in the polity and society later.
In short, the credibility of a high-profile Salafi-Jihadist ideologue of an appropriately high-status pedigree (such as for example, a Hadrami Arab in the Southeast Asian Muslim context) – could conceivably be that much stronger within a collectivist, large power-distance and strongly ambiguity-intolerant cultural milieu. Such credibility would be even further enhanced moreover if the ideologue in question had strong personal charisma, strong communication skills – and in an Internet age, technical familiarity with Web 2.0 tools. In this respect, it is no surprise that part of Anwar al-Awlaki’s appeal is the fact that he can speak excellent English and comes across as a charismatic individual – which may help explain the popularity of his sermons on YouTube. He apparently also has a Facebook page. His folksy glorifying the war against the US and its allies were almost surely accessed by the Singaporean Fadil online. The same Awlaki sermons apparently motivated the freelance religious teacher Jailani to such an extent that he distributed CDs of them to his students and even members of the public. Furthermore, Jailani’s own student Thahir was moved to the point that he actually decided to fly to Yemen to seek deeper immersion in a jihadist milieu. Little wonder then that Awlaki has been called the ‘bin Laden of the Internet’. He seems to epitomise what some call “jihadist cool”.
The Psychology of the Radicalised Individual
Ideological indoctrination by skilled Al-Qaedaist propagandists like Anwar al-Awlaki – especially within wider cultural milieus characterised by collectivism, large power distance and strong uncertainty avoidance – represents part of the formula for understanding violent radicalisation. The other concerns the “psychological predisposition”, as Laqueur puts it, on the part of the individual exposed to extremist ideas whether online or in a small group. While no single, all-encompassing and fixed pathway toward violent radicalisation exists, in the view of Tomas Precht, there are generally three broad sets of causes of violent radicalisation: background, trigger, and opportunity factors. Background factors include “those aspects of an individual’s history that make them susceptible” to violent radicalisation, such as an identity crisis in the face of the onslaught of Westernised globalisation, the experience of discrimination and perceived injustices – as well as immersion in a subculture of extremism. Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch-Moroccan Salafi-Jihadist who murdered the controversial film-maker Theo van Gogh in broad daylight on an Amsterdam street in November 2004, was said to have become progressively alienated from a Dutch society whom he felt did not accept him. Bouyeri’s violent radicalisation was nurtured within a small group of like-minded extremists that Dutch intelligence later called the Hofstad Group.30 The experience of childhood racism and social discrimination certainly was part of the life experience of the so-called twentieth hijacker in the 9/11 attacks, the French-Moroccan militant Zacarias Moussaoui. His brother Abd Samad recounts an incident that occurred when both he and Zacarias were children in Mulhouse, France. A white French child with whom the two brothers had been playing marbles for months suddenly refused to play with them any further. When the Moussaoui brothers sought the answer for the sudden change in behaviour, they were informed that the white child’s parents had said that the Moussaoui children were “niggers, and they don’t want me to play with niggers.” A close study of Abd Samad Moussaoui’s book suggests that a key factor in Zacarias Moussaoui’s eventual violent radicalisation was precisely his struggle with racism and socio-economic discrimination.
Trigger factors that tip a potential radical over the brink into fullblown violent radicalisation include, in Precht’s view, “Western foreign policy and provocative events, the presence of a charismatic leader or spiritual advisor, and the glorification of jihad”.33 The senior JI operational leader, Riduan Isamuddin alias Hambali was very much angered by the so-called Tanjung Priok massacre in Jakarta in September 1984, in which Indonesian security forces cracked down hard on poor harbour workers protesting against dire working conditions, killing many of them. The socalled Peristewa Tanjung Priok proved to be a significant trigger factor in Hambali’s violent radicalisation, as it was for other JI militants of his generation. It turns out that the “spiritual advisor” who played a key role in constructing Hambali’s radicalised psyche, was the late JI founder Abdullah Sungkar, nicknamed “Ustad Wahhabi”, whose energetic, jihadglorifying messages in the 1980s in Malaysia utterly captivated the younger man. Precht considers “opportunity factors” as those “venues or locations” that “provide a setting for radicalisation by offering an opportunity to meet like-minded people, by giving inspiration or serving as a recruiting ground”. In this respect, several commentators have noted how Pondok Pesantren Al-Mukmin in Ngruki village, central Surakarta, started by Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in 1972, has acted in some ways as an “ideological space” for JI; a number of its graduates have gone on to become JI militants.
Some Policy Implications
Having unpacked the ways in which ideological stimuli could interact with particular cultural contexts as well as the psychological predispositions of individuals to produce violent radicalisation, it behoves us at this juncture to discuss practical implications of the challenge of countering “Al-Qaeda as a State of Mind”. It goes without saying that the first order of business is to recognise the role of good governance in ensuring sufficient political space for the articulation of, and the capacity to address, competing interests and grievances, as well as reducing poverty and economic disparities within societies – particularly those communities with a history of inter-group conflict. Political commitment to ensure that all faith groups residing within a polity do not have to endure widespread social and economic discrimination is particularly crucial. However, it is worth reiterating the oft-forgotten point that “material inequality does not mean people automatically protest, let alone choose violence.” Instead, violent extremism is more likely to occur precisely when wider structural factors are combined with ideological mechanisms designed to ensure that “various identities are truncated to one dimension which is then understood and presented as a fundamental clash of values, civilisations or belief systems”. This is where the real danger of Internet ideologues such as Anwar Al-Awlaki lies and why the evolution of the Al-Qaeda threat into a virulent idea or “state of mind” is so insidious. What should be done then to counter this challenge? Three broad options appear to suggest themselves: first, developing the capacity to identify “early warning indicators” of violent radicalisation; second, building the capability to undercut and diminish the ideological appeal of Al-Qaedaism; and finally promoting critical thinking in the wider population, particularly amongst young people within collectivist, large power-distance and ambiguityintolerant cultural systems.
