BRIA 20 1 c The Rise of Islamist Terrorist Groups

In a 1998 interview, Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, called Americans "the worst thieves in the world today and the worst terrorists . . . ." He went on to say that, "We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets." He justified targeting Americans in the name of Islam. He said: "The terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind for it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of God . . . ."

Other groups also commit terrorism in the name of Islam. The U.S. Department of State lists, to name a few, Lebanon's Hizbollah, Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, Egypt's Islamic Jihad, Palestine's Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Uzbekistan's Islamic Movement, the Philippines' Abu Sayyaf, and Pakistan's Jaish-e-Muhammad (Army of Muhammad) as foreign terrorist groups. Unlike Al Qaeda, most of these groups do not commit terrorism internationally. Instead, they use terrorism to help overthrow the regimes in control of their countries.

Although their goals differ, they all want to set up Islamist states, based on Islamic fundamentalism. (The political form of Islamic fundamentalism is sometimes called Islamism.) The vast majority of Islamic fundamentalists are not terrorists, but their teachings have been adopted by terrorist groups to justify their actions.

Islamic fundamentalism calls for a society ruled by Islamic law. It rejects most things Western (except technology). Islamists believe their culture has been infected by Western ideas and practices, which must be rooted out. They want a more equal society with less division between the rich and poor. They want women to return to their traditional role and dress. This can mean women taking care of the family, staying out of the political and business worlds, wearing a veil, and even dressing in garments that cover them completely. Fundamentalists call for a return to a strict, "pure" Islam as practiced in the seventh century by the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors, the first four caliphs.

But the Encyclopaedia of the Orient states that:

. . . there are no Muslim sources indicating that the Islam of the Golden Age was as strict and conservative as the Islamists believe. All indications show that it was the liberal Islam that paved the ground for cultural, social and military achievements of those days--values foreign to all major Islamist groups. Hence, there is reason to say that the Islamist idea of the Golden Age is a dramatic falsification of history.

Islamist terrorists, like Al Qaeda, view themselves as following Muhammad's example. Muhammad in A.D. 622 had to flee from Mecca with a small band of followers. Yet in 630, he returned with an army of followers to conquer Mecca and then spread Islam throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The terrorist groups see themselves as small bands that will lead Islam to victory.

But terrorist tactics run against the basic teachings of Islam. The Koran, the holy scripture of Islam, set strict rules against suicide and killing women, children, and old people in battle.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims deplore terrorist attacks and view them as violating the Koran. Even many fundamentalist Muslims believe terrorism violates Islamic law. Nonetheless, Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups draw their supporters from the ranks of Islamic fundamentalists.

Secular States After World War II

Islam is the religion of more than 80 percent of the people in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Islamic empires controlled these areas for more than a thousand years. The last great Islamic empire--the Ottoman Empire--finally collapsed after World War I. During the 200 years it was crumbling, European nations were busy adding most of the predominantly Islamic areas of North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia to their empires. Following World War I, they carved up most of the remaining parts of the old Ottoman Empire.

European control ended state by state. Most countries in this heavily Islamic area gained their independence shortly after World War II. Almost all the new leaders who emerged in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Egypt chose to follow a secular model of government pioneered by Turkey after World War I. Many adopted European or American legal systems and other Western ways, forcing Islamic law and culture into the background.

The most significant leader of the era was Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1952, he led a group of Egyptian military officers in overthrowing Egypt's weak monarchy, which was supported by the British. Nasser set Egypt on a secular path and tried to unify his people by promoting loyalty to the nation. Islam would remain important, but no longer dominate government, the law, and education.

Egypt under Nasser adopted a socialist economic system and an authoritarian government with close links to the military. For a while, Nasser was an inspiration and hero to many Egyptians and others in the region. But poor management and corruption in the Egyptian government resulted in massive unemployment, increased poverty, and political repression. The same was true most of the other newly independent states.

The Jewish State and the PLO

In 1948, the United Nations, with the strong support of the United States, partitioned the land then called Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The surrounding Arab countries, however, rejected this partition and attacked Israel. They viewed the partition as another case of European colonialism, with Jews displacing Arabs and taking land that they had occupied for more than a thousand years. But Israel defended its new borders and even gained territory.

In 1967, Nasser asked the U.N. to remove its troops along the Egypt-Israel border, and he blockaded the Straits of Tiran to prevent goods from reaching Israel. When Egypt and Syria mobilized their troops in preparation for war, Israel attacked. This war lasted a mere six days and resulted in Israel occupying Egyptian land all the way to the Suez Canal as well as Jordan's West Bank, Syria's Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attempted to defeat Israel in yet another war, but failed again.

