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Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally

Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally

Transnational Terrorism: The Threat to Australia

Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2004

ISBN 1 920959 04 1

Chapter 3


Islam v. extremism

Al Qaida: The epitome

Al Qaida has become the most recognised and evocative symbol of the new terrorist threat. It has provided the fanatical ideology, the operational example and the management model that other groups and individuals have followed. It is the foremost example of the wider phenomenon of transnational extremist-Muslim terrorism. To understand Al Qaida's evolution is to gain an appreciation of this new terrorism. And to understand Al Qaida we need to understand how its philosophy differs from that of mainstream Islam.

A pluralist and tolerant tradition

Islam has played a vital role in shaping human civilisation. The classical period of its rich history nurtured and moulded much of our modern scientific knowledge and philosophy. It fostered a tolerant, diverse and pluralist tradition.

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam traces its faith back to the Prophet Abraham. It accepts all the major Biblical prophets. It accords a special status to Jews and Christians, referring to them in the Quran as 'People of the Book'.

Mainstream Islamic scholars - whose views reflect those of the vast majority of the world's Muslims - have long stressed the Quran's clear endorsement of diversity, its prohibition of coercion, suicide and murder, its instruction to Muslims to act towards others with compassion, forgiveness and restraint. Tolerance of other beliefs has been a key element. Islamic tradition has long encouraged Muslims to respect the sanctity of human life. It encourages them to coexist peacefully with other People of the Book. It advises them to beware of extremism. It has also embraced a wide range of perspectives about ways to approach the faith: Islam is not monolithic.

The Quran does contain verses calling on Muslims to defend themselves if attacked, which extremists cite in support of their views. But such verses are usually heavily qualified. It has long been a central tenet of mainstream Islamic scholarship that Quranic verses should not be considered in isolation or divorced from their moral and historical contexts. Mainstream Muslim scholars have argued that, in a time of war, Muslims are obliged to draw a distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Killing innocent civilians is forbidden.


Australia is threatened by transnational terrorism, perpetuated in the name of an extremist Muslim ideology. A radical but tiny minority of Muslims have twisted Islamic teachings to further their revolutionary ideals. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding. The Australian Muslim community continues to make a significant contribution to the struggle against terrorism.

In the early 16th century, Makassan fishermen from the Indonesian archipelago were the first Muslims to visit Australia. They traded with the indigenous Aboriginal community. In the 19th century, Afghan Muslim camel drivers played an important role in exploring and opening up the outback. Today, Islam is one of the fastest-growing faiths in Australia. Muslims are a vital part of the rich mosaic of Australian society.

In the past 25 years, the Australian Muslim community has grown significantly. The 2001 Census counted 281 578 Muslims living in Australia - an increase of 40 per cent since the 1996 Census and an overall rise of 91 per cent in the past decade. These figures may be conservative. Some recent estimates suggest Australian Muslims now number between 350 000 and 450 000. Australian Muslims are ethnically diverse. About 35 per cent of them were born in Australia. The rest immigrated to Australia from over 70 different countries, including Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. There are over 100 mosques and at least 21 Muslim primary and secondary schools in Australia. Islamic community centres, student associations, halal butchers and restaurants are found in every major city in Australia.

Australian Muslims are doctors, lawyers, academics, sportspersons, journalists, diplomats, police officers, members of the Defence Force, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers and labourers. Muslims have contributed much to our political, economic and social life. They have cemented their place in our religious and cultural landscape. They occupy an increasingly important place in Australian life, and are embracing opportunities to participate in a tolerant, inclusive and culturally diverse Australia.

Extremist ideology

The ideology and the methods of extremist-Muslim terrorists are far removed from mainstream Muslims' tolerance of other faiths. Only a tiny minority of Muslims support the terrorists' strategy of violence. Extremists cloak themselves in the language of Islam but, particularly in their advocacy of violence, flout what the overwhelming majority of Muslims accept as fundamental precepts of their religion.



