It's not easy to remember that terrorists, too, are in politics, with all the insecurity and ambition that implies. Certainly that's true of the four famous Islamic killers, two of them dead, whose statements, distributed on the Web, fill Al Qaeda in Its Own Words (Harvard University Press), published this week. Their messages rally the troops and attempt to recruit new soldiers, but also read like the pleas of politicians for status within the loosely defined and always changing jihadist movement.
The book's editors, Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli, both Paris academics, identify the differences as well as the similarities among the communiques and manifestos issued by Abdallah Azzam (1941-89), Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (1966-2006).
The four men, uneasy comrades at best, exhibit mutual jealousy and sharp policy disagreements as well as passionate hatred of the non-Muslim world. They are often described as thinkers and theorists but an outsider, reading their texts in translation, may find it hard to identify the thought. They confuse ranting with teaching and clearly believe repetition is a virtue, nuance a vice.
For them, the distant past has a vividness that's lost in the public conversation of the West. Azzam, for instance, thinks nothing of quoting a jurist who died in 1090 or citing a battle in the year 626 as casually as we might mention D-Day.
As Kepel notes, they all consider history a single narrative. The Prophet appears, Islam rises and extends its power and then each succeeding generation must accept the task of completing what is so far only a partial conquest of the world.
Azzam, a Palestinian who acquired a PhD in Islamic jurisprudence in Cairo in 1973, defined their struggle by harnessing jihadist energies to Islamic internationalism. In the 1980s, when he was fighting in Afghanistan, much of the world believed he was part of Ronald Reagan's attempt to bring down the Soviets. After all, the mujahedeen were using Reagan's Stinger missiles. But Azzam managed to rebrand that struggle.
He made what many considered a surrogate's role sound much nobler, at least to radical Muslims. He spread the idea that the mujahedeen were simply new jihadists, fighting for what Muslims had always wanted. This was a version of messianic Islam that others, notably Bin Laden and Zawahiri, could endorse. From that point on, as Keppel says, Islamist terrorists did their best to place their actions at the heart of Islam, claiming impeccable religious legitimacy. That strategy, while unattractive to many Muslims, nevertheless proved effective.
Azzam also used fantasy to intensify his own aura and make the jihadist movement attractive. On his worldwide money-raising tours, he would often thrill young would-be jihadists with miracle tales of angels seen riding into battle on horseback, bombs intercepted by birds that formed canopies to protect Muslim warriors and individual soldiers who with divine assistance defeated entire Soviet battalions.
Azzam promised that jihadists would eventually defeat Islam's enemies around the world -- the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Somalia, Eritrea, Spain, etc. Before that, however, they would liberate Palestine. His emphasis annoyed the faction led by Zawahiri, who wanted to go home to Egypt and fight the secular government that had tortured him into betraying a friend and mentor who was later killed.
Azzam and his two sons died in November, 1989, when someone detonated 20 kg of TNT beneath the car taking them to services at a mosque in Peshawar. The suspects included Pakistani police, the CIA and Mossad. But Azzam's son-in-law accused Zawahiri's people.
Al Qaeda in Its Own Words has a fascinating subtext: the struggle of scholars to identify accurate documents. Like academics studying the writings of antiquity, analysts of al-Qaeda material must bring a severe critical intelligence to silted-up errors, lies and editorial interpolations.
Keppel says that scholars who venture into the jungle of online Islamist propaganda (there are now thousands of al-Qaeda sites) can never be absolutely certain that a text should be attributed to a given author. Nor can they say for sure that the text, even if originally authentic, hasn't been polluted with unauthorized insertions. Jihadists are not above distributing bogus letters to embarrass rivals.
The Web plays the obscuring, scholar-confounding role performed for centuries by the unreliable monk-copyists of Christian Europe -- with, of course, the major difference that an Islamist Web master can make more mischief in three hours than a platoon of pen-wielding monks could produce in a decade. At times, jihadist sites are no more reliable than Facebook.