The Magazine

Al Qaeda In Iraq

How to understand it. How to defeat it.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Al Qaeda In Iraq is part of the global al Qaeda movement. AQI, as the U.S. military calls it, is around 90 percent Iraqi. Foreign fighters, however, predominate in the leadership and among the suicide bombers, of whom they comprise up to 90 percent, U.S. commanders say. The leader of AQI is Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian. His predecessor, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was a Jordanian.

Because the members of AQI are overwhelmingly Iraqis--often thugs and misfits recruited or dragooned into the organization (along with some clerics and more educated leaders)--it is argued that AQI is not really part of the global al Qaeda movement. Therefore, it is said, the war in Iraq is not part of the global war on terror: The "real" al Qaeda--Osama bin Laden's band, off in its safe havens in the Pakistani tribal areas of Waziristan and Baluchistan--is the group to fight. Furthermore, argue critics of this persuasion, we should be doing this fighting through precise, intelligence-driven airstrikes or Special Forces attacks on key leaders, not the deployment of large conventional forces, which only stirs resentment in Muslim countries and creates more terrorists.

Over the past four years, the war in Iraq has provided abundant evidence to dispute these assertions.


Al Qaeda is an organization pursuing an ideology. Both the organization and the ideology must be defeated. Just as, in the Cold War, the contest between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its captive nations was the real-world manifestation of an ideological struggle, so today, the global war on terror is a real-world contest between the United States and its allies and al Qaeda and its enablers. We can hope to defeat the ideology only by defeating its champion, al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda's ideology is the lineal descendant of a school of thought articulated most compellingly by the Egyptian revolutionary Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s and 1960s, with an admixture of Wahhabism, Deobandi thought, or simple, mainstream Sunni chauvinism, depending on where and by what group it is propounded.

Qutb blended a radical interpretation of Muslim theology with the Marxism-Leninism and anticolonial fervor of the Egypt of his day to produce an Islamic revolutionary movement. He argued that the secularism and licentious (by his extreme standards) behavior of most Muslims was destroying the true faith and returning the Islamic world to the state of jahiliyyah, or ignorance of the word of God, which prevailed before Muhammad. The growing secularism of Muslim states particularly bothered him. According to his interpretation, God alone has the power to make laws and to judge. When men make laws and judge each other according to secular criteria, they are usurping God's prerogatives. All who obey such leaders, according to Qutb, are treating their leaders as gods and therefore are guilty of the worst sin--polytheism. Thus they are--and this is the key point--not true Muslims, but unbelievers, regardless of whether they otherwise obey Muslim law and practice.

This is the defining characteristic of al Qaeda's ideology, which is properly called "takfirism" (even though al Qaeda fighters do not use the term). The word "takfir" designates the process of declaring a person to be an unbeliever because of the way he practices his faith. Takfir violates the religious understanding of most of the world's Muslims, for the Koran prescribes only five requirements for a Muslim (acknowledgment of the oneness of God, prayer, charitable giving, the fast, and the pilgrimage to Mecca) and specifies that anyone who observes them is a Muslim. The takfiris insist that anyone who obeys a human government is a polytheist and therefore violates the first premise of Islam, the shahada (the assertion that "There is no god but God"), even though Muslims have lived in states with temporal rulers for most of their history. The chief reason al Qaeda has limited support in the Muslim world is that the global Muslim community overwhelmingly rejects the premise that anyone obeying a temporal ruler is ipso facto an unbeliever.