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Inquiry & Analysis-Jihad & Terrorism Studies/Economic Studies Project
September 11, 2007, No. 387
The Battle... Is Economic Rather than Military" – An Economically Oriented Concept of Jihad Emerges in Islamist Discourse
By E. Alshech*
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The concept of jihad, dating back to the earliest stages of Islam, has always been open to various interpretations. Since Islamic sources define jihad in very broad terms, Muslims have, throughout Islamic history, been able to transform and extend its meaning according to their specific perceptions and needs. This document focuses on a concept of jihad that has been emerging for some time in Islamist discourse, as is evident in Islamist forums and websites. In this permutation, jihad is perceived as being aimed primarily at undermining the Western economy, particularly the U.S. economy, with the ultimate goal of bringing about the total collapse of the West.(1) In practical terms, this concept of jihad does not pose an immediate and substantial danger to Western economy. However, it nonetheless merits attention, since it represents a broadening of the boundaries of jihad, and widens the circle of people who can potentially be involved in jihadist activity.
"The Destruction of Its Economy Will Cause the U.S. to... Disappear Like the Soviet Union"
Islamist websites rarely engage in comprehensive theoretical discussions about the overall goals of global jihad. However, postings on this topic that occasionally appear on Islamist forums provide crucial insight into the Islamists' understanding of their struggle against the West. For example, an article posted on Alhesbah.org in 2003, by an individual named Abu Mus'ab, stated that the key to defeating the U.S. is to weaken its economy: "No reasonable person can deny the United States' military, economic and technological power... [However, both the U.S.'s] technological research and its military forces depend on the economy. [Consequently,] the destruction of its economy will cause the U.S. to disintegrate, collapse, and disappear, just like the Soviet Union.(2) Therefore, studying America's economy is [even more crucial] than examining its military forces..."(3)
"The Primary Goal of [Al-Qaeda's] War Against America... Is to Defeat it Economically"
A similar point was made in another article on Alhesbah.org, titled "Al-Qaeda's Battle Is an Economic [Battle] – Not a Military One," posted in 2005 by an individual named Abu Mus'ab Al-Najdi. The article stated that "the primary goal of [Al-Qaeda's] war against America... is to defeat it economically. Anything that causes losses to its economy we regard as a step towards victory. Accordingly, the criterion for absolute victory is not [just] a military defeat [of the enemy]... but [a military defeat] which indirectly affects the economy, [for example by] causing economists to lose confidence in [America's] ability to protect its... trade [interests]."(4)
The article mentioned the 9/11 attacks as an example. The important question, it said, "is not... how many infidels died [in these attacks]... but the effect they had on the [American] economy... The [9/11] attack was successful by every standard, [since] the U.S. is still reeling from its [economic] impact... (5) One [therefore] hopes that those who take interest in our struggle against America... will embrace this strategy without reservation. [We can] shorten the duration of the battle... by focusing all our strength on purely economic targets... [Unfortunately,] many people regard these [targets] as worthless... It would be a mistake for these youths to retain this simplistic understanding of the nature of the battle."
The article also stated that Al-Qaeda's attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq constitute a crucial component of its economic war against America: "The mujahideen prevented the American enemy from obtaining a large share of Iraq's oil. [By laying their hands on this oil,] the Americans hoped to temporarily alleviate the [economic] damage caused by the 9/11 attacks, until they could gain complete control over the [entire] oil [market]. [The U.S.] now controls two-thirds [of Iraq's oil], and it hopes to gain control over the rest when it finishes its [political maneuvers] in Iraq."
It will be shown below that blocking the West's access to major oil resources is a crucial component of the Islamists' perception of their economic war on the West.
The Goal is to Persistently Drain the Economic Strength of the U.S.
