Al-Qaida and the 9/11 Decade
Al-Qaida and the 9/11 Decade
Abstract and Keywords
The declaration of a Caliphate in June 2014 by an al-Qaida offshoot implied a strong sense of political–religious unity, but, in reality, the announcement reflected deep division at the heart of radical Islam. This article critically assesses al-Qaida’s progress on its four main objectives over the course of the 9/11 decade, and suggests that its principal setbacks were due to the fragmentation of Islamic authority. In particular, Osama bin Laden’s inability to reverse the misguided focus, by some affiliated groups, on the ‘nearer enemy’, began to portend al-Qaida’s downfall. However, after the Arab Spring, in the chokeholds of strong states and the chaos of weak states al-Qaida found advantage. Furthermore, with the rise of groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a new pattern of radicalism emerged, in which the threat to ‘far enemy’, ‘near enemy’ and ‘nearer enemy’ were combined.
AL-QAIDA’S EMISSARY was found dead.
In February 2014, five masked men opened fire on a gathering of militants in Aleppo, Syria, and then one of their number detonated a suicide bomb.1 A dozen men were killed, including the target of the assault, Abu Khalid al-Suri, a colleague and longtime friend of al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Suri had been appointed by Zawahiri to mediate a violent dispute between the al-Nusra front, al-Qaida’s official affiliate in Syria, and an increasingly aggressive group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). On the battleground of Syria’s intractable civil war, the leader of ISIL, an Iraqi upstart known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had tried to subsume al-Nusra under his command. The move was resisted by the al-Nusra leadership and the global head of al-Qaida, who ordered al-Baghdadi to return to Iraq. When al-Baghdadi refused to fall in line, al-Zawahiri publicly disassociated al-Qaida from ISIL and its ‘seditious’ actions.2 Soon after, al-Suri was killed.
Pushing out of Syrian and some Iraqi territories already under its control, ISIL went on to seize major towns and cities in northern and Western Iraq in June 2014, and to declare an ‘Islamic State’ with al-Baghdadi as Caliph. Decreeing that, henceforth, his lands and estimated 50,000 fighters3 would be known simply as the ‘Islamic State’, Baghdadi called on all Muslims to pay obeisance to him.4 However, while the announcement of a Caliphate by (p.22) an al-Qaida offshoot would, in itself, imply a strong element of political–religious unity, in reality the story is one of competition and deep division at the heart of radical Islam. Indeed, this chapter will argue that the 9/11 decade was, for al-Qaida, marked by the fragmentation of authority. It begins by critically assessing al-Qaida’s progress on its four main objectives.
To end Western presence in Muslim lands
Al-Qaida’s first objective was to end the Western military presence in the region. As bin Laden bluntly phrased it, ‘pack your luggage and get out of our lands’.5 For bin Laden, the American assault on Muslims was symbolic as US troops, who were stationed in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the regime, were depicted as having ‘defiled’6 Islamic holy lands and ‘looted’7 Islam’s sacred symbols. But, beyond this figurative harm, the assault also involved ‘attacks and massacres committed against Muslims everywhere’.8 Before 9/11, bin Laden threw together a host of global injustices, framed in Islamic terms and ranging from Burma to Western Sudan, to determine that the US was waging a war against Muslims.
In contrast to these more tenuous charges of US aggression against Muslims, the 9/11 attacks precipitated a massive Western military backlash. On the heels of al-Qaida’s operation, the George W. Bush administration and its allies launched two full-scale military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, inaugurating a prolonged and overwhelming Western military footprint in the region. Shortly thereafter, and only slightly short of open warfare, the US initiated intensive intelligence and aerial-targeting campaigns in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, using unmanned ‘predator’ drones. Alongside these new combat zones, the US established legally controversial detention practices (for example, at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib in Iraq) and stepped up its support (p.23) for authoritarian regimes which were able to re-invent their track records in the aftermath of the attacks and re-brand themselves as guarantors of stability and partners for the West. Any violence and instability attributable to the West pre-9/11 was eclipsed dramatically by that which followed al-Qaida’s de facto declaration of war.
The 9/11 attacks heavily securitised the region for the United States, including its languages, traditions and dominant religion. They spawned entire industries in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Western capitals, revolving around counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, arms deals, security companies, state-building and humanitarian assistance projects. Al-Qaida forged a lasting link between the West and the region, which is military and political, but also partially cultural, as demonstrated on the one hand by the proliferation of Middle East Studies courses in the Western higher education sector, and on the other hand by a new generation of Westernised elites in Baghdad and Kabul. If the US had ‘luggage’ in the region before 9/11, far from packing its bags, it spent the ensuing decade setting up house.
However, from 2009 the Obama administration pursued a more ‘narrow and constrained’9 approach, ending combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, encouraging coalition partners to lead the 2011 intervention against Muammar al-Qadhafi in Libya and the 2013 intervention against militants in Northern Mali, providing only limited support to Bashar al-Assad’s opposition in Syria, and committing to fighting terrorism indirectly through the ‘Counterterrorism Partnership Fund’. Still, the Obama administration showed itself prepared to act militarily when US vital interests were at stake, as with the August 2014 air strikes in Northern Iraq against ISIL militants pushing toward the Kurdish capital of Irbil, in which US military advisers and diplomats were stationed. More importantly, however, the local partners empowered by Obama’s indirect approach remain al-Qaida’s principal bêtes noires.
