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Al Qaeda and Other Jihadists Increasingly Wage Econo-Jihad, Study Finds

By Matthew Harwood

Osama Bin Laden bragged that the 9-11 terrorist attacks cost al Qaeda $500,000 and inflicted $500 billion in economic damage on the United States. That's considerable bang for every terrorist buck spent, and it's a lesson that hasn't been lost on other jihadist terrorists, according to an 11-year study conducted by terrorism researcher, Dr. Gabriel Weimann.

In his report, "Econo-Jihad," Weimann—a professor at Haifa University in Israel and American University in Washington, D.C.—monitored al Qaeda's online statements, videos, audio messages, letters, and press releases and found the terrorist organization and its sympathizers have increasingly emphasized attacks that weaken the U.S. economy as jihad's primary goal.

"Islamist discourse...," Weimann writes,"is increasingly proposing the use of Econo Jihad."

One influential proponent of this strategy is Bin Laden himself. The al Qaeda leader bases this strategy of bleeding the enemy on lessons he learned while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, Weimann writes.The idea is to bankrupt the United States in the global war on terrorism, much like Bin Laden believes his foreign fighters and the Afghan mujahedeen did to the Soviets during the 1980s. According to a Congressional Research Service study from September, the United States has spent nearly a trillion dollars since 9-11 on the global war on terrorism. By focusing attacks on U.S. and Western economic targets, al Qaeda reasons it can further erode U.S. economic power.

"America is a superpower, with enormous military strength and vast economic power," Bin Laden explained in a 2004 videotape broadcast on Al Jazeera, "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."

In attempt to put these lessons into practice, Weimann observes that an al Qaeda online magazine from March 2004 argued jihadists should attack international corporations, international economic experts, economic operations that steal Muslim resources, and assassinate economically powerful Jews.

The title of a posting on a jihadist online forum in 2005 declares, "Al Qaeda's Battle is an Economic [Battle] - Not a Military One." The author goes on to argue that "the primary goal of [al Qaeda's] war against America...is to defeat it economically."

The recent financial meltdown and resulting global recession has only made Western economic targets more appealing, says Weimann. In 2008, al Qaeda's spokesman Azzam the American, otherwise known as California-native Adam Gadahn, posted a video message heralding the U.S. financial crisis and explaining it signals America's decline. Another jihadist on an al Qaeda forum forecasts an attack so large and destructive that the U.S. dollar will collapse and international financial markets will tremble

Having monitored jihadist Web sites for many years, Weimann concludes a significant amount of  "jihadists have come to view their struggle against the U.S. and the West as an economic war." He notes that jihadist discourse increasingly "presents 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 Western economy." 

This discourse isn't a lot of tough talk either, he warns.

"[T]he 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."


♦ Photo by savethedave/Flickr

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