Anti-Terror Success in Southeast Asia/ Roots of Islamist Terrorism

May 2, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

May 2, 2007
Number 05/07 #02

This Update features some new insights into the battle against Islamist terrorism.

It opens with a piece, by Joshua Kurlantzick, an American foreign policy analyst currently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, highlighting progress being made in Australia’s own region, Southeast Asia. Kurlantzick details not only recent successes in Indonesia against Jemaah Islamiyah and the Philippines against Abu Sayyaf, but points out that some of the methods that have led to these successes may offer possible lessons for counter-terrorism efforts elsewhere. He also discusses Australia’s role in some of these efforts.  To read his full analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next up is an account by a young British Muslim, Ed Hussain, formerly an Islamic radical, of a period working in Saudi Arabia that opened his eyes. The racism, sexual repression leading to sexual misbehaviour and the hatred and affinity for violence against non-Muslims he encountered there changed his views. He now sees Wahhabism and Islamism as “not only a threat to Islam and Muslims, but to the entire civilised world.” For this account of one well-spring of Islamic extremism, CLICK HERE.

Finally, I offer a fascinating piece on the experiences in America of perhaps the most important intellectual forbearer to violent modern Islamist terrorism, the executed Egyptian author and preacher Sayyid Qutb. It is not new, but it just came to my attention, and offers some original and important insights in answer to the oft-asked question, “Why do they hate us?” It is from Smithsonian, the magazine of the American national museum, and to read it, CLICK HERE.

Where the War on Terror Is Succeeding

Joshua Kurlantzick

Commentary, May 2007

In October 2002, Islamic radicals set off two powerful bombs on the Indonesian island of Bali. Detonated in the heart of the tourist district, they obliterated several bars and nightclubs, killing over 200 people—visiting Australians, Americans, and other foreign nationals, as well as Indonesians—and wounding still more. It was the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history. Shocked and taken aback by the carnage, the international media proclaimed the end of innocence for the tropical retreat.

To anyone who had been paying attention to political developments in Southeast Asia over the previous decade, however, the surprise was misplaced. Well before the Bali bombing, Islamists had turned the region as a whole into a front in their global jihad. In the Philippines, the radical group Abu Sayyaf, which received funding from the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, had built itself into a powerfully lethal force. In Indonesia, an even deadlier terror group, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), had also expanded, bombing churches and ultimately putting in motion the Bali plot.

But even after 9/11 and the Bali bombing, the governments of Southeast Asia did little to combat Islamism. Indonesia’s then-vice president, Hamzah Haz, actually celebrated the 9/11 attacks, announcing his hope that the deaths of 3,000 people in the World Trade Center would help “cleanse America of its sins.” The country’s president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, barely responded to the carnage in Bali.* In the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia, governments similarly dithered, failing publicly to condemn or even to recognize the growing threat posed by Islamist groups and the political parties that spoke for them.

Today, less than five years after the attack on Bali, the situation in Southeast Asia has changed dramatically. Across the region, jihadist groups like Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah are struggling to survive, Islamist parties seem to be weakening, and the region’s newest leaders openly wage war on terror. Moreover, the United States has played a leading role in these successes, and it has done so without creating much in the way of an anti-American reaction. Indeed, Southeast Asia is proving to be a model for the “long war” against Islamist terror. The lessons of its recent progress deserve to be studied closely.


Veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan founded Abu Sayyaf in the impoverished southern Philippines in the early 1990’s. With the help of militants imported from the Middle East, the group grew quickly in that Muslim-majority region, operating in areas that featured minimal law enforcement and a historical hatred of the Christian-dominated national government in Manila. In the course of the decade, its numbers expanded from a few hundred fighters to as many as 5,000.

Abu Sayyaf announced its new strength in acts of escalating brutality. In 2001, after a string of kidnappings, including the taking of three Americans hostage, the group killed one of its captives with a machete. “We have released Guillermo Sobero,” an Abu Sayyaf leader proclaimed by radio. “But we have released him without his head.” In 2004, the Islamists followed up by bombing a Philippine ferry, killing over 100 people in the worst terror attack in the country’s history.

During its early years, members of Abu Sayyaf escaped the Philippine military by retreating to the interior of the southern island of Jolo or by using small boats to dart into coves and inlets impassable by larger ships. Worse, elements in the corrupt, underpaid Philippine military reportedly sold weapons to Abu Sayyaf and took bribes from the group. In June 2001, when the army surrounded its leaders in a tiny southern town, deploying tanks, helicopters, and troops around a small hospital where they were bunkered, the terrorists somehow walked out the back door of the compound, slipped through the massive cordon, and escaped to safety. Filipino journalists who watched the episode allege that Abu Sayyaf paid off the military to let them flee.

The Philippine government proved as inept as the army. Manila failed to pursue a coherent policy, instead alternating between announced crackdowns in the south and attempts to negotiate deals. Although the U.S. dispatched a small group of advisers to the southern Philippines after 9/11, the central government remained wary of openly embracing the global war on terror. Its fear, in part, was that the American presence, in this former colony with a history of tense relations, would catalyze its political opposition.