To bring down corrupt regimes
Indeed, another key objective behind Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida was to oust the region’s authoritarian regimes. In fact, most of the pioneers of the global jihad against the West had cut their teeth fighting local tyrants. The reason they threw down the gauntlet to the ‘far enemy’ in the first place was because (p.24) Western governments helped to prop up the godless ‘near enemies’ that ruled over Muslims with an iron fist.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration sought to materially support and diplomatically entrench the very regimes al-Qaida aimed to unseat, and conspired with several countries to illegally ‘render’ wanted individuals to the custody of foreign governments for detention and interrogation, often involving torture.10 Having stepped away from the Bush administration’s militarist approach, the Obama administration relied, at first by default and later by design, upon alliances with governments in the region as the primary means of battling al-Qaida. Obama’s $5 billion ‘Counter-terrorism Partnership Fund’ envisaged a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel, involving training, capacity building and the facilitation of partner countries ‘on the front lines’.11
Of course, the Arab Spring introduced important new dimensions to al-Qaida’s battle against regimes in the region. In the beginning, al-Qaida appeared imperilled by two aspects of the Arab Spring. First, the fundamental assumption underlying the global jihad strategy–that changes to the status quo ‘can only be achieved through jihad’12–was dealt a body blow by the rainbow coalitions of peaceful protesters who, within a few months and with a largely secular discourse, claimed the scalps of four regional strongmen. Second, al-Qaida was threatened by the boon the revolutions seem to provide to political Islamists. If Islamists were able to integrate themselves into a genuine democratic process, throw off decades of political impotence, and govern with legitimacy, they would have presented a viable and effective alternative to al-Qaida when it came to the question of Islam and governance.
Instead, the breezes of the Arab Spring whistled two resounding notes of optimism for al-Qaida. In the first place, the power vacuums that developed as the result of ousted regimes afforded jihadi militants the opportunity to gain significant footholds in North Africa, Yemen and the Levant.
The overthrow of Qadhafi in Libya contributed to the spectacular military offensive launched by a jihadi coalition in Mali in 2012. Ever on the lookout for ways to needle his regional rivals, Qadhafi had been a major patron of the (p.25) Tuareg people, who he declared to be ‘the lions and eagles of the desert’.13 On the heels of his downfall, heavily armed and well-trained Tuareg fighters flowed back into Mali, re-igniting a (secular) separatist rebellion there, intimidating the weak Malian army, and making significant advances that were then violently usurped by radical Islamist factions. Until they were rolled back by the French military in January 2013, these militants looked set to take over the country.
In Libya itself, a fragile central government headed by five Prime Ministers in three years struggled to exercise authority, particularly in the absence of a national army. Indeed, as anti-Qadhafi militias refused to disarm, the parliament was stormed, oil installations were seized, political assassinations and kidnappings were routinised, the police and judiciary were too fearful to operate, and most foreign nationals were evacuated, including the United Nations mission. Amid talk of a failed state, one former Prime Minister noted that ‘there is no state in Libya to say if it is a failed state or not.’14 In August 2014, the Libyan parliament passed a resolution calling for foreign intervention to halt the unrest.15
Against this backdrop, jihadi fighters established training camps in the northeast, northwest and southwest of the country. A hardline Salafi group, Ansar al-Sharia, wrested control of virtually the whole city of Derna and governed significant portions of other urban centres, including Benghazi and Sirte. Attacks were launched against foreign diplomatic missions, Western aid organisations and Sufi shrines. Militants were spotted brandishing heavy weaponry, including man-portable air-defence systems,16 and overran both a US training facility for Libyan counter-terrorism forces on the outskirts of Tripoli (‘Camp 27’, April 2014) and a Libyan Special Forces base just outside Benghazi (‘Camp Thunderbolt’, July 2014). Notorious al-Qaida veteran Ibrahim Ali Abu Bakr Tantoush and former Guantanamo Bay inmate Abu Sufian bin Qamu operated openly in Libya, and combined with a new generation of leadership (Mohammed Zahawi and Ahmed Abu Khatalla) to transform post-Qadhafi Libya into an important node on the map of radical Islam. Indeed, Derna became a major training and transit point for the thousands of North African militants heading for jihad in Syria.
(p.26) On account of developments in Libya, Algeria militarised its 6385-km land borders, and also sent military aid to Tunisia, including fighter planes and surface-to-air missiles.17 Indeed, though Tunis boasted a more successful political transition than Tripoli, the Tunisian authorities struggled with militancy on both the border with Algeria, where jihadis made a training ground of the Chaambi mountain range, and the border with Libya, where thousands of fighters and weapons crossed in both directions. Groups like the Uqba bin Nafi Brigade attacked the US Embassy, planted mines and IEDs and ambushed Tunisian soldiers.18
In Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), made significant advances during nation-wide protests in 2011. Together with Yemen’s own branch of Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP managed to seize a number of towns in the Shabwa and Abyan Provinces, where they ran a parallel government named the ‘Emirate of Waqar’ until they were finally dislodged a year later. From their desert strongholds AQAP militants continued to pressurise the government’s presence in the south and the east with brazen attacks, and to stage jailbreaks, assassinate senior army officers, ambush paratroopers, murder foreign nationals and sabotage power lines. The Yemeni government was, moreover, side-tracked by emerging coup plots19 as well as the advance of Houthi rebels in the northern portion of the country. In April 2014, Sana’a announced a renewed military push against AQAP with US drone support, and claimed to have killed 500 militants.20 However, others wondered whether there was any longer term strategy behind the offensive, given that the government was not rebuilding what it took back from al-Qaida.21
As the political opposition movement in Syria became militarised, that violent space in turn became dominated by a number of jihadi groups,22 of which ISIL was the most powerful, three years into the ‘revolution’. Winning (p.27) control of up to one third23 of Syria’s territory, often from the hands of other opposition groups including fellow radicals, ISIL engaged in protostate building, with traffic police and tax collectors,24 as well as the severe enforcement of its austere and uncompromising interpretation of the sharia. ISIL also claimed a large share25 of the thousands of Western foreign fighters in Syria’s civil war. Combining a prominent global brand with a utopian narrative and conducting its outreach in multiple languages, from English to Tamil,26 ISIL attracted at least a dozen American nationals to its cause, including a member of the US National Guard.27 One quarter of its foreign fighter contingent was British. Expanding into Iraq at lightning pace in June 2014, and prompting fears in Lebanon and Jordan of a similar invasion, ISIL was a major beneficiary of the rising sectarian temperature across the region, which threatened millions of civilians with wars for survival and which seemed set to continue to soar, regardless of whether the Bashar al-Assad regime remained in power or Syria experienced state collapse.
