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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

7 - Beyond the Far Enemy


September 11, 2001, and the New Science of Terrorism

In his introduction to Al Qaeda in Its Own Words, a new collection of jihadi texts, Gilles Kepel – a French scholar of contemporary Islam who has written extensively on Muslim militancy – describes a new “science of terrorism” that has emerged in the United States, a kind of cottage industry that props up wobbly theories while doing little to advance actual knowledge of the jihadi phenomenon.

Since September 11, 2001, a cottage industry of wannabe Al Qaeda experts has produced a flood of monographs, most of which are ahistorical and sweeping. Designed to quench the thirst of a frightened American mass audience, these fast-food–like books lack scholarly depth and substance, comparative methodology, conceptual rigor, and a rudimentary understanding of Al Qaeda's intellectual genealogy and historical roots. Many are either short-term security-oriented or ideologically driven with an ambitious political agenda.

Instead of adopting a more nuanced, analytical, and constructive approach – one that draws distinctions between the many faces of Islamism (a politico-religious ideology that accepts the rules of the political game) and jihadism (a tiny breakaway insurgent current that uses violence in the name of religion and seeks to seize power and Islamize society by autocratic fiat from the top down) and that traces Al Qaeda's origins and lineage predating September 11 – most pundits took the easier reductionist approach of lumping all Islamists together with Osama bin Laden and his cohorts.