Salafism is an approach to Islam based on reverence for the example of the 'righteous ancestors' (Al-Salaf Al-Saleh). Some Salafis advocate strict adherence to a literal interpretation of the Quran and the Sunna (the deeds of the Prophet and the Hadith), which they believe contain the source of all necessary guidance. They oppose attempts to interpret Quranic law from an historical, contextual perspective. They reject innovation in faith (bida). 'Wahhabism' is often associated with the Salafi orientation. Its adherents consider the term 'Wahhabism' derogatory; they see themselves as orthodox Muslims and draw heavily on the conservative tribal social customs of the Arabian Peninsula. Salafism is not of itself a doctrine of extremism but groups like Al Qaida draw on strands of an extremist interpretation of Salafism.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Hassan Al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. It was at first a social and moral reform movement to revive Islam as a way of life and end the separation of religion and state. It complemented government activities by providing valuable community services. Offshoots of the Brotherhood still play an important and legitimate role in some Muslim countries' political processes. Al-Banna combined the Quranic descriptions of qital (fighting) and jihad (struggle) (Jihad does not mean 'holy war'. It means struggle or striving in accordance with the teachings of Islam. There are two forms of jihad: the 'greater' jihad - an inner struggle to better oneself for God - and the 'lesser' jihad - the taking-up of arms in defence of Islam, under strict conditions, when the religion is threatened. The terrorists espouse an aggressively violent or militant interpretation of the lesser jihad) to provide the basis of a call to wage war against non-Muslims who had taken overMuslim lands.

Groups like Al Qaida are also influenced by a tradition of religiously based rebellion inspired by the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya and Sayyid Qutb. This contrasts with the more conservative and politically passive tradition of establishment Salafism or 'Wahhabism' found in countries like Saudi Arabia.


Ibn Taymiyya

Ibn Taymiyya was an important fourteenth century theologian. He cultivated the idea that Muslim rulers who contravened Islam should be labelled kuffar (unbelievers). He developed his ideas at a time when the Muslim world was under attack by the Mongols, and was therefore concerned about defending the Muslim community. He argued that Muslims were obliged to overthrow kuffar rulers like the Mongols. He advocated amending the five pillars of Islam - the obligatory duties of all Muslims - to include militant jihad. His ideas have inspired the worldview of terrorist groups like Al Qaida.

Sayyid Qutb

In the 1950s, Sayyid Qutb expanded on the thinking of Al-Banna and refined the aims of the Muslim Brotherhood. He argued that artificial nation-states had allowed Muslim countries to lapse into a pre-Islamic state of ignorance and barbarism (Jahiliyya). He advocated the use of militant jihad as a revolutionary instrument to re-establish God's sovereignty on Earth.

Abdullah Azzam

Abdullah Azzam was a Palestinian activist and mentor to Usama Bin Laden. Drawing on the writings of Ibn Taymiyya, he argued that all Muslims had a compulsory duty to wage uncompromising war to reclaim all lands formerly ruled by the Islamic caliphate. His doctrine was absolute - his motto was 'Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogue'. Azzam helped fund and promote the cause of the mujahideen (fighters engaged in militant jihad) in Afghanistan.

Ayman Al-Zawahiri

Ayman Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian radical, is another key ideologist for Al Qaida. Drawing on the works of Qutb, he sees democracy as a form of idol worship. It must be vanquished through warfare. He considers supporters of democracy to be kuffar. He was the driving force behind Al Qaida's 1998 edict instructing Muslims to kill Americans and their allies wherever they found them.

A capacity to harness opinion and history

Al Qaida and its affiliates employ extremist and selective interpretations of Islam. They use the interpretations that validate their worldview and theologically rationalise their actions, no matter how vicious or out of kilter with mainstream Islam.

Afghanistan: The Crucible [ PDF ]

The extremists argue that 11 September 2001 victims were not innocent. Because they voted in elections and paid taxes, they were complicit in the acts of an 'evil' US Administration. By extension, any victims in any future attacks are deemed not to be innocent.