The second way in which the Arab Spring brought hope to al-Qaida was through the renewed repression of political Islamists by authoritarian regimes–thus providing a longer-term entry point for radical Islam. In 2012 a Muslim Brotherhood government came to power in Egypt, in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s demise, but the military regime which unseated the Brothers the following year carried out mass arrests, ‘gunned down hundreds of unarmed demonstrators’ at sit-ins,28 handed down collective death sentences, and outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, as part of its own ‘War on Terror’.29 Radical groups have proliferated since,30 particularly in the underdeveloped (p.28) Sinai region. Saudi Arabia also intensified its crackdown on Islamists, declaring the Muslim Brotherhood to be a ‘terrorist organisation’ and going so far as to tacitly support Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in 2014 because of Tel Aviv’s aim to weaken Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood. Given that radical Islamism was catalysed by the repression of political moderates and Islamists in the 1960s and 1970s,31 the trend of pushing Islamism underground will likely yield an upsurge in radicalisation. Thus, after the Arab Spring, al-Qaida finds advantage in both the chokeholds of strong states and the chaos of weak states.
To signal the emergence of a new virtuous leadership
In the words of one al-Qaida military commander, one of the three objectives of the 9/11 attacks was ‘to signal the emergence of a new virtuous leadership dedicated to opposing the Zionist–Anglo-Saxon–Protestant coalition’.32 Osama bin Laden circumvented established patterns of Islamic leadership with the argument that al-Qaida gained the authority to declare jihad by default. This was as a result of the fact that both the religious establishment and ruling regimes of the Islamic world had abandoned the duty of jihad. Because the clerics were beholden to the rulers and the rulers pandered to the ‘Crusaders’, proper Islamic authority had vanished. It was left for the vanguard of al-Qaida, then, to protect the Muslims’ interests, in the manner laid out by the Egyptian theorist Sayyid Qutb in his seminal tract, Milestones.33
In establishing new claims to Islamic authority, al-Qaida scored notable successes. Jihadi groups with global ambitions multiplied, often relying upon the political and normative arguments that bin Laden elaborated over the (p.29) years. From Ansar Eddine in Mali34 to al-Shabaab in Somalia35 to Boko Haram in Nigeria36 to Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan,37 the once-nationalist mission statements of local, al-Qaida-linked groups shifted towards the Ladenese paradigm of global jihad. Indeed, the rhetorical legacy of bin Laden was even pronounced in the words of the self-proclaimed Caliph, Baghdadi, a rival to the al-Qaida leadership, who used his 2014 Ramadan address to describe the tragic state of an oppressed umma (the global community of Muslims), to redefine terrorism, to denounce Western hypocrisy, and to outline the individual duty for jihad.38 This emerging globalist narrative will shape and be reshaped by the rising trend of foreign fighters joining the ranks of jihad, as well as the confrontation of these local groups with the ‘West’ and its counterterrorism partners in the decade to come.
Another achievement for al-Qaida in this context was the spread of its cult of martyrdom. While Palestinian fighters had used suicide bombings as a tactic since 1994, ‘Hamas never sought to find a theological argument for the use of suicide bombings, relying instead on popular acceptance among the Palestinians of the legitimacy of such attacks and the “martyrdom” of its perpetrators.’39 Owing to al-Qaida’s ideologists, treatises proliferated, as evidenced by the materials readily available in web forums such as ‘Shumukh al-Islam’ and ‘Minbar Tawhid wa Jihad’, and one major consequence of this was the subtle erosion of the strict Islamic principle of non-combatant immunity. No doubt, Osama bin Laden’s arguments overturning that principle for Western civilians–because Western armies target our civilians, we (p.30) can target theirs; because civilians vote for and pay taxes to their hostile governments, they are not innocent; because we don’t directly intend to kill women and children, their deaths are legitimate–have gained a foothold in the jihadis’ moral universe and, over decades, as these arguments are parroted40 and elaborated, it is possible they will lead to the weakening of the principle’s absolute character. Indeed, among a new generation of even Western jihadis, the heroic status of Osama bin Laden (‘I love Osama bin Laden. I think he looks kinda cool’41), the legitimacy of ‘martyrdom operations’ and the existence of an individual duty for Muslims in the West to fight for their Sunni brethren across the seas, are often assumed.
While al-Qaida has championed a new idiom of leadership, which manifests itself in a global current that is defining the political and security landscape of the MENA region in 2014, it cannot be reasonably described as virtuous.
To defend Muslim lives and property
Al-Qaida’s foundational mission was to protect Muslim lives and lands: ‘we are following our Prophet’s mission … This is a defensive jihad to protect our land and people.’42 However, most of the victims of al-Qaida-related violence since 9/11 have been Muslim civilians.43
All of bin Laden’s legal, moral and political arguments rested on the premise that al-Qaida was defending Muslims, yet the credibility of this claim exploded alongside the scores of suicide bombers dispatched to civilian centres with the direct intention of massacring swathes of (Muslim) innocents. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, none of bin Laden’s arguments overturning the Islamic principle of non-combatant immunity were applicable when the targets were Muslim, and civilian.44
(p.31) Certainly, bin Laden’s poetic narrative of resistance once resonated even beyond the Muslim world, in particular at the height of the US-led occupation of Iraq. But that more broad-based sympathy dried up dramatically when the reality of what al-Qaida represented laid itself bare in the scenes of senseless savagery in places like Algiers, Amman and Al-Anbar. These incidents were self-evidently detrimental to al-Qaida’s cause: one al-Qaida commander described the 2007 bombings of UN offices in Algiers as ‘sheer idiocy’;45 after the uproar over the hotel bombings in Amman in 2005, Zarqawi’s family took out full-page advertisements in newspapers severing links with him ‘until doomsday’;46 and for al-Qaida’s well-documented fanaticism in Iraq, Osama bin Laden himself seemed to apologise.47
Bin Laden’s aim was to lead a popular and mainstream resistance movement yet, within his lifetime, fanatical footmen had consigned the group to the more radical margins of the umma. As bin Laden recognised before his death, the killing of Muslims resulted in ‘the alienation of most of the [Islamic] nation from the mujahidin’.48 When direct al-Qaida casualties are coupled with those which resulted from the ire of a superpower reeling from the 9/11 attacks (i.e. the ‘War on Terror’), al-Qaida’s claim to be the vanguard group protecting Muslim blood is called into doubt.