The failures showed that the Arab states were too weak to overcome Israel, which was far more advanced economically and militarily. A new entity, the nationalistic Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), stepped in to take up the war against Israel. Founded in 1964 by Arab states, the PLO was set up as an umbrella organization to bring together the many Palestinian groups that had formed in Arab lands. The PLO set two goals: destroying Israel and establishing a secular, democratic state in its place. It never favored an Islamist state. Initially, the PLO launched guerilla attacks on Israeli military targets. But then factions of it started using terrorism--kidnappings, shootings, bombings, and hijackings. The two most notorious attacks were probably the hostage-taking and murder of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and murder of a disabled American tourist on board. In 1988, the PLO renounced its goal of destroying Israel. (The PLO has consistently denied it was ever involved in terrorism.)

The Rise and Spread of Islamic Fundamentalism

For many years, two main forces have worked to spread Islamic fundamentalism. One is a grassroots, non-governmental effort. The other is sponsored by the government of Saudi Arabia.

One of the primary grassroots efforts has been through the Muslim Brotherhood (the Society of Muslim Brothers). Today, this organization exists in more than 70 nations in the world. It was founded in 1928 in Egypt, during British colonial rule. An Egyptian named Hasan al-Banna wanted to create an ideal government, based on Islamic law and society of the seventh century. Before this ideal Islamist state could be achieved, he argued, the Muslim masses would have to be gradually brought back to a fundamentalist Islam that was unpolluted by Western ideas.

Al-Banna's Muslim Brotherhood preached self-help, generosity, family values, and restricting women to their traditional role in the home. The Brotherhood also worked to provide hospitals, schools, and other services for the poor that the secular government was failing to provide.

In the 1940s, Al-Banna created a secret organization within the Brotherhood that took part in attacks on police and British officials. In December 1948, a member of this group assassinated Egypt's prime minister. Al-Banna had not known about the plan and quickly denounced the killing. But the government retaliated by murdering Al-Banna two months later.

The Brotherhood splintered between those who advocated violence and those who wanted to work non-violently for an Islamist society. The same process has repeated itself in other countries, with the Brotherhood starting as a peaceful organization and sometimes splitting into more radical factions.

A second powerful force pushing fundamentalism has been the Saudi Arabian government. The home to about one-fourth of the world's known oil reserves, Saudi Arabia produces great wealth. The Saudi government supports a fundamentalist Islam called Wahhabism, named after a Muslim named Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab who lived in the 1700s. Wahhab led a religious movement to restore the purity of Islam in Arabia, the Muslim holy land where the Prophet Muhammad lived and died. Wahhab believed in the strict literal reading of the Koran. His movement became the model for many Islamic fundamentalists today.

Wahhab joined with the Saudi family of Arabia to violently suppress all Arab Muslims who resisted his fundamentalist version of Islam. After about two centuries of conflict, the Saudis and their Wahhabi allies established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Since the founding of the kingdom, the Saudi royal family has handed over control of religious, moral, educational, and legal matters to the Wahhabi clergy. Wahhabi Saudi Arabia has no elected government, and it allows no other religion and few human rights. The hands of thieves are still cut off as they were in Muhammad's time. Women have virtually no public life. They are even forbidden to drive automobiles.

Wahhabism is the basis for the Saudi education system. The curriculum and textbooks refer to infidels (unbelievers in Islam) as the enemy and promote the hatred of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who reject Wahhabi beliefs. (In 2002, the Saudi government promised to remove these passages and promote tolerance in its schools.)

The Saudi government has used money from its oil revenues to fund Wahhabi missionaries, mosques, and schools and to promote Wahhabism in dozens of countries, including the United States.

The Revolution in Iran

Two events beginning in 1979 promoted the spread of radical Islamism. The first took place in Iran. That year's Iranian Revolution, which overthrew the shah (king), electrified the Muslim world. Many Muslims viewed the shah as a despot who had been put in power by the United States and Great Britain. Fundamentalists saw him as a Westernizer and traitor to Islam. During the turmoil that took place during the revolution, radical Muslim students seized the U.S. embassy and held American diplomats hostage for more than a year.

The galvanizing leader of the Iranian Revolution was a Shi'ite Muslim, Ayatollah (a religious title) Ruhollah Khomeini. (Shi'ite Muslims are a small minority--about 15 percent of all Muslims--but they constitute the majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrayn and are about 40 percent of the population in Lebanon.) A fundamentalist, Khomeini seized power over other factions and created an Islamist state headed by a "Supreme Religious Leader." Rejecting Western culture, he installed a political system with him as leader for life surrounded by other religious leaders. The new government did hold popular elections for other positions and even allowed women to vote and hold public office. But Shi'ite religious leaders control the military, law-making power, courts, education system, and all matters of public morality, which are enforced by a "morals police."

