International Islamic militancy that had its roots in the decade-long war against the Soviets in the 1980s was broadly divided into two main schools of thought; both considered themselves righteous despite embodying contradictory themes. These were doctrines of armed struggle espoused by Palestinian Sunni Islamic scholar and theologian Dr Abdullah Azzam, and Egyptian ideologue and Bin Laden’s deputy, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Azzam preached in favour of defensive jihad by Muslims to help the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets. He firmly believed in a broader Muslim bloc including Muslim ruling establishments and never supported revolt against Muslim regimes. Despite being Palestinian with Jordanian nationality and a background in the Muslim Brotherhood, Azzam kept himself aloof from the Palestinian revolt against the Jordanian monarchy in September 1970 (called Black September).
Azzam was very close to the Saudi Arabian royal family and considered it essential to lobby it for support of Islamic armed movements like the Afghan resistance against the Soviets and the Palestinian resistance against Israel. He struggled to achieve unity among Muslim rulers and Islamists to resist Western hegemony. He was less dogmatic than others in his strategic purview.
After Azzam’s assassination in Pakistan in 1989, Zawahiri emerged as the main ideologue of Islamic armed opposition. Coming from the same ideological background of the Muslim Brotherhood as Azzam, Zawahiri faced an entirely different world after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s when, under American instructions, Muslim regimes were intolerant of Islamic militancy.
Zawahiri therefore promoted the idea of ideological divides within the Muslim world, and encouraged revolts and terrorism to polarize societies to such a point of chaos that they would be unmanageable and amenable to Western intervention. It was believed that such intervention would open the gates for a battle between the West and the Muslim world.
Like Azzam, Zawahiri is not too dogmatic, but he encouraged narrow ideological views in resistance movements as a strategy to boost revolts against Muslim-majority states.
Students of Marxism will recognise the parallel between this and the division between the Stalinists (“revolution in one country”) and the Trotskyites (“revolution everywhere.”) In the case of the Communists, that ended up with a Lenin-style two party system: one party in power and the other dead and in jail, the Trotskyites swept away in the Purge and Trotsky himself assassinated (a good Islamic term) in Mexico. But it also paved the way for the “fifty year wound,” the Cold War.
In first siding with Zawahiri, bin Laden believed that, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the power challengers in a polarised United States (Al Gore?) would see weakness in the power holder (George W. Bush) rise up, destabilise and weaken/overthrow the administration. But the U.S. isn’t (or at least wasn’t) the Middle East, where such a reaction would have taken place. Instead the attacks produced unity and the invasions, first of Afghanistan and later of Iraq. The major players in the Middle East, Muslims all, went along with the U.S. with the exception of Shi’ite Iran.
Now bin Laden can look and see many of the U.S. allies either swept away in the current round of Arab revolts (Egypt,) moving towards Islamicism on their own (Turkey) or in varying degrees of trouble (Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia.) It’s certainly a tempting time to go to a more “Stalinist” strategy of making gains on the home front. This would not only make bin Laden’s immediate objective more possible (getting the U.S. out of the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular) but also make the “dar-al-saalam” more of a cohesive base for assaults against the major non-Muslim regions/countries of the world: to the West, Europe and the United States, to the North (Russia) and to the East, India and China.
Bin Laden’s biggest challenge is to end up with a unified Middle East, no mean feat considering the nature of Middle Eastern politics and the Sunni-Shi’ite divide (Iran.) If he can pull it off, his opponents to the West probably don’t have the stomach for another protracted conflict like the Cold War. (The rest of them are another story…)
His opponents’ objective is to keep Middle Eastern politics in their usual chaotic state without breaking the oil supply. The U.S.’ track record on pulling this off isn’t inspiring, either in the narrow dogmatism of the Bush Administration or the indecisive dillying of the Obama one. It’s here where others-especially the Chinese–have a golden opportunity to step into the vacuum.