This reality was borne of the focus on what we might term the ‘nearer enemy’–that is, impure society. Al-Qaida ‘brothers’ anathematised their neighbours from other sects and religions, and those Sunnis with different interpretations of the faith. Indeed, the perverse reality of a globalised al-Qaida was an increasingly localised one. This misdirected war against the nearer enemy culminated in Iraq and Syria in 2013–14, where ISIL stoned to death ‘adulterers’, slaughtered or expelled religious minorities, enslaved women and girls from other faiths, beheaded children and declared war on the Shia’.
The democratisation of Islamic authority
At the root of al-Qaida’s inward turn was the democratisation of Islamic authority.
(p.32) During the 1990s, building upon arguments elaborated by Abdullah Azzam for the jihad in Afghanistan,49 Osama bin Laden was eager to portray the concept of jihad as a popular uprising by individual Muslims. Historically, the idea behind defensive jihad was for Muslim rulers in neighbouring provinces to come to the aid of their co-religionists in other parts of the empire. The assumption was that all jihads, including defensive ones, would be led by established Muslim leaders within pre-modern states or clearly defined communities.
The architects of global jihad, however, reached out to Muslims as individuals, rather than as members of politically organised communities. In the 1990s, bin Laden called for Muslim individuals to come aboard and, quite literally, join him in the caravan of jihad. Going over the heads of the region’s rulers and clerics, bin Laden democratised Islamic authority. A layman with no religious training, he formally declared a jihad of self-defence, and called upon his fellow Muslims to individually come forward for training and combat.
After 9/11 and the destruction of al-Qaida’s headquarters in Afghanistan, al-Qaida devolved into a global cadre of autonomous cells, a moving target which enabled it to survive the War on Terror. However, with the globalisation of his jihad, bin Laden’s authority was at once far-reaching and fragmented. Bin Laden had eroded the authority of the religious establishment and opened up the arena of Islamic interpretation, but he was unable to claim a monopoly over it himself. The proliferation of al-Qaida affiliated groups arrayed against the ‘nearer enemy’, employing brutal tactics for largely local ends, began, as discussed above, to portend its downfall. Intercepted communications revealed that al-Qaida’s central leadership was unable to halt the violence,50 and that one of the worst offenders in this regard, the Islamic State in Iraq, was established in 2006 ‘without consultation from the al-Qaida leadership … [and] has caused a split in the mujahidin ranks and their supporters inside and outside Iraq’.51 Indeed, by arguing that individuals were entitled to wage jihad independently of the political and religious establishment, bin Laden (p.33) himself planted the seeds of discord in the heart of al-Qaida, guaranteeing its fragmentation.
But if this democratisation of authority precipitated major problems, then the further fragmentation of authority was, from 2010, presented as one solution. The call for jihad, emanating principally from Yemen, altered subtly, but significantly. The aim of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula–the affiliate most closely associated with Osama bin Laden and his belief that violence should be employed strategically and not wantonly–was to get back to basics. A new ideological and strategic current championed lone-wolf attacks by Muslim individuals living in the West, without prior contact with al-Qaida networks or consultation with any of its radical jurists. Thus, the democratisation of authority entered a second stage.
The English-language propaganda materials of AQAP vigorously re-imagined the landscapes of jihad and increasingly advocated ‘individual terrorism’.52 The argument was that Muslims in the West were perfectly placed to play an important and decisive role, particularly as America is awash with easily obtainable firearms.53 Furthermore, individual operations were much harder to detect and intercept because, as AQAP’s Inspire magazine pointed out, nobody else in the world needed to know what these lone operatives were thinking and planning.54 The global jihad became at once universal and highly particularised.
Playing on the gritty urban glamour associated with the videogame generation, the ‘knight of lone jihad’ and the ‘terrorist next door’ were rendered, both discursively and through graphics and images, as akin to dark, perhaps reluctant, superheroes.55 Launched in 2010, Inspire magazine was clearly aimed at the uninitiated Western amateur. The meanings of Arabic terms (such as ‘al-Sham’) were carefully explained to the reader and the lone wolf was reminded not to leave his ID cards, fingerprints or schoolbooks behind at the scene of an operation. Inspire was found in the possession of several foiled plotters, including the US soldier Nasser Jason Abdo, who tried to make a bomb in his motel room, four British Pakistanis from Luton who planned an attack on a British Army base using a toy car, and the Tsarnaev brothers, who used its ‘Open Source Jihad’ section as a manual for building the (p.34) pressure cooker bombs they left near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013.56 Consequently, the 2011 US Counter-terrorism Strategy was ‘the first that focuses on the ability of al-Qaida and its networks to inspire people in the US to attack us from within’.57
Shortly after its public dispute with ISIL, ‘al-Qaida central’, which maintained close ties with AQAP, announced in March 2014 the launch of its own English language publication. The magazine had not been released at the time of writing, but a slick video trailer, which was posted to YouTube by al-Qaida central’s media arm, al-Sahab, spliced together images of aggressive US soldiers and successful al-Qaida operations, accompanied by audio from a speech by Malcom X: ‘if a man speaks the language of brute force you can’t come to him in peace.’58 The purpose was to renew the push against Western targets–by regenerating the jihadi threat with a native grasp of language, culture and environment–and, in the process, to re-assert centralised authority over the global jihad.