The importance of attacking the U.S. economy was also stressed in an article from 2006 about Al-Qaeda's strategy, by an individual calling himself "Amir Net." Al-Qaeda's goal, he wrote, is to "persistently drain America's strength by [opening up new fronts] in the confrontation [with it]. This will render it incapable of defending the [Arab] regimes to the extent it does today. Then, the jihad movement will be able to successfully attack the Arab oil [facilities], thereby destroying the central pillar of the American economy..."(6)
Citing an economic study allegedly conducted by Al-Qaeda prior to the 9/11 attacks, the writer states that undermining the American economy has always been Al-Qaeda's number one goal. Before 9/11, he says, Al-Qaeda believed that the best way to weaken the American economy was to reinstate the gold standard in international monetary trade.(7) Al-Qaeda aimed to "spread this idea throughout the world and to conduct the necessary studies in order to support it... [This strategy was meant to] gradually weaken the American dollar... eventually leading to its quick collapse." The writer states that Al-Qaeda "recruited experts... to disprove the economic theory spread by Jewish economists in America – [the theory which] denies the necessity of backing up currencies with precious metals such as gold and silver, and [instead] uses the country's gross national product as the standard for determining the value of its currency... If this theory is abolished, and [if at the same time] the Americans are prevented from using Arab oil [and are subjected to] the constant financial drain of the continuing battle, Chinese and Japanese investors will begin to question America's economic strength... and will withdraw their investments from the vast American market..."
The writer asserts that these developments will have dramatic results: An economically weakened America "will be unable to continue carrying the burden which lies upon [its] shoulders... in the current world order." This, he says, will clear the way for the rise of new superpowers – China and India – which will be more benign towards Islam. When this happens, Muslims will be able to consolidate their own power, establish the Caliphate, and eradicate all the non-Islamic regimes in the Arab world.
The economically oriented perception of jihad reflected in this posting (and in the other postings quoted above) obviously entails new priorities. It perceives the crippling of Western economy as the primary goal, while other goals (such as military defeat) are perceived as secondary, in the sense that they, too, are regarded as indirect means of undermining Western economy.
To What Extent is Economic Jihad Implemented in Practice?
Evidence suggests that the economic dimension of jihad has indeed become part and parcel of the Islamists' perception of their jihad activity. Postings on jihadist forums indicate that the Islamists closely follow Western media reports and studies which analyze the effect of various domestic and global factors (e.g., the war in Iraq, global terrorism, natural catastrophes, etc.) on Western economies.(8)
In fact, some Islamist forums, such as Alhesbah.org, have dedicated special sections to economic issues, including many issues specifically pertaining to Western economies.(9) Moreover, a look at discussions on Islamist forums, including messages by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, along with terrorist operations on the ground, strongly suggests that the economically oriented notion of jihad is not a purely theoretical idea but has actually affected the terrorists' choice of targets, as shown by the following examples.
Attacks on Oil Facilities
From messages exchanged by jihadists online, it is evident that oil facilities inside and outside the Middle East have ranked high on their list of targets for quite some time. This strategy jibes with the Islamists' belief that oil is the foundation of the U.S.'s worldwide hegemony – a belief that was stressed, for example, in Osama bin Laden's video message of December 16, 2004, in which he called for attacking oil installations: "There is now a rare and golden opportunity to make America bleed in Iraq – both economically and in terms of [loss of] human life and [blows to its] morale. Do not miss this opportunity, for you will regret it. One of the primary [methods] by which our enemies have gained control over our land is by stealing our oil. Therefore, you should do everything in your power to stop the greatest theft in history: [the theft] of the natural resources of the present and future generations, which is being carried out by the foreigners in collaboration with [local] agents… Focus your operations [on oil installations], especially in Iraq and the Gulf region, since [lack of oil] will cause [the enemy] to perish."(10) A similar call to attack oil facilities was made by Ayman Al-Zawahiri in his September 2005 interview with Al-Sahab TV on the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.(11)