Usama Bin Laden, in particular, has been a consummate manipulator of certain frustrations and disillusionment felt throughout the Muslim world. He exploits the depths of resentment that underlie centuries of Muslim history. This resentment is rooted in a sense that the Muslim world has been humiliated by Western colonisation and political, military, economic and cultural dominance.

Other Muslim extremists advocate and take advantage of Bin Laden's assertion that the United States seeks to dominate the Muslim world. They cite the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the US-led occupation of Iraq as evidence.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is perhaps the rawest wound Bin Laden exploits. He demonises the United States by tapping into widespread pro-Palestinian sentiment within the Muslim world and denouncing US support for Israel. Bin Laden also plays on Muslim attitudes towards other theatres of militant jihad, such as Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia and the southern Philippines. Many Muslims identify with these causes, and by invoking them Al Qaida swells its pool of potential recruits. But this does not mean they are of themselves root causes of terrorism.

Al Qaida

All roads lead to and from Afghanistan

The 1979 - 89 war to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan was central to the development of Al Qaida. It became a rallying point for militant extremists. The 25 000 or so volunteers from abroad who joined the local Afghan resistance provided Al Qaida with its first recruits. Already susceptible, they were further radicalised in Afghanistan. They adopted the revolutionary visions of Qutb, Azzam and Zawahiri. The majority went home battle-hardened and well trained. Some resolved to spread their new ideas.

The liberation of Afghanistan was supported by a number of countries that opposed the Soviet occupation. The Afghan resistance received financial and logistical support from several countries, including the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As well as doing his own share of fundraising, Bin Laden placed much of his own wealth at the mujahideen's disposal.


Usama Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia in about 1957. His father, Mohammed, originally from Yemen, was a wealthy businessman with close connections to the ruling Al-Saud.

Usama Bin Laden was one of about 50 children. He had a strict religious upbringing. He attended university in Jeddah and graduated with a degree in administration.

Soon after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Bin Laden travelled for the first time to the border areas of Pakistan. It was not until the early 1980s that he entered Afghanistan proper, bringing with him large amounts of cash and construction machinery. In 1984, he built in Peshawar (Pakistan) a guesthouse for militants who were on their way to participate in the resistance to Soviet occupation. Bin Laden and his guesthouse played an important role in the work of Azzam's Maktab Al-Khidamat (services office). They processed and trained large numbers of volunteers on their way to Afghanistan.

When victory over the Soviets looked imminent, Bin Laden created the movement now known as Al Qaida. The aim was to continue the militant jihad globally. Ten years later, with Ayman Al-Zawahiri and others, he formed the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders.

Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia. He used his high public profile there to draw attention to the Afghan victory. He began to criticise the Saudi government for failing to defend Islam.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden offered to help defend Saudi Arabia using Saudi Afghan veterans. He was rebuffed. The Saudis accepted assistance from US forces.

Bin Laden fled to Sudan, which was governed by the National Islamic Front. He set up Al Qaida's headquarters in Khartoum. Financed by legitimate businesses, including Sudanese government construction contracts, Al Qaida set about establishing its global terrorism credentials. Its primary objective was the removal of US forces from the Arabian Peninsula and the overthrow of the Saudi regime. Eventually, Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan. There, Al Qaida accelerated its operations and intensified its opposition to governments in the West and in the Muslim world that did not meet its standards.

Bin Laden has no formal qualifications as an Islamic scholar. His value to the mujahideen movement - and his impact on it - has been due to his charisma, his leadership, the wealth he inherited through his father's business success, his connections and his administrative skills.

Azzam and others travelled widely, seeking financial support and recruiting volunteers to join the militant jihad in Afghanistan. In effect, they established the global framework for what would become Al Qaida. Recruits came not just from the Middle East, but Central, South and South-East Asia, and parts of Africa, as well as Western countries.

