Al-Qaeda and all the other components of the Salafi-jihadi (or Islamist) front are on the verge of scoring a major double blow. Unlike September 11, now their fight not only is being recognized by top Islamic scholars as legitimate, but they have also managed to capitalize on major blunders in the “war on terror” to strengthen the anti-imperialist, anti-US impulse among global, moderate Muslims. How did that happen?

At the time of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri made two crucial mistakes. First, because of their isolation, they didn’t notice that most Afghans had had enough of the Taliban. The Pashtun did not support the Taliban because they would be the vanguard of a worldwide jihad against the US (it was never the Taliban’s intention), rather, the Pashtuns gave their support over more mundane topics, such as maintaining law and order and keeping Pashtun supremacy.

Second, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri overestimated the reaction of the Arab street. They didn’t understand that the average Arab living in the Middle East – or in Western Europe – may indeed express a lot of grievances toward US foreign policy, but this did not translate into solid, political mobilization. If it ever happened, political activity would be set off by events in Palestine and Iraq – Arab, and not Islamic, problems. Thus, sensationally plunging Boeings-turned-into-missiles into the heart of the American power elite did not show the Promised Land to the alienated masses.

The “war on terror” – the American response to al-Qaeda – was a meaningless metaphor in the first place because al-Qaeda essentially poses a security problem. It is not a strategic threat. At least it was not until its recent mutation – after Guantanamo, the invasion of Iraq and the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Jihad or not jihad

The new geopolitical configuration represents a tremendous victory for al-Qaeda and the Islamist camp. Especially because they are not Salafis. Salafism was conceived by Jalaluddin al-Afghani in the late 19th century as a reform movement capable of equipping Islam to fight Western colonialism. But to put it bluntly, al-Afghani had very little in common with Mullah Omar, the Taliban emir, he was a political activist, not a theologian.

The Salafis were the embryo of the Muslim Brotherhood and the contemporary Islamists, al-Qaeda among them. Al-Afghani is considered a “founding father.” But if Salafism was originally an instrument to fight Western domination, it soon ceased to be a global political project to modernize the Muslim world. Salafism today is an ultra-conservative program to purify Islam from cultural influences – Muslim as well as Western.

That’s where Salafis intersect with the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabis, the Taliban and the Hizbut Tehrir are Salafis. Al-Qaeda, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, the Jaish-e-Muhammad and Sipha-e-Sahaba in Pakistan – the constellation usually described as “Islamist” – go one step further: they are Salafi-jihadis, considering jihad to be a personal, religious duty of every Muslim.

For Salafis there’s essentially nothing to be learned from the West. “Moderate” Salafis at least concede that non-belligerent infidels – ie most of the world’s population – should be well treated. The main difference between Salafis and Salafi-jihadist is that Salafis totally reject the concept of Islamic ideology, as well as any Western conceptual category (political parties, constitution, revolution, social justice). This means that Salafis don’t even recognize political struggle as a means to establishing an Islamic state. For them, the soul of each individual Muslim takes precedence over politics: this is a consequence of the fact that Western (“infidel”) domination happened because of the loss of true Islamic faith. Salafi-jihadis for their part are much more politicized – even though their political agenda is fuzzy at best.

Sayyid Qutb – the Egyptian intellectual mentor of al-Zawahiri, killed by the Nasser government in 1966 – almost managed to bridge the gap between Salafis and Salafi-jihadis. As Adam Curtis masterfully demonstrated in his three-part BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares – which had its world premiere as a feature film this past weekend at the Cannes Film Festival – Qutb is to al-Qaeda what Leo Strauss is to the American neo-conservatives. Qutb encouraged political action, but at the same time had a profoundly pessimistic view of the modern world, combined with venomous contempt of all things Western – the reason for his appeal among Salafis.

The crucial “jihad or not jihad” dilemma is a political decision. It’s impossible to accuse Salafis – like the neo-conservatives do – of defending a theology of violence per se. When an Islamic religious leader favors jihad, it’s always a political decision, even though it’s always framed as religious dictum. In 2001, both the highly-respected Sheik Yousef al-Qardawi – host of an extremely popular show on al-Jazeera – and the new grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Muhammad al-Sheikh, issued fatwas (decrees) condemning September 11 as un-Islamic, clearly at odds with al-Qaeda’s interpretation of jihad. On the other hand it’s possible to find many mainstream Salafis who are opposed to Qutb – for religious reasons – but favor jihad and al-Qaeda (as a legitimate means of defending Islam against the West).

The revolutionary vanguard

The main challenge for the Salafi-jihadist (or Islamists) has always been how to “convert” modernized, well-educated Muslims – from the wealthy Kuwaiti, Saudi, Jordanian middle classes to the dilapidated suburbs of London and Marseilles – to what is essentially a political struggle.

So it’s important to re-examine the role of Abdullah Azzam, the Muslim Brotherhood Palestinian carrying a Jordanian passport who founded the Maktab al-Khidamat (the Office of Services) in Peshawar in the early 1980s – the embryo of what would become known as al-Qaeda.

Crucially, Azzam was neither a Salafi nor a Wahhabi. He thought at the time that the only winning jihad strategy was to fight for the liberation of the entire Islamic ummah (community). The anti-Soviet Afghan jihad was at hand (the 1980s) and it would be the perfect model. Afghanistan for Azzam was essentially a training ground for the revolutionary vanguard which would lead the ummah in a war of resistance against the West. Azzam was never interested in creating an Islamic state in Afghanistan. Also crucially, he never targeted civilians, and never even thought of conducting a terrorist bombing. Al-Qaeda’s harsher and more lethal tactics had nothing to do with Azzam: the transformation was operated by Osama and al-Zawahiri – blessed by their powerful Saudi and Pakistani sponsors/protectors.

After al-Qaeda lost its Afghan sanctuary, it adapted extremely fast. It’s fair to say that now in many ways it is reverting to some of Azzam’s conceptualization. It stopped behaving as a sect (it never had a political branch, a student branch or a press office, apart from the sporadic bin Laden or al-Zawahiri videos). It abandoned any pretence of finding a new training ground: the actual “Talibanistan” in the Pakistani Northwest Frontier Province might be a candidate – but it’s infested with Pakistani troops and US intelligence.

Mounting American and European Islamophobia, and in many cases successful police action, made it extremely hard for the Salafi-jihadist to touch Muslims living in the West: they subsist in almost total isolation and alienation. The answer was franchising – but importantly the spreading of the Salafi-jihadist ideological message. Experts at a clandestine European Union terrorist monitoring cell in Brussels tell Asia Times Online that they fear extreme left movements in many European Union countries may be getting closer and closer to the Islamists. The war in Iraq has already led Salafi-jihadists to forge a close relationship with former Ba’athists.

The enemy within

When bin Laden and al-Zawahiri called for a worldwide jihad they failed. Movements of national liberation in Islam – like in Palestine and Chechnya – were the biggest losers. All over Islam there was heated discussion over al-Qaeda’s strategy – if there was any. Should everyone revert to purveying dawah (propaganda, political proselytism) instead of jihad?

But now Islamic scholars from Morocco to Malaysia are finally legitimizing al-Qaeda as a Muqadamul Jaish – a revolutionary vanguard. This Western concept was unheard of in Islam – well, at least until the symbolically-charged spring of 2003, when Baghdad was “liberated” by President George W Bush’s Christian armies.

As much as al-Qaeda is a Western concoction – once again, the concept of revolutionary vanguard simply does not exist in Islam – its internationalism is now merging with the only other global protest movement: the anti-globalization, anti-American imperialism brigade. Al-Qaeda and the Islamist front nevertheless still face a daunting task: if they want more Western allies, they have to abdicate from their Islamic platform. And if they want more allies in the Muslim world, they have to be much less radical. Even though al-Qaeda is configured as an heir to the extreme left and pro-Third World radical movements of the 1970s, al-Qaeda’s latest success is undoubtedly in the Muslim world.

Al-Qaeda’s only strategic goal is trapping the US, but Washington helped al-Qaeda by trapping itself in Iraq, and in still another, dangerous form of hubris, Bush’s Greater Middle East. Al-Qaeda’s dream of mobilizing the ummah by way of jihad may have taken a backseat role, but who needs it when you have reports of Korans flushed down the toilet? The Newsweek controversy reveals to the fullest extent how al-Qaeda may be reaching its goal of politicizing the masses through other means. No wonder the White House, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice all reacted furiously – blaming the (media) messenger to obscure the evident message (Islamophobia).

Al-Qaeda now also benefits from counter-propaganda. For example, this past weekend, al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers – supposed to be the denomination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group (if he is not just a cipher) – accused the Pentagon of fabricating the sectarian violence in Iraq. The document lists “dirty methods [the Americans] use for targeting jihad,” like “attacking homes with mortar rounds to later put the blame on the mujahideen for such mindless attacks,” or “setting up IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the side of the road near a school or a hospital and then the American savior comes in shining armor to dismantle the device, witnessed by the people in the area as a hero risking himself for Muslims.”

As for the nonstop car bombings, the document says that “some [Americans] conceal a bomb in the trunk of a car while they search it in a check point and then detonate it at a distance in the right place and time, or they target certain cars by helicopter gunships so it would look like there was a person [bomber] who detonated a car bomb.”

Whether any of these claims are verifiable or true is beside the point. The point is that they are written and widely broadcast in Arabic, and they stick. Muslims, especially in the Sunni Arab world, but also all over Islam, tend to believe them in increasing numbers, considering the moral swamp the US put itself in after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the virtual leveling of Fallujah.

So if al-Qaeda is winning Muslim hearts and minds, the Bush administration has only itself to blame. Considering all the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric and a “war on terror” bound to last indefinitely, as Vice President Dick Cheney himself said on the record, it may have been the original intent anyway.