Western authors commenting on various mujahidin leaders involved with Usama bin Laden often seem to go out of their way to make the individuals in question seem extra villainous. This has been especially clear in the case of Yunus Khalis. In English works on al-Qa’ida, we learn little about Khalis except that he a) helped to host Bin Laden in Jalalabad in 1996, and b) he apparently married a much younger woman when he was already an old man. There is disagreement about her age, but estimates range from 14-18 or so, with several homing in on the age of 17 years.
With the recent arrest of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith (Abu Yusuf Sulayman Jasim Bu Ghayth), al-Qa’ida’s former spokesman and Bin Ladin’s son-in-law, there has been much speculation in the press about a group of senior al-Qa’ida figures who have spent much of the last decade in Iran. In this post I will revisit the writings of these men, all of whom appeared online in unusual circumstances at the end of 2010, and the light that their writings shed on the Iranian sojourn of this group of al-Qa’ida’s pre-9/11 senior leadership. Taken together, these sources suggest that these men constituted a dissident faction within al-Qa’ida, one which in recent years had become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Bin Ladin, Zawahiri, and the direction that the latter had taken al-Qa’ida since the September 11 attacks. It also emerges that Abu Ghaith, while not a member of this faction at the beginning of this period, had by 2010 joined this group in their efforts to correct the errors of al-Qa’ida’s ways.
In a 2007 study of al-Qa’ida’s leadership schisms, I discussed how disagreements over the advisability and religious permissibility of the 9/11 attacks had split the historical leadership of al-Qa’ida into two camps. Following the attacks and the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan in October of 2001, the pro-9/11 group, including Bin Ladin and Zawahiri, fled to Pakistan, while the anti-9/11 group ended up in Iran, where they were placed under house arrest by Iranian authorities. There were a couple of outliers to this explanation of the various trajectories of these leaders, however. Mustafa Abu al-Yazid (Shaykh Sa’id al-Masri) is described in the 9/11 Commission Report as having been among those opposed to 9/11, though he joined Bin Ladin and Zawahiri in Pakistan and eventually rose to the rank of commander of al-Qa’ida’s operations in Afghanistan and spokeman of the al-Qa’ida “General Command” before his death in a drone strike in Pakistan in May of 2010. The other outlier was Abu Ghaith, whose appearance in two famous videos released by al-Qa’ida via al-Jazeera following 9/11 left no question as to his support for those attacks, yet who ended up in Iran along with the most senior members of al-Qa’ida’s anti-9/11 faction.
The most important members of this latter faction were Sayf al-‘Adl, Abu Hafs al-Muritani, and Abu’l-Walid al-Masri. Sayf al-‘Adl (Muhammad Salah al-Din Zaydan al-Masri) was in charge of al-Qa’ida’s training operations in Afghanistan during the 1990s and, following the death of Abu Hafs al-Masri (Muhammad ‘Atif) in November of 2001, became the head of al-Qa’ida’s military committee, theoretically in charge of all of al-Qa’ida’s kinetic activities. In June of 2002 he sent an angry letter to Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (addressed here as “Mukhtar”) regarding the disastrous consequences that the 9/11 attacks had brought upon the organization and calling for an immediatie cessation of external activities.
Abu Hafs al-Muritani (Mahfouz Ould al-Walid) was the pre-9/11 head of al-Qa’ida’s shari’a committee, responsible for determining the religious legitimacy of its actions. According to the 9/11 Commission Report he presented Bin Ladin with a brief, backed by Qur’anic citations, arguing that the attacks would violate Islamic law. More recently he has stated that in late 2001, after his objections were overridden by Bin Ladin, he submitted his resignation to the al-Qa’ida chief several weeks prior to 9/11 (on which more below).
Abu’l-Walid al-Masri (Mustafa Hamid) is something of an unusual case, as he was never a formal member of al-Qa’ida. An Egyptian journalist who joined the Haqqani network in Afghanistan in 1979, Abu’l-Walid was close to the al-Qa’ida leadership from the beginning and taught at al-Qa’ida camps in the 1990s, though he had been critical of Bin Ladin’s leadership abilities since at least 1989. He has been credited by two other senior al-Qa’ida figures with having helped convince Bin Ladin to redirect al-Qa’ida’s stategic focus from the “near enemy” to the “far enemy” – the United States – an issue I discuss most fully here (at p. 97f). Though not privy to al-Qa’ida’s internal disputes about the 9/11 attacks in late 2001, he has expressed nothing but the utmost contempt for those attacks in the years since, first as a grievous strategic blunder that played into the hands of the US and Israel, and more recently along the lines of “truther” conspiracy theories.