After the Soviet forces were defeated, some mujahideen who had trained in Pakistani camps travelled to other locations, such as Kashmir and Chechnya, rather than returning to their home countries. They had been trained for militant operations beyond the Afghan resistance. Afghanistan was where the careers of Azzam, Bin Laden and Zawahiri intersected. For Bin Laden it was not just an opportunity to experience militant jihad. He also met key figures from other extremist groups and learnt about their causes. In particular, his developing association with Zawahiri gave him an introduction to the wider militant jihad movement. He could now develop his own ideas about the shortcomings of governments in the Muslim world.

Learning from success

The mujahideen were just one factor in the defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan. But they claimed responsibility for it, and for the collapse of the Soviet system soon after.

In the militants' eyes, the Soviet withdrawal proved that a small group of religious extremists with limited resources could defeat a military superpower. For Al Qaida it was a lesson: it could take its fight to other theatres where it faced odds that had seemed impossible. As Zawahiri put it:

The most important thing about the battle in Afghanistan was that it destroyed the illusion of the superpower in the minds of young Muslim mujahideen. The Soviet Union, the power with the largest land forces in the world, was destroyed and scattered, running away from Afghanistan before the eyes of the Muslim youth. This Jihad was a training course for Muslim youth for the future battle anticipated with the superpower which is the sole leader of the world now, America.

Al Qaida drew conclusions, too, about US resolve. They took the US withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983 after about 250 marines died in a truck bombing, and from Somalia in 1993 after a number of its soldiers were killed, as proof that the United States was not prepared to engage in a fight with a determined enemy.

Al Qaida's message

Al Qaida's fanatical interpretations of Islam place all Muslim societies that do not comply or agree in its sights. Its principal goal - ridding Saudi Arabia of US forces and replacing the Saudi Government (see Box on Usama Bin Laden) - was based on Bin Laden's view that the Saudi Government had forfeited its Islamic legitimacy. That goal has since been extended to the ejection from the entire Muslim world of US and Western influence.

Al Qaida's ultimate message is that all former Muslim lands must be recovered - no matter how long ago they were 'lost' - and their governments replaced by regimes reflecting Al Qaida's interpretation of Islam. All Jews, 'Crusaders' and 'idolaters of democracy' are to be expelled from those lands.

Al Qaida's strategic goals appear to have evolved but are not known to be set out in any consolidated form. Its aims are based on a selective and extremist interpretation of Islamic texts, under which the duty to wage war against the enemies of God is divinely ordained. Bin Laden's 'declaration of war against the Americans' of 1996 declared militant jihad against the United States. It gives a good insight into Al Qaida's worldview and aims. And his so-called fatwa issued in February 1998 at the establishment of an umbrella group called the 'World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and the Crusaders' outlines clearly the true nature of the terrorists' ideology.

Al Qaida's battlefield is global. It will attack its enemies anywhere in the world - its attacks are no longer limited to previous theatres of militant jihad. In their 1998 fatwa, Bin Laden, Zawahiri and their associates tell Muslims that:

... to kill Americans and their allies - civilians and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God.

This was the first time that Al Qaida identified civilians as legitimate targets. Al Qaida's inclination to take the fight beyond the Muslim world to Western countries has been unambiguously demonstrated in New York, Madrid and elsewhere. And Al Qaida does not consider itself constrained in its methods or choice of targets.

Al Qaida spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, said in June 2002:

... we have the right to kill four million Americans, including one million children, displace double that figure and injure and cripple hundreds of thousands. We have the right to fight them by chemical and biological weapons ...

The terrorists oppose secularism and single out democracy for particular criticism. Zawahiri has been notably critical of Muslim groups that have endorsed democracy. He argues that only God can exercise sovereignty over worldly communities. So, in his view, democracy - which renders human beings sovereign - is heresy. It allows mankind to usurp the role of God. Zawahiri characterises democracy as a false religion. For him, people who live in democracies, particularly in Muslim countries, are therefore legitimate targets because, by voting and paying taxes, they participate in the 'idolatrous' democratic process. Similarly, those who seek to promote democracy in Muslim countries are also deemed to be targets.

