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The Looming Tower: Egyptian Ideological Origins of Al-Qaida


by Austin Bay
December 26, 2006

Al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahiri's pre-Christmas rants backfired in both Palestine and in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Zawahiri -- Al-Qaida's terror emir No. 2 -- ordered the Palestinians to wage his globalist brand of jihad. In the midst of their own vicious civil war, Hamas and Fatah quickly told Zawahiri to butt out.

Zawahiri's history lesson for Washington Democrats elicited yawns. Zawahiri argued that the "the Muslim ... vanguard in Afghanistan and Iraq ... won (the U.S. election), and the American forces and their crusader allies are the ones who lost ..."

Cave life in Pakistan evidently limits the al-Qaida firebrand's ability to affect current events. It isn't simply a feat to simultaneously flop in the Beltway and Gaza Strip -- it's a defeat.

Zawahiri's December case of tin ear is small encouragement, however, for his insistent message remains an enormous menace. At the end of 2006, al-Qaida is a shattered organization, but not yet a shattered idea.

The ideology al-Qaida and its "affiliated cadres" empowers a still potent enemy. Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh provided a domestic American example of the horror a handful of driven, delusional and violent men can wreak. McVeigh, however, was truly isolated.

Al-Qaida's dark genius -- or, more accurately, the dark genius of the Egyptian strain of internationalist jihadism -- has been to connect the Muslim world's angry, humiliated and isolated young men with a utopian fantasy preaching the virtue of violence. That utopian fantasy seeks to explain and then redress roughly 800 years of Muslim decline. The rage energizing al-Qaeda's ideological cadres certainly predates the post-Desert Storm presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia.

After 9-11, the popular press focused on Osama bin Laden's Saudi money rather the Zawahiri's Egyptian militancy, but together the Saudi-Egyptian link was the combination that forged al-Qaida operationally and philosophically.

Zawahiri's inspiration, mentor and fellow Egyptian, Sayid Qutb, is the modern father of jihadist rage and violence. Counter-terror experts have long acknowledged Qutb's resilient appeal. In his book "Assassins and Zealots," terror expert Dr. Stephen Sloan notes Qutb "demonized" Western and secular Muslim leaders "as agents of revived jahiliyah (pre-Islamic heathenism) who ... could be attacked at will by true believers."

Lawrence Wright's magnificent new book, "The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," provides the most literate narrative history available of the origins and operations of al-Qaida. In doing so, Wright examines Qutb, Zawahiri, bin Laden and their cohorts in extraordinarily informed detail.

"The Looming Tower" treats Qutb rigorously and poignantly. Qutb possessed a brilliant intellect, and his American sojourn (1948-1950) had a profound effect on the man. Qutb visited New York and California, and attended college in Greeley, Colo. Wright says the freedom of American women led Qutb to conclude that "Islam and modernity were completely incompatible." Qutb was palpably threatened by, yet deeply attracted to, Western women. Personal repulsion and fascination fed a lurking sense of cultural and political humiliation.

Qutb key facts: Qutb was born in 1903. He died in 1966 -- executed by Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser, who at the time was a Soviet ally.

Qutb's rage fed Zawahiri and ultimately shaped bin Laden. The same rage continues to feed disaffected and isolated young Muslims trapped in corrupt autocracies and denied other political, cultural and aesthetic avenues of expression.

Both Zawahiri and bin Laden grew up in comparatively privileged circumstances. Wright's sources on Zawahiri's early years include family members and family friends, providing a remarkable psychological record of a young, politically active intellectual on the road to global murderer. Wright documents bin Laden's inept record during the Afghan war against the Soviets. Hardened mujahideen regarded bin Laden as a buffoon and poseur.

Azza Zawahiri, Ayman's wife, also receives tragic attention. Trapped in the debris of an air attack in Afghanistan, Azza chose to remain beneath the rubble rather than take the risk that men would see her face. She died there. The Wright vignette illustrates the fierce, unbending will of al-Qaida's most committed cadres. And demonstrates why they remain a threat.

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