These three men, then, along with Abu Ghaith, several members of Bin Ladin’s immediate family, and a number of mid-level al-Qa’ida figures have until recently all been living in Iran, though there is conflicting information regarding the extent to which their freedom of movement had been restricted by Iranian authorities. (The most detailed account of their early conditions of confinement comes from Abu’l-Walid’s former wife Rabiah Hutchinson, who fled Afghanistan to Iran before leaving her then-husband and being repatriated to Australia in 2003). Up to 2009 little to nothing had been heard from any of them, though Sayf al-‘Adl’s operational activities popped up on the radar, so to speak, on a number of occasions during the 2000s, as mentioned here. The senior al-Qa’ida leaders among the group in Iran – Sayf, al-Muritani and Abu Ghaith – were entirely absent throughout this period from official al-Qa’ida messaging and propaganda production. As far as the rest of the world was concerned they had gone silent – until, that is, they all appeared on Abu’l-Walid’s website in late 2010.
According to his former wife, at the beginning of his stay in Iran Abu’l-Walid was under house arrest and denied any phone or internet access, but these restrictions must have eventually been relaxed, since in 2007 Abu’l-Walid began posting some of his older writings to an obscure blog. Abu Hafs al-Muritani has recently told al-Jazeera that their confinement in Iran went through several stages, with “the last stage being not house arrest but rather hospitality, albeit with some restrictions.” Beginning in 2009, Abu’l-Walid expanded his online activities, becoming a regular contributor to the Taliban’s Arabic-language online magazine al-Sumud. He also returned to issuing withering critiques of al-Qa’ida and its strategic and ideological failings, often cross-posting these essays to jihadi forums – much to the dismay of al-Qa’ida’s cyber-loyalists.
If the e-jihadis hadn’t liked what Abu’l-Walid had to say up to this point, in mid-November of 2010 he dropped a bombshell. In the middle of that year Abu’l-Walid had migrated his online activities from the blog to a new website, the now defunct mafa.asia. On November 15 he posted to the forums, as a mafa.asia exclusive, a lengthy new book by none other than al-Qa’ida’s former spokesperson Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, with an introduction by the former al-Qa’ida religious leader Abu Hafs al-Muritani. Entitled “Twenty Counsels on the Path of Jihad,” the text created a great deal of online consternation. Here were two of the most senior members of the organization’s historical leadership, who hadn’t been heard from in years, all of a sudden issuing new messages via the website of one of al-Qa’ida’s most notorious jihadi detractors.
And it wasn’t simply the method of distribution that caused alarm. Though not naming any names, Abu Ghaith’s book and al-Muritani’s introduction were clearly part of the genre of “revisions” or “recantation” texts (muraji’at), a growing body of literature by major jihadi figures offering mea culpas for former errors and diagnosing the ills besetting contemporary jihadi activism. Introducing the text as part of a planned “revival of jihadi education” series, Abu Hafs al-Muritani explains:
“I saw that after the last three decades [of jihadi experiences around the world], the jihadi arena lacked sufficient educational guidance, and was in great and dire need of this. There is nothing aside from what the martyred mujahid shaykh ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam left in some of his audio tapes and books … but this is not enough…. So it has become necessary to issue the like of this series of educational essays to correct the path, direct the activity, treat the illnesses, apply balm to the wounds, refine the hearts, and provide the field [of jihad] and its members what they need in terms of guidance to remind and assist them and to raise them to a level that befits them.”
Here is a man best known as having been among the most senior figures in Bin Ladin’s organization saying that no worthy guidance for jihad has come out since the days of ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, who was assassinated in 1989 – not quite a ringing endorsement of al-Qa’ida’s more recent leadership capabilities, to say the least. That he would choose to launch his effort to “correct the path” from the opposition press, as it were, is a pretty clear indication that the Iranian faction had lost any hearing within al-Qa’ida central.
The book by Abu Ghaith that these remarks introduce is quite lengthy, extending to over a hundred pages, and it sounds the same notes as al-Muritani. At first glance it appears as a straightforward pamphlet of moral maxims and general operational rules of thumb for Islamist militants, illustrated with apposite anecdotes from Islamic scripture – something like a “Twenty Habits of Highly Effective Jihadis” self help book. But one need not read too closely between the lines to see the implied criticism of al-Qa’ida’s leaders. In its first line Abu Ghaith says that in his book “I have set forth the most important topics of guidance on which I feel that giving sincere advice (tanasuh) is a matter of grave importance for the jihadi leadership and members.” Sincere advice (nasiha) is a technical term in conservative Islamic discourses for formal criticism, often of a political nature; Bin Ladin’s early broadsides against the Saudi royal family in the 1990s were issued under the name of an “Advice (nasiha) and Reform Committee.” Nor is it difficult to connect the specific issues about which Abu Ghaith offers “sincere advice” to some of the more controversial aspects of Bin Ladin’s and Zawahiri’s leadership. The book speaks of the pitfalls of love of power, autocratic leadership, overemphasis on media activities, sectarian divisiveness, ideological fanaticism, and an unwillingness to work with a broader set of Islamist actors, including non-violent political groups (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood). The journalist Jamal Isma’il pointed to some of the more obvious implied criticisms in an article in al-Hayat about Abu Ghaith’s book. Isma’il writes: “In a manner unprecedented in al-Qa’ida or the militant groups loyal to it, a new book by Sulayman Jasim Bu Ghayth … offers scathing criticism of al-Qa’ida leader Usama bin Ladin – without mentioning him by name – and the acts of jihadi groups, writing that ‘it is not permissible for one man to use the blood of others to experiment in what seems to him to be rightousness’.”