Al Qaida continues to strive for large-scale, coordinated, mass casualty, multiple attacks of the kind seen on September 11 and in the East Africa embassy bombings of 1998.

Disseminating the message

Al Qaida skilfully conveys its message through the use of modern information and communications technology: pre-recorded video and audio tapes, DVDs, CD-ROMs and the Internet. In 2001, Al Qaida produced a recruitment DVD that was widely copied and made available on the Internet.

The Internet has become an important part of modern terrorism's arsenal. Al Qaida in particular uses it - through websites like the now-defunct - to spread its ideology and propaganda, and to send messages to sympathisers and operatives. Announcements, edicts and ideological expositions by senior Al Qaida figures are made. Videos depicting terrorist attacks are screened. The Internet is also used for the passage of operational instructions. Certainly, terrorist websites regularly feature calls on Muslims to attack Western targets.

The World Wide Web is also used as a training tool. Various procedural and instruction manuals and general tactical guidance have been posted on extremist websites. Al Qaida also uses the media shrewdly. Bin Laden himself has taken advantage of increasingly globalised communications links to spread his message. His interviews with Time, Newsweek and CNN reached worldwide audiences. They give him opportunities to influence the actions and beliefs of Muslim extremists everywhere.

An evolving, inspirational prototype

Because it is a highly adaptable and complex entity, understanding Al Qaida's structure and behaviour is difficult. During the late 1990s, Al Qaida in Afghanistan took on many characteristics of a hierarchical organisation. It had permanent installations, fixed structures, standardised methods and regular procedures. Since 2001, it has assumed more the character of an ideological movement. Decentralised, semi-autonomous remnants operate independently or follow broad general direction. It remains well funded and ambitious. Apart from the finances of Bin Laden himself, it draws on donors in the Gulf and elsewhere. It developed its own commercial ventures, particularly in Sudan in the early 1990s.

Through Al Qaida's capacity for change and regeneration, some characteristics have emerged over time. Al Qaida is a 'network of networks'. Each of them can operate independently, or with other networks. These networks cover leadership, planning and operations, financial, training and equipment support, as well as propaganda and several other functions. Some networks include a 'hub'. Others are diffuse and decentralised. Since the destruction of Al Qaida's Afghanistan base, many hubs have been shut down, or moved to nearby areas within South Asia. Other networks have evolved to function primarily through electronic media such as the Internet.

Just one part of a wider network

For many Muslim extremists, Al Qaida has become more an idea or ideology than a physical entity. Bin Laden's propaganda skills, and his capacity to exploit Arab and Muslim antagonism towards the West, motivate and direct many militant groups and individuals that may otherwise have few tangible links with Al Qaida.

So, although Al Qaida has been the key influence on the development of transnational extremist-Muslim terrorism, it is not the only element. New adherents to its fanaticism have been attracted by Al Qaida's high-profile successes, its propaganda skills and its capacity to take advantage of deeply felt grievances in the Muslim world.

Some new players have taken up the extremist mantle of their own accord. Others have developed networks independently, and have in turn established links with Al Qaida. And existing, more localised extremist-Muslim terror groups, impressed by Al Qaida's achievements, have absorbed its broader ideological ambitions. They have added their networks to the mix. The shared Afghan experience has accelerated the development of this process. Some such groups share or have adopted aspects of Al Qaida's worldview and developed a similar style. Prominent among them are the Pakistani-Kashmiri terrorist group Lashkar e-Tayyiba, Jemaah Islamiyah and the Al-Zarqawi network.

In this way the Al Qaida experience has been replicated and reinforced. The result is a transnational extremist-Muslim terrorism at once more resilient, more extensive and more difficult to counter. So, as Al Qaida's leaders are eliminated, others will be ready to take their place. Even if Al Qaida itself were wiped out, networks set up in its image are probably capable of continuing its work.