In the past two years, there have been indications that Islamists' interest in striking oil facilities has increased.(12) A member of an Islamist group called "Those Who Returned from Guantanamo," who was recently arrested in Kuwait, reported that the group had planned to attack oil installations around the country.(13)
Evidence gathered by the Saudi authorities in 2005, following a violent clash with a terrorist cell in the city of Al-Dammam, indicated that the cell (which Saudi authorities stated had direct ties to Al-Qaeda) had likewise planned large-scale attacks on key oil and gas facilities in Saudi Arabia.(14) However, most indicative was the unsuccessful terrorist attack on the Baqiq oil refinery in Saudi Arabia on February 24, 2006. Sawt Al-Jihad, the e-journal of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, wrote that this attack would have had significant impact on world economy.(15) Moreover, the planners of the attack, nicknamed the "Oil Cell" – captured by the Saudis in May 2007 – admitted that the group had scouted out various oil facilities with the intent of destroying them. According to the terrorists, the primary aim of the attacks was to harm Saudi Arabia, but another goal was to cut oil supplies to the U.S. and the West.(16)
Targeting Critical Economic Infrastructure
Another goal pursued by Islamists in their efforts to undermine Western economy is the targeting of Western financial institutions and critical infrastructure,(17) especially in the U.S. They attack such institutions primarily, though not exclusively, through techniques of "electronic jihad," i.e. by hacking into Western computer networks.(18) For example, on November 22, 2006, an electronic jihad group which states that its goal is to destroy the U.S. economy posted a message on the Islamist forum Alfirdaws.org, urging Islamic hackers "to target sensitive American economic websites such as those linked to the stock market, the Central Bank... high-tech companies, and oil [companies]."(19)
Another forum participant suggested attacking "[computer] networks around the world, including military networks and [networks] which control radar [systems], missiles, and communications…" He explained that "if all these networks were to stop [functioning even] for a single day… it would bring about the total collapse of the West… while affecting our interests only slightly. The collapse of the West would bring about the breakdown of world economy and of the stock markets, which depend on [electronic] communications [for] their activities, [e.g.] transfers of assets and shares. [Such an attack] would cause the capitalist West to collapse."(20)
It seems that the Islamists have also attempted to put these ideas into action. A December 5, 2006 posting on Alfirdaws.org claimed that Islamist hackers had planned an attack, nicknamed "The Electronic Guantanamo Raid," against U.S. banks, cancelling it at the last moment because the banks had been warned of a possible attack by U.S. government agencies.(21)
Though it might seem unlikely that critical infrastructure could be seriously crippled by electronic attacks, experts warn that the danger should not be underestimated.(22) Past experience with cyber-terrorism indicates that critical infrastructure can indeed be harmed. Computer systems of banks and other financial institutions have frequently been targeted by hackers, resulting in substantial losses. Successful cyber-attacks on other critical networks have also been numerous. In 1992, for example, a fired Chevron employee disabled the firm's fire alert system by hacking into computers in New York and San Jose. The attack disabled the system for 10 hours, putting thousands of people at risk. In 2003, a computer virus called the "Sapphire Worm" or "Slammer Worm" spread rapidly via the Internet, shutting down websites all over the world. It infected at least 75,000 hosts and caused a wide range of problems – from canceled airline flights to ATM failures. The virus even disabled a 911 call center outside Seattle that serviced 14 fire departments, two police stations, and a community of 164,000 people.
These examples indicate that the Islamist aspirations to harm critical infrastructure should not be dismissed as unrealistic.
Devaluating the U.S. Dollar
An additional aim frequently discussed by Islamists is the devaluation of the U.S. dollar. Over the past few months, Islamists have been promoting an online campaign called "Crush the Dollar," which urges Muslims to boycott this currency in order to "Hasten America's downfall...; punish the enemy... who fights the religion of Allah...; [cripple] the economy [of the U.S.], which has killed our children, violated our honor, tormented our youth, stolen our wealth, and slandered our Prophet... and in order to dry up America's economic resources in retaliation for its failed attempt to dry up the material resources of jihad."(23)
The campaign recommends switching to euros as a temporary solution until Islamic societies abolish paper money altogether and revert to using gold and silver.(24)
To view an illustration from the "Crush the Dollar" campaign visit: http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=ia&ID=IA38707 .