One month later, on December 17, 2010, Abu’l-Walid issued his own piece of sincere advice, though his was characteristically more direct. The title of the essay says it all, really: “Disbanding al-Qa’ida is the Best Option before Bin Ladin.” He again posted this on mafa.asia and the jihadi forums, though Shumukh, the forum most closely aligned with al-Qa’ida’s leadership, banned him from the message board and deleted his posts a week later. This was followed at the end of that month by a series of new messages from Sayf al-‘Adl – again, the first time that this al-Qa’ida leader had directly addressed the public since 9/11 – a series that I discussed at the time here. All of this was quite remarkable – a bloc of al-Qa’ida’s old guard emerging from years of silence only to undermine the legitimacy of their former employers – though it all unfolded to almost no notice in the West.
Since issuing these critiques in late 2010, this entire cast of characters has, so far as we know, left Iran. Sayf was reported to have been released from Iran in a prisoner swap arranged by the Haqqani network for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Pakistan, though the details surrounding that affair are still rather murky. Abu’l-Walid was repatriated to Egypt at the end of August of 2011. Abu Ghaith, as we now know, left Iran in January of this year. The last member of the faction, Abu Hafs al-Muritani, was transferred to Mauritanian custody from Iran in April of 2012 and released from jail in Mauritania last July.
Last October al-Muritani sat down for two lengthy interviews with al-Jazeera (parts one and two), shedding further light on the Iranian exile of al-Qa’ida’s dissident faction. There is much of interest in this interview, but I will only highlight some of the statements that bear upon this post. In his interview, al-Muritani first directly addresses and confirms the 9/11 Commission Report’s characterization of him as having opposed the 9/11 attacks. When asked about his “revision” or “recantation” – i.e., the texts published by Abu’l-Walid in 2010 – he denies that his current position is a revision, stating that he had always objected to takfir (declaring other Muslims heretics) and indiscriminate violence. Aligning with other insider accounts, such as the autobiography of Fazul ‘Abdallah Muhammad, al-Muritani says that the debates within al-Qa’ida about the 9/11 attacks were not about the details of the operation – these were not known, even to the upper-level leadership – but rather over the idea of a violent attack on US territory itself. He also says that Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a senior member of al-Qa’ida’s military committee and also believed to be or to have been in detention in Iran, was of the faction opposed to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Muritani says that his objections to 9/11 were purely on religious grounds, and that ultimately it was due to the autocratic nature of Bin Ladin’s leadership that all the various objections expressed by his inner circle were dismissed and the attacks carried out. He says that he does not approve of the tactics of the branch of al-Qa’ida operting in northern Mali, saying that what they are doing is not the right way to establish an Islamic state. Regarding his stay in Iran, he says that an arrangement was made with the authorities whereby al-Qa’ida members committed to carrying out no attacks from within Iran, and he says that overall the treatment by the Iranians was good, though it had its ups and downs. Al-Muritani says that no Western or Arab governments were given access to him or other al-Qa’ida refugees, nor were they interrogated during their stay in Iran. He reiterates the criticisms from the “Twenty Counsels,” saying that the jihadi movements are wrong to denounce the political Islamist movements and that jihad means nothing if it is not the struggle of the community as a whole. He also repeats the criticisms of indiscriminate killing and sectarian devisiveness, saying that while holding some heretical views the Shi’a are nonetheless Muslims, contrary to the view taken by al-Qa’ida in Iraq under Zarqawi.
As with the statements issued through Abu’l-Walid’s blog in 2010, al-Muritani’s interview was not well-received by the online jihadi community. One of the main platforms of salafi jihadi pronouncements, the Minbar at-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad website, posted a lengthy denunciation of Abu Hafs for his “recantation,” refuting at length the “heresies” uttered by him in the interview (such as that the Shi’a are Muslims). Ultimately, though, the interview simply confirmed what many on the forums had already suspected: that a group of the most famous leaders of the historical al-Qa’ida had soured on Bin Ladin, Zawahiri, and some of the more extremist tendencies of post-9/11 jihadism.
Finally, I would note that there was speculation in some of the initial reports about Sayf al-‘Adl’s release in 2009 that the Iranian diplomat prisoner swap had also included the release of Abu Ghaith and Abu Hafs al-Muritani at that time. Since we now know that wasn’t the case, it raises further questions about the current whereabouts of Sayf al-‘Adl. He, and his colleague Abu Muhammad al-Masri, may very well still be in Iran, or only recently released. I would imagine that it is the fates of these men that the US government is most eager to learn details of from Abu Ghaith, now that he is in custody.
The US government has released some of the documents it captured during its raid on Bin Laden’s compound. The documents have been released through West Point’s CTC, which has provided an excellent overview and hand list. Since the documents are being circulated in a .zip file, I thought it’d be useful to put them online in an easy-to-access format.
