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Qaeda Leaders Losing Sway Over Militants, Study Finds

Qaeda Leaders Losing Sway Over Militants, Study Finds

Author: Mark Mazzetti
Publication: The New York Times
Date: November 15, 2006

As radical Islam spreads globally through online forums and chat rooms, a group of obscure Arab religious thinkers may come to exert more influence over the jihadist movement than Osama bin Laden and other well-known leaders of Al Qaeda, a research group at the United States Military Academy has concluded.

In a study billed as the "first systematic mapping" of an ideology sometimes called jihadism, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has found that Mr. bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have had a relatively minor influence on the movement's intellectual foundation. Among the network's ideologists, they have come to be seen more as propagandists than strategic thinkers.

And while the two Qaeda leaders have released a flurry of video and audio messages to their followers over the past year, the study found that the scholarly work of a group of Saudi and Jordanian clerics - most notably Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Jordanian - seems more likely to influence the next generation of Islamic militants.

As a result, the authors found, the death or capture of Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri would do little to slow the spread of jihadist ideology.

"It would be a blow in terms of the emotional impact, but in terms of the larger movement that the foot soldiers are being recruited into, it wouldn't put much of a dent into it at all," said William McCants, the chief author of the new report, "The Militant Ideology Atlas."

The 382-page report, a kind of who's who of the global jihadist movement, examines the most influential and widely read texts among the thousands of tracts in Al Qaeda's online library, known as the Tawhed.

With the dismantling of the Qaeda hierarchy that existed on Sept. 11, 2001, and the diffusion of the jihadist movement into smaller, more localized cells, the Tawhed has gained new significance in helping to shape militant thought.

American officials say they fear that the next generation of terrorist attacks could be carried out not by militants trained in Al Qaeda camps but by fighters influenced by radical texts posted online.

"The radicalization process is occurring more quickly, more widely and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint," concluded a National Intelligence Estimate on global terrorism completed this year.

With the American military reorganizing to fight what could be a battle for decades against radical militants, the military academy has become one of the Pentagon's centers of research on counterterrorism and jihadist ideology. Although situated at West Point, the Combating Terrorism Center is an independent research group financed by private sources and the government.

The report found that radical Islam, sometimes called Salafism, is so deeply embedded in the Arab world that Salafis now constitute a "majority or significant portion" of the Muslim population in the Middle East and North Africa.

"Western governments have neither the local credibility nor the cultural expertise necessary to diminish the popularity of Salafism," the study found.

The report said most Salafis are not jihadis who are committed to violence, and some outside experts said the spread of radical ideology in cyberspace could lead to opportunities for Western efforts to exploit divisions within the movement.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center, said it was far too early to presume that Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri had lost all influence over a movement they helped build. At the same time, he said, the two men have recently been issuing what amount to policy statements that are unlikely to inspire legions of new followers.

"Bin Laden's message is well known," he said. "It is the deeper arguments that are bringing people into the movement."

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