Written by Benjamin Joffe-Walt

After an 11-year study, researcher says jihadi ideology increasingly focuses on economic targets.

Economic terrorism is becoming the preferred tactic of radical Islamic thinkers and terror organizations, an 11-year study of public Islamist discourse has found.

Dr Gabriel Weimann, an expert on the use of online platforms by jihadi ideology on the Internet, has released a paper arguing that radical Islamic thought is increasingly supportive of terrorism whose goal is to paralyze or severely weaken Western economies.

The paper, based on an 11-year study of over 7,000 radical Islamic websites and forums, claimed that Islamist terrorist organizations are increasingly interested in operations that will yield the most economic damage, such as attacks on western multinational corporations, Muslim boycotts of those organizations, attacks on resources ‘looted’ from Muslim countries such as oil fields in Iraq and assassinations of Western economic leaders.

Michelle Malkin:

“Jihadists increasingly predict that the economy will be the ultimate fall of the West,” Dr Weimann told The Media Line. “Whatever the enemy is in the perceived clash between the Muslim world and the west – be it the U.S. or the capitalist system – if it is to be destroyed, one of the ways to help this happen is by forcing Western economies to dedicate more and more resources to fighting terrorism, security, and support of Israel.”

Dr Weimann, a professor of communications at Haifa University in Israel and American University in Washington, DC, argued that the focus on economic terrorism began after Osama bin Laden boasted that the September 11 attacks on New York City’s Twin Towers had cost Al Qaeda $500,000 to carry out but would cost the U.S. $500 billion in damages.

“We have been monitoring terrorist presence on the net for 11 years now,” he said. “We started with 12 websites in 1998 and we are now monitoring 7,500 websites, forums, chat rooms and social networks, so I can say that econo-jihad is not entirely new and they already used economic terrorism in the past.”

“What is new is how prominent this has become in the discussions, in the messaging, and in the plans for the future as to what should be done and what would be helpful,” Dr Weimann continued. “It doesn’t mean that econo-jihad will replace violence and conventional terrorism. The one complements the other. As they see it, the more violent we are, the more resources the West will have to devote to defending against us and the more they do this the weaker they are, so they like attributing the economic crises in the West to the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Dr Weimann also contends that the radical Islamic armed struggles against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq are not necessarily aimed at direct military victory, but rather at damaging the American economy by forcing prolonged expenditure on as many active military fronts as possible.

The study also found a growing focus in radical Islamic forums on Western finance publications and expert analyses of the myriad factors influencing Western economies, such as terrorism, war, oil prices, natural disasters and a volatile stock market.

“Jihadist Internet monitoring alongside terrorist activity in the field, is evidence that the economic turn actually influences the terrorists’ targets, which have included oil-drilling infrastructures, tourism, international economic institutions and more,” he said.

Shadi Hamid, Deputy Director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, commended the study.

“I don’t know if we can say this is a new trend, but as Prof. Weimann noticed since 9/11 we’ve been seeing a clear and intensified shift in calculation towards attacking symbols of economic power,” he told The Media Line. “There is also a recognition over the last year that the global economic crisis will provide extremists with an opportunity to use the economic crisis to their advantage.”

“The U.S. has been economically weakened and there is a lot of internal opposition to the costs of the wars,” Hamid said. “Al Qaeda knows this so it makes sense to concentrate on that vulnerability. If they can make these wars more costly for the U.S. it will hurt them more than in previous years.”

Dr Jack Kalpakian, an associate professor of politics at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, added that one aspect of the growing focus on economic jihad was a desire among radical Islamist theorists to unite the disparate groups identifying with global jihad.

“The idea of an economic jihad is not new, but there has been a noticeable shift in emphasis,” he told The Media Line. “It has become a widespread approach because it unites both the violent and non-violent Islamist groups and, in some cases, helps force a more rapid Islamization of any society.”

“Here in Morocco, for example, supporters of economic jihad attack the economic interests of groups that do not tow the Islamist line,” Dr Kalpakian said. “If someone opens a bar, who will defend the bar owner? In other words if you place ordinary Muslims into the position of having to choose between defending the human rights of a person their religion says is a bad person [the bar owner] or joining the Islamists, they will be forced to choose the latter. So there is a kind of strong logic behind this approach and they are using it.”

Ayala Shefa Hanan, a scholar of economic jihad at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, said that the supporters of economic jihad were principally interested in boycotts, not militant operations.

“It is a very new theological concept, and economic jihad is different from what we traditionally think of as jihad,” she told The Media Line. “Most theorists of economic jihad do not speak about attacks on the World Trade Center or the targeting of economic symbols.”

“It’s using money against the enemy,” Shefa Hanan said. “What Arab intellectuals have done is taken the traditional idea of jihad and applied it to modern economic theory. With this logic, if you buy a McDonalds hamburger, the money will be used to kill Palestinians and people in Arab countries, so economic relationships with the United States and Israel are forbidden and boycotting them is a holy act of jihad.”

Dr Mordechai Kedar, Shefa Hanan’s academic supervisor and a specialist in Arab political discourse and mass media at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, argued that economic jihad posed a major threat to the stability of western societies.

“Economics is the blood that flows through the veins of any state, and a major component of political stability is economic stability,” he told The Media Line. “So if you want to hurt a nation, you do it through their pockets. This is the logic, so if this jihad continues to be waged in a clever, organized way, then it certainly poses a threat.”