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The Washington Post November 18, 2003

A Time for Reflection Or for Destruction?; Scholars, Analysts Split on Ramadan Threats

By Richard Leiby

"I saw heads flung far from motionless bodies, eyes plucked from their sockets, corpses trampled in the dust. . . .What flames of vengeance flickered over these corpses! How men's hearts rejoiced at this hideous spectacle!"

So reported a Muslim scribe after a great military victory over the Christian Crusaders near the end of the month of Ramadan. It was 1187 and both sides were joined in a holy war that spanned centuries; this time the sultan Saladin wiped out the Frankish army and went on to reclaim Jerusalem for Islam.

That triumph over what Muslims considered an infidel occupation force still resonates among extremists like Osama bin Laden, whose communiques suggest that he's reliving the Crusades. And in light of recent bombings linked to al Qaeda and rising attacks against coalition troops in Iraq since Ramadan began there on Oct. 27, some scholars, military and terrorism experts see signs of what they call a Ramadan offensive -- an effort by radicals to parlay a heightened atmosphere of religious zeal into violence.

The last 10 days of Ramadan -- the holiest period, a period of seclusion and reflection -- began Saturday. "Religious sentiments are most intense during that last 10 days, and when someone wants to exploit it, that is the best time to do it," says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian-born professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University.

"Theoretically, of course, Ramadan is a month of peace and fasting," says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian American expert on Middle Eastern conflicts. But the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq seems to have created an excuse for jihad: Militants believe it's permissible to fight "if the enemy is in your domain," he says. "You fight him with increased fervor."

Deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a secularist except when it suits his agenda, has repeatedly tried to stir support with calls for holy war. A new tape recording, purported to contain his voice, is no exception: "The evil ones now find themselves in crisis and this is God's will for them."

Many Muslims resent the linking of Ramadan to violence. Experts in Islamic law cite admonitions against fighting during Ramadan, which also is a time for generous acts. Some predict a Muslim backlash against those who carried out attacks that have indiscriminately killed Muslims, including the Nov. 9 bombing of a residential compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Saturday's explosions near two synagogues in Istanbul.

Some terrorism watchers are unnerved enough to think an attack on U.S. soil could be next. Earlier this month, an al Qaeda-affiliated Web site spread a warning from a previously unknown jihad group urging Muslims to leave Washington, New York and Los Angeles. On Sunday a group linked to al Qaeda cited the vehicle-bomb attacks in Iraq, Riyadh and Istanbul, and said that "cars of death will not stop . . . until you see them with your own eyes in the middle of the capital of this era's tyrant, America."

Could that mean Washington?

"This is a bunch of sensationalistic nonsense," says Khaled Abou El Fadl, a visiting professor at Yale Law School and an Egyptian-trained Islamic cleric. Even so, as a presidential appointee on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, El Fadl says he's been contacted recently by State Department officials asking about a possible surge in attacks during Ramadan.

The question is "something the Pentagon seems to be concerned about," he says, and it boils down to: "Can we expect the last 10 days [of Ramadan] to be hellish?"

His answer? "I don't buy it. . . . I would bet nothing is going to happen."

Ramadan has brimmed with blood throughout history -- starting in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who led his forces in Arabia to victory over idolaters in the Battle of Badr in 624. When Egypt and Syria launched their attack on Israel in 1973, it was called Operation Badr, and foot soldiers were stoked with religious slogans to fight what became known in the the Arab world as the Ramadan War. (Elsewhere it was the Yom Kippur War.)

The nexus of Ramadan and a rising death toll in Iraq "seemed obvious to me," says W. Patrick Lang, former chief of Middle Eastern affairs at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "In the mind of an Islamist group or semi-secularized Iraqis, it could be seen as a virtuous act to fight the infidel."

Lang, a retired Army Special Forces colonel, then offers this bit of biography -- "I was in the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the second Tet in '69" -- by way of explaining why a Ramadan offensive worries him.

He points out that the Viet Cong were "roundly defeated" in those battles, which marked the Vietnamese New Year, but that they still scored a victory. The communists hit hard at what military strategists would consider America's "center of gravity." The Tet Offensive helped erode the U.S. will to fight. War is an extension of politics, and back home, people in the mainstream began to ask whether the Vietnam War was worth it.

Though the insurgent force in Iraq is much smaller, Lang and others see a replay of Tet, in one sense. "They are trying to make a profound impression on us . . . a psychological impression," he says. "And they're succeeding in that."