The Islamist preoccupation with the notion of harming the dollar was also reflected in a posting on the Islamist forum www.mohajroon.com/vb. The writer proposed three steps that can be taken by private individuals to devaluate the dollar. He wrote: "First, call your bank teller and ask [him] to convert all your money from American dollars into a different currency (such as euros or yen) or into gold... (You should convert at least $1,000). Next, convince at least 10 of your friends to do the same. Third, stop making transactions in American dollars."(25)
The writer presented a table showing that, if this plan is successfully carried out 10 times, over one trillion dollars will be sold. The resulting chain reaction, he argued, would devaluate the dollar and ultimately cause significant harm to the American economy: "Investors will sell American dollars in order to minimize their losses. Institutions will sell dollars and will avoid making transactions in dollars. Governments will convert their cash reserves into euros. Oil-exporting countries will switch to different currencies. And since paper dollars are no longer backed by gold, the international market will lose confidence in them. The U.S. government will then find itself in a state of economic chaos, with prices of import products – especially oil – [steadily] rising, a process that will eventually lead to economic recession in the U.S."(26)
Another forum participant suggested that Arab governments should adopt a policy of boycotting both the dollar and American products. "Arab countries," he stated, "will not be able to completely boycott the American dollar unless they give up American commodities... which are paid for in dollars... Since it is impossible for the Arabs to completely forgo American goods, [they should at least] reduce the import of such goods, [thus] diminishing their dependence on the dollar. [In addition, they] should pay... for non-American goods in currencies other than the dollar... This will cut down their use of the dollar by 11 percent... reduce the dollar's segment in international trade… and [ultimately] affect America's economic status in the world."(27)
The anti-dollar campaign is not just a preoccupation of Islamist forums and websites. In December 2006, Iran announced a decision to switch to euros for foreign transactions.(28)
Chinese sources confirmed in 2007 that Zhuhai Zhenrong Trading, a Chinese state-run company that buys 240,000 barrels of oil per day from Iran, had switched to euros for its Iranian oil purchases. It was also reported that Japanese refiners, who buy some 550,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran, had indicated their willingness to buy Iran's oil in yen.(29)
Whether isolated anti-dollar policies could actually destabilize the dollar is uncertain,(30) and the economic impact of the Islamists' anti-dollar campaign is therefore questionable. Nonetheless, the campaign may have a psychological impact that could ultimately affect the U.S. economy to some degree. Persistent and credible reports about Muslims around the world selling millions or even billions of dollars could reduce confidence in U.S. currency, and affect its status vis-à-vis other currencies.
Undermining the Tourism Industry
The tourism industry has been a favored target of Islamist terrorists over the past two decades. For example, between 1992 and 1997, the Egyptian organization Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiyya carried out some 30 terrorist attacks against tourist targets in Egypt.(31)
The 2002 attack in Bali, perpetrated by an Indonesian terrorist group also called Al-Jama'a Al-Islamiyya, killed 202 people, 164 of them foreigners.(32) Tourist resorts in the Sinai have also been targeted several times in recent years by Islamist terrorists.(33)
In their statements, Islamists usually stress the political goals that their organizations are meant to achieve (e.g. undermining the regime of a particular country). However, it is likely that the attacks are also aimed at achieving the wider goal of weakening the economy of the targeted state. This is plausible, considering the importance of tourism to world economy.
According to the annual World Tourism Organization report for 2000, international tourism generated $476 billion that year – roughly 10% of all tourism revenue for 2000. This suggests that total tourism revenues (domestic and international) may be as high as five trillion dollars.(34) In developing countries where tourism is a crucial source of income and therefore a major factor in economic development, terrorism against tourist targets is bound to have an especially severe impact on the economy.
A correlation between high-profile terrorist attacks and a decline in tourism revenue has been confirmed by studies,(35) and also acknowledged by the governments of the targeted countries. For example, following the April 2006 triple bombing in Sinai, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said that the attacks could only be "an attempt to destroy the economy of Egypt by attacking tourism."(36)
It is safe to assume that the Islamists are aware of the economic impact of terrorism against tourism targets, and will continue to pursue this aim on the local level, and perhaps also on the international one, as part of their emerging strategy of identifying and crippling crucial elements of Western economy.
