The mainstream media is atwitter this morning over the six Muslim men arrested in south Jersey for conspiring “to kill as many soldiers as possible” at the Fort Dix U.S. army base. The case, they tell us, reflects the new terrorism: inept, atomized cells, disconnected from al Qaeda or any other regimented international terrorist organization.
Here’s the template setter, the New York Times: “The authorities described the suspects as Islamic extremists and said they represented the newest breed of threat: loosely organized domestic militants unconnected to — but inspired by — al Qaeda or other international terror groups.”
The Washington Post echoes:
[The group] … was portrayed as a leaderless, homegrown cell of immigrants from Jordan, Turkey and the former Yugoslavia who came together because of a shared infatuation with Internet images of jihad, or holy war. Authorities said the group has no apparent connection to al-Qaeda or other international terrorist organizations aside from ideology, but appears to be an example of the kind of self-directed sympathizers widely predicted — and feared — by counterterrorism specialists. The defendants allegedly passed around and copied images of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the martyrdom videos of two of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers.
Meet the new terrorism. Same as the old terrorism.
In 1993, Mohammed Salameh, a Palestinian immigrant who was a member of no known foreign terrorist organization, helped bomb the World Trade Center. The attack was carried out by a homegrown jihadist cell that was formed in the late 1980s. The group was inspired by the fiery cleric, Omar Abdel Rahman (the Blind Sheikh). Though Sheikh Abdel Rahman was the head of an Egyptian terrorist organization, Gama’at al Islamia (the Islamic Group), the American cell was not a Gama’at operation. It was a motley crew of Egyptians, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Sudanese, and others. What bound them together was ideology — not connection to a particular organization.
That ideologically inspired cell had already claimed some victims. In 1990, Salameh’s cohort, a naturalized American citizen from Egypt named El Sayyid Nosair, murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane (founder of the Jewish Defense League) at a hotel in New York City, shooting and wounding a 70-year-old man and a postal police officer as he attempted to flee. Nosair, who had helped organize the paramilitary training, was a ne’er-do-well who kept recordings and notes of jihadist preaching in his home.
Salameh, meanwhile, turned out not to be the sharpest tool in the shed — reminiscent of this morning’s media depiction of the Fort Dix plotters. He was arrested largely because, after using a rental van to house and transport the bomb into the bowels of the Twin Towers, he figured — even as his co-conspirators fled the country — that it would be a good idea to try to get his deposit back. Investigators, furthermore, found that Salameh and his confederates seemed, at times, to be Keystone terrorists, storing nitroglycerine in a refrigerator, amateurishly mixing chemicals, getting involved in traffic mishaps. None of the ineptitude, however, left the World Trade Center any less bombed or the victims any less dead.
It is often assumed, incorrectly, that the ’93 bombing was an al Qaeda initiative because its prime-mover, Ramzi Yousef, had trained in al Qaeda camps. But thousands of young Muslim men have been through the rigors of those camps; the vast majority never formally joins al Qaeda. The issue is not, and has never been, membership in an organization. The point is that those who attend the camps are in a process of being catalyzed by jihadist ideology. In any event, it is far from certain that Yousef was ever a formal member of al Qaeda. Even if he had been, the al Qaeda that existed in 1993 was a different and much less capable entity than the organization that carried out the 1998 embassy bombings, and, as noted above, the other conspirators were not al Qaeda operatives.
The bombing was almost immediately followed by a second, more ambitious (and thankfully unsuccessful) plot for simultaneous strikes against New York City landmarks — the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the UN complex, and the FBI’s lower Manhattan headquarters. Again, few if any of the rag-tag would-be bombers were members of any formal foreign terrorist organization; they were mostly Sudanese immigrants (one of whom had ties to Sudan’s government), a Palestinian with possible Hamas ties, and a pair of Americans. At trial, the evidence showed one of the latter (a Puerto Rican named Victor Alvarez, aka “Mohammed the Spanish”) to be so dim-witted his defense became that he lacked the necessary sophistication to grasp that his associates were at war with America. The jury, exercising the sort of common sense absent from much of today’s coverage, decided that neither a Ph.D. nor the key to al Qaeda’s executive men’s room was a prerequisite for ideologically motivated mass murder.