- Date: Unknown, From: Unknown, To: Unknown (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000009]
- Date: Unknown, From: Unknown, To: Unknown (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000017]
- Date: Unknown, From: Unknown (probably Bin Laden or `Atiyya), To: Nasir al-Wuhayshi (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000016]
- Date: 14 Sept 2006, From: Unknown, To: Bin Laden (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000018]
- Date: Between 24 Oct and 22 Nov 2006, From: `Atiyya, To: Jaysh al-Islam (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000008]
- Date: after Jan 2007, From: Unknown, To: `Atiyya (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000014]
- Date: 28 Mar 2007, From: Unknown (an Egyptian), To: Hafiz Sultan (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000011]
- Date: 11 June 2009, From: `Atiyya, To: Unknown (possibly Bin Laden) (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000012]
- Date: late May 2010, From: Bin Laden, To: `Atiyya (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000019]
- Date: 7 Aug 2010, From: Bin Laden, To: Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000005]
- Date: 27 Aug 2010, From: Bin Laden, To: `Atiyya (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000003]
- Date: 21 Oct 2010, From: Bin Laden, To: `Atiyya (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000015]
- Date: 3 Dec 2010, From: `Atiyya and Abu Yahya al-Libi, To: Hakimullah Mahsud (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000007]
- Date: Dec 2010, From: Unknown (possibly Zawahiri), To: Bin Laden (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000006]
- Date: Late Jan 2011, From: Adam Gadahn, To: Unknown (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000004]
- Date: 26 April 2011, From: Bin Laden, To: `Atiyya (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000010]
- Date: Unknown (probably 2011), From: Unknown, To: Unknown (Eng) (Ar) [SOCOM-2012-0000013]
The number of jihadi publications on the Arab Spring is increasing dramatically as the months go by and my time has – as always – been very limited, hence my recent absence from Jihadica. I have several posts about al-Qaida’s advice to the Arab Spring lined up, however, including this one about Egypt.
When one thinks of Egypt and jihadis, the first person that comes to mind is probably Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaida’s leader has issued many a “letter of hope and good tidings to our people in Egypt” since the beginning of the Arab Spring and although that title may sound as if these epistles contain Christmas greetings to the country’s Coptic community, they offer nothing of the sort.
In part three of his series of letters to the Egyptian people, al-Zawahiri spends most of his time warning his countrymen about the supposedly evil intentions of the United States and their Arab henchmen (“the Arab Zionist rulers of injustice and betrayal”). The US, al-Zawahiri claims, conspires with the rulers of the Arab world to “wage war on Islam and its sharia”, expressed in banning the headscarf, spreading evil and besieging the people of Gaza. All of this happens, of course, under the guise of the “war on terrorism”, al-Zawahiri explains.
Such talk about strong ties between the US and Arab regimes sounds quite familiar, but al-Zawahiri needs it to make his point, which is that current events in Egypt are not going to give Egyptians what they really want: “These international powers and particularly the US”, al-Zawahiri writes, want to “change the old faces for new faces to deceive the people with some reforms and freedoms”. Such token gestures will give people the idea that things are changing but this will actually only serve “the interests of the world powers of arrogance and injustice”. Egypt, al-Zawahiri maintains, “will remain the basis of the Crusader attack and a founding partner in the American war on Islam”.
Al-Zawahiri thus offers nothing but the same old arguments. One could argue that his scepticism is somewhat understandable. Having grown up under the repressive regime of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir (Nasser), whose revolution was als0 hailed as a liberation of Egypt at the time, having seen several Egyptian dictators come and go and having suffered from brutal torture in prisons in his own country, one could forgive him from not immediately jumping up and down with glee at seeing the first signs of a revolt. Al-Zawahiri has seen it all before and has been disappointed too many times to believe it all.
There may be some truth to the above. Reading the fourth part of his series of letters to the Egyptian people, however, should convince anyone that al-Zawahiri is not so much a sceptic, but rather someone with his own agenda aimed at claiming credit for overthrowing Mubarak. In this letter, he repeats the same stuff mentioned above and then claims that “your mujahidun brothers are with you fighting the same enemy and confronting America and its Western allies that have made [Egyptian President] Husni Mubarak rule over you”. America, he says, is now trying to reverse its previous policy of supporting dictators and currently wants to co-operate with the people. This policy change, he claims, “only came as a direct result of the blessed raids in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania”.
So apparently the Arab Spring came about as a direct result of 9/11 and the US is now on the people’s side. Yet doesn’t that last bit clash with his earlier statement that the US only cares about token reforms and “changing the old faces for new faces” while retaining its own interests? Yes it does, and al-Zawahiri is therefore quick to point out that this revised US policy is something that “is not enough and does not satisfy any noble and free Muslim”. In a seemingly reassuring way, he adds that “your mujahidun brothers […] will continue to strike America and its partners and hurt them until they leave – with God’s permission – the lands of the Muslims and have had enough of supporting the tyrants in these countries”.
Al-Zawahiri pushes his own agenda a bit further by claiming that the problem with Egypt lies in the secularism of its state: “This was not the choice of the Egyptian people”, he states. “On the contrary, the Egyptian people have demanded and have repeated their demand numerous times to have the Islamic sharia as the source of laws and legislation so that Islam is the ruling system in Egypt.” This call for being ruled by Islamic law, al-Zawahiri claims, “is still and has been the demand of the overwhelming majority of the people of Egypt since the 1940s”.