Al-Qaida in the near future
No doubt, it remains a priority for Zawahiri and his comrades in the al-Qaida old guard to launch a large-scale attack against a Western target, in order to re-energise the ranks and, more importantly, to silence internal critics. With the spectacular rise of Baghdadi’s ‘state’, however temporary, and the corresponding criticism in jihadi circles that a state (ISIL) cannot take orders from an organisation (al-Qaida), it also becomes incumbent upon Zawahiri to declare or become affiliated with another Islamic Emirate. To that end, the ISAF drawdown in Afghanistan presents an opportunity, particularly in the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, where an operative by the name of Farouk al-Qahtani is likely already laying the groundwork, and where Afghan al-Qaida allies known as the ‘Salafi Taliban’59 have carved out a haven. The fall of the Taliban government in late 2001 seemed traumatic for the al-Qaida (p.35) leadership,60 therefore the revival of some form of Islamic state in Afghanistan would also play a cathartic role.
Leadership struggles, then, will have a hand in shaping al-Qaida’s future, and Western targets, with their capacity to instil awe in the ranks, will be implicated in any score settling. It was divisions within al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, for example, which led directly to the 2013 attack against the British/Norwegian gas facility at Ain Amenas in eastern Algeria. Passed over for promotion within AQIM for a second time, and castigated for his unwillingness to follow orders, refusal to submit expense reports, and ‘back-biting’,61 Mokhtar Belmokhtar put into motion the Ain Amenas attack to signal the arrival of his new group, the ‘Signed-in-Blood’ brigade, which had been formed a few weeks earlier.62 By-passing the AQIM leadership once and for all, Belmokhtar pledged allegiance directly to Zawahiri.
Similarly, the storming of the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi by al-Shabaab militants was related to internal rivalries. The siege at the mall, popular with foreigners, can be understood as the end result of a push by Abu Zubayr to purge the nationalist element within al-Shabaab and direct the group towards a more transnational agenda. The schism between clan-based nationalists,63 led by Mukhtar Robow and Hassan Dahir Aweys, and al-Qaida-linked internationalists culminated in armed clashes in June 2013, in which the latter triumphed. A few weeks after the leadership coup, in which two of the group’s co-founders were killed and Robow and Aweys were chased away,64 Abu Zubayr ordered Westgate. Al-Shabaab now recruits among impoverished and unemployed Kenyans.65
At a time when, in the words of Zawahiri, ‘the jihadi awakening is intensifying’,66 this trend of fragmentation will only increase, particularly as feuding camps are demarcated along generational lines. One major fault (p.36) line will be the establishment by ISIL of its ‘Islamic state’, in whatever form it endures, which has rocked the jihadi community, and prompted affiliated groups to come down on one side or the other. While Zawahiri can count on the support of AQIM, AQAP and famous Salafi ideologues, lesser known jihadi groups in Southeast Asia,67 the Sinai68 and Mali69 have thrown their lot in with Baghdadi hoping, no doubt, to win more attention from an alternative leadership. However, even within the pro-Zawahiri bloc, cracks appeared–a chief judge in AQIM seemed to issue a statement of support for Baghdadi,70 and defections to ISIL by AQAP foot soldiers were also reported.71
Countless questions of authority are central to these debates, with supporters of ISIL claiming that there never was an allegiance to Zawahiri or al-Qaida central, because ISIL was formed out of the remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq, whose fighters had sworn an oath of allegiance to its (now dead) Emir.72 Baghdadi himself claimed to be a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. His critics accused him and his followers of being Khawarij,73 a deviant sect from the early days of Islam, which repudiated the rightful succession of the Caliphs and was infamous for its slaughtering of women and children.74 These intensifying leadership disputes will give a lift to the global jihad, as teams of rivals compete to lead the charge against ‘Islam’s enemies’, and thereby establish independent authority.
The identification of those enemies will be crucial to defining the nature of al-Qaida in the decade to come. Osama bin Laden targeted the ‘far enemy’ as a means to weakening the dreaded ‘near enemy’ but, as discussed, the 9/11 decade brought an ever-increasing (and, from bin Laden’s perspective, foolish) fixation on the ‘nearer enemy’. Indeed, the principal illusion of terrorism was (p.37) the belief, held by bin Laden, that terror could somehow be tamed, limited or transcended.
At first glance, there is a spectrum. At one end, AQAP remains devoted to bin Laden’s cause, insisting that the US and its allies are the principal enemy,75 committing considerable resources to radicalising Western Muslims, developing cell-phone bombs that can circumvent airport security,76 and urging al-Qaida fighters to go easy on enforcing the sharia.77 At the other end of the spectrum are groups like ISIL, born in sectarian killing fields in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram in Nigeria which, despite its new globalist rhetoric, concentrated on slaughtering Nigerian Christians, blowing up World Cup screenings and abducting and seemingly enslaving 276 schoolgirls for having received ‘non-Islamic’ education (Osama bin Laden was, by contrast, well known for personally educating his daughters, particularly in maths and science).78
However, in reality, there is ample scope for these different preoccupations to come together under one umbrella, particularly with the rise of ISIL, which, having honed its fighting skills against the ‘near enemies’ in Baghdad and Damascus, and having earned an unrivalled reputation for brutality against civilians deemed the ‘nearer enemy’, will almost certainly branch out into ‘far enemy’ jihad. Over the coming months, Baghdadi can be expected to direct some of his Westernised foot soldiers and part of his group’s billiondollar fortune (amassed through seizing oil fields,79 selling off antiquities and extorting the population), towards a campaign against the West–and he will perhaps relish in straying onto Zawahiri’s home ground. Boko Haram also appears interested in forging a three-pronged focus, merging a virulent sectarian agenda and its war against the authorities in Abuja with new threats against world leaders.80 In North Africa, too, extreme Salafi organisations like (p.38) Ansar al-Sharia may well deepen their links to established global jihadis from AQIM, particularly in Libya, thus posing a combined menace to society, state and the West.
