Al-Qaeda and Islamism. A new terrorism?

Term Paper, 2005

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

Al-Qaeda and Islamism: a new terrorism?


Osama bin Laden and his Ideology

Al-Qaeda: organizational structure and potential

The Origins: al-Qaeda and beyond

Al-Qaeda: unparalleled terror of terrible parallel?


Al-Qaeda and Islamism: a new terrorism?

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, several new words were coined or at least used increasingly. Among them was the notion of a “New Terrorism,”1 implying that not only the extent but also the quality of such a terrorist attack was unprecedented.2 US President George W. Bush did not hesitate to call for a “war against terrorism.” When he ultimately demanded the Taliban Government in Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden to the US, threatening swift military action if his demands were not met, he had the backing of an impressive number of governments. The backing remained, and many of the initial supporters partook in the war against Afghanistan shortly after.3 The rhetoric was fierce, and the world was quickly and by definition split up into two camps: People were, according to Bush, “either with us, or with the terrorists.”4

The US Government made political conclusions equally quickly: there would be a “war against terrorism,” as an international threat of terrorism had arisen, widely supported by populations throughout the Middle East. The West was to engage in a long and wearying war against this new threat, and to expect not much yield in the years immediately following. Interestingly, all this had been laid out in an article in the Wall Street Journal just days before President Bush ascertained the same ideas in the immediate aftermath of September 11th.5

As it might appear that the current US administration’s agenda was set outside the White House, it is tempting to view the whole current terrorism debate as a mere exaggeration and as a pretext to follow entirely different political goals. When George W. Bush stated that it had been God himself who told him to invade Iraq,6 it finally seemed that a lot of current issues around terrorism and counter-terrorism were beyond reasonable argument, given that al-Qaeda usually claim divine guidance, too. However, beyond the rhetoric involved, disputable as it may be, those holding such views would be ill advised to downplay terrorism completely.


This essay therefore looks at al-Qaeda, its structures and ideology, to try and find out exactly how new it is. Comparing it with previous terrorist organizations and retracing the timelines of Islamic fundamentalism, the question at the end will be: which parts of al-Qaeda are new and which are not. Where does it merely follow familiar patterns, and where does it pose a previously non-existent threat both in terms of attack potential and structural, ideological grounding. This question will be addressed from a partly interdisciplinary perspective by looking at the discourse of political violence from a political and from a historical perspective.

Whenever an attempt is made to write about terrorism the first problem is that of its definition, as there is none that is commonly accepted beyond dispute. However, it is equally undesirable to define and redefine it in every piece of work. As this essay is mostly about al-Qaeda and international terrorist groups, we are here talking about violence or the threat to use violence against people and/or property to for religious and/or political ends, across nation-state boundaries.7 Additionally, as it is already denoted by the term “terrorism,” the use of violence or threat thereof is regarded as taking place, amongst other reasons, with the intention to spread fear.

Osama bin Laden and his Ideology

In a CNN interview broadcast on 12 May 1997, Osama bin Laden expressed his contempt and open hatred for the US and Israel. He severely attacked the then US-President, Bill Clinton, accusing him of being responsible for the death of 500,000 Iraqi children.8 Simultaneously though, he also called Saddam Hussein “not a true Muslim leader,”9 and also expressed his anger at the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, to which he demanded an immediate end. Questioned about his future plans, bin Laden answered, “You’ll see and hear about them in the media, God willing.”10

It is pointless to speculate whether bin Laden was planning the 11 September attacks as soon as 1997. However, having claimed responsibility for past terrorist attacks not previously linked to al-Qaeda in the above mentioned interview, it becomes clear that preparations were being made for a long-term terrorist campaign to be continued. Indeed, al-Qaeda attacks against US installations occurred more frequently throughout the second half of the 1990s and 2000, with the bombings of the US embassy in Kenya 1998 and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 respectively.11 The attacks on 11 September 2001 were the single biggest terrorist attack to date but al-Qaeda had already spread terrorism on an international level over several years running.

