Transnational Islamist groups, particularly militant ones, have come to the forefront of global concerns through terrorist activities over the last several years with the emergence of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda itself is not a centralized or structured movement, but rather a label applied by Western governments and the media to what is a broad and diverse “network of networks.”39 While this makes it very difficult to counter Al Qaeda by conventional military action, it also means that Al Qaeda’s political impact is likely to be limited; the network offers no realistic political agenda that appeals to a territorially defined political and social base.
Furthermore, Al Qaeda, like mainstream Islamist movements, is the product of a specific context: the failures of the Taliban regime enabled Islamist radicals— who had initially gathered in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union—to entrench themselves in the country. The United States, in conjunction with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, played a significant role in facilitating, financing, and arming the so–called mujahedin to fight Soviet Communism in the 1980s. Consequently, not only did thousands of Islamist radicals gather in Afghanistan, but Afghan and Pakistani youth were widely radicalized and today provide much of the manpower to Al Qaeda, according to Columbia University Professor Mahmood Mamdani.40 From the American perspective, the “good Muslims” of the 1980s have thus morphed into the “bad Muslims” of today. The mujahedin of the 1980s are now called jihadis; while the former term has positive connotations because it is borrowed directly from Islamic vocabulary, the latter is an invention of Western commentators and thus pejorative.
Mamdani locates the Al Qaeda phenomenon within the American policy of the post–Vietnam era beginning in 1975. This policy aimed at creating terrorist groups and turning them into political movements, first in Angola and Mozambique and then in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, in order to destabilize leftist or revolutionary regimes considered to be Soviet proxies. According to Mamdani, this policy emerged out of the lesson that direct American intervention, such as in Vietnam, was likely to be both costly and ineffective. UNITA and RENAMO in southern Africa, the contras in Central America, and the various radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan were all funded and trained by the CIA to undertake terrorist activities.41 In some ways, Islamist terrorists have roots more related to American cold war policies than to Islamic scripture.
While Al Qaeda has succeeded in making itself known through spectacular acts of terrorism and a thirst for publicity, Tablighi Jama’at—the largest transnational Islamic movement—is unknown to most Westerners. Tablighi Jama’at (“group that propagates the faith”) is a missionary organization that traces its roots to colonial India. It consists predominantly of lay Muslims who preach to fellow Muslims and focuses on internal faith renewal, rather than conversion of non–Muslims. The group emphasizes a return to Islam as practiced during the time of the Prophet. According to its leaders in America, the Tablighi’s goals are “devotion to God and promoting change in each individual, not society.”42 Although the Tablighi renounces politics and violence, it has come under intense scrutiny from Western governments for being a breeding ground for Islamic extremists. Both American and European intelligence agencies cite its vulnerability to infiltration as well as its tendency to promote religious awakening among disaffected youth as cause for concern.43