Iran has also become a central source for arming and financing radical Islamist groups like Lebanon's Hizbollah (Party of God). In the 1980s in Lebanon, Hizbollah kidnapped a number of Westerners and was also responsible for the bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines, sailors, and soldiers. Hizbollah also led an 18-year guerilla campaign against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which caused Israel to remove its troops in 2000.

But the Iranian Revolution has not improved the lives of many Iranians. Iranians are increasingly demanding democratic reforms. They have elected new members of government who are attempting to modify the religious state. The final word, however, still rests with religious officials.

The Soviet War in Afghanistan

The second event in 1979 that promoted Islamist radicalism was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a remote, mountainous, landlocked country with Muslim inhabitants. The Soviets invaded to help Afghan communists who had seized power. Muslims from around the world called for a jihad, or holy war in defense of Islam, to free the Muslim country from the invaders. Thousands from many countries volunteered to be mujahedeen, holy warriors. Saudi-funded religious schools (known as madrasas) in neighboring Pakistan produced many volunteers for the jihad.

Money poured in. The Muslim Brotherhood contributed heavily. But the two biggest backers of the jihad were Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The Saudis sent many volunteer fighters and spent untold millions of dollars. The CIA contributed more than $3 billion, supplied more than 1,000 small, portable Stinger missiles (for shooting down helicopters and low-flying airplanes), and trained the mujahedeen. Afghanistan had become a battleground in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

One of the Saudi volunteers was 25-year-old Osama bin Laden, a member of a wealthy Saudi family. He had attended Wahhabi schools and completed college studying engineering and public administration. In college, he had grown increasingly religious and had come in contact with radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. For the Afghan jihad, he raised money through his family connections, set up training camps, and commanded mujahedeen in battle against the Soviets. He also created a computer database to organize his fighters. This became known as Al Qaeda ("the base"). After the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1989, bin Laden returned home to Saudi Arabia as a Muslim hero.

But in 1990, Iraq (led by Saddam Hussein) invaded Kuwait. Fearing that Iraq would next invade Saudi Arabia next, Bin Laden offered to bring mujahedeen from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia to help defend it from attack. Instead, Saudi King Fahd decided to rely on American military forces to defeat Iraq, and he allowed them to set up bases in the Muslim holy land.

The stationing of non-Muslim troops on Saudi Arabia's holy soil transformed bin Laden. He viewed King Fahd as a traitor against Islam. From this point, bin Laden became an outspoken enemy of the Saudi ruling family and its American defenders.

Saudi Arabia expelled him in 1991. Bin Laden went to Sudan, a country south of Egypt with a strict Islamist government. He took with him an estimated $250 million, part of which he spent to fund terrorist training camps. Outraged with what he was doing, the Saudi government revoked his citizenship, froze his assets remaining in Saudi Arabia, and reportedly even tried to assassinate him in Sudan.

Back in Afghanistan, civil war raged among Muslim warlords, producing chaos and great loss of life. Then, in 1996, a group of former madrasa students, the Taliban, seized power and imposed a strict Wahhabi Islamist regime. (In Arabic, talib means "student.")

Bin Laden had become an international outlaw, and Sudan, under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia, expelled him in 1996. The Taliban offered him sanctuary in Afghanistan where he provided the regime with financial aid and fighters. He also created training camps for his growing Al Qaeda terrorist network.

In 1998, bin Laden proclaimed his jihad against Americans and Jews. He declared that since the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, "the United States is occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors." He also charged that the United States was destroying the Iraqi people with crippling economic sanctions and supporting Israel's occupation of Arab Palestine.

All of these acts, bin Laden argued, added up to a "clear declaration of war by the Americans against God, His Prophet, and the Muslims." Therefore, he concluded, "Jihad becomes a personal duty of every Muslim."

A short time later, bin Laden issued a "fatwa." This a legal opinion issued by a religious authority. Since bin Laden is not a religious authority, only his followers would take his fatwa seriously. Nonetheless, bin Laden decreed that it was the duty of every Muslim "to kill Americans." After bin Laden issued his fatwa, Islamist terrorists began to strike American targets. In 1998, two U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa. In 2000, suicide bombers attacked the U.S.S. Cole warship off the coast of Yemen. In 2001, terrorist airplane hijackers killed almost 3,000 people in the United States.