In Indonesia, the situation five years ago seemed even grimmer. In the late 1990’s, Jemaah Islamiah had taken advantage of the country’s political turbulence and economic meltdown to build terror cells and promote radical Islam across the archipelago. Indonesians historically had favored a tolerant, Sufi-influenced version of Islam—Christians and Hindus worshipped openly, Jakarta’s restaurants served beer with their fiery curries, and few Muslim women wore head-to-toe coverings. But JI and other Islamists began to strike out at these local traditions. Funded partly by supporters in the Persian Gulf—one prominent Saudi charity employed a top JI leader as its Indonesian representative—they began to set up networks of boarding schools across the country to attract young men away from the underfunded public system. JI’s charismatic intellectual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, traveled throughout Indonesia preaching jihad and helping to establish schools. Other radicals formed new Islamist political parties and attempted in some communities to establish shari’a law.

With a growing pool of potential recruits, JI expanded and started mounting increasingly sophisticated terror operations. On Christmas eve in 2000, the group orchestrated the bombing of over 30 churches, killing eighteen people. The attack in Bali two years later, the region’s first suicide bombing, introduced the jihadist tactics of the Middle East. In 2003, JI struck at the heart of Indonesian power, bombing a Marriott hotel in the Jakarta neighborhood that is home to the country’s most important banks, oil companies, and other economic players. Soon after, militants bombed the Australian embassy.

Even after these audacious attacks, the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri vacillated. Indonesian officials refused to admit that their nation was threatened by extremists, and Jakarta declined much of the counterterrorism cooperation offered by Washington. Megawati also refused to appoint a counterterrrorism czar. As for the Indonesian armed forces, they proved to be as corrupt as their Philippine counterparts. Having run the country under Suharto, whose 30-year dictatorship ended in 1998, the military resented civilian control. In an effort to foster chaos and thus to undermine democratic rule, some army units reportedly gave support to Islamist groups in the archipelago’s remote central islands.


Under these permissive circumstances, it is hardly a wonder that JI and other Islamists saw a chance to extend their reach. In the early 2000’s, militants from across Southeast Asia held a series of informal summits at which they declared that their ultimate goal was to establish a pan-Islamic state. In the wake of these meetings, JI reportedly assisted in attacks on hotels in southern Thailand, where a local Islamist movement that had withered in the 1980’s was re-emerging. The conflict soon exploded into a full-fledged war against local officials, police, soldiers, teachers, and Buddhist monks; between 2004 and 2006, nearly 2,000 Thais were killed.

The regional trend was, in short, unmistakable. A study by the Rand Corporation found that the number of terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia and Oceania had grown from 95 in the period 1968-1985 to over 2,000 between 1986 and 2004. And no less obvious was the regional failure to deal with the threat. In contrast to the Islamists, the governments of Southeast Asia remained narrowly national in their anti-terrorism measures—such as they were. Their efforts at collecting intelligence were not coordinated, and they only reluctantly shared information across borders. U.S. officials privately complained that when Thai authorities needed to pass on tips about terror groups to neighboring Malaysia, they called not Kuala Lumpur but the American embassy in Bangkok, forcing the Americans to play the role of go-between.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of this lack of information-sharing was the opportunity it gave the Islamists to exploit the region’s financial institutions. In 2003, the U.S. Treasury Department estimated that more than 300 individuals and groups in Southeast Asia were engaged in funding al Qaeda and its affiliates.


And yet it is undeniably the case that, by the beginning of this year, Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiah, and their terrorist allies could no longer feel so confident about their prospects. What happened in the interim?

This past January, on the southern Philippine island of Jolo, special-forces units of the national army hiked into the thickly forested interior. Relying on intelligence from advisers provided by U.S. special forces and on tips from locals, the soldiers surrounded leaders of Abu Sayyaf and proceeded to blast their mountain hideouts. By the end of the month, nearly all of the group’s commanders had been killed. Ships from the Philippine navy also surrounded Jolo, preventing survivors from escaping in their motorboats. At nearly the same time, Philippine security forces raided Abu Sayyaf’s bomb-making facilities and training grounds across the archipelago, turning up plastic explosives and homemade bombs. Although some of the group’s militants remain at large, they are now scattered across the Philippines and without leadership.

In neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, security forces have made similar gains. In late 2005, after years of tracking the top members of Jemaah Islamiah, members of an elite Indonesian police unit stormed a small house in the Javanese city of Malang. Inside were three key JI bombmakers, including a mastermind of the deadly attacks in Bali and at the Marriott in Jakarta. The terrorists blew themselves up to avoid capture, but the authorities had inflicted a crushing blow. According to Sidney Jones, an expert on JI at the International Crisis Group, Jemaah Islamiah “no longer constitutes a threat to the stability of Indonesia.”

These victories capped an aggressive counterterrorism campaign waged over the past two years by the governments of the region with the active support of the United States. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was elected president of Indonesia in 2004, agreed early on that his country faced a serious threat and needed help. With assistance from Malaysia, Australia, and the Philippines, his government tracked the Bali bombers and other JI members. Indonesian police captured over 200 suspected terrorists, and their counterparts in Malaysia have made key follow-up arrests. Overall, according to longtime Southeast Asia diplomat Matt Daley, Indonesia has displayed “an impressive performance.”

Cooperation has proceeded on several fronts. Regional governments have formalized their commitment to counterterrorism—and to working with the U.S. on the problem—through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and by creating a joint counterterrorism center located in Malaysia. Many ASEAN members also have tightened their laws on money laundering, a key source of terrorist finance. The Philippines has been particularly successful in this regard, and last year was removed from the developed nations’ list of “problem” financial centers.

No less important, Southeast Asian nations have begun to mount an open challenge to Islamist schools and political parties. In Indonesia, a country whose size makes it the region’s natural leader, President Yudhoyono has proved to be a strong voice for secularism and clean government, thus weakening the appeal of Muslim radicals. In order to emphasize the seriousness of the threat, his government has televised the videos of local suicide bombers and has recruited top Muslim clerics to issue public messages against the Islamists. Jakarta has even employed former terrorists to preach that violence has no place in Islam.


Several factors combined to produce this turnaround. In the first place, the Islamists themselves overplayed their hand. The wanton destruction of the Bali bombing, which not only killed dozens of locals but also ruined the fabled island’s tourist economy, turned many Indonesians against JI. Abu Sayyaf’s brutality had a similar effect in the Philippines.

In its own way, the December 2004 tsunami also helped the counterterrorism fight. Among the tens of thousands of Indonesians killed by the tidal wave were fighters of Gerakan Aceh Medeka (GAM), an Islamic insurgency in the province of Aceh, the part of the country hit hardest by the disaster. Forced from its hideouts, the leadership of GAM proved willing to enter a truce with the Indonesian government. Yudhoyono reciprocated, establishing peace talks that have resulted in elections in Aceh.

As for the American side of the equation, rapid U.S. assistance after the tsunami, delivered by the U.S. military, transformed many Indonesians’ views. A recent poll conducted by the group Terror Free Tomorrow found favorable opinions toward the U.S. increasing in Indonesia, one of the few places in the world where this has occurred.

Direct military assistance also has been crucial. Here the U.S. has chosen wisely to play a behind-the-scenes role, dispatching advisers, communications technology, and weaponry rather than taking the point position itself. In the Philippine military’s operation against Abu Sayyaf this past winter, American tracking equipment was key, and U.S. advisers also helped the Philippine navy keep Abu Sayyaf blockaded on the island of Jolo. When it came time to announce the victory, the U.S. (and Australia, which also assisted) maintained a low profile, allowing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to take the credit. In the eyes of the Filipino public, then, the campaign against Abu Sayyaf has remained a Filipino operation.

In Indonesia, the U.S. helped to create a new 300-man elite counterterrorism force called Detachment 88, spending over $20 million on its training and equipment. It proved to be a good investment. Detachment 88 played a major role in dismantling JI’s leadership and helped lead the investigations of the Bali and Marriott bombings. In addition, the U.S. has persuaded the Southeast Asian nations to work together more closely, so that Americans no longer have to serve as the primary conduit for shared intelligence.

Beyond helping to track and kill terrorists, Washington has promoted economic development in the region and has tried to assist in settling local conflicts that very often have taken on an Islamic cast. In the southern Philippines, the U.S. has built new classrooms, medical clinics, roads, wells, and other social-welfare projects, spending over $250 million in aid since 2001. With Washington’s encouragement, Manila negotiated a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest insurgent group in the southern Philippines but one that had demonstrated a willingness to renounce terrorism and turn against Abu Sayyaf. Many locals now relay information about Abu Sayyaf to the government. Much the same has happened in Indonesia, where informers have become more cooperative in helping the authorities identify JI’s hideouts.

The progress in Southeast Asia can be exaggerated, of course. No one is predicting complete victory over the Islamists soon. Southern Thailand in particular remains a hub of radicalism, and the situation there seems to be escalating from intermittent terrorist attacks to all-out warfare between radical groups and the Thai military. Elsewhere, even with greater transnational cooperation, the region’s thousands of islands make it easy for terrorists to conceal themselves and to raise funds. JI has been wounded, but it remains dangerous, having balkanized into cells that probably do not communicate with each other and thus are more difficult to track.


Still, there are important lessons to draw from this relative success story. What the U.S. and its allies have done in the region might well be replicated elsewhere, not only in a deeply problematic country like Pakistan but also in the Muslim Middle East—at least in those countries where the regime itself is not the major threat.