Al-Zawahiri’s reasoning is obviously meant to show that the US, by waging a “war on Islam” is going against the will of Egyptians but that he and al-Qaida are actually on the people’s side. In this sense, al-Zawahiri appears to be the real supporter of democracy. He quickly dispels this idea, however, since he explicitly rejects the “democracy that America wants for us, a special democracy for the Third World in general and the Islamic world in particular”. Such American-sponsored democracy, al-Zawahiri states, could be seen in Algeria, when that country cancelled elections in the early 1990s after they had been won by Islamists, or in Gaza, when the world refused to deal with Hamas after it had won elections there.
Al-Zawahiri does not just object to democracy because he associates it with injustice, however. He also claims it is an idol that is worshipped by its followers since they blindly follow what the majority wants, irrespective of what religion says. The majority thus becomes the object of worship instead of religion. As an alternative, the current Egyptian regime should leave and the country should be ruled by a pious, Islamic regime instead. The people will have the right to choose their leaders, al-Zawahiri claims, but obviously within the bounds of the sharia. The misery of the people should be ended, the West should be confronted and the oppression should be lifted “in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and every corner of the world of Islam”. Jihad should therefore be continued until this goal has been achieved.
Unlike al-Zawahiri, who basically extends his old ideas to the new situation created by the Arab Spring, the Syrian-British jihadi scholar Abu Basir al-Tartusi actually comes up with something new. As we saw in my previous two posts in this series (here and here), Abu Basir is much more nuanced and practical than the likes of al-Zawahiri in what he has to say about the Arab Spring and his advice to Egyptians is no exception.
In a response to questions about political participation by radical Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, Abu Basir states that Muslim youngsters should ensure that any participation in Egyptian politics should be in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunna as understood by the first three generations of Muslims (al-salaf al-salih). Establishing a political party is allowed, he says, but only if it does not fall into the trap of acting on behalf of party interests instead of those of the Muslim community as a whole. Such remarks may seem nothing special, but considering the widespread opposition to political participation among jihadis, such answers are quite remarkable.
Also worthy of note is Abu Basir’s advice to Egyptians to use peaceful methods, unlike al-Zawahiri who – as we have seen – actually calls for continued jihad. Abu Basir claims that the current circumstances in Egypt (and Tunisia) are dominated by freedom and tolerance and this calls for peaceful means, not violence. “As long as the conflict with others can be fought by words, communiqués and dialogue […] we don’t have to resort to violence”. Abu Basir gives three reasons for this: firstly, he says, there is no need for violence; secondly, Muslims are the strongest in using words “because they posses the strongest arguments”; and thirdly, he claims, a kind approach is more likely to be accepted by others and yield results.
Abu Basir is by no means satisfied with the situation as it is in Egypt right now, but he states that at least everyone can agree that it is better than under the tyrants. Muslims should therefore make use of the possibilities that have opened up for them, as long as it accords with Islamic law. Interestingly, Abu Basir explicitly allows political acts of an executive or bureaucratic type and also believes that things that serve the people and society as a whole are permitted. He draws the line, however, at participating in legislation, since coming up with your own laws instead of leaving this to God is, in effect, polytheism by violating God’s absolute unity in the legislative sphere.
This latter bit is familiar ground for jihadis, but Abu Basir’s explicit endorsement of participation in other branches of politics than the legislative branch is quite astonishing. Without changing his earlier views, he reconsiders his beliefs in light of new circumstances and condemns only those things that he believes really need to be condemned, thereby going quite far in accommodating those Muslims who want to participate in politics after the Arab Spring. Abu Basir ends his epistle by saying: “Know that Islam has come for the protection of man and saving him. Its goal is man.” Although this remark should be read in the context of the rest of his epistle, whose contents do not differ all that much from what al-Zawahiri believes, the phrasing itself is quite different and almost makes Abu Basir sound like a humanist alternative to al-Qaida’s leader. Not bad for a jihadi!
Unlike the Arab uprising in Syria, which was the subject of my previous post, the one in Libya seems to have reached its end. The regime has been overthrown and Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi and some of his sons are dead. Although it is by no means certain that Libya is on its way to becoming a fully-fledged liberal democracy, the Libyan people have achieved things that most Syrians can still only dream of. In this post, I will look at how some scholars and ideologues associated with al-Qaida responded to the situation in Libya.
One member of al-Qaida Central who responds to the situation in Libya is, perhaps unsurprisingly since he is a Libyan himself, Abu Yahya al-Libi. His comments stress that the United States is “the idol (taghut) of the age” (i.e., the country that other countries “serve”) and “the source of terrorism”. He asks rhetorically: “Isn’t America the one who supported the regime of ‘Husni Barak’, the pharaoh of Egypt, but why is it that today it is singing the praises of the Egyptian people’s freedom?! Aren’t America and the governments of the West the ones who supported and [still] support the despotic regime of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih [in Yemen]? Aren’t America and France the ones who totally supported the tyrannical regime of Zayn al-‘Abidin [in Tunisia] that refused its people the least of their rights?! But why is it that afterwards they praise the people for obtaining their freedom?!”