The United States responded to the September 11, 200l, attacks by declaring a war on terrorism. U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban. In 2003, the United States and allies invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, a brutal secular dictator. A large force of U.S. troops remains in Iraq and a smaller contingent is in Afghanistan. Bin Laden remains at large, probably in the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims today reject terrorism, bin Laden, and his call for a war on America. They view his beliefs as a perversion of Islam.

Bin Laden appeals to those who believe the United States is the enemy. In the last 25 years, Islamic fundamentalism had gained more adherents. It has attracted the poor, the unemployed and underemployed, and frustrated young people. Most of the states in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia have failed to improve the lives of their citizens. Some are brutally oppressive, and Islamist groups sometimes offer opposition to the rulers. Some Islamists have joined terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda's international network and its jihad against the United States.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What are "Islamic fundamentalism" and "Islamism"?

  2. In 1929, British historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, "If you looked in the right places, you could doubtless find some old fashioned Islamic Fundamentalists still lingering on. You would also find that their influence was negligible." Why do you think that was true then and no longer true today?

  3. What do you think accounts for the rise of Islamist terrorist groups?

For Further Information

For more links related to terrorism, see America Responds to Terrorism: Web Links

September 11 Attacks

September 11, 2001 attacks From Wikipedia.

September 11 Photo Essays From Time Magazine.

Yahoo Directory: September 11 Attacks

Yahoo News: Full Coverage: Terrorism and 9/11

Palestine Liberation Organization

Palestine Liberation Organization From Wikipedia.

Palestine Liberation Organization From Encyclopaedia of the Orient.

Palestine Liberation Organization From InfoPlease.

Palestine Liberation Organization From the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Palestine Liberation Organization From Encarta.

Palestinians and the Palestine Liberation Organization From AllRefer.

The Charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization

Yahoo Directory: Palestine Liberation Organization

Google Directory: Palestine Liberation Organization

Open Directory Project: Palestine Liberation Organization

History of Islam

Islam Good overview of the history and customs. From the BBC.

Islam Online text by Richard Hooker.

The History Guide: Islamic Civilization

Islam and Islamic History of Middle East A detailed history from IslamiCity.

Internet Islamic History Sourcebook Huge collection of documents on all periods.

History of Islam A brief history. From Barkati Islamic Web Site.

Islam From Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, edited by Robert Wuthnow.

A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims, CE 570 to 661 By Sayed Ali Asgher Razwy, World Federation of KSI Muslim Communities.

Islam, A World Civilization A brief history. From ISL Software.

The Islamic World to 1600 A multimedia introduction to the first millennium of Islamic history, developed by the Applied History Research Group, Department of History, University of Calgary.

Arab-Islamic History From

Islam Essays and flow charts. From Overview Of World Religions, Division of Religion and Philosophy, St Martin's College.

Encyclopedia Articles on Islam:

Wikipedia: History of Islam

Encyclopaedia of the Orient Information on the Middle East and North Africa.

Encarta: Islam

AllRefer: Islam Articles

WWW Virtual Library: History of Islam

Web Directories on Islam:

Yahoo Directory: Islam History

Google Directory: Islam History

Open Directory Project: Islam History

Academic Info: Islam


Islamic World: Islamic History Sites


Islamic Fundamentalism Several articles from the CQ Researcher.

Q&A: Islamic fundamentalism From the Christian Science Monitor.

Islamism From Wikipedia.

Islamism From Encyclopaedia of the Orient.

The Revolt of Islam By Bernard Lewis.

Is Islamism a Threat? A Debate Between John Esposito, professor at Georgetown University; Martin Kramer, professor at Tel Aviv University; Graham Fuller, consultant at the RAND Corporation; and Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.

The Myth of Islamic Fundamentalism An article arguing that Islamic fundamentalism is a creation of the West and those who misunderstand Islam. By Ilyas Ba-Yunus

Emeritus Professor of Sociology, SUNY Cortland.

Google Directory: Islamism

Open Directory Project: Islamism

Muslim Brotherhood

Muslim Brotherhood From the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Muslim Brothers From Federation of American Scientists.

Muslim Brotherhood From Wikipedia.

Muslim Brotherhood--Egypt From Encyclopaedia of the Orient.

Muslim Brotherhood Movement Homepage

Yahoo Directory: Muslim Brotherhood

Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Extensive article from AllRefer.

Saudi Arabia: Political overview From BBC.

Wahhabism From CNN.

Wahhabism From Wikipedia.