For one thing, in Southeast Asia the U.S. moved quickly to help local forces stand on their own; from the start, the struggle against Islamism was a genuinely collaborative effort. Moreover, American forces have eschewed the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that could allow Islamist terrorists to cast their fight as a struggle against a foreign crusader. Southeast Asian politicians have been able to avoid charges of becoming American stooges.

Could a leader like Pervez Musharraf, who has allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to gain a sanctuary in northwestern Pakistan, be persuaded to cooperate more fully with Washington? Obviously, the threat that Musharraf faces is more lethal and comprehensive than the one in Southeast Asia, but there is reason to think that, with quiet support and encouragement, he might take a more active role in undermining the Islamists. If, for instance, the Pakistani government were to make a point of regularly screening footage of native-born suicide bombers, emphasizing the numbers of fellow Muslims they have killed, the impact on public opinion might resemble that in Southeast Asia. Something similar happened in Jordan where a 2005 attack on a hotel in Amman, which destroyed a Jordanian wedding party, helped turn public attitudes against radical Islamists.

As for direct assistance in fighting the terrorists, the lesson of recent experience in Southeast Asia is to rely less on military establishments—which, as in Iraq, have proved to be unreliable and often corrupt—than on specially trained forces, cordoned off from ordinary soldiers. Some elite units similar to Detachment 88 in Indonesia have already been created in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more should follow. Not only are they uniquely capable of familiarizing themselves with and exploiting local conditions, but their successes raise the morale of the armed forces as a whole.

Equally important, Southeast Asia’s elite units and police forces have won their victories through dogged investigative work, not by resorting to brutal interrogation techniques. In Indonesia, the Yudhoyono government has expanded its fight against terror while at the same instituting democratic reforms, establishing national human-rights bodies, and generally creating a more open, accountable government. With few reported incidents of abuse or torture, counterterrorism efforts in Southeast Asia continue to have a high standing in public opinion. By contrast, the much more coercive tactics of, for example, the Mubarak government in Egypt have tarnished the war on terror and made it easier for Islamists to stir up rage against the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies.

Transparent and well-managed development initiatives, like American aid in the southern Philippines, have also helped to ensure ongoing public support. Better oversight and management of such projects, including especially in Iraq, is critical if they are to win friends in fighting the Islamists.

For all of its glaring differences with the struggle in the Middle East, the less-studied “second front” against Islamism, in Southeast Asia, shows that even short-term gains may be enough to silence those who claim that the fight is essentially unwinnable. The dramatic reversal that has taken place in the region in a few short years offers some hope that the dire conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq might yet be turned around. Five years ago, it should be remembered, Indonesia refused even to admit it had a terror problem. Today, Indonesians recognize that the war on terror is their war too, and willingly spill their own blood in prosecuting it.


* See my article “Jihad in Jakarta” in the May 2004 COMMENTARY.

About the Author:
Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World.


How a British jihadi saw the light

Ed Hussain, once a proponent of radical Islam in London, tells how his time as a teacher in Saudi Arabia led him to turn against extremism

The Sunday Times [London], April 21, 2007

During our first two months in Jeddah, Faye and I relished our new and luxurious lifestyle: a shiny jeep, two swimming pools, domestic help, and a tax-free salary. The luxury of living in a modern city with a developed infrastructure cocooned me from the frightful reality of life in Saudi Arabia.

My goatee beard and good Arabic ensured that I could pass for an Arab.

But looking like a young Saudi was not enough: I had to act Saudi, be Saudi. And here I failed.

My first clash with Saudi culture came when, being driven around in a bulletproof jeep, I saw African women in black abayas tending to the rubbish bins outside restaurants, residences and other busy places.

“Why are there so many black cleaners on the streets?” I asked the driver. The driver laughed. “They’re not cleaners. They are scavengers; women who collect cardboard from all across Jeddah and then sell it. They also collect bottles, drink cans, bags.”

“You don’t find it objectionable that poor immigrant women work in such undignified and unhygienic conditions on the streets?”

“Believe me, there are worse jobs women can do.”

Though it grieves me to admit it, the driver was right. In Saudi Arabia women indeed did do worse jobs. Many of the African women lived in an area of Jeddah known as Karantina, a slum full of poverty, prostitution and disease.

A visit to Karantina, a perversion of the term “quarantine”, was one of the worst of my life. Thousands of people who had been living in Saudi Arabia for decades, but without passports, had been deemed “illegal” by the government and, quite literally, abandoned under a flyover.

A non-Saudi black student I had met at the British Council accompanied me. “Last week a woman gave birth here,” he said, pointing to a ramshackle cardboard shanty. Disturbed, I now realised that the materials I had seen those women carrying were not always for sale but for shelter.

I had never expected to see such naked poverty in Saudi Arabia.

At that moment it dawned on me that Britain, my home, had given refuge to thousands of black Africans from Somalia and Sudan: I had seen them in their droves in Whitechapel. They prayed, had their own mosques, were free and were given government housing.

Many Muslims enjoyed a better lifestyle in non-Muslim Britain than they did in Muslim Saudi Arabia. At that moment I longed to be home again.

All my talk of ummah seemed so juvenile now. It was only in the comfort of Britain that Islamists could come out with such radical utopian slogans as one government, one ever expanding country, for one Muslim nation. The racist reality of the Arab psyche would never accept black and white people as equal.

Standing in Karantina that day, I reminisced and marvelled over what I previously considered as wrong: mixed-race, mixed-religion marriages. The students to whom I described life in modern multi-ethnic Britain could not comprehend that such a world of freedom, away from “normal” Saudi racism, could exist.

Racism was an integral part of Saudi society. My students often used the word “nigger” to describe black people. Even dark-skinned Arabs were considered inferior to their lighter-skinned cousins. I was living in the world’s most avowedly Muslim country, yet I found it anything but. I was appalled by the imposition of Wahhabism in the public realm, something I had implicitly sought as an Islamist.

Part of this local culture consisted of public institutions being segregated and women banned from driving on the grounds that it would give rise to “licentiousness”. I was repeatedly astounded at the stares Faye got from Saudi men and I from Saudi women.

Faye was not immodest in her dress. Out of respect for local custom, she wore the long black abaya and covered her hair in a black scarf. In all the years I had known my wife, never had I seen her appear so dull. Yet on two occasions she was accosted by passing Saudi youths from their cars. On another occasion a man pulled up beside our car and offered her his phone number.

In supermarkets I only had to be away from Faye for five minutes and Saudi men would hiss or whisper obscenities as they walked past. When Faye discussed her experiences with local women at the British Council they said: “Welcome to Saudi Arabia.”

After a month in Jeddah I heard from an Asian taxi driver about a Filipino worker who had brought his new bride to live with him in Jeddah. After visiting the Balad shopping district the couple caught a taxi home. Some way through their journey the Saudi driver complained that the car was not working properly and perhaps the man could help push it. The passenger obliged. Within seconds the Saudi driver had sped off with the man’s wife in his car and, months later, there was still no clue as to her whereabouts.

We had heard stories of the abduction of women from taxis by sex-deprived Saudi youths. At a Saudi friend’s wedding at a luxurious hotel in Jeddah, women dared not step out of their hotel rooms and walk to the banqueting hall for fear of abduction by the bodyguards of a Saudi prince who also happened to be staying there.

Why had the veil and segregation not prevented such behaviour? My Saudi acquaintances, many of them university graduates, argued strongly that, on the contrary, it was the veil and other social norms that were responsible for such widespread sexual frustration among Saudi youth.

At work the British Council introduced free internet access for educational purposes. Within days the students had downloaded the most obscene pornography from sites banned in Saudi Arabia, but easily accessed via the British Council’s satellite connection. Segregation of the sexes, made worse by the veil, had spawned a culture of pent-up sexual frustration that expressed itself in the unhealthiest ways.

Using Bluetooth technology on mobile phones, strangers sent pornographic clips to one another. Many of the clips were recordings of homosexual acts between Saudis and many featured young Saudis in orgies in Lebanon and Egypt. The obsession with sex in Saudi Arabia had reached worrying levels: rape and abuse of both sexes occurred frequently, some cases even reaching the usually censored national press.

My students told me about the day in March 2002 when the Muttawa [the religious police] had forbidden firefighters in Mecca from entering a blazing school building because the girls inside were not wearing veils. Consequently 15 young women burnt to death, but Wahhabism held its head high, claiming that God’s law had been maintained.

As a young Islamist, I organised events at college and in the local community that were strictly segregated and I believed in it. Living in Saudi Arabia, I could see the logical outcome of such segregation.

In my Islamist days we relished stating that Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases were the result of the moral degeneracy of the West. Large numbers of Islamists in Britain hounded prostitutes in Brick Lane and flippantly quoted divorce and abortion rates in Britain. The implication was that Muslim morality was superior. Now, more than ever, I was convinced that this too was Islamist propaganda, designed to undermine the West and inject false confidence in Muslim minds.

I worried whether my observations were idiosyncratic, the musings of a wandering mind. I discussed my troubles with other British Muslims working at the British Council. Jamal, who was of a Wahhabi bent, fully agreed with what I observed and went further. “Ed, my wife wore the veil back home in Britain and even there she did not get as many stares as she gets when we go out here.” Another British Muslim had gone as far as tinting his car windows black in order to prevent young Saudis gaping at his wife.

The problems of Saudi Arabia were not limited to racism and sexual frustration.

In contemporary Wahhabism there are two broad factions. One is publicly supportive of the House of Saud, and will endorse any policy decision reached by the Saudi government and provide scriptural justification for it. The second believes that the House of Saud should be forcibly removed and the Wahhabi clerics take charge. Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are from the second school.

In Mecca, Medina and Jeddah I met young men with angry faces from Europe, students at various Wahhabi seminaries. They reminded me of my extremist days.

They were candid in discussing their frustrations with Saudi Arabia. The country was not sufficiently Islamic; it had strayed from the teachings of Wahhabism. They were firmly on the side of the monarchy and the clerics who supported it. Soon they were to return to the West, well versed in Arabic, fully indoctrinated by Wahhabism, to become imams in British mosques.

By the summer of 2005 Faye and I had only eight weeks left in Saudi Arabia before we would return home to London. Thursday, July 7, was the beginning of the Saudi weekend. Faye and I were due to lunch with Sultan, a Saudi banker who was financial adviser to four government ministers. I wanted to gauge what he and his wife, Faye’s student, thought about life inside the land of their birth.

On television that morning we watched the developing story of a power cut on the London Underground. As the cameras focused on King’s Cross, Edgware Road, Aldgate and Russell Square, I looked on with a mixture of interest and homesickness. Soon the power-cut story turned into shell-shocked reportage of a series of terrorist bombings.

My initial suspicion was that the perpetrators were Saudis. My experience of them, their virulence towards my non-Muslim friends, their hate-filled textbooks, made me think that Bin Laden’s Saudi soldiers had now targeted my home town. It never crossed my mind that the rhetoric of jihad introduced to Britain by Hizb ut-Tahrir could have anything to do with such horror.

My sister avoided the suicide attack on Aldgate station by four minutes. On the previous day London had won the Olympic bid. At the British Council we had celebrated along with the nation that was now in mourning.

The G8 summit in Scotland had also been derailed by events further south. The summit, thanks largely to the combined efforts of Tony Blair and Bob Geldof, had been set to tackle poverty in Africa. Now it was forced to address Islamist terrorism; Arab grievances had hijacked the agenda again.

The fact that hundreds of children die in Africa every day would be of no relevance to a committed Islamist. In the extremist mind the plight of the tiny Palestinian nation is more important than the deaths of millions of black Africans. Let them die, they’re not Muslims, would be the unspoken line of argument. As an Islamist it was only the suffering of Muslims that had moved me. Now human suffering mattered to me, regardless of religion.

Faye and I were glued to the television for hours. Watching fellow Londoners come out of Tube stations injured and mortified, but facing the world with a defiant sense of dignity, made me feel proud to be British.

We met Sultan and his wife at an Indian restaurant near the British Council. Sultan was in his early thirties and his wife in her late twenties. They had travelled widely and seemed much more liberal than most Saudis I had met. Behind a makeshift partition, the restaurant surroundings were considered private and his wife, to my amazement, removed her veil.

We discussed our travels.

Sultan spoke fondly of his time in London, particularly his placement at Coutts as a trainee banker. We then moved on to the subject uppermost in my mind, the terrorist attacks on London. My host did not really seem to care. He expressed no real sympathy or shock, despite speaking so warmly of his time in London.

“I suppose they will say Bin Laden was behind the attacks. They blamed us for 9/11,” he said.

Keen to take him up on his comment, I asked him: “Based on your education in Saudi Arabian schools, do you think there is a connection between the form of Islam children are taught here and the action of 15 Saudi men on September 11?”

Without thinking, his immediate response was, ‘No. No, because Saudis were not behind 9/11. The plane hijackers were not Saudi men. One thousand two hundred and forty-six Jews were absent from work on that day and there is the proof that they, the Jews, were behind the killings. Not Saudis.”

It was the first time I heard so precise a number of Jewish absentees. I sat there pondering on the pan-Arab denial of the truth, a refusal to accept that the Wahhabi jihadi terrorism festering in their midst had inflicted calamities on the entire world.

In my class the following Sunday, the beginning of the Saudi working week, were nearly 60 Saudis. Only one mentioned the London bombings.

“Was your family harmed?” he asked.

“My sister missed an explosion by four minutes but otherwise they’re all fine, thank you.”

The student, before a full class, sighed and said: “There are no benefits in terrorism. Why do people kill innocents?”

Two others quickly gave him his answer in Arabic: “There are benefits. They will feel how we feel.”

I was livid. “Excuse me?” I said. “Who will know how it feels?”

“We don’t mean you, teacher,” said one. “We are talking about people in England. You are here. They need to know how Iraqis and Palestinians feel.”

“The British people have been bombed by the IRA for years,” I retorted. “Londoners were bombed by Hitler during the blitz. The largest demonstrations against the war in Iraq were in London. People in Britain don’t need to be taught what it feels like to be bombed.”

Several students nodded in agreement. The argumentative ones became quiet. Were they convinced by what I had said? It was difficult to tell.

Two weeks after the terrorist attacks in London another Saudi student raised his hand and asked: “Teacher, how can I go to London?”

“Much depends on your reason for going to Britain. Do you want to study or just be a tourist?”

“Teacher, I want to go London next month. I want bomb, big bomb in London, again. I want make jihad!”

“What?” I exclaimed. Another student raised both hands and shouted: “Me too! Me too!”

Other students applauded those who had just articulated what many of them were thinking. I was incandescent. In protest I walked out of the classroom to a chorus of jeering and catcalls.

My time in Saudi Arabia bolstered my conviction that an austere form of Islam (Wahhabism) married to a politicised Islam (Islamism) is wreaking havoc in the world. This anger-ridden ideology, an ideology I once advocated, is not only a threat to Islam and Muslims, but to the entire civilised world.

I vowed, in my own limited way, to fight those who had hijacked my faith, defamed my prophet and killed thousands of my own people: the human race. I was encouraged when Tony Blair announced on August 5, 2005, plans to proscribe an array of Islamist organisations that operated in Britain, foremost among them Hizb ut-Tahrir.

At the time I was impressed by Blair’s resolve. The Hizb should have been outlawed a decade ago and so spared many of us so much misery. Sadly the legislation was shelved last year amid fears that a ban would only add to the group’s attraction, so it remains both legal and active today. But it is not too late.

© Ed Husain 2007


A Lesson In Hate

How an Egyptian student came to study 1950s America and left determined to wage holy war

By David Von Drehle

Smithsonian Magazine, Feb 2006
Before Sayyid Qutb became a leading theorist of violent jihad, he was a little-known Egyptian writer sojourning in the United States, where he attended a small teachers college on the Great Plains. Greeley, Colorado, circa 1950 was the last place one might think to look for signs of American decadence. Its wide streets were dotted with churches, and there wasn’t a bar in the whole temperate town. But the courtly Qutb (COO-tub) saw things that others did not. He seethed at the brutishness of the people around him: the way they salted their watermelon and drank their tea unsweetened and watered their lawns. He found the muscular football players appalling and despaired of finding a barber who could give a proper haircut. As for the music: “The American’s enjoyment of jazz does not fully begin until he couples it with singing like crude screaming,” Qutb wrote when he returned to Egypt. “It is this music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires.”

Such grumbling by an unhappy crank would be almost comical but for one fact: a direct line of influence runs from Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden, and to bin Laden’s Egyptian partner in terror, Ayman al-Zawahiri. From them, the line continues to another quietly seething Egyptian sojourning in the United States—the 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. Qutb’s gripes about America require serious attention because they cast light on a question that has been nagging since the fall of the World Trade Center: Why do they hate us?

Born in 1906 in the northern Egyptian village of Musha and raised in a devout Muslim home, Qutb memorized the Koran as a boy. Later he moved to Cairo and found work as a teacher and writer. His novels made no great impression, but he earned a reputation as an astute literary critic. Qutb was among the first champions of Naguib Mahfouz, a young, modern novelist who, in 1988, would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. As Qutb matured, his mind took on a more political cast. Even by the standards of Egypt, those were chaotic, corrupt times: World War I had completed the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, and the Western powers were creating, with absolute colonial confidence, new maps and governments for the Middle East. For a proud man like Sayyid Qutb, the humiliation of his country at the hands of secular leaders and Western puppets was galling. His writing drew unfavorable attention from the Egyptian government, and by 1948, Mahfouz has said, Qutb’s friends in the Ministry of Education were sufficiently worried about his situation that they contrived to send him abroad to the safety of the United States.

Some biographical sketches suggest that Qutb arrived with a benign view of America, but if that’s true it didn’t last long. During a short stay in Washington, D.C., he witnessed the commotion surrounding an elevator accident and was stunned to hear other onlookers making a joke of the victim’s appearance. From this and a few offhand remarks in other settings, Qutb concluded that Americans suffered from “a drought of sentimental sympathy” and that “Americans intentionally deride what people in the Old World hold sacred.”

This became the lens through which Qutb read nearly every American encounter—a clash of New World versus Old. Qutb easily satisfied the requirements at the graduate school of the Colorado State College of Education (now known as the University of Northern Colorado) and devoted the rest of his time to his true interest—the American soul, if such a thing existed. “This great America: What is its worth in the scale of human values?” Qutb wondered. “And what does it add to the moral account of humanity?” His answer: nothing.

Still, Qutb’s contempt for America was not as simple as some people might now imagine. He did not recoil from political freedom and democracy, as, say, President Bush might expect from a jihadi theorist, nor did he complain about shades of imperial ambition in American foreign policy, as writers on the left might suppose. Regarding the excesses of American culture—vulgarity, materialism and promiscuity—Qutb expressed shock, but it rang a bit hollow. “The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity,” he wrote. “She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.” These curvy jezebels pursued boys with “wide, strapping chest[s]” and “ox muscles,” Qutb added with disgust. Yet no matter how lascivious his adjectives, the fastidious, unmarried Egyptian could not convincingly portray the church dances and Look magazines he encountered in sleepy Greeley as constituting a genuine sexual “jungle.”

The core problem with the United States, for Qutb, was not something Americans did, but simply what America was—“the New World…is spellbinding.” It was more than a land of pleasures without limit. In America, unlike in Egypt, dreams could come true. Qutb understood the danger this posed: America’s dazzle had the power to blind people to the real zenith of civilization, which for Qutb began with Muhammad in the seventh century and reached its apex in the Middle Ages, carried triumphantly by Muslim armies.