In terms of counter-terrorism, the temptation remains for a coercive solution, though now less directly, through ‘partner’ governments. Beyond questions about competence–illustrated starkly by the capitulation of the US-trained Iraqi army in the face of the ISIL advance on Mosul in June 2014–many of the West’s ‘partners’ perpetuate the violent binary between repressive ‘secular’ regimes and radical Sunni Islam. The Egyptian authorities, suspected by human rights monitors of ‘crimes against humanity’,81 benefitted from the resumption of US military aid in 2014, including $575 million and 10 Apache attack helicopters to combat militants in the Sinai,82 while Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, funded by the US and the UK, was accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances.83 In fact, the spectacular rise of ISIL can be attributed to the misguided militarisation of two political issues: the Assad regime’s iron-fisted response to the Syrian opposition and the Iraqi government’s violent crackdown on the Sunni protest movement in al-Anbar province.
Moreover, at a time when al-Qaida is resurgent in Egypt’s impoverished Sinai regions, in eastern and southern Libya’s marginalised enclaves, on Iraq and Syria’s sectarian battlefields, in northern Mali’s separatist strongholds, in the Sahel’s ungoverned spaces, in Nigeria’s chronically underdeveloped north, in Somalia’s fragile state, and in refugee camps from Dadaab to Peshawar, many of the West’s ‘partners’ are by their exclusionary nature unable to open the file on governance issues. Yet if the principal illusion of terrorism was that terror could be tempered, the 9/11 decade, with its ‘War on Terror’, war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan and drone wars, suggested that the illusion of counter-terrorism was the possibility of a military solution. Large populations in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia remain suspended between these dangerous fantasies.
(1) See Aryn Baker, ‘Al-Qaeda’s Top Envoy Killed in Syria by Rival Rebel Group’, Time, 24 February 2014.
(2) Zawahiri uses the word ‘fitna’. See al-Qaida General Command, ‘Bayan Bishan Alaqat Jama’at Qaidat al-Jihad Bi-Jama’at Daeesh’, 3 February 2014, available at http://www.hanein.info/vb/showthread.php?t=349952 [accessed 10 February 2014].
(3) ‘Jihadist Islamic State has 50,000 Members in Syria: NGO’, Daily Star (Lebanon), 19 August 2014.
(5) Letter to the Americans, 6 October 2002, reprinted in Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (London/New York, Verso, 2005), p. 171.
(6) Bin Laden, ‘To the Islamic Umma, on the First Anniversary of the New American Crusader War’, 11 September 2002, at http://www.jihadunspun.com/articles/10152002-To.The.Islamic.Ummah [accessed 25 January 2005].
(7) Interview with John Miller (ABC Television), May 1998, text available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/interview.html.
(8) Declaration of jihad, 23 August 1996, in Lawrence, Messages to the World, p. 25.
(9) Tamara Cofman Wittes, ‘The Obama Administration’s Middle East Policy’, Brookings Institution Up-Front Blog, 8 June 2014, at http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2014/06/08-obama-middle-east-policy-wittes.
(10) See Open Society Foundation, Globalising Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition (New York, Open Society Foundations, 2013).
(11) Barack Obama, ‘Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony’, 28 May 2014, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/05/28/-remarks-president-united-states-military-academy-commencement-ceremony.
(12) Interview with Rahimullah Yousafsai (ABC), 22 December 1998.
(13) Ronald Bruce St. John, Libya: From Colony to Independence (Oxford, Oneworld Publications, 2008), p. 231.
(15) ‘Libyan Parliament Asks UN for “Urgent Intervention” against Militias’, Deutsche Welle, 13 August 2014, at http://www.dw.de/libyan-parliament-asks-un-for-urgent-intervention-against-militias/a-17852874.
(16) Mary Fitzgerald, ‘Libyans are Wary of Self-Declared Saviour’, Sunday Times, 25 May 2014.
(17) Ahmed Jum’a, ‘Al-Jazair Manhat Tunis Tairaat wa Sawareekh Li Muwajihat al-Jama’at al-Irhabiya’, 3 August 2014, al-Youm al-Sabi’, at http://www1.youm7.com/story/2014/8/3/الإ_الجماعات_لمواجهة_وصواريخ_طائرات_تونس_منحت_الجزائر__الخبر/1802220#.U_c1_v3wtZg.
(18) ‘En Tunisie, L’Armee Victime de la Plus Grave Attaque Depuis 1956’, Le Monde, 17 July 2014, at http://www.lemonde.fr/tunisie/article/2014/07/17/tunisie-deux-soldats-tues-dans-une-attaqueterroriste_4458450_1466522.html.
(19) ‘Tension in Yemen Amid Coup Fears’, Al Jazeera, 17 June 2014.
(20) ‘Yemen Says 500 Militants, 40 Soldiers Killed in Campaign’, Reuters, 5 June 2014.
(21) Former US ambassador Barbara Bodine, in Shuaib al-Mosawa and Christopher Dickey, ‘Hunting al-Qaeda: America’s Epic Yemen Fail’, Daily Beast, 15 May 2014.
(22) This development was helped along by, first, the influx of hardened fighters from the war in Iraq and, second, the Syrian regime’s deliberate release of scores of jihadi prisoners. See remarks of the former head of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate in Phil Sands, Justin Vela and Suha Maayeh, ‘Assad Regime Set Free Extremists from Prison to Fire Up Trouble During Peaceful Uprising’, The National, 21 January 2014.
