How do you spot an Islamist extremist?
It's not as easy as it sounds. Want to blow stuff up? Well, a whole bunch of ideology-driven crazy people want to do that, not just Islamists. Know a Muslim who believes it's their religious duty to grow a long beard or wear a long black robe that leaves only the eyes uncovered? They might just be extremely devout, and complete pillars of their (multi-religious) community.
What sets a real Islamist extremist apart is the zealous need to embody the complete antithesis of mainstream Western society as an expression of an authentic Islamic world view. So, if most men are clean shaved, they feel it's a "duty" to have a free-flowing beard. The law in most Western countries says a man can only have one wife; they say you MUST have four. If society expects you to get a job and pay your taxes, they'll implore you to claim state benefits while you spend your days calling for the state to be overthrown. If most people's trousers come down to their ankles, they'll find an obscure religious ruling that says you go to hell if your trousers aren't cut off mid way down your shin. If politicians say civilians shouldn't be killed in war, the proper extremist finds ways to justify expressly targeting them as a sanctified strategy of war.
It doesn't take long to realise that if you are going to define yourself by always being the opposite of something, you are - by nature - intrinsically linked to what you claim to hate most. Al Qaeda - as the poster boy of Islamist extremism - exhibits this dichotomy most clearly. The organisation's stated aim is to fight Western influence (economic, military and cultural) in the Muslim world, while its very existence is a product of a "Westernised" world - not the tooled up response of a unsullied Muslim essence, as it likes to portray.
Al Qaeda's DNA is a Western product. Even while it claims to fight the West, its way of doing things is - at its core - very Western. This can be seen coming through in the group's use of very Western practices such as branding, off-shoring, sub-contracting and franchising. In many ways, al Qaeda was the ultimate example of a successful Western company (apart from the murdering) operating in the post-Regan/Thatcher era of deregulated markets, media saturation and globalised finance.
Letters written by Osama Bin Laden captured during the raid that killed him (a selection of which were published last week by West Point's Combatting Terrorism Center) show that, in the end, al Qaeda's Western DNA was its greatest liability.
The global franchising that expanded al Qaeda's reach led to loss of control. And, the brand that Osama Bin Laden had nutured through careful plotting was destroyed by the actions of late arrivals (in Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia) who wanted in on al Qaeda's mystique but didn't understand that the rest of the Muslim world were horrified by the slaughter of Muslims with the wrong views, and Western civilians. In the end, like many Western media companies, al Qaeda was feeling the world change under its feet, but it couldn't stop itself from losing its footing.
"They [the captured letters] show bin Laden still committed to a campaign of violence but so concerned by an apparent loss of support in the Muslim world that he considered a major rebranding of al-Qaida, to allow it to better exploit the Arab spring revolts.
"A month before he died, bin Laden described the Arab spring uprisings as a "tremendous event" but clearly felt that al-Qaida had been marginalised."
US News Business Correspondent Rick Newman explains how this happened in the language of simple, clear-eyed business reporting:
"Bin Laden faced the kinds of challenges many business leaders confront at key junctures for their companies... As more terrorist groups adopted the al Qaeda name, it created the ominous impression that al Qaeda was aggressively expanding. But the bin Laden documents suggest it was a fractious arrangement that was never likely to gel... He personally disapproved of suicide bombings and other terrorist operations that killed innocent Muslims, worrying that they could sully al Qaeda's image when carried out in its name. He tried to centralize control over all operations carried out by any branch of al Qaeda, but failed to rein them in."
The whole idea that there are Western ways of doing things and "Islamic" (or any other way) of doing things is only compelling on a superficial level. There are really only good and bad ways of doing things. By constantly pitching itself as the antithesis of the West, the ideological trend that al Qaeda springs from mortgages its own horizons for a fleeting feeling of "up yours!" satisfaction. In the end, though, it suffered the worst of both worlds.