By Olivier Roy, professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social
Sciences and author of “Globalized Islam.”
July 22, 2005.
Paris – WHILE yesterday’s explosions on London’s subway and bus lines were
thankfully far less serious than those of two weeks ago, they will lead many to
raise a troubling question: has Britain (and Spain as well) been “punished” by Al
Qaeda for participating in the American-led military interventions in Iraq and
While this is a reasonable line of thinking, it presupposes the answer to a
broader and more pertinent question: Are the roots of Islamic terrorism in the
Middle Eastern conflicts?
If the answer is yes, the solution is simple to formulate, although not to
achieve: leave Afghanistan and Iraq, solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. But if
the answer is no, as I suspect it is, we should look deeper into the radicalization
of young, Westernized Muslims.
Conflicts in the Middle East have a tremendous impact on Muslim public opinion
worldwide. In justifying its terrorist attacks by referring to Iraq, Al Qaeda is
looking for popularity or at least legitimacy among Muslims.
But many of the terrorist group’s statements, actions and non-actions
indicate that this is largely propaganda, and that Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine
are hardly the motivating factors behind its global jihad.
First, let’s consider the chronology. The Americans went to Iraq and
Afghanistan after 9/11, not before. Mohamed Atta and the other pilots were
not driven by Iraq or Afghanistan.
Were they then driven by the plight of the Palestinians? It seems
unlikely. After all, the attack was plotted well before the second intifada began
in September 2000, at a time of relative optimism in Israeli-Palestinian
Another motivating factor, we are told, was the presence of “infidel” troops in
Islam’s holy lands. Yes, Osama Bin Laden was reported to be upset when the
Saudi royal family allowed Western troops into the kingdom before the Persian
Gulf war. But Mr. bin Laden was by that time a veteran fighter committed to
He and the other members of the first generation of Al Qaeda left the Middle
East to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Except for the
smallish Egyptian faction led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, now Mr. bin Laden’s chief
deputy, these militants were not involved in Middle Eastern politics.
Abdullah Azzam, Mr. bin Laden’s mentor, gave up supporting the
Palestinian Liberation Organization long before his death in 1989 because he
felt that to fight for a localized political cause was to forsake the real jihad,
which he felt should be international and religious in character.
>From the beginning, Al Qaeda’s fighters were global jihadists, and their
favored battlegrounds have been outside the Middle East: Afghanistan, Bosnia,
Chechnya and Kashmir. For them, every conflict is simply a part of the Western
encroachment on the Muslim ummah, the worldwide community of believers.
Second, if the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine are at the core of the
radicalization, why are there virtually no Afghans, Iraqis or Palestinians among
the terrorists? Rather, the bombers are mostly from the Arabian Peninsula,
North Africa, Egypt and Pakistan – or they are Western-born converts to Islam.
Why would a Pakistani or a Spaniard be more angry than an Afghan
about American troops in Afghanistan? It is precisely because they do not care
about Afghanistan as such, but see the United States involvement there as part
of a global phenomenon of cultural domination.
What was true for the first generation of Al Qaeda is also relevant for the
present generation: even if these young men are from Middle Eastern or South
Asian families, they are for the most part Westernized Muslims living or even
born in Europe who turn to radical Islam.
Moreover, converts are to be found in almost every Qaeda cell: they did
not turn fundamentalist because of Iraq, but because they felt excluded from
Western society (this is especially true of the many converts from the
Caribbean islands, both in Britain and France). “Born again” or converts, they
are rebels looking for a cause. They find it in the dream of a virtual, universal
ummah, the same way the ultraleftists of the 1970’s (the Baader-Meinhof
Gang, the Italian Red Brigades) cast their terrorist actions in the name of the
“world proletariat” and “Revolution” without really caring about what would
It is also interesting to note that none of the Islamic terrorists captured so far
had been active in any legitimate antiwar movements or even in organized
political support for the people they claim to be fighting for. They don’t
distribute leaflets or collect money for hospitals and schools. They do not have
a rational strategy to push for the interests of the Iraqi or Palestinian people.
Even their calls for the withdrawal of the European troops from Iraq ring false.
After all, the Spanish police have foiled terrorist attempts in Madrid even since
the government withdrew its forces. Western-based radicals strike where they
are living, not where they are instructed to or where it will have the greatest
political effect on behalf of their nominal causes.
The Western-based Islamic terrorists are not the militant vanguard of the
Muslim community; they are a lost generation, unmoored from traditional
societies and cultures, frustrated by a Western society that does not meet their
expectations. And their vision of a global ummah is both a mirror of and a form
of revenge against the globalization that has made them what they are.