Powerful stuff indeed. It is not entirely clear, however, how this is related to Libya, with which the United States has long been on very bad terms and for whose regime it therefore cannot really be blamed. The reason for al-Libi’s criticism of the US seems to be that the country has contributed to liberating Libya through NATO, for which many Libyans are supposedly quite grateful, and he may fear that this will lead to a positive image of the West among many Libyans.
NATO’s influence in Libya is also the subject of an “open letter to the Muslims in Libya” by Abu l-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi. The author emphasises that it is important to understand that “the Crusader NATO” is not out to help the Muslims but to “fight their religion”. “The Crusader West”, al-Bulaydi says, wants to serve its own interests and NATO aims to “contain your revolution”, give it “a secular identity and a Western spirit” and aim for “loyalty to the enemies of Islam and enmity and war against the jihadi trend”. He therefore advises Libyans to act with wisdom and “not to fear the power of the Crusader West, because God is more powerful”.
Somewhat in line with the above, several scholars argue that the fighting in Libya may have stopped after the fall of the regime but that it should continue until the country is an Islamic state. The Jordanian radical scholar Abu Humam Bakr b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Athari, in a short piece entitled “Oh people of success, have you already put down your weapons?”, states that Libyans should “fight for the sake of legislating the heavenly shari’a. That is the goal and for its sake does the upholder of the unity of God (muwahhid) fight till the end.” He cites a tradition about the life of the Prophet Muhammad in which the latter is said to have put down his weapons but was encouraged by the angel Jibril to fight on, which Muhammad subsequently did. This should serve as an example for Libyans today, whom Abu Humam advises not to listen to or try to satisfy NATO since “Jews and Christians will not be satisfied with you until you follow their religion” (Q. 2: 120).
Libya is ideally placed for a continuation of such a fight, argues Abu Sa’d al-‘Amili in a treatise on the revolution in Libya, because the country has certain advantages for mujahidun. First of all, he says, Libyans are conservative people; secondly, it has a “noble jihadi history”; and, thirdly, the country is geographically close to Algeria, where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) has its base. Since Libya is part of the Islamic Maghrib and AQIM also has some Libyan leaders, Abu Sa’d writes, the revolution offers some excellent chances to link up with like-minded radicals in the rest of the region. The application of the shari’a should be the result of the jihad that Muslims in Libya have to wage. This is really necessary because the temporary leaders currently ruling Libya cannot be relied upon. “We cannot imagine”, Abu Sa’d states, “that these liberators [i.e. the revolutionaries who overthrew the regime] will give their loyalty to a gang of unknown secularists who follow the Crusader West to continue the occupation and exploitation of the country in the name of democracy.” NATO, the author writes, did not “participate in striking the military bases of al-Qadhafi to defend the honour of the Libyan people and to save thousands of likely victims from the brutality of al-Qadhafi and his soldiers”. The West, he says, was involved to serve its own economic and security interests and actually “has a great fear of the Islamic tendency of the revolutionaries”. This, he says, is why there is a transitional council of secularists.
An entirely different approach to the situation is taken by the Syrian-British Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who also had much to say about Syria. This time, however, we will look at what he wrote on the revolution in Libya. Although he obviously agrees that Libya should become an Islamic state with the shari’a as its only source of legislation, he stresses that the country should work on internal reconciliation. He states that all Libyans are Muslims who love God and the Prophet Muhammad and that jihadis should take care not to create a distance between themselves and the people by saying “these are with us and these are against us, these are with Islam and these are against Islam”. Also, he emphasises that the Libyan people have lived under a tyrannical and infidel leader for over forty years, which means that jihadis are likely to encounter tensions in society. Abu Basir advises jihadi to deal with these with friendliness and wisdom.
Interestingly, Abu Basir not only advises jihadis to take a friendly approach towards the Libyan people as a whole, but also towards the remnants of the regime. He mentions that most of those working for al-Qadhafi’s regime were probably ignorant, poor and forced to cooperate and that they should be dealt with in a spirit of justice and leniency. It is wrong, Abu Basir states, to treat your opponents with the mindset and law of a tyrant. In fact, and quite opposite to men such as Abu Humam al-Athari, Abu Basir advises that people should stop fighting once the regime has fallen and solve conflicts with words and through dialogue. The country is now entering the phase of rebuilding, which is more difficult than fighting. Jihadis therefore need all the wisdom they have to set up an Islamic state in Libya.
With the Arab Spring going strong in several countries, al-Qaida (in a broad sense, so including ideologues and scholars supportive of the organisation) still finds it necessary to comment on what is happening. In a series of posts, I will deal with the advice al-Qaida is giving the people of several countries, starting with Syria.
One of the men “advising” the Syrians currently revolting against the regime of President al-Asad is Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaida. In an epistle meant solely to greet, encourage and heap praise on the people he is addressing, al-Zawahiri spends one of the first paragraphs of his letter saying “salamun ‘alaykum” to his audience no fewer than eight times. He addresses them as “the mujahidun who command good and forbid evil”. This seems to be an attempt to claim that al-Qaida-like people are the ones trying to overthrow the Syrian regime, which is a good thing from his point of view because it allows him to create the idea that his organisation is alive and kicking and busy overthrowing “infidel” rulers, as it should be. From the Syrian people’s point of view, however, it is doubtful whether this is going to do them any good. As radical scholar Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti pointed out in a fatwa that I wrote about in a previous post, it may actually be more advisable for Syrian jihadis to lay low, not giving the regime any extra excuse to crack down on them with the argument that the demonstrators are, in fact, terrorists. Al-Zawahiri doesn’t seem to realise this, urging his audience to tell President al-Asad that he is “a partner in the war on Islam in the name of terrorism and a protector of the borders of Israel”. Even more explicitly – in a phrase that sounds better in Arabic than it does in English – he tells them to say to al-Asad: “We have broken the shackles of fear and smashed the prison of weakness. The free [men] of Syria and its mujahidun have decided that they will live as honourable people and die as martyrs (ya’ishu a’izza’ wa-yamutu shuhada’).”
Al-Zawahiri also keeps going on about the supposedly strong American ties to the Syrian regime. He states that “America, which has co-operated with Bashar al-Asad throughout his reign, now claims that it is on your side”. He advises the Syrian protestors to say to the U.S. and President Obama that “we are the sons of the conquerors, the offspring of the mujahidun and the heirs of the murabitun (fighters operating from garrison cities).” The battle fought against the Syrian regime, al-Zawahiri claims, will obviously continue until “we raise the banners of victorious jihad” over Jerusalem. How exactly this is to be achieved in the face of a brutal regime that is not afraid to kill thousands of its own people is not entirely clear.
A more rational and level-headed approach is taken in another document, this one by Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a scholar living in London who is in no way part of the core leadership of al-Qaida but is one of the major thinkers reponsible for the organisation’s ideology. The originally-Syrian Abu Basir is churning out writings on Syria faster than you can say “the people want to topple the regime”, which may force me to dedicate another post to this country. In any case, Abu Basir wouldn’t be a true Salafi if he didn’t start by criticising the sect of the al-Asad family, the ‘Alawites, which Salafis (and, to a lesser extent, Sunnis in general) view as deviant or even infidel. He claims that they – among other things – are batinis (i.e. people who believe the Qur’an has an inner, esoteric meaning apart from its outer, exoteric meaning), idol worshippers and people who claim that caliph ‘Ali b. Abi Talib is God.
These ‘Alawites, Abu Basir claims, do not care about their homeland, or about its citizens. They have never amounted to anything and have never given any thought to what the people need. Abu Basir claims that the Syrian sectarian system is largely to blame for this, probably because the large number of sects and the differences between them encourage their members to act only on behalf of their own group, at the expense of loyalty to the country and the people as a whole. As a result, this regime has only brought awful things such as destruction, division and poverty. Surprisingly, however, given Abu Basir’s views of ‘Alawites in general, his approach is nuanced enough to distinguish between ‘Alawites who are part of the governing circle of President al-Asad and the majority of ‘Alawites, who suffer from poverty just like other Syrians. His wrath is therefore directed towards the regime and he thus advises the Syrian people to unite and express only one demand: the fall of the regime. Raising any other demand, Abu Basir claims, would be quite unwise, presumably because he realises that Syrians are not united enough to form a coalition on the basis of any demand other than the fall of the regime.
In two other writings (here and here), Abu Basir continues about the situation in Syria and stresses the need for peaceful resistance but also the legitimacy of self-defence. The regime, he says, has killed or wounded tens of thousands of people and the latter should therefore learn how to protect themselves by setting up security committees that can defend the protestors. These committees, he states, should not participate in demonstrations or in any peaceful activities, so as not to give the regime an extra reason to crack down on protestors. Abu Basir also wants “the noble free officers” (i.e. the ones that abandoned the regime’s army) to increase in number, expand their military activities and co-ordinate them with the aforementioned security committees.
Apart from advising the Syrian people on using non-peaceful methods, he tries to convince them that violence is justified. While he keeps stressing that peaceful resistance is good and commendable, he fails to see its use after so much bloodshed and scolds Syrians for refusing even to take violent means into consideration after it has become clear that sit-ins and other peaceful means have proved useless. He encourages the people to obtain arms and even quotes a verse from the Qur’an about military preparedness to underline the legitimacy of the use of violence. After having compared the Syrian regime with the French colonialism of the past, he wonders what the difference between the two of them really is and calls on the remnants of the army to fear God and take their responsibility towards Syria and its people by defending them and their honour “against the imperialism of the sectarian regime of al-Asad”.
If and how this advice is accepted by Syrians in general and jihadis in particular is unclear. What is clear from Abu Basir’s writings, however, is that he obviously cares about Syria. The tone of his work here is not one of fighting against “infidel” rulers who fail to apply the shari’a but much more one of concern for his native land, which he even refers to as “the beloved Syria”. Whether this is also the case with other commentators “advising” demonstrators in other countries is something I intend to explore in future posts.