Al Qaeda is a powerful force. It is a sprawling, atomized, international network of cells. It has proved quite adept at orchestrating savage attacks. But the main danger it poses has never been the orders its generals give to its colonels and on down some regimented chain-of-command. If we had only to worry about members of al Qaeda carrying out orders of al Qaeda, the war on terror would be neither as uphill nor as infinite as it seems to be. The principal challenge posed by al Qaeda is that it spearheads the spread of a strong, though noxious, ideology.
Indeed, al Qaeda does not purport to give direction only to its own members, or even that the directions it does impart are al Qaeda’s own directions. The network presumes to be guiding all Muslims toward what Islam compels. This is abundantly clear from Osama bin Laden’s infamous 1998 fatwa — “infamous” in the sense that it is often mentioned in press, although, to judge from today’s coverage and “expert” commentary, not much attention has been given to what it actually says. Here’s bin Laden (italics mine):
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it[.] … This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.”
The direction is to everyone. And he is not ordering that it be done because Osama says so, like the mafia does something because the don says so, or the army does something because the commanding officer says so. In bin Laden’s mind, he is merely the medium; the direction, he insists, comes from Allah. In fact, bin Laden plainly knows he is not enough of an authority figure to command terrorist attacks. He needs to cite scripture to convince Muslims that it is the ideology itself which announces these commands. Commands which this ideology compels every Muslim, not just every al Qaeda operative, to perform.
Nothing new here. Bin Laden is not a religious scholar. He does not have the status in Islam to issue fatwas. After the 9/11 attacks, he claimed the authority for the operation came from the scriptures. To the extent a fatwa was necessary, he pointed to Sheikh Abdel Rahman, a Koranic scholar who does have the required status. Here’s what the Blind Sheikh said in 1996 of Americans (again, the italics are mine):
Muslims everywhere [should] dismember their nation, tear them apart, ruin their economy, provoke their corporations, destroy their embassies, attack their interests, sink their ships, . . . shoot down their planes, [and] kill them on land, at sea, and in the air. Kill them wherever you find them.
For the government and the media, it has long been an article of faith that we needn’t trouble ourselves with articles of faith … if the faith in question is Islam. The problem, we’re told — in defiance of reason and experience — is only these terrorist organizations, not their ideology. The organizations, of course, have never seen it that way. And they’re quite right: it has never been that way.
The majority of Muslims is not beholden to the various strains of jihadist ideology, especially at the juncture where word becomes deed. But the ideology indisputably springs from Islam. For that reason it has cachet and it has not been rejected out of hand even by the many faithful who regard it as an outdated, hyper-literal radicalism. And for that reason, a certain percentage of Muslims — hopefully at some point, an increasingly small percentage — will embrace it.
With modern weaponry, it doesn’t take a lot of terrorists or a lot of attacks to do a lot of damage. That was demonstrated on 9/11, but it has been true for a very long time. In a 1990 lecture in Denmark, the Blind Sheikh urged his followers that they could drive the mighty United States armed forces out of the Persian Gulf if ad hoc “Muslim battalions” would just “do five or six operations to the Americans in surprise attacks like the one that was done against them in Lebanon [i.e., Hezbollah’s 1983 attack on the Beirut barracks, killing 241 marines].” And as one of those arrested yesterday, Dritan Duka, is alleged to have put it, “We can do a lot of damage with seven people.”
My friend Bill Bennett likes to quote Hannah Arendt’s aphorism, “Nothing so inoculates a person against reality than the hold of ideology.” If we want to understand why we are at risk from cells in places like Cherry Hill which have no ties to known foreign terror groups, and if we want to learn what authentic, moderate Muslim reformers are up against, we need to open our eyes to what motivates jihadists. It is powerful, enduring and frightening because it is a doctrine, not an organization.
— Andrew C. McCarthy directs the Center for Law & Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.