Al Qaida's adaptive networks have helped it survive a sustained US-led military offensive. Since October 2001, a significant proportion of its leadership and rank-and-file has been either captured or killed. Much of the remainder has dispersed and is in hiding. Its communications links and operational capability have been seriously disrupted. But its links with other, similarly flexible networks show how Al Qaida is just one aspect of a larger series of connections, so much so that it retains a potent capacity to strike in diverse locations.

Some Afghanistan veterans have become focal points in their own countries for new and revived groups. They in turn developed their own network structures - echoing the experience of Al Qaida. In other cases, local groups with few or no direct links to Al Qaidahave drawn inspiration, expertise and direction from the movement's public statements. They act independently in their local areas. Some are attracted to the movement's ideology, some by what they see as its potency against what they resent, some by its propaganda. The aims of groups like Ansar Al-Islam in northern Iraq, Laskar Jundullah in Indonesia and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the southern Philippines have been supported by Al Qaida's global focus.

Irrespective of its own fate, Al Qaida has generated a system of self-sustaining and adaptable networks. It can maintain operational capability because of the autonomous nature of the networks' components. It is likely that some of these networks' functions - training, for instance - have shifted to new geographical and network locations. As Al Qaida's training facilities are damaged, the network is able to adjust. The training function can be continued by other groups. The same thing applies to other network functions, such as finance or operations. It is possible that no overall network for command and control even exists.

The loose links between these networks mean associated groups can operate without central control. Such arrangements are also more resilient to attack. Affiliated groups have adopted in some cases Al Qaida's flexibility and transformative capacities. This extends even more the terrorists' reach and makes their security harder to penetrate.

The networks that originally centred on Al Qaida have become more widespread and less interdependent - with varying degrees of connectedness to each other. They extend throughout the world. There are now active terrorist elements and supporters in the Middle East, parts of Africa, Western countries and in South, Central and South-East Asia.


Many individuals and organisations within the complex terrorist 'network of networks' share links with extremist groups in South Asia. These links are mainly historical and ideological, but also include practical and organisational elements.

Historically, many key players within the global militant jihad movement fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They kept in contact after coming home from the war. These links are still strong. For example, the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines is named after a famous mujahideen commander of the Afghan War. Similarly, the Jemaah Islamiyah network draws on strong Afghan alumni links. Many individual terrorists know each other well based on shared Afghan experience.

Ideologically, the diverse transnational terrorist networks share a worldview based on the shared study, indoctrination and experience of the Afghan War. Operating patterns are based upon techniques learned in Afghanistan and then standardised and disseminated through the network. In practical terms, common operational methods have been refined through exchange of information between individuals and groups with shared Afghan experience.

Techniques that appear in one conflict or with one group may later appear in other conflicts. They may be passed via electronic communication or through mobile cadres who train terrorists in specific techniques. Much of this training is centred on Kashmir and the tribal areas of Pakistan. This makes South Asia a key geographical focus for terrorist networks today.

The well developed Al Qaida infrastructure inside Afghanistan was destroyed in 2001, but various South Asian groups have copied Al Qaida's organisation and methods. Dispersed groups continue to operate independently, or follow general guidance from key terrorist leaders, with a geographical focus on South Asia.

Of the Pakistani extremist groups, Lashkar e-Tayyiba is the most closely affiliated with Al Qaida. Formed in 1989, Lashkar e-Tayyiba, like Al Qaida, sprang from popular opposition to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Through shared experience in Afghanistan, many Lashkar e-Tayyiba leaders had links to Al Qaida. Lashkar e-Tayyiba transferred its efforts to the insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir in the early 1990s. Its activities later escalated from localised actions in Kashmir to international terrorism in India. Lashkar e-Tayyiba performs a critical function in the transnational network as a primary provider of training to the broader transnational terrorist movement, particularly following the destruction of Al Qaida's Afghanistan base in October 2001.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade