Friday, 4 March 2011

Al-Qaeda, Neoconservatives and Ideology: A Summary

There is extensive analysis about what Al-Qaeda really is and an equally broad spectrum of opinions about who the neoconservatives are. Al-Qaeda has been described as a ‘transnational terror organization’ (Smith 2002, 2), ‘religious extremist insurgents’ (Petraeus and Amos 2006, 1-15), an ‘organization of elite vanguards’ (Riedel 2007, 108) a ‘global jihad movement’ (Coll & Glasser 2005 in Cronin 2006, 33) comprising fundamentalist Islamic membership and a hierarchical network of terror with ‘multi-cellular structure’ (Smith 2002, 3). It’s even been described as a venture capitalist enterprise sponsoring terrorist activities or ‘Holy War Foundation’ (Burke 2003, 208). It is beyond the scope to unravel the structure of Al-Qaeda or histories of its prominent symbolic figures such as Osama bin-Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. It’s more relevant to understand what the idea represents. Some insist that even considering Al-Qaeda as an organization is misleading (Cronin 2006, Burke 2003). It’s more aptly described as a ‘nebula of independent entities and individuals that share an ideological worldviews and cooperate’ (Raufer 2003 in Cronin 2006, 33). It’s pertinent to recollect that Al-Qaeda is linked with the original umbrella group formed in 1998 called the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. Under this umbrella were various groups from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia and various others with loose connections. Though it’s misleading to attribute their shared ideology as a unique defining characteristic of Al-Qaeda in particular, a core shared belief of Transnational Jihadist Groups, Al-Qaeda included, is that the umma are a single indivisible nation and that it is against Gods law to separate them ensuring all Islamic land is returned to Muslims to create a single caliphate (Rahnema 2008). It is this idea and the changing methods used to achieve this objective that represents Al-Qaeda.

In a similar vein the neoconservative moment represents a grand idea to resolve the problem of liberal decadence by re-establishing virtues and morals based on the founding principles of the US constitution. This is evident in the principles of the neoconservative think tank ‘Project for the New American Century’. It outlines the ‘need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles’ (Abrams, et al. 1997). In marked contrast to the vagueness of the membership of Al-Qaeda, i.e. lacking an organized identifiable hierarchy with clear aims and objectives, the neoconservatives represent a select identifiable group of elite academics and politicians. With roots in the lobby group called the ‘Committee on the Present Danger’, coming to prominence around 1997, they championed a mix of liberal values like spreading democracy and realist ideas of promoting US hegemony. Neoconservative thinking essentially comprises four strands: (1) Isolationalism and acting unilaterally; (2) Military power as a prominent feature of foreign policy; (3) Liberal institutionalism by exemplarism in the force of US example demonstrated by the selective use of institutions and multilateral frameworks; and (4) Primacist vindicationist view of spreading ‘universal’ political values of democracy (Ikenberry 2004) markedly different from Al-Qaeda’s view of democracy. According to James Robbins, Al-Qaeda is waging a war on liberalism which is a political manifestation of the mindset exemplified by the likes of al-Zawahiri suggesting ‘law was created to rule man, not vice versa’ (Robbins 2005).

In academic discourse, when assessing ideology with groups such as Al-Qaeda and the neoconservatives, one seemingly obvious but often made omission is contextualising appropriately the blur between strategy and tactics. It initially appears that predominantly the former i.e. strategic objective is more closely associated with ideology. However for a holistic analysis, this essay doesn’t proffer that either objectives and aims or methods and tactics used to achieve the said objectives are on their own indicative of ideology. For instance for Al-Qaeda, its approach to recruitment, sources of funding and mode of communication aren’t necessarily indicative of a particular ideology. However, it plays a role as part of the process of ideology formation. Likewise whilst the motivations and strategic foreign policy goals of the neoconservatives are a pointer to underlying ideology, it would be misleading for instance to suggest military tactics on its own for either war in Iraq or Afghanistan reveals ideology. Motivations are indicative but the concept of ideology as a process embodies both objectives and methods used.

For a full version of this essay please email Saheed Adegbite at

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