A Spreading Islamic Fire

Americans are nothing if not self-assured, especially about their most cherished values. What's wrong with freedom and the pursuit of happiness? So it's all a bit puzzling. Why should America now be the enemy? Is the Islamic fundamentalist threat a kind of clash of civilizations--a permanent struggle that feeds on deep-seated resistance to Western values? So it might seem, at first. Osama bin Laden, who clearly knows what resonates with his legions, likes to cast his struggle in such stark terms. He has claimed that it is "an individual duty" for Muslims to kill Americans, civilian and military, wherever they are found. Counterterrorism officials say bin Laden's grand plan is to drive the United States out of the Muslim world entirely, then replace moderate governments with fundamentalist Islamic states. And ultimately? Well, one bin Laden-inspired cell in Chechnya has posted a global map of Islamist power on the Internet--and it projects a world that in 100 years will be entirely Muslim green (the religion's traditional symbolic color).

This is obviously a fanciful ambition. Bin Laden operates more like a venture capitalist than the head of a conquering army. Think of him as the chairman of Jihad Inc., together with its subsidiary, Jihad.com. The question is how powerful this multinational force has become. In the occupied West Bank, in devastated Chechnya and embattled Kashmir, in parts of Indonesia and the Philippines, even in areas where Muslims make up large majorities, Islamist extremists are on the move and in contact with each other, however tenuously. They are increasingly linked together by the Internet--the flip side of the all-too-rosy American view that the Web is quickening Western-style globalization. For many Islamic extremists, their main obstacle is the lone superpower: America the Evil Empire. "The Muslims have global thoughts just as much as Americans," says Maj. Ehsan ul-Haq, an ex-officer of the Pakistani Army who trained with U.S. Green Berets, and who is now a commander in the Muslim jihad in Kashmir. "There's the American New World Order, and this world order," he says, putting his hand on the Qur'an. "The whole of the globe belongs to Allah, and the whole of [Allah's] law has to be executed on the globe."

Yet the Islamists' goals are often diverse. And what may look to the West like an uprising of the entire Islamic world is, in fact, still disowned by the vast majority of Muslims around the globe. "We don't believe in these people," says Tahira Shamsher, a fervently devout Muslim housewife from Lahore, Pakistan. "They are exploiting Islam, these groups." When Islamist firebrands call for Holy War, or jihad, it's in the language of victims fighting for justice against repressive governments, against despised Hindus or Christians, Jews or Muslims from other sects. Washington is often portrayed only as a shadowy bugaboo behind it all, one that is interested in maintaining the status quo they despise. There is even some evidence that antiglobalization sentiment, the kind that has set off protests from Seattle to Zurich, is feeding Islamic fervor--especially in Southeast Asia, where several economies are still in recession. To poor, uneducated Muslims, radical Islamic groups can seem to be the only ones fighting for their interests.

Certainly the spread of jihad today is nothing like the Islamic revolution that Iran tried to launch throughout the Middle East in the 1980s. A second surge of fundamentalist violence came in the 1990s, when Arab veterans of the Afghan war went home to Egypt and Algeria vowing to turn them into Islamic states. Tens of thousands of people died. But the insurrections failed. All of which helps explain why bin Laden is today hiding out with almost no place to run. Bin Laden, who helped train and fund many of those Islamic revolutionaries, was cornered in Afghanistan when he began his most vehement diatribes against the United States in 1996. Having failed to back winners in clashes with Arab governments, he started talking about the clash of civilizations. Yet when agents allegedly linked to bin Laden bombed the U.S. embassies in Africa, the carnage appalled even other Islamic fundamentalists.

In the last few years coordination among Muslim militant and terrorist groups, to the extent that it exists, appears more a matter of loose, casual networking than of tightly linked networks. Radicals have stepped up their activities among the Uighurs of China, in the Moluccas of Indonesia and on Mindanao in the Philippines. Juma Namangani's Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is cutting a wide swath through some of the exhausted Central Asian republics. Some members of these groups may have met in the camps of Afghanistan; even taken money and counsel from bin Laden. But they are trading on old grievances, with their own local agendas. If there were no overarching issue to pull them together, the threat of global jihad might continue to slowly fade, as French academic Gilles Kepel predicted last year. But as long as Pax Americana continues--and that is likely to be a long time--they may all be united in their resistance to it. They see American power everywhere--in their politics, economics, culture and daily lives--and they resent it deeply.

While the extremists probably do not speak for the majority of Muslims, the field is tilting in their direction. Even Saddam Hussein is steadily exploiting the Palestinian unrest to break down sanctions against his regime. Hizbullah, Lebanon's Party of God responsible for blowing up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, was hailed by the whole Arab world for driving Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon last summer. The Hizbullah satellite television station is one of the most popular in the region. More ominously, many moderates also applaud the suicide attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in Aden's harbor last October. The operation, which killed 17 American sailors, suggests a new level of technical sophistication among the terrorists. The attack came during the first weeks of the Palestinian uprising, at a moment when outrage over the deaths of young Arabs was intense. Hutheifa Azzam, a Jordanian merchant who once fought with the mujahedin in Afghan war and has known bin Laden for almost 20 years, says "the timing chosen for the Cole was excellent. Public opinion was all with this." Condemnations by the Arab press and Arab governments were muted. "If Osama is responsible for the Cole, then we can say he changed his way and will go only for military targets," said Azzam. "Now people who prayed against him after Nairobi and Dar, they are saying, 'We pray for him'." Bin Laden may be acquiring his most deadly weapon yet--broad popular support.