As is the case for many others, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has made me reflect on their impact over the past decade. To this end, Michelle Shephard‘s Decade of Fear has been indispensable. A very personal account of her journalistic efforts to chronicle the war on terrorism over the past decade, Michelle weaves the weft of her narrative over the warp of New York just after 9/11; Somalia after the rise of the Islamic Courts Union and, later, the emergence of al-Shabab; Pakistan after the rebound of the Taliban and al-Qaeda; and Yemen at the formation of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the retreat of President Saleh.
Michelle’s account puts a human face on the knotty legal, ethical, and political problems the United States and its allies have grappled with as they tried to stop al-Qaeda and its supporters: torture for information, overthrowing stable governments who might align with terrorist groups, rendition, entrapment, collateral damage, and indefinite detention. There are also the less “kinetic” but no-less-knotty problems like countering radicalization online in multi-cultural societies that value free speech.
What struck me most about Michelle’s account was her juxtaposition of violence and inanity. Hassan Aweys, the head of a group allied with al-Shabab in Somalia, covets Michelle’s boots. Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI and sponsor of some of the United States’ worst enemies in the region, does not know who Tony Soprano is but, upon being told, empathizes with his bifurcated psyche. The white-polo-and-khaki-wearing Abu Jandal, UBL’s chief bodygaurd, is gracious to Western journalists while explaining that Bin Laden didn’t target the civilians in September. “He simply hit targets, and civilians happened to be around.” Kitch and karaoke permeate Guantanamo, along with euphemisms to describe poor detainee treatment.
Wisely, Michelle does not try to resolve the contradictions or unravel the knots. But she is hopeful that the Arab Spring and the death of bin Laden will take the wind out of the sails of the global jihadi movement and help the United States and its allies put the threat in perspective so they can abandon some of their worst counterterrorism tools. Me too.
The newest issue of Foreign Affairs on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 includes an essay by me (free registration required) on the history of al-Qaeda and its prospects after the Arab Spring. The essay covers the reasons for al-Qaeda’s founding, its targeting of the United States, its strategic thinking under Zawahiri’s leadership, its concept of an Islamic state, and its enduring problem with Islamist parliamentary politics.
Regular readers of Jihadica will find much that is familiar but the essay makes one point I have not seen elsewhere: al-Qaeda is not against democratic elections, just parliamentary politics. The misperception that it is against democratic elections arises from a general ignorance of al-Qaeda’s thought on Islamic states and statecraft, a subject I also treat in the essay. Islamic states, not the caliphate, are central to al-Qaeda’s strategic planning and its interpretation of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
I look forward to your comments. Original Arabic for the passages I translated in the article are below the fold.
- Update 1: My postscript for Foreign Affairs on the death of Atiyya.
- Update 2: I give some As to the Qs of Foreign Affairs.
- Update 3: Foreign Affairs has published “Al Qaeda’s Challenge” in its 9/11 Ten Year Anniversary ebook. Brynjar’s article on Bin Laden’s death is in there too.
Shmukh forum user Amal wa-Alam complains that the brothers are disparaging Sayf al-`Adl, the operational leader of al-Qaeda. “They are beginning to talk about him as if he is a nobody.” Amal strongly disagrees and adduces as evidence West Point’s study of his handiwork in Africa that Clint Watts, Jake Shapiro, and Vahid Brown had a hand in. “It’s strange that the Americans know” and the brothers do not.
It’s not clear who these naysaying brothers are, and another Shmukh user disagrees with Amal, saying that he has heard no disparaging remarks. But if it is true that Sayf is being criticized in some jihadi circles as irrelevant, it is quite a change from the rumors two months ago that he was the acting head of al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death.
This isn’t the first time that jihadi leaders have referenced the studies of American and European analysts to bolster their authority. This latest post underlines once again that jihadism is not a static phenomenon but one influenced by those who study it and vice versa.
In a statement released online nine hours ago via the Fajr Media Center and dated June 2011, the General Command of al-Qaeda declared its decision to appoint Ayman al-Zawahiri the new head of al-Qaeda. This move was not unanticipated except by those with strange Awlaki/Libi fixations. Leah Farrall guessed it would be so on organizational grounds and Murad and I parsed Zawahiri’s eulogy to Bin Laden to arrive at the same conclusion.
In addition to naming Zawahiri as the new amir, here are other highlights from the statement:
- A special shout out to Palestine, promising its people that al-Qaeda is fighting for their liberation.
- A reaffirmation of Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar, saying that “We stress to our brothers in Afghanistan that we are with you, in spirit and what we possess, under the leadership of commander of the faithful Mullah Muhammad Omar. “
- A shout out to Umar Abd al-Rahman and other imprisoned mujahids.
- Encouragement for the uprisings in the Middle East but also a caution that true change will only come after implementing the Sharia and that won’t happen until all forms of occupation are gone.
Update: A great Foreign Policy round table on the significance of Zawahiri’s elevation.