Deporting Radical Imams: A Viable Strategy to Combat Attacks Against the West?

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 16

After three attacks by Islamist fighters in June 2005—two in London, one in Egypt—Western officials and the media have become focused on identifying specific mosques and madrasas, and the “Preachers of Hate” who run them, as the means of stopping additional attacks. The assumption is that the clerics running certain Islamist institutions instill hatred against Western society in their young congregants, and these young men and women in turn stage suicide attacks in an attempt to destroy Western civilization. Indeed, Western leaders have repeatedly stated that radical Imams hold a mindless hatred for our democratic society, our freedoms, and our cultural values; they hate the West, supposedly, for what it is and not for what it does. However, removing these individuals from their positions of influence will do little to counteract the burgeoning movement that al-Qaeda inspires, because, as Zawahiri has recently restated, the message of the global Jihadist movement is centered around Western policies in the Islamic world, not reshaping or destroying Western civilization.

Zawahiri and the Islamists: A Quest for Freedom?

In 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri took on the task of explaining the goals of al-Qaeda and its allies. In a series of three public statements—issued on 20 Feb, 17 Jun, and 4 Aug—Zawahiri carefully laid out al-Qaeda’s vision of how the Muslim world can be reformed. [1] The messages contain some hyperbole and even more saber-rattling, but on the whole they present a reasonable, rational view of the road to reform from the Islamists’ perspective. None of the statements discuss American culture, society or democratic values as the source of their grievances.

The crux of Zawahiri’s messages is that reform in the Muslim world must be conducted by Muslims, and that reform is not possible while Muslim tyrannies are protected and controlled by the ‘Crusaders;’ while Crusaders and Jews occupy Islamic territory; and while the West is exploiting Muslim resources. [2] Zawahiri argues that the type of reform on offer from the Western world would further enslave Muslims,

“One may ask: Why all this interest [among Muslims] in Guantanamo while there are thousands of Guantanamos in our countries under U.S. control… In my opinion, and God knows best, the answer is that it reveals the reality of reform and democracy in our countries under U.S. supervision and control. This [U.S.] reform will be based on U.S. detention centers—like Bagram, Kandahar, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghuraybh—bombing with cluster bombs and missiles, and installing people like Karzai [in Afghanistan] and Allawi [in Iraq].” [3]

In his speech broadcast on August 4 via al-Jazeera, Zawahiri stated that because of the relentless U.S.—or “Crusader”—aggression and occupation against Muslims, and the support of Washington’s and its allies for Muslim police states, reform is unimaginable in the current circumstances. “Real reform” in the Islamic world, Zawahiri explains, must be based on “three principles”:

“The first principle is the rule of Shari’ah [Islamic law] because it is the Shari’ah revealed from the Lord to His servants and which ensures their integrity, freedom, dignity, and pride. It also safeguards its [the ummah’s] honor.

“The second principle for reform is the freedom of Muslim countries. … We cannot imagine having any kind of reform while our governments are governed by U.S. embassies in our countries. It is not possible to imagine having any kind of reform while the crusader forces are taking up positions in our country, enjoying support, supplies, facilities, and storage, and the ability to take off from our countries to attack our brothers and our sisters everywhere in the Muslim world.

“The third principle for reform is the freedom of the Muslim nation in running its affairs. This kind of reform can only be achieved by two things. The first is the freedom of independent and Shari’ah-based judiciary, the implementation of its rules, and ensuring its stature, influence, and power. The second is the freedom of the Muslim nation and its right to enjoin what is just and forbid what is wrong.” [4]

Zawahiri ends this series of messages by asserting that the time is long past when reform in the Islamic world can be achieved without war. The “real reform” of the ummah, Zawahiri maintains, “cannot be achieved only through demonstrations and chanting slogans in the street.” [5] Before reform can be successful, Muslims must engage in “driving the invading Crusader troops and Jews from the countries of Islam…. We can achieve reform … only through fighting in the cause of God.” [6] In his August message, Zawahiri tells Muslims that genuine Islamic reform can come only via jihad, and urges the West to understand that its safety depends on allowing Muslims to gain freedom from the thrall of the West and their own tyrannical regimes.

“O nations of the Crusader alliance, we proposed that at least you stop your aggression against the Muslims. The lion of Islam, Mujahid Shaykh Osama bin Laden, may God preserve him, offered you a truce to leave the house of Islam… You, however, shed rivers of blood in our land, so we exploded volcanoes of anger in your land. Our message to you is crystal clear: Your salvation will come only in your withdrawal from our land, in stopping the robbing of our oil and resources, and in stopping your support for the corrupt and corrupting [Muslim] leaders… The truth which Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld hide from you is that the only way out of Iraq is immediate withdrawal, any delay in this decision will only mean more deaths and more losses. If you don’t leave today, then you shall inevitably leave tomorrow but after scores of thousands of casualties and double that number of wounded and disabled people.” [7]

Lunatics or Freedom Fighters: Does it Matter?

Does it matter that Western leaders claim Islamists hate the West for how it lives, and explicitly reject any connection between Jihadist attacks and Western policy and actions? The correct answer to this question can only be formulated on the available evidence. And that evidence, at this point, provides little support for those who argue young Muslims commit suicide in attacks meant to rid the earth of liberal democracy or Western values. The message from Zawahiri and his allies is easily encapsulated: Muslims are ruled by apostate tyrannies that are kept in power by the United States and its allies. The latter have invaded and occupied Islam’s holiest sanctities—the two holy shrines in the Arabian Peninsula and Jerusalem —and have killed thousands of Muslims in the process. Iraq, a capital of Islamic learning for centuries, has been added to the above list of occupied lands. To survive, bin Laden, Zawahiri and other Islamist leaders argue, all Muslims must participate in a defensive jihad against the Crusaders until they change their policies and are driven from these lands.

No one in the West, of course, must sympathize or empathize with Zawahiri’s ideology and prescription for action. The West, however, must understand Zawahiri accurately if the Islamists’ threat is to be gauged and ultimately defeated. If not understood, the leaders of the G-8 may find that, after closing offensive mosques and madrasas, and deporting ‘Preachers of Hate,’ they have done nothing to defeat enemies focused on what their countries do in the Islamic world, not on how they live in their own. However misguided, patient and religiously motivated patriots are always more dangerous to America and the West than are irrational madmen waging war against such things as coeducational schools. They are also, in Zawahiri’s words, more likely to ensure “Your new Crusade will, God willing, end in defeat just like the previous ones.”


1. “Al-Zawahiri Makes Statement on Guantanamo Prisoners, U.S. ‘Reform’,” Al-Jazeera Satellite Television, 20 February 2005; “Zawahiri on al-Qaeda’s Concept of Reform,” Al-Jazeera Satellite Television, 17 June 2005; and “Statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Al-Jazeera Satellite Television, 4 August 2005.

2. “Statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Al-Jazeera Satellite Television, 4 August 2005.

3. “Al-Zawahiri Makes Statement on Guantanamo Prisoners, U.S. ‘Reform’,” Al-Jazeera Satellite Television, 20 February 2005.

4. “Zawahiri on al-Qaeda’s Concept of Reform,” Al-Jazeera Satellite Television, 17 June 2005.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. “Statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Al-Jazeera Satellite Television, 4 August 2005.