Qutb rejected the idea that “new” was also “improved.” The Enlightenment, the Industrial Age—modernity itself—were not progress. “The true value of every civilization…lies not in the tools man has invented or in how much power he wields,” Qutb wrote. “The value of civilizations lay in what universal truths and worldviews they have attained.” The modern obsession with science and invention was a moral regression to the primitive condition of the first toolmakers. Qutb’s America was bursting with raw energy and appetite, but utterly without higher virtues. In his eyes, its “interminable, incalculable expanses of virgin land” were settled by “groups of adventurers and groups of criminals” who lacked the time and reflection required for a civilized life. Qutb’s Americans “faced the uncharted forests, the tortuous mountain mazes, the fields of ice, the thundering hurricanes, and the beasts, serpents and vermin of the forest” in a struggle that left them numb to “faith in religion, faith in art and faith in spiritual values altogether.”

This portrait likely would have surprised the people of mid-century Greeley, had they somehow become aware of the unspoken opinions of their somewhat frosty neighbor. Theirs was a friendly town best known for the unpretentious college and for the cattle feedlots sprawling pungently on its outskirts. The founding of Greeley in the 1870s involved no ice fields, hurricanes or serpents. Instead, it began with a simple newspaper column written by Nathan Meeker, agricultural editor of the New York Tribune. On December 14, 1869, Meeker appealed to literate readers of high moral character to join him in building a utopian community by the South Platte River near the foot of the Rocky Mountains. More than 3,000 readers applied; from this list Meeker selected the 700 best qualified to realize his vision of a sober, godly, cooperative community. The town was dubbed Greeley in honor of Meeker’s boss at the Tribune, the quixotic publisher Horace Greeley, who died within weeks of his failed run for president in 1872, just as the project was gathering steam.

Poet and journalist Sara Lippincott was an early visitor to the frontier outpost, and later wrote about it under her pen name, Grace Greenwood. “You’ll die of dullness in less than five hours,” another traveler had warned her about Greeley. “There is nothing there but irrigation. Your host will invite you out to see him irrigate his potato-patch…there is not a billiard-saloon in the whole camp, nor a drink of whiskey to be had for love or money.” None of that made any difference to Qutb, who saw only what he already believed, and wrote not facts, but his own truth, in his 1951 essay, “The America I Have Seen.”

Sayyid Qutb cut short his stay in America and returned to Egypt in 1951 after the assassination of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the nationalist, religious and militant movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the next decade and a half, often writing from prison, Qutb refined a violent political theology from the raw anti-modernism of his American interlude. Virtually the entire modern world, Qutb theorized, is jahiliyya, that barbarous state that existed before Muhammad. Only the strict, unchanging law of the prophet can redeem this uncivilized condition. Nearly a millennium of history became, to the radicalized Qutb, an offense wrought by the violence of jahili “Crusaders” and the supposed perfidy of the Jews. And Muslim leaders allied with the West were no better than the Crusaders themselves. Therefore, Qutb called all true Muslims to jihad, or Holy War, against jahiliyya—which is to say, against modernity, which America so powerfully represents.

This philosophy led to Qutb’s execution in 1966. Proud to the end, he refused to accept the secular Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s offer of mercy in exchange for Qutb’s repudiation of his jihad. Nasser may have silenced a critic, but the martyrdom of Sayyid Qutb accelerated his movement. The same year the philosopher was hanged, according to journalist Lawrence Wright, the teenage al-Zawahiri formed his first violent cell, dedicated to the overthrow of the Egyptian government and the creation of an Islamist state. Meanwhile, Qutb’s brother Muhammad went into exile in Saudi Arabia, where he taught at King Abdul Aziz University. One of his students, an heir to the country’s largest construction fortune, was Osama bin Laden.

Others have taken Qutb’s ideas in less apocalyptic directions, so that M.A. Muqtedar Khan of the Brookings Institution can rank him alongside the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran as “one of the major architects and ‘strategists’ of contemporary Islamic revival.” But the last paragraphs of Qutb’s American memoir suggest just how far outside normal discourse his mind was wont to stray. After noting the stupidity of his Greeley neighbors, who failed to understand his dry and cutting jokes, Qutb writes: “In summary, anything that requires a touch of elegance is not for the American, even haircuts! For there was not one instance in which I had a haircut there when I did not return home to even with my own hands what the barber had wrought.” This culminating example of inescapable barbarism led directly to his conclusion. “Humanity makes the gravest of errors and risks losing its account of morals, if it makes America its example.”

Turning a haircut into a matter of grave moral significance is the work of a fanatic. That’s the light ultimately cast by Qutb’s American experience on the question of why his disciples might hate us. Hating America for its haircuts cannot be distinguished from hating for no sane reason at all.


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