Olivier Roy Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Globalization and Islam: Conversation with Olivier Roy, Professor, School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris; January 25, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Profile of Islamic Terrorists

Help us understand all these changes in the global society, and the changes with Islam. The question becomes, who are "the terrorists" that have become the "monster."

The first perception of the terrorists after 9/11 was that these guys are foreigners coming from the Middle East to export the Middle East crisis to the West. There was a feeling in the States, and in Europe too, of being under siege in a sense, of being attacked from abroad by a different civilization, a different culture, and so on. But in fact, if we look at the background of the terrorists -- and we know who they are, we have hundreds of names, terrorists who have been killed, jailed, assassinated, died in terrorist action or fleeing, escaping. We have hundreds and hundreds of names, and what is striking is that most of them have a Western background.

It's interesting to see, for instance, that there's no Palestinian, no Iraqi, no Afghan coming to avenge what is going on in their country, to fight against the West, no. These guys have de-territorialized backgrounds. For instance, they may be born in a country, then educated in another country, then go to fight in a third country and take refuge in a fourth country, things like that. None of them has a religious background. None of them comes from a very traditional family. All of them are born again, all of them are young, at least most of them are young, and they jumped to fundamentalism and to political activism almost at the same time. So, it's not a long process of religious brainwashing when younger, [as] school children, not at all.

These guys become born again and suddenly they decide to go for the real thing, and the real thing is doing something which will reverberate on the global sphere, something which is highly visible, which will be on the TV the same day. They are not interested in long guerilla warfare, they are not interested in mobilizing the masses, in making political parties, in making propaganda. They are interested in TV, in making the news immediately.

These guys live in a global world. For example, some of them, the pilots of the World Trade Center, came from the Middle East but had been educated in Germany. They became born-again Muslims in Germany, not in Egypt nor Lebanon, and they decided to go to Afghanistan for training, then to go to New York to destroy the World Trade Center. Among these guys, all the networks, we have a lot of converts.

This is something which is very interesting. At least 10% of al Qaeda's militants who are acting globally, not in a specific country, are converts, and in France the percentage might go as high as 20% or 25%. So, the fact that al Qaeda is the Muslim organization which has the highest number of converts shows that by definition al Qaeda is the most globalized radical organization, because a convert is not motivated by his or her culture at all. He is not motivated by the political life of his or her country. He's motivated by joining something global. Al Qaeda is made of born again [Muslims] and converts who join the global jihad. One day they go to Bosnia and another [day] to Chechnya, or to Kashmir, or to Afghanistan, or to Fallujah. Very few of them, by the way, went to Palestine, very, very few. So, we have these global jihadists on sort of a geo-tour, going from jihad to jihad, living in a global world where they speak more English than Arabic or Persian, eating fast food, going to Hilton, big hotels, and things like that. They are the perfect example of the modern-day global travelers.

You point out that the difference in the understanding of jihad becomes very important because for them jihad is a personal struggle as opposed to a collective one.

Yes. In the traditional interpretation of Muslim law, jihad could be waged under very strict conditions. It should be territorially limited. You do jihad for a specific territory. It should be under the guidance of legitimate political and religious leaders, and it's a collective obligation. That means that if other people do jihad you are not personally obliged to go for that. This new generation, these new radicals, they brought innovation to that. First they said, everybody should go for jihad, it's an individual duty, it's not collective. Secondly, we are in a permanent jihad, and thirdly, jihad is global, it's not linked with a specific territory.

It's under this definition of jihad that the foreigners of al Qaeda left Palestine to go to Afghanistan. Palestine, I would say, for Muslim believers, is a traditional case of jihad, it's territorially limited, it concerns the Palestinian people, and it has to be done under specific political guidance, and some guys disagreed with that. The forerunner of al Qaeda, Abdul Azzam, left Jordan and decided to go to Afghanistan because he said, "This Palestinian jihad is to limited in scope, it's under the control of people who are not true Muslims, like Yassar Arafat, for instance. They will negotiate sooner or later, and if they win a Palestinian state it will be any sort of Arab state, like Egypt, Jordan, Syria. We are not interested." So, they decided to go to Afghanistan in the eighties to fight a real global jihad with people coming from all over the world against a global enemy, which was the Soviet Union at the time. They were not interested in building an Islamic state in Afghanistan. They were interested, in fact, in their own salvation, doing jihad as a religious duty more [than] as a political leverage.

Next page: Addressing Terrorism

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