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Islamic extremists don’t want world domination – they want to be left alone: study

This undated image taken from video released by Qatar's Al-Jazeera televison broadcast Oct. 5, 2001, purports to show al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, left, and his top lieutenant, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.

AP Photo/Courtesy of Al-Jazeera via APTN

If you can believe what they say, Islamic extremists don't actually want to take over the West.

That's the conclusion of a study that flies in the face of the Clash of Civilizations thesis that has hung over world politics for the last decade. According to researchers in the United States who scoured 2,000 messages, al-Qaeda and other Islamists believe they are the victims.

"We're just trying to focus on how they justify what they're doing on religious grounds," study co- author Steve Corman, a professor at Arizona State University's Center for Strategic Communication, said in an interview. "And it's more about defending Muslims than spreading the religion by force."

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After the attacks of 9/11, the motivation of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups became a key question for western leaders and publics. Although then al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's anger at the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia was known by the 1990s, this factor was lost in the drumbeat of a simpler narrative. "They hate our freedom," proclaimed former U.S. president George W. Bush and many other politicians.

It was an argument that fit nicely with Samuel Huntington's theory that conflict in the post-Cold War would be based on religious and cultural identities. Viewed through this lens, al-Qaeda's attacks on the United States, bombings in European capitals and the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were all part of a head-to-head battle for global supremacy between a free West and militant Islam.

In its Emmy-award winning 2007 project Talking to the Taliban, though, The Globe and Mail cast doubt on that theory. The series showed that insurgent foot-soldiers in the Afghan province of Kandahar had a largely nationalistic mindset instead of a desire to attack the West.

Now, in research published this week, Mr. Halverson and fellow authors at Arizona State University said that their investigation into 13 years of writings by al-Qaeda militants and other Islamists had identified a similarly defensive attitude.

Their report notes that militants quoting from the Koran rarely used the more violent passages. Instead the focus was largely on themes of "victimization, dishonor, and retribution." The preferred verses were a mix of exhortation, battle imperatives and affirmations of faith, but the authors say that extremists appear not to "favor the 'Verse of the Sword,' which encourages all-out war against unbelievers."

The research -- which is part of larger report looking at the use of narrative by terrorists to further their cause -- looks at material dating to 1998 from the Middle East and North Africa, the majority of it from the last four years.

The material was from members of known jihadi groups, including al-Qaeda and the Somali militia al-Shabaab, as well as anonymous postings on extremist websites. The results were not sub-divided by group, which could show differences of opinion.

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In their recommendations, the authors say that "more objective analysts" reject the notion of a world takeover by jihadis, citing political scientist Robert Pape's opinion that the supposed goal is "pure fantasy." And they note the argument of Michael Scheuer, the former CIA agent who spent years tailing Mr. bin Laden, that when Islamists do make exhortations of world domination it is merely "pro forma."

"Based on this analysis we recommend that the West abandon claims that Islamist extremists seek world domination, focus on counteracting or addressing claims of victimage, emphasize alternative means of deliverance, and work to undermine the "champion" image sought by extremists," the authors argue.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed to the authors of the study an opinion by political scientist Robert Pape

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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