Though the Islamists' online campaigns against critical infrastructure, the U.S. dollar, and the oil industry may pose a threat – albeit a limited one – to Western economic interests, their greatest significance is that taken together, they set out an ideological infrastructure that broadens the boundaries of jihad.
With this basic ideological foundation in place, Islamists can extend the concept of jihad to encompass not only attacks against major economic interests (e.g. banks and oil installations) but also against a wide range of other, seemingly less significant, targets. Attacks on the latter targets may ultimately inflict substantial damage on Western economy.
More importantly, this broadened definition of jihad renders it accessible to Islamists who wish to engage in jihad activities but lack access to jihad organizations and military training, and do not possess the necessary expertise to engage in media and electronic jihad or in other specialized activities. Under this understanding of jihad, any Muslim can qualify as a mujahid simply by engaging in activities that inflict some measure of damage on Western economy.
Clearly, the ultimate impact of this concept of jihad will depend on how much currency it gains among Muslims – a factor which is difficult to predict or measure. As a final note, it should be mentioned that this concept of jihad has been circulating for some time in various popular Islamist forums, many of which are increasingly visited by individuals residing in Western countries.(37)
*Dr. Alshech is the Director of the Jihad and Terrorism Studies Project at MEMRI.
(1) Economic initiatives, for example, to boycott Western products or restrict oil exports to Western countries, aimed not at destroying the Western economy but at pressuring the West into altering its policies, are not dealt with in this paper. For a discussion of such measures, see, for example, an April 18, 2002 article in the Qatari daily Al-Rai, in which the Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi presented the economic boycott on Israel and the U.S. as a means to promote the Palestinian cause: www.qaradawi.net. Al-Qaradhawi reiterated this point in a 2007 article titled "Boycotting American and Israeli Merchandise," which was posted on his websites. See also a legal opinion from 2002 by Hussein Shehata, a professor of Islamic economy at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which depicts the boycott on Israeli and U.S. products as the legal duty of every Muslim, and as a policy which "pressures the U.S. to reconsider its hostile policies vis-à-vis the Arabs and Muslims": 18.104.22.168 www.islamonline.net. Another article by Shehata which expresses similar views is "Economic Jihad," from 2003: www.kate3.com.
(2) www.al-hesbah.org (no longer active). The writer also stressed that the collapse of the Soviet Union was precipitated by the considerable damage inflicted on its economy by the prolonged war in Afghanistan.
(3) Two additional articles stressing the importance of weakening the U.S. economy, also posted on www.alhesbah.org, are "The Downfall of United States – An Assessment of Its Economic Situation" (http://al-hesbah.org/v/showthread.php?t=111065), and "Yes... The Merchants Will Cry Over It..." (http://al-hesbah.org/v/showthread.php?t=93042).
(5) The webmaster of the Islamist forum www.al-ommh.net/vb (no longer active) attributed a similar economic significance to the 2005 bombing in London. In a July 3, 2007posting, he wrote: "Another benefit [of the London bombings] was [the damage they caused to] England's infrastructure and economy... The attack also dealt a severe blow to the global stock market: the index dropped 200 points in less than 30 minutes, which caused them significant economic losses... www.al-ommh.net.
(6) www.mohajroon.com 136641 (no longer active).
(7) The U.S. abandoned the gold standard in 1971. www.house.gov.
(8) This is reflected in many postings, for instance on Al-Hesbah, such as a posting about a report titled "The United States is Going Through Its Worst Economic Phase," allegedly prepared by the U.S Department of Commerce (Al-hesbah.org/135870); a posting about the surge in oil prices in the U.S. (Al-hesbah.org 129837); and a posting titled "Congress: The War on Terrorism Has Cost Us $510 Billion" (Al-hesbah.org).
