Intelligence November 2004

Follow the Mullahs

With theologians at the center of terrorist strategy, "forensic theology" is rapidly becoming a valuable intelligence tool

Inside the Green Zone in Baghdad last winter I watched a coalition adviser study a 4,200-word communiqué purported to be from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian suspected of links to al-Qaeda, whose network has claimed responsibility for the recent spate of beheadings and is the United States' most wanted enemy in Iraq. The essence of the screed had already been broadcast by the media: the author promised to draw the Iraqi people "into the furnace of battle," in order that "a real war will break out, God willing." The analyst, however, had little interest in the political content of the communiqué. An Arabist and a scholar of Islam, he was scrutinizing the language and religious references in the text in an effort to determine whether it was in fact written by al-Zarqawi. Many commentators believed that it had been put together by others—perhaps an intelligence agency or the Iraqi National Congress—in order to give credence to U.S. accusations of foreign involvement in terrorist actions within Iraq.

The analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, disagreed. "This definitely fits Zarqawi's profile," he told me. "He is a highly educated man. This is real scholarship." He pointed to references to Ibn Taymiyya (1268—1328), a Syrian religious leader who declared jihad on the Mongols—who had taken much of the Middle East from the Arabs—even though the Mongols were by then Muslims themselves. In doing so Taymiyya had invoked a philosophy used by militants today to justify attacks on fellow Muslims. "It's just the sort of person that I expect Zarqawi is reading," the analyst said. "Taymiyya was also perniciously anti-Shiite."

The analyst is engaged in a new and increasingly important aspect of the fight against terrorism—one that might be called forensic theology. Authenticating terrorist documents is just one of its uses. It can also help identify perpetrators, and targets for surveillance, sometimes far more effectively than conventional intelligence practices. Its greatest potential, however, may be strategic: with theologians at the center of the battle, forensic theology may help us pinpoint the groups that present the greatest threat.

France was probably the first nation to engage in forensic theology, sometimes known as "ideological surveillance." Since 1986, when militants launched a wave of terror attacks in Paris, the French security services have worked with experts on Islam to learn the trademarks of extremist thought. These efforts have helped them to identify and disrupt a number of militant cells and to prevent more than twenty-five planned attacks. Last year, for example, religious experts listening to sermons in various mosques pinpointed three clerics as probable extremists. Police investigators found that all three had links to a terrorist group led by a Turkish militant, and they were ordered expelled from France.

Yigal Carmon is another pioneer in the field. A former chief anti-terrorism adviser to Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir, he currently directs the Middle East Media Research Institute, in Washington, D.C. MEMRI's fellows have pored over thousands of Islamic militant texts and sermons since the institute's founding, in 1998. They have been crucial in confirming the authenticity of many al-Qaeda statements and determining that others said to come from the group were fakes. For example, MEMRI's analysts found that a supposed al-Qaeda statement issued on March 12, which claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombings the day before, deviated from Osama bin Laden's scholarly Islamic style in several respects. Among other things, it termed the 9/11 attacks "events" rather than "raids" (a translation of the early-Islamic word ghazwah), and talked about foreign "agents" (a word common in the vocabulary of nationalist ideology), whereas bin Laden and his followers typically call their enemies "infidels." It also referred to the Madrid attacks as "messages," a word out of keeping with the way bin Laden casts his operations.

Religion, Carmon says, is not only a key to understanding the motivation of Islamic militants; it can also provide important clues at the scene of a crime. Some clues, he told me recently, are readily apparent to the educated eye. For instance, the very name of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam mosque, in Tampa, Florida, should have alerted authorities that the mosque's founder, Sami al-Arian, might be involved with Hamas. Al-Qassam led a Palestinian movement that attacked Jewish settlements in Palestine in the early 1930s, and one wing of Hamas is named the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. As a result of wiretaps and other surveillance activities, al-Arian was arrested last year and charged with supporting terrorist activity.

Other clues are subtler, and deciphering them requires greater expertise. In 2002 an investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review exposed ties between Muslim students at the University of Pittsburgh and suspected terrorists. These ties might have been uncovered much sooner had analysts examined the Islamic student magazine, which from 1991 to 2000 contained quotations from Salman al-Awdah, and a related Web site that quotes Safar al-Hawali; both are Saudi clerics who have lent support to al-Qaeda. The political propaganda in the magazine was the usual stuff of such publications—exhortations to jihad, condemnations of the West, praise for Muslim fighters around the world—but the religious citations were not. Al-Awdah, for example, does not confine his support to mujahideen in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan but embraces the extension of jihad worldwide and accepts civilians and fellow Muslims as legitimate targets.

Presented by

Stephen Grey is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern issues and other foreign affairs. From 2001 to 2003 he was the head of the Insight investigation team of the Sunday Times of London.

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