The expulsion of US troops first from Saudi Arabia and then from all other Islamic countries is right on the top of al-Qaeda’s priority list. So long as they remain, Muslim society is “living a life of sin,” and “until the US troops are removed from all lands of the Muslims, no Muslim is absolved from sin except the mujahidin.”12 This is effectively the core of al-Qaeda’s ideology. On the whole, al-Qaeda keep their ideology as general and appealing to as broad a base of followers as possible. Although it is a Sunni organization, cooperation with Shiite groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah takes place. They follow a broad understanding as to the people whose interests they claim to represent, in essence replacing the 1970s notion of pan-arabism with pan-islamism.13

This does not mean, however, that al-Qaeda have set up an arbitrary, incoherent or totally opportunistic agenda. They have both interior (i.e., concerning the Muslim world) and exterior goals. They can be found in Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of Jihad on the Americans Occupying the Country of the Two Sacred Places [Saudi Arabia], issued on 23 August 1996: “The Muslims have realized they are the main targets of the aggression of the coalition of the Jews and the Crusaders. (…) The greatest disaster is (…) the occupation of the country of the two sacred mosques – the home ground of Islam. (…) Your brothers in the country of the two sacred places and in Palestine request your support”14

On 22 February 1998, this was followed by the announcement of a World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders: “America has been occupying the most sacred lands of Islam: the Arabian Peninsula. It has been stealing its resources, dictating to its leaders, humiliating its people, and frightening its neighbours. (…) Based upon this and in order to obey the Almighty, we hereby give all Muslims the following judgement: The judgement to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military, is an obligation for every Muslim (…)15

A constant process of radicalisation can be seen here: in the CNN interview mentioned above, bin Laden did not talk of attacks aimed deliberately and mainly at civilians. Al-Qaeda’s exterior objective remained the same but interior aims, i.e. concerning the Arab world, were added. While militant islamists do not want to see dictators such as Saddam Hussein removed by foreign powers and take extremely unkindly to any invasion on the pretext of human rights issues, they do not support secular rulers such as Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein either.16 Essentially, al-Qaeda now strive for the reestablishment of an islamist state or caliphate, as for them religion and the state can in no way be separated from one another.17 In fact, militant islamists see the weakness of Arab states as a fault of secularism, as a logical consequence of Muslim societies falling into decadence.18

Summing up al-Qaeda’s ideology, it may be said that their key grievance is the presence of US and allied troops in Muslim countries, which in turn they believe is the outcome of secularism. Accordingly, they believe that these troops must be driven out and the current regimes replaced with one caliphate, for which they hold that all means are. Like other religious fundamentalists (e.g. apocalyptic sects and Christian fundamentalists), al-Qaeda (and many other islamist groups) have never come to terms with modernism and its implications, and therefore fight it with force.19 Following this portrayal of their ideology, the next part of this essay will look at al-Qaeda’s organizational structure, and then contrast both with al-Qaeda’s historical roots and other terrorist organizations.

Al-Qaeda: organizational structure and potential

Al-Qaeda’s boundaries are not as clear as those of other terrorist groups. Additionally, the IRA and ETA as terrorist groups have political wings, Sinn Fein and Heri Batasuna respectively, to one definable cause. The problem starts with the fact that there are no clearly defined boundaries to the phenomenon called al-Qaeda, and there is not political party to represent al-Qaeda or negotiate with on al-Qaeda’s behalf.


1 Interestingly, the term “New Terrorism” was the title of a book published by Walter Laqueur in July 1999, long before the attacks. W. Laqueur (1999): Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. Oxford: OUP.

2 S. Gupta (2002): The Replication of Violence. Thoughts on International Terrorism after September 11th 2001, London & Stirling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 1.

3 Ibid., 2-4.

4 Ibid.

5 W. Wolf (2002): Afghanistan, der Krieg und die neue Weltordnung, Hamburg: Konkret Literatur Verlag, 5.

6 Rupert Cornwell: Bush: God told me to invade Iraq, The Independent (London) 7/10/2005.

7 S. Gupta, The Replication of Violence, 3.

8 Referring to the implications of the UN sanctions on Iraq in place at the time.

9 P.L. Bergen (2001): Holy War, Inc. Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 24.

10 Ibid., 25.

11 Ibid., 29-31.

12 Quoted from: R. Gunaratna (2002): Al-Qaeda’s Organisation, Ideology and Strategy, in: R. Gunaratna, Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, London: Hurst & Company, 88.

13 Ibid., 86-89.

14 P.L. Bergen, Holy War Inc., 103.

15 Ibid., 104 + 105.

16 R. Gunaratna, Inside al-Qaeda, 90+91.

17 P.L. Bergen, Holy War Inc., 106.

18 R. Gunaratna, Inside al-Qaeda, 88.

19 K. Hirschmann (2004): Internationaler Terrorismus, in: W. Woyke (ed.), Handwörterbuch Internationale Politik, Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 256+257.

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Al-Qaeda and Islamism. A new terrorism?
University of Wales, Aberystwyth  (International Politics Department)
September 11, Islamism and the Middle East
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al-qaeda, islamism
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Nicholas Williams (Author), 2005, Al-Qaeda and Islamism. A new terrorism?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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