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The Psyche of Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda appeared on the world consciousness after the bombing of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001. American President George W. Bush stated in his speech on September 20, 2001:

Americans are asking who attacked our country. The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as Al Qaeda … This group and its leaders … a person named Osama bin Laden … are linked to many other organizations in different countries, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan. There are thousands of these terrorists in more than sixty countries … And tonight, the United States of America makes the following demands on the Taliban … Deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of Al-Qaeda who hide in your land … The Taliban must act, and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate.[1]

We are all aware how America reacted and what happened to the Al-Qaeda centers in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda was conceived in August 1988 when Dr. Ayman Zawahiri and Dr. Syed Imam al Sharif (Dr. Fadl), members of Al Jihad (from Egypt), met with their Muslim friend Abdullah Azzam and his disciple Osama bin Laden (from Saudi Arabia) in Afghanistan. All of them shared a dream of worldwide Islamic revolution. Zawahiri and Fadl wanted to focus on Egypt, Azzam on Palestine, and Osama sought to create a worldwide Islamic army. After the USSR withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, those leaders reorganized and created an organization named Al–Qaeda.

When we study the leaders and followers of the Al-Qaeda movement we become aware that they belong to the militant Muslim fundamentalist movement. For the last twenty years, they have been fighting a guerrilla war–not only against America and the western world–but also against secular governments of their own Muslim countries. They have declared their guerrilla war, “a holy war,” “a jihad.” Followers of the political and violent jihad of this minority of Muslims have been killing not only American soldiers and secular politicians but also innocent civilians.

To have a better understanding of the psyche of Al-Qaeda we need to understand the ideology, personality and political strategy of the organization’s leaders as well as their followers. They have:

     • adopted a religious ideology of political Islam
     • developed a fundamentalist personality
     • learned guerrilla warfare techniques

When we listen to the speeches of Osama bin laden and read the interviews of Ayman al Zawahiri, we realize that they were influenced by Muslim scholars such as Hassan al-Banna (1906—1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was assassinated at the age of 43; Syed Qutb (1906—1966), who was executed by Jamal Nasser’s government; and Abul Ala Maududi (1903 – 1979) leader of Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. These men dreamed of creating theocratic states where sharia law would prevail under an unadulterated Islam. Their vision of Islam was not limited to a few countries–it was to be implemented across the whole world according to God’s wish as expressed in the Quran, and they were determined to make that wish a reality. They dreamed of world domination.

Leaders of Al-Qaeda, to fulfill their Islamic dream, declared a holy war, a jihad, first against godless Russian communism and now against American capitalism. The Islamic dream of world domination is stated in Maududi’s statement about jihad:

Islam wishes to destroy all States and Governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and program of Islam regardless of the country or the Nation which rules it. The purpose of Islam is to set up a State on the basis of its own ideology and program, regardless of which Nation assumes the role of the standard bearer of Islam or the rule of which nation is undermined in the process of the establishment of an ideological Islamic State. It must be evident to you from this discussion that the objective of Islamic “Jihad” is to eliminate the rule of an un-Islamic system and establish in its stead an Islamic system of State rule. Islam does not intend to confine its revolution to a single State or a few countries; the aim is to bring about a universal revolution.[2]

Maududi’s interpretation of Islam was no different than Syed Qutb’s, who stated, “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations, and to extend its power to the entire planet.”[3]

Many leaders and followers of Al-Qaeda belong to the Salafi sect of Islam, which dreams of implementing an Islam that was practiced by their forefathers (aslaaf) in Saudi Arabia nearly 1500 years ago. That movement was revived by Muslim scholars such as Ibn Taimiya (1263-1328) and Abdul Wahab (1703-1792) who believed that Muslims had lost centre stage in the world because they had forgotten the teachings of Quran and if they reverted back to the Islamic law they could regain their dominance in the world.

Al-Qaeda leaders who formerly were leaders of political and religious parties, such as Al Jihad and Ikhwan-ul-Muslemeeen (Muslim Brotherhood), were also disillusioned by corrupt secular political leaders. They believed that secularism was a major barrier to the progress of Muslim nations and that the dictators, monarchs and generals who governed them could not stay in power were they not supported by America and other Western countries.

Many Al-Qaeda leaders have a fundamentalist personality and believe they have the truth, the absolute truth, based on the literal interpretation of scriptures. They do not see that their truth can be just a truth and that there are other interpretations of holy scriptures which are metaphorical rather than literal, and, furthermore, that there are other spiritual, secular and humanistic traditions that many Muslims prefer to follow.

Many Muslims are also followers of Abu Hamid Ghazzali (1058—1111) who had suggested hundreds of years ago that in any conflict between the Quran and modern science, holy scriptures and philosophy, Muslims should follow the Quran and holy scriptures, and discard modern science, mathematics, psychology and philosophy. No wonder we have not seen leading Muslim scholars and scientists on the world stage in the last few centuries the way we had seen in the past, such as Avicenna, Farabi and Ibn Rushd, whose books were a great inspiration for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Al-Qaeda has also adopted guerrilla warfare techniques. Guerrilla war might have existed in different shapes and forms in different parts of the world in the past but in the 20th century it was introduced by Vladimir Lenin in Russia to overthrow the corrupt government of the Tsar. Lenin’s legacy of guerrilla war was further developed by Mao Tse Tung in China, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in Cuba, Menachem Begin in Israel, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Lenin could never have imagined that the guerrilla warfare he started in the beginning of the 20th century would be used by militant Muslim fundamentalist leader Osama bin Laden, supported by America’s CIA, to defeat the army of the communist USSR at the end of the 20th century. Communists were using guerrilla war to create a godless socialist world while in the contemporary world right-wing religious fundamentalists are using it to create an ideal Islamic world.

In the 21st century, Al Qaeda is at a crossroads. The followers of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, motivated by anger, resentment and bitterness against America, Western governments, and the secular governments of Muslim countries, support suicide bombings. In the last few years Pakistan and Afghanistan are the battleground where, in the next decade, war between violent political Islam, peaceful spiritual Islam, and Secular Humanism, will be fought. Either the world will see the bloodbath of a civil war, or peaceful, secular and conscientious Muslims–realizing that peaceful coexistence has been the essence of all humanistic religious, spiritual and secular traditions–will rise above the bloodshed and create a peaceful world.

In the 21st century Muslims all over the world are sandwiched between religious fundamentalism on one side and Western imperialism and neocolonialism on the other. They need to rise above both to create a peaceful world.


[1] Bush, George W. Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, Washington, DC, September 20, 2001

[2] Wikipedia, “Abul Ala Maududi

[3] Wright, Lawrence” The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 Vintage Books, New York, USA, 2006

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