Wahhabism From Encyclopaedia of the Orient.

Saudi Arabia Articles from the Middle East Media Research Institute.

Saudi Arabia From CQ Press.

A Country Study: Saudi Arabia From Library of Congress.

Portals to the World: Saudi Arabia From Library of Congress.

Saudi Arabia From ArabNet.

Saudi Arabia: History From Lonely Planet.

Special Report: Saudi Arabia Reports from the Guardian Unlimited.

The Saudi Paradox Article explaining the conflict within the Saudi government between Crown Prince Abdullah, who favors reform and seeks closer ties to the West and Prince Nayef, who sides with an anti-American Wahhabi religious establishment. By Michael Scott Doran, from Foreign Affairs, January/February 2004.

Can We Trust Saudi Arabia? From Time Magazine.

Saudi Time Bomb? From PBS's Frontline.

Islamic Radicalism: Its Wahhabi Roots and Current Representation From the Islamic Supreme Council of America.

Middle East Studies Internet Resources: Saudi Arabia Links from Columbia University.

Yahoo News: Full Coverage: Saudi Arabia

Yahoo Directory: Wahhabism

Yahoo Directory: Saudi Arabia

Google Directory: Salafiism

Google Directory: Saudi Arabia

Open Directory Project: Salafiism

Open Directory Project: Saudi Arabia

Iranian Revolution

Islamic Revolution of Iran From Encarta.

Iran: The Revolution From AllRefer.

The Story of the Revolution From BBC.

Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini Biography of the leader of the Islamist revolution in Iran. From Time Magazine.

Iranian Revolution From Wikipedia.

Yahoo Directory: Iranian Revolution

Google Directory: Iranian Revolution

Open Directory Project: Iranian Revolution

Soviet War in Afghanistan

PBS Online NewsHour reports on the war:

Country in Conflict November 17, 1983.

Afghanistan: War Without End? December 27, 1985.

Final Retreat? February 9, 1989

Afghanistan: Lessons From the Last War Soviet documents, U.S. government analysis of the war, and an essay on the war. From the National Security Archive.

Compound War Case Study: The Soviets in Afghanistan A military history by Dr. Robert F. Baumann, Combat Studies institute.

Democratic Republic of Afghanistan History of the short-lived communist state. From Wikipedia.

Yahoo Directory: Soviet-Afghan War

Google Directory: Soviet-Afghan War

Open Directory Project: Soviet-Afghan War

Bin Laden and Al Qaeda

The Foundation of the New Terrorism Chapter 2 of the 9/11 Commission Report.

The Real Bin Laden By Mary Anne Weaver.

Who Is Osama bin Laden? From BBC.

Hunting Bin Laden From PBS's Frontline.

The Most Wanted Man in the World From Time Magazine.

The War on Terrorism: Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida Many links from the Joyner Library, East Carolina University.

Yahoo News: Full Coverage: Osama bin Laden & al-Qaida

Yahoo Directory: Osama bin Laden

Yahoo Directory: Al Qaeda

Google Directory: Osama bin Laden

Google Directory: Al-Qaida

Open Directory Project: Osama bin Laden

Open Directory Project: Al Qaida


Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam By John L. Esposito.

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror By Bernard Lewis.


Islamic Fundamentalism: What Should We Do About It?

There is a connection between certain kinds of Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist terrorism. What should we do about this?

  1. Below are listed some policies that the United States might adopt to try to counter Islamist terrorism. Form small groups to discuss these policies.

  2. Each group should choose what it considers to be the most important policy for the United States to adopt now. Groups may develop their own policy choice if they wish.

  3. Each group should then defend its policy choice before the rest of the class.

Proposed Policies

  1. Remove all American military forces from Saudi Arabia and/or Iraq.

  2. Remain in Iraq to develop democracy as a model for other Muslim countries.

  3. Pressure Muslim countries to close religious schools that preach hatred.

  4. Provide foreign aid to Muslim countries in order to reduce unemployment and poverty.

  5. Give foreign aid to countries that curb Islamists.

  6. Work to achieve security and justice for Israel and Palestine.

  7. Capture, try, and (if convicted) execute Osama bin Laden.

  8. Lessen our dependence on Mideast oil.



Constitutional Rights Foundation
is a member of: 
crn footer


Terms of Use Privacy Notice  |  Donor Privacy Policy  |  Teach Democracy (formerly Constitutional Rights Foundation), 601 S. Kingsley Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90005 | 213.487.5590 | 

© 2024 Teach Democracy®.  All Rights Reserved.

Joomla3 Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux