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War by Other Means: Econo-Jihad

With President Barack Obama poised to deliver his long-awaited message to the Islamic world, Osama Bin Laden is back in the news. What his anti-US message does not say is that the global jihadi movement has been adjusting its tactics. Online chatter and public statements by jihadists, Al Qaeda and indeed Bin Laden’s own earlier words suggest there is a new twist to jihad: the economy. Author Gabriel Weimann who studies the Jihadist online discussion calls it “Econo-Jihad.” He argues that jihadist attacks on the West are now as likely to target economic centers as military ones. Moreover, the current economic crisis is interpreted by Jihadi commentators as caused not just by the West’s attack on Muslim countries, draining the West’s financial wherewithal, but also as a direct result of jihadi activities. Whether or not Econo-Jihad is a tactical change as a result of the difficulty in going after spectacular military targets or marks a fundamentally new direction, Weimann makes it clear that it is not mere rhetoric. Crippling the Western economy is viewed as a means ultimately to topple the Crusaders. And such a change in focus implies, paradoxically, the scope of targets both broadens and narrows: there are many more possible economic targets than military ones, but focusing on economic targets means a more specific locus of attack. – YaleGlobal

War by Other Means: Econo-Jihad

Topple the economy and you topple the Crusaders
Gabriel Weimann
YaleGlobal, 4 June 2009
Fire of Jihad: Cover of the online Jihadi magazine Al Yaqeen devoted to the economy. The symbols of the World Trade Center towers on fire with the graph shows the sharp decline in US economy

We were patient fighting the Soviet Union with small humble arms for ten years, we depleted their economy till they vanished, all grace be to Allah. You should take a lesson from that, we will be patient fighting you, Allah’s willing, till either one of us dies.” – Osama Bin Laden, January 21st, 2006

WASHINGTON, DC: Al Qaeda, known for its spectacular attacks on US embassies, Navy ships and symbols of military and economic power may be fine-tuning its targets to cause maximum damage to the western economy. Recent Jihadi chatter on the Internet suggests both exultation about the economic crisis gripping the west and a call for what can be labeled as “Econo-Jihad,” targeting Western financial systems and economic infrastructure. This not simply a new propaganda spin . Monitoring Al Qaeda’s online statements, videos, audio messages, letters and press releases reveals that Jihadists see Econo-Jihad as a promising weapon of terror and the current financial crisis as a result of their activities. In fact, crippling the Western economy may now be the primary goal for the Jihadis.

While not a new idea for Bin Laden and his supporters, Econo-Jihad has certainly become more appealing for them recently. As long ago as 2002, Al Qaeda claimed that its strategy was to reduce America to economic ruin. On its now defunct website,, the movement’s propagandists assured its followers that even though the September 11 attacks had failed to deliver the knockout blow Bin Laden had intended, they needn’t despair. Just as the Mujahideen had triumphed against all odds over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, defeat of the United States was inevitable.

In 2004 Bin Laden referred to the 9/11 attacks as economic: in his videotape broadcast on Al Jazeera and posted online, he bragged that Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event, while America lost, "according to the lowest estimate, $500 billion ... meaning that every dollar of Al Qaeda defeated a million dollars [of America] ... besides the loss of a huge number of jobs." "America is a superpower, with enormous military strength and vast economic power," he concluded, "but all this is built on foundations of straw. So it is possible to target those foundations and focus on their weakest points, which, even if you strike only one-tenth of them, then the whole edifice will totter and sway."

The Jihadi calls for Econo-Jihad are well accepted and further promoted by their numerous online forums and chat rooms. The concept of jihad, dating back to the earliest stages of Islam, has always been open to various interpretations. Jihad as a requirement for all Muslims was presented and discussed in various dimensions, including military, spiritual, political, religious and more. Islamist discourse, as is evident in Islamist forums and websites, is increasingly proposing the use of Econo-Jihad. In this variation, jihads aim primarily at undermining the Western economy, particularly the US economy, with the ultimate goal of bringing about the total collapse of the West.

In March 2004, the Al Qaeda online magazine Mu`askar al-Battar (Issue No. 7), presented a list of economic targets, arguing that “The goals of hitting those targets are to create a disruption in the stability required for moving the economic sector towards progression…” Another goal is to withdraw or force the withdrawal of foreign capital from the local market. The magazine wrote: “This was accomplished by hitting the petroleum wells and pipes in Iraq, which kept foreign companies away from touching the oil, or at least created an absence of security and stability needed to steal the Muslims’ wealth”. The bulletin suggested these actions: attacking international corporations, experts in economics, the investment operations of Jews and Christians in Muslim countries, the imports brought from enemy crusader countries, and raw materials stolen from the Muslim countries.

In what can be seen as shifting the emphasis from causing military to economic damage, in September 2005, a 69-page magazine published by the “Media Committee” of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, titled: “The Vanguards of Kharasan,” was posted on the Internet. The publication includes articles which emphasize the economic consequences of the Jihadi campaign. The July 7, 2005 London bombings are presented as a success due to their impact on the global economic situation. Such articles, as “We Have Won a Decisive Round,” explains in 10-pages, that these bombings, which are to coincide with other “victories” in New York City and Madrid, had a great impact upon the world economy, as well as having symbolic significance for future as the attacks occurred a day after London was chosen for the 2012 Olympics. Another article, “Global Jihad - and the Afghani Front,” emphasizes that Afghanistan is important on a global scale, not only because it was the first in the “wagon of jihad,” but it also is allegedly placing a great strain on America’s military and financial faculties.

Al Qaeda’s new focus on economic sabotage was clear in many of the recent statements of the leadership. Al Qaeda’s second in command Ayman Al-Zawahiri revealed how important is the role of the economy in a videotaped interview issued to jihadist forums on November 27, 2008. Zawahiri declares that the economic downturn has “three causes, two of which are to be found in the capitalist system – namely, usury [“interest”] and fraud – and the third of which is to be found in the aggressive Crusader nature: namely, the unjust policy followed by America and her allies against the Muslims, among the results of which were the events of September 11th and then the hopeless Crusades which America and its allies are waging.” Two months later, Bin Laden himself in an online audio recording questioned whether the weakened economy will prevent the US from financing the war on terror. He quoted Vice-Presidential-elect Joe Biden and other prominent world politicians to confirm the huge scale of the financial disaster. Bin Laden said, "Now America is begging the world for money and the U.S.A. will not be as powerful as it used to be."

In February 2009, on the al-Fallujah Jihadi forum, an open discussion concluded that repeated blows to the U.S. economy will ultimately result in its disintegration. This argument was subsequently expanded to include Europe as well. Addressing a German audience, Al Qaeda’s perennially active media center, al-Sahab, cited the global financial crisis as punishment from God. “Where are the taxes that the German people persistently need today?” the speaker asked. “They are spent on the troops in Afghanistan . . . [thereby] squandering the German money” and destroying the country’s economy.

The Jihadi sites present 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 the Western economy which would thereby facilitate their ultimate goal of a total collapse of the West.

An analysis of discussions on Islamist forums, along with terrorist operations on the ground, strongly suggest that an economically-oriented notion of jihad is not a purely theoretical idea, but has actually affected the terrorists’ choice of targets, including attacks on oil facilities, infrastructure, transportation, tourism and financial institutions. Future attacks will presumably continue to focus on targets that could have an economic or financial impact, rather than a military one. In the patient scheme of Al Qaeda, spectacular attacks may still be in the menu, but weakening the Western economy by various means is the latest goal of their jihad.

Gabriel Weimann is professor of communication at Haifa University in Israel and American University’s School of International Service.

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