(23) ‘ISIS in Control of “35 Percent” of Syrian Territory’, Al-Arabiya, 19 July 2014, at http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/07/19/270-Syrian-fighters-killed-in-biggest-ISIS-operation-.html.
(24) ‘Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order with a Darker Side’, New York Times, 23 July 2014.
(25) Shiraz Maher in remarks at launch of ‘Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks’, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London, 15 April 2014.
(26) ‘ISIS Uses Internet to Reach Indian Youths to Wage Jihad’, India Today, 13 August 2014, at http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/isis-uses-internet-to-reach-indians-youths-to-wage-jihad/1/376788.html.
(27) Gene Johnson, ‘California Student Nicholas Teausant Allegedly Tries to Join Al-Qaeda Fighters in Syria’, Associated Press, 18 March 2014.
(28) ‘The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt’, Human Rights Watch, 12 August 2014, at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2014/08/12/all-according-plan.
(29) See ‘Egypt’s Army Chief will Continue Protecting People’s Mandate’, Al-Ahram, 7 October 2013.
(30) Alongside relatively more established groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (est. June 2012) and Ansar al-Jihad (est. January 2012), the Hilwan Brigades announced their formation in August 2014 as a defensive and reluctant measure against the new predatory authorities: ‘Our life has been full of misery and misery and misery and poverty, poverty, poverty. We can only complain to God… There has to be a group of people who seek to exact justice and respond to what these [troops] have perpetrated and what the Interior Ministry in particular have done. They have forgotten January 25 and the day of rage on January 28. They have forgotten what the people did with them. Rather than reconcile themselves with the people they took a hostile position’. See video at ‘The First Appearance of the Hilwan Brigades’, Middle East Monitor, 15 August 2014.
(31) For the case of Egypt, see Gilles Kepel, Le Prophete et Pharaon (Folio, Paris, 1984).
(32) Sayf al-Adil’s other two aims were to retaliate against the US for its aggression in the Muslim world and to provoke the US ‘out of its hole’. See Christopher M. Blanchard, ‘Al-Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology’, CRS Report for Congress (code RL32759), 9 July 2007, p. 5.
(33) Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (New Delhi, Abdul Naeem, 2001), pp. 11–13.
(34) Dressed in a black robe and white turban, and displaying the al-Qaida logo, Iyad Ag Ghali vowed to fight against ‘the Crusade aggression’ in an August 2014 video. See ‘Le Chef d’Ansar Dine Reapparait dans une Video pour Menacer La France’, France 24, 7 August 2014, at http://www.france24.com/fr/20140807-chef-ansar-dine-apparait-video-menace-france-islamisme-iyad-ag-ghali-djihadistesmali-youtube/.
(35) See ‘Press Statement by Al Shabaab Regarding the Westgate Terrorist Attack’, Kenyan Daily Post, 26 September 2013.
(36) From 2011 onwards, Abubakar Shekau took to framing his war against the Nigerian state in terms of fighting global injustice and oppression against Muslims everywhere. See, for example, ‘Boko Haram Leader Shekau Releases Video on Abduction of Chibok Girls’, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrfWS_vL0D4 [accessed 12 August 2014].
(37) For the unilateral plot in Denmark, see Stephen Tankel, ‘Lashkar-e-Taiba in Perspective: An Evolving Threat’, New America Foundation: Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative Policy Paper, February 2010, p. 5, at http://carnegieendowment.org/files/Lashkar-e-Taiba_in_Perspective.pdf.
(39) Brian Wicker, Maha Azzam and Peter Bishop, ‘Martyrdom and Murder: Aspects of Suicidal Terrorism’, in Brian Wicker (ed), Witnesses to Faith? Martyrdom in Christianity and Islam (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006), p. 133.
(40) For example, the second of these arguments was used by the leader of al-Shabaab to justify the siege of the Westgate Mall in Nairobi: ‘the taxes that you pay are being used to arm [Kenyan President] Uhuru Kenyatta’s army that is actively killing Muslims and it is you who have supported your government’s decision to go to war’ (26 September 2013).
(41) Ifthekhar Jaman, see ‘Our Brother Died a Martyr Fighting in Syria’, Channel 4 News, 5 February 2014, http://www.channel4.com/news/iftikhar-jaman-syria-death-isis-jihad-british-portsmouth.
(42) Interview with Hamid Mir, 12 November 2001, in Lawrence, Messages to the World, p.141.
(43) Between 82% and 97% from 2006–11. See National Counterterrorism Centre, ‘2011 Report on Terrorism’, at http://fas.org/irp/threat/nctc2011.pdf. The report also noted that Muslim majority countries bore the greatest number of attacks involving ten or more deaths.
(44) See Alia Brahimi, ‘Crushed in the Shadows: Why al-Qaeda will Lose the War of Ideas’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 33/2 (2010), pp. 93–110.
(45) Abu Turab al-Jaza’iri in ‘Al-Qaeda Commander in Northern Iraq: We are in Dire Straits’, MEMRI, 11 March 2008, http://www.memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=SD186608 [accessed 11 March 2008].
(46) Michael Howard, ‘Zarqawi’s Family Disown Him after Bombings,’ Guardian, 21 November 2005.
(47) ‘Bin Laden issues Iraq Message’, Al Jazeera, 23 October 2007.
(48) Letter recovered at bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, believed to be from bin Laden to Atiyeh Abdulrahman, written sometime between July and October 2010. See ‘Document ‘SOCOM-2012-0000019’, p. 9, made available by the Combating Terrorism Centre at Westpoint, at http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/letters-from-abbottabad-bin-ladin-sidelined.
(49) See Abdullah Azzam, Join the Caravan (London, Azzam Publications, 2001).