(9)About 50% of the messages posted in this section in 2007 were on issues related to Western economy.
(10) See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 838, "Osama bin Laden: 'Today There is a Conflict between World Heresy Under the Leadership of America on the One Hand and the Islamic Nation with the Mujahideen in its Vanguard on the Other,'" December 30, 2004, memri.org/.
(11) See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1044, "Newly Released Video of Al-Qaeda's Deputy Leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri's Interview With Al-Sahab TV," December 9, 2005, MEMRI.Org.
(12) It has been argued that the oil shortage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led the Islamists to appreciate in full the power of the "oil weapon.
(13) www.alseyassah.com/alseyassah. I thank I. Rapoport for calling my attention to this report.
(14) About the Al-Dammam incident, see www.alwatan.com.sa.
According to the Saudi authorities, the terrorists were in possession of forged documents that would have enabled them to access to some of the country's key oil and gas installations. www.weeklystandard.com.
Recently, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa reported, citing a London source of uncertain reliability, that Al-Qaeda is about to launch a new military campaign against essential local and foreign oil interests in the Persian Gulf, among other targets. www.alseyassah.com
(16) www.okaz.com.sa/. This is further evidence that the Islamists regard domestic terrorism as aimed, inter alia, at triggering global economic impact, such as international oil shortages and a rise in oil prices. I thank Y. Admon for helping me locate this report.
(17) Critical infrastructure refers to assets and systems essential to the functioning of society and the economy. The Clinton administration designated the following critical infrastructure as "national life support systems": telecommunications, banking and finance, electrical power, oil and gas distribution and storage, water supply, transportation, emergency services, and government services.
(18) Mohajroon.com. On electronic jihad, see Gary R. Bunt, Islam in the Digital Age (London, 2003), pp. 37-66. For a more recent analysis, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 329, "Cyberspace as a Combat Zone," February 27, 2007, Memri.org.
(19) Alfirdaws.org (no longer active).
(22) For a DiploFoundation study on cyber terrorism, see: Txtus.diplomacy.edu/.
(24) A similar call to boycott the U.S. dollar was issued in May 2006 by the prime minister of Malaysia. Ajazeeratalk.net/forum/showthread.php?t=2113 .
(28) www.irna.ir/. It should be noted that in November 2000, Saddam Hussein's Iraq switched to euros in oil transactions, a move which apparently had little effect on the dollar. For a more recent report about Iran's new oil-trade policy, see the following article in English from the Iranian website Baztab, which is affiliated with Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai, E.baztab.com/content/?cid=3670.
(29) World Net Daily . Com; News.bbc.co.uk. This growing anti-dollar tendency among oil-trading countries coincides with a four-year-old international campaign to end the dominance of the dollar in world trade. For information about this campaign, see Rohini Hensman and Marinella Correggia, "U.S. Dollar Hegemony: The Soft Underbelly of Empire," www.boycottbush.org/dollar_en.php.
(30) For a summary of the debate on this issue in the West, see www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Iran. See also Congressman Ron Paul's 2006 speech before the House of Representatives on "The End of Dollar Hegemony," www.house.gov; and William Clark, "The Real Reasons Why Iran is the Next Target: The Emerging Euro-denominated International Oil Market," www.energybulletin.net.
(31) See Jonathan Essner, "Terrorism's Impact on Tourism," p. 8, Sand.miis.edu.
(33) The deadliest of the attacks – the synchronized bombings in 2004 of the Hilton in Taba and of two campsites in Ras Al-Shitan on October 7, 2004 – left 34 dead and 171 wounded.
(34) Jonathan Essner, "Terrorism's Impact on Tourism," Sand.miis.edu.
(35) See Essner's "Terrorism's Impact on Tourism." See also an International Monetary Fund report on the impact of the 2002 Bali attack on the Indonesian economy: www.imf.org.
(37) See "The Promises and Pitfalls of Analyzing Jihadi Websites," by Jarret Brachmen, director of Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Military Academy. www.isn.ethz.ch.
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