First, it seems increasingly important – in an era of Internet-driven radicalisation of so-called “clean skin” individuals (that is, with no previous criminal record) – to develop greater sensitivity to the “early warning indicators” of religious extremism. Self-radicalised, clean-skin individuals such as Major Nidal Hassan are harder to detect beforehand by security and intelligence agencies, as their contact with violent extremist ideologues, or terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda, are often not easily discernible. In addition, all too often their families, friends and colleagues failed to pay sufficient attention to “weak signals” of their gradual embrace of violent extremist worldviews – until too late. Hence it is perhaps timely that analysts Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Laura Grossman, based on an in-depth study of 117 terrorists in the US and UK, have identified six common indicators of the process of “jihadist radicalisation” of such individuals: first, the adoption of a legalistic interpretation of Islam; second, trusting the interpretations of a “select and ideologically rigid set of religious authorities”; third, perceiving an “inherent schism between Islam and the West” to the point of feeling that both camps are “incapable of co-existence”; fourth, displaying a low tolerance of “perceived theological deviance”, at times even violently opposing such “alternative interpretations and practices”; fifth, attempting to impose their preferred religious interpretations on others; and finally and ultimately, political radicalisation to the point that they feel that the only proper response to the supposed Western conspiracy against Muslims is “military action”.
Developing enhanced sensitivity to the early warning indicators ofthe internalisation of the Al-Qaeda state of mind aside, there is also a complementary need to undercut and diminish its appeal. This is where moderate and learned Muslim scholars have the key role in exposing the inherent theological errors of Al-Qaedaism. For instance, in Singapore, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), a statutory board formed in 1968, oversees the sermons in the 70 Singapore mosques serving Singapore’s half a million Muslims. Amongst its various functions, MUIS runs the Asatizah Recognition Scheme “to enhance the standing” of Singapore’s Muslim religious teachers (asatizah) and “to serve as a reliable source of reference for the Singapore Muslim community”. In this connection, it is noteworthy that MUIS was able to weed out the Awlaki-radicalised freelance religious teacher Jailani as a result of the Asatizah Recognition Scheme. If Jailani’s lack of formal credentials had not been discovered, Al-Qaedaism might have influenced many more Singaporeans. MUIS aside, the respected moderate volunteer Muslim scholars of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) have also taken a leading role in the fight against Al- Qaeda extremism. The RRG was formed quietly in April 2003 following the deeply unsettling discovery of the Singapore JI at the end of 2001. The RRG is spearheaded by two of Singapore’s leading independent Muslim scholars, Ustaz Haji Ali Haji Mohamed, Chairman of the Khadijah Mosque and Ustaz Haji Muhammad Hasbi Hassan, President of Pergas (Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association). Between April 2004 and September 2006, the RRG conducted more than 500 counselling sessions with the JI detainees, and has since expanded its counselling sessions to the immediate families of JI detainees and the wider Singaporean Muslim community. The RRG also runs a useful website. It is worth noting that while the moderate Muslim scholars take the lead in de-radicalisation efforts in Singapore, in Indonesia, a significant role in such efforts appears to be played by senior JI militants who have apparently turned against their former comrades, such as Nasir Abas and Ali Imron. It would appear that an optimal strategy for direct counter-ideological confrontation of the Al-Qaedaist worldview should involve a judicious mix of moderate Muslim scholars and carefully selected ex-radicals.
Finally and most fundamentally, countering the appeal of Al-Qaedaism must require the promotion of the critical thinking faculties of citizens with respect to what they read, see and hear on the Internet or in the real world. It would after all be politically and morally repugnant, not to mention logistically and technically impossible, to police what individual citizens read, hear or see in either the virtual or real worlds. This is precisely why a recent study by the respected British think tank Demos argues that “rather than telling people what to think, it is better to teach them how to think”, by encouraging “young people to critically assess propaganda, lies and half-truths themselves”. The Demos study, noting how the Internet “has become the primary source of information for the majority of young people in the UK today”, calls for enhanced “digital literacy” so as to enable young people to “recognise the difference between, for example, trustworthy sources of information and usergenerated content”. It would seem that such advice would be even more apposite for young people in the generally collectivist, large powerdistance societies of Southeast Asia. In closing it is worth recollecting that the late Indonesian moderate Muslim scholar and former President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), in April 2002, had tellingly called for expanded liberal arts education for young Indonesian students, particularly those from the technical disciplines. His key point was that the critical thinking skills that a liberal arts education provides would enable Indonesian engineering and hard science university students to avoid “the more or less literalistic approach to the textual sources of Islam”, that is basically a natural outgrowth of “the same sort of simple modelling and formulistic thinking that they have learnt as students of engineering or other applied sciences”. In Gus Dur’s learned view, it was essentially the uncritical, “formalistic understanding of Islamic law” that often breeds “violent radicalism”. If the societies of Southeast Asia and beyond are to succeed in this long twilight struggle with the pernicious scourge of Al-Qaeda state of mind, Gus Dur’s pithy but extremely sage advice can be ignored only to our collective peril.
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