(50) See, for example, letter from Atiyeh Abdelrahman to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, 11 December 2005, available at www.ctc.usma.edu/harmony/CTC-AtiyahLetter.pdf [accessed 12 February 2008] and letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, 11 October 2005, reprinted in Laura Mansfield, In His Own Words (Old Tappan NJ, TLG Publications, 2006), pp. 250–279.
(51) Letter from Adam Gadahn to unknown recipient written in late January 2011 and recovered at the Abbottabad compound. See ‘Document ‘SOCOM-2012-0000004’, p. 8, made available by the Combating Terrorism Centre at Westpoint, at http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/letters-from-abbottabad-bin-ladin-sidelined.
(52) For example, in one letters section, an anonymous Muslim living in the West asks about the best way to reach the jihad frontiers. Stay where you are, he is advised, and focus on planning an operation in the West instead, like attacking an army recruitment centre or a nightclub (issue V).
(54) Letters section, Inspire V, March 2011, p. 12.
(55) See especially Inspire X, March 2013.
(56) The recurring ‘Open Source Jihad’ section advises on how to make a bomb in your mum’s kitchen (issue I), how to outfit a pickup truck with blades so that it can be used to mow down enemies (issue II), how to start forest fires in hospitable environments like Montana (issue IX), how to cause road accidents using cooking oil (issue X), and how to make a car bomb (issue XII).
(57) John Brennan, Obama’s Counter-Terrorism Chief, in Howard LaFranchi, ‘US Unveils New Counterterrorism Strategy’, Christian Science Monitor, 19 June 2011.
(59) Author correspondence with Pakistani journalist Zia Ur Rehman, March 2014.
(60) See bin Laden, SOCOM-2012-0000019, p. 24.
(61) See letter from the AQIM Shura Council to Belmokhtar, recovered by the Associated Press in Timbuktu, Mali. ‘The al-Qaida Papers: A Disciplinary Letter from al-Qaida’s HR Department’, Associated Press, 3 October 2012, at http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/al-qaida/?START=al-qaida-papers#.
(62) Belmokhtar’s independent efforts have come under a variety of names, including ‘al-Mulathimin’ and the ‘Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade’. In August 2013, he announced that his outfit would merge with MUJAO in Mali, to form ‘al-Murabitoun’.
(63) For this contingent’s determination to oust the current Somali government and put their own clans in power, see Bronwyn Bruton and J. Peter Pham, ‘The Splintering of al Shabaab: A Rough Road from War to Peace’, Foreign Affairs, 2 February 2012.
(64) Hassan M. Abukar, ‘Somalia: The Godane Coup and the Unravelling of al-Shabaab’, Royal African Society’s African Arguments, 2 July 2013.
(65) ‘Outside Source’, BBC World Service Radio, 14 August 2014, 10.29 am.
(67) For example, the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines and Abu Bakir Bashir’s group, Jema’a Anshour Atawhid, in Indonesia.
(68) For example, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin.
(69) For example, Ansar Eddine led by Iyad Ag Ghali.
(71) Greg Miller, ‘Fighters Abandoning al-Qaeda Affiliates to Join Islamic State, US Officials Say’, Washington Post, 9 August 2014. Indeed, ‘disagreements’ within AQAP were reported. SeeAli Ibrahim al-Moshki, ‘AQAP Announces Support for ISIL’, Yemen Times, 19 August 2014.
(72) See Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, ‘ISIS and al-Qaeda Compete for Supremacy in Global Jihad’, Al-Monitor, 11 February 2014.
(73) Abu Qatadah, for example, argued that ISIL were Khawarij and ‘dogs of the hellfire’–see ‘Al-Salafi Abu Qatadah al-Filastini Yasaf Daish Bilkhawarij Wa Ahl al-Nar’, Al-Watan News, 29 April 2014.
(74) For more on the Khawarij see Jeffrey T. Kenney, Muslim Rebels: Kharijites and the Politics of Extremism in Egypt (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006).
(75) See, for example, a video which surfaced on an Islamist website showing Nasser al-Wuhayshi speaking to an open-air gathering of militants. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b934hBtZFfc [accessed 15 April 2014].
(76) Briant Bennett and Richard A. Serrano, ‘More Western Fighters Joining Militants in Iraq and Syria, Los Angeles Times, 19 July 2014.
(77) See letter from Nasir al-Wuhayshi to the Emir of AQIM, recovered by the Associated Press in Timbuktu, Mali. ‘The al-Qaida Papers: How to Win Friends and Govern People’, Associated Press, 21 May 2012, at http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/al-qaida/?START=al-qaida-papers#.
(78) See Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 (London, Penguin, 2006), p. 252.
(79) Oil smuggling alone earned the group $1 million a day in 2014. See Vivienne Walt, ‘How Guns and Oil Net ISIS $1 Million a Day’, Fortune, 11 August 2014.
(80) For example, ‘Ban Ki Moon you are in trouble, Benyamin Netanyahu you are in trouble, Queen Elizabeth you are in trouble’. See ‘Boko Haram Leader Shekau Speaks: Vows to Attack Nigerian Refineries, Buhari, Babangida, Others’, Premium Times (Abuja), 20 February 2014. A month later, Shekau again underlined Boko Haram’s global mission: ‘Let me make it crystal clear to you because you are taking a lot of pains making analyses in the newspapers and the radio. We are not fighting the North, we are fighting the world. And you will see us fighting the world’. See‘Boko Haram Leader, Abubakar Shekau’s Message in New Video’, Nigerian Times, 28 March 2014.
(81) ‘Egypt: Rab’a Killings Likely Crimes Against Humanity’, Human Rights Watch, 12 August 2014, at http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/12/egypt-rab-killings-likely-crimes-against-humanity.
(82) ‘US Unlocks Military Aid to Egypt, Backing President Sisi’, BBC News, 22 June 2014.
(83) ‘Kenya: Killings, Disappearances by Anti-Terror Police’, Human Rights Watch, 18 August 2014, at http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/18/kenya-killings-disappearances-anti-terror-police.