When Ramadan began in Baghdad, suicide bombers struck at four locations, including the Red Cross headquarters, killing at least 35 people. Some U.S. military officials linked the attacks to "foreign fighters" -- presumably al Qaeda sympathizers -- but others blamed Hussein loyalists.

Just how much religious motivation, if any, is behind the attacks remains obscure. Hussein's secular Baath party was dominated by Sunni Muslims. There are also Shiite Muslims who oppose the occupation, and secular nationalists who simply don't like American boots on Iraqi soil. At an Oct. 30 briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked whether the Baghdad bombings represented a "new offensive" by the anti-American forces.

"It may be an isolated spike," Rumsfeld said. "It may have to do with Ramadan." He did not elaborate.

Since then, the coalition death toll has climbed steadily through November with attacks on U.S. helicopters and the bombing of an Italian military police headquarters.

"At the rate the body bags are showing up, November is going to be the worst month of the war," predicts John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a respected defense and intelligence Web site. "There will be more dead Americans at the end of November than at the end of March or April."

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a terrorism and national security analyst, says of Ramadan: "Every day there has been something." He lists daily attacks on coalition forces in Iraq, fighting in Afghanistan and various car bombings.

Is the Department of Defense ready to call this the Ramadan offensive?

"So far we haven't," says Air Force Lt. Col. Ken McClellan, a Pentagon spokesman. "But that doesn't mean it's not weighing on our minds."

During the last 10 days of Ramadan, the pious often sleep in mosques. It is a period of intense introspection and supplication as the faithful await what is called the Night of Power -- the night on which the Koran was revealed to Muhammad. According to Muslim tradition, that was the night of contact between man and God, when the angel Gabriel descended and God called Muhammad to be His messenger. (It is sometimes translated as the Night of Destiny.)

Determining the Night of Power (Laylat al-Qadr in Arabic) is a matter of divination. It always occurs on an odd-numbered date during Ramadan's final 10 days, according to tradition. The night of Qadr is believed by many Muslims to fall on the 27th of Ramadan -- at sunset on Nov. 21 this year, extending into Nov. 22.

It is, for Muslims, a solemn, ineffable night, akin to Easter Sunday for Christians or Yom Kippur for Jews. "In the theology, what is called for is seclusion, not machoism and acts of war," says professor El Fadl.

The Koran says in Sura 97, "That night is the night of peace, till the break of dawn."

"It is a night of heightened expectations, I would almost say heightened ecstasy," says Akbar S. Ahmed, a Pakistani-born anthropologist who holds the chair of Islamic studies at American University. "The whole community is uplifted, and when themes of injustice and suffering are raised, it's very powerful. People may be moved, crying, thinking of God or the afterlife."

Ahmed's book "Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World" points out that "even those societies that economists call 'developed' fall back to notions of honor and revenge in times of crisis."

He says that on the Night of Power, occupation forces in Iraq must be especially careful not to offend religious traditions. "On the Night of Power, across the whole of Iraq, in a cultural sense, you will be seeing the mosques full. . . . You have a matchbox, a tinderbox and a gallon of petrol and oil around you."

Some who study global terrorism also consider the night ominous. On Jan. 3, 2000, al Qaeda operatives tried to bomb a U.S. destroyer, the USS The Sullivans, in the harbor at Aden, Yemen. It was the Night of Power. The suicide boat was overloaded with explosives and sank. (The following October, al Qaeda successfully bombed the USS Cole in the same harbor.)

In 1187, Saladin's great victory at the Battle of Hattin came at dawn -- after the Night of Power. As his private secretary recorded, Saladin "passed among the ranks . . . promising them the victory they expected from God, and urging them to jihad."

McInerney says: "We've got to get into their mindset. We should expect some [terrorist] activity. You will see something next Saturday."

Other analysts are cautious about affixing significance to any date. They also tend to discount terrorist claims spread over the Internet. "It's difficult to assess the authority of them," says Kevin Rosser of Control Risks Group, a business risk and security consulting firm. "We don't know who's behind the curtain."

As for the spike in attacks, "if you want to link it to Ramadan, fine," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst who teaches at the National Defense University. "But does that mean it's going to stop after Ramadan? No."

As Rumsfeld himself put it: "None of us can predict the future."

Copyright 2003, The Washington Post