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.
In an official statement issued yesterday, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) officially claimed Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) as its own product and subsidiary. The audio message from ISI’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Husayni al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi, confirmed once and for all JN’s status as an al-Qaeda offshoot established by ISI—a link JN leaders have long played down or denied. It also significantly revised jihadi nomenclature for the region. The names of “the Islamic State of Iraq” and “Jabhat al-Nusra,” decreed al-Baghdadi, are hereby void; the two groups are now combined under the joint name of “the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria” (al-dawla al-islamiyya fi al-‘iraq wa-l-sham; ISIGS). Thus will the “banner” of jihad achieve further unity.
A commitment to global jihad
JN, according to al-Baghdadi, was from the first an “extension” and “part” of ISI. Providing little in the way of details, he explains rather matter-of-factly how ISI early on sent—“deputized”—Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, one of ISI’s “soldiers,” to Syria along with a number of foreign colleagues to establish JN and recruit local Syrians. Al-Baghdadi justifies not proclaiming the connection between ISI and JN until now out of fear that the media would engage in harmful “distortion.” It is unclear why he finds this particular moment so different.
What the announcement makes very clear is that the group once known as Jabhat al-Nusra ought to be seen as a jihadi-salafi organization distinct from its homespun salafi counterparts, such as the groups comprising the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). While JN and the groups fighting under SIF have long campaigned together on various fronts in the Syrian civil war, and while they praise one another publicly, JN has always stood out for its secretive nature and lack of interest in adhering to the SIF command structure.
In his new report on “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents,” Aron Lund persuasively makes the case that JN is unique among Syria’s salafi warriors. Its leadership is “clearly part of the global salafi-jihadi trend” and sees “Syria as a front in [a] larger war against the West and Arab secularism.” This much is clear from how JN’s announcements and other literature are routinely posted to al-Qaeda-linked jihadi forums by the forums’ administrators. It has also been clear in the organizational distance between JN and the SIF, the latter of which has become a broad coalition of like-minded salafi fighting groups. JN, Lund confirms in communication with SIF leaders, was invited to help found SIF but wanted no part in it. Al-Baghdadi’s announcement yesterday makes clear why: JN’s objective is an Islamic state that includes Syria; the goal of the more nationalist-oriented SIF is an Islamic state within Syria.
An Islamic emirate foretold
The ISI’s announcement that its nominal authority now encompasses, by means of JN, the territory of modern Syria might strike some as surprising. Indeed JN has largely avoided violent excesses that alienated al-Qaeda in Iraq from the local population, as several commentators have pointed out. But JN was never truly meant to be, as its full name indicated, “the salvation front for the people of Syria, by the mujahidin of Syria.” The name was deceptive, as JN’s purpose was all along to enlarge the authority of ISI. While jihadi media did not state this purpose clearly, some jihadi writers, both on the fringes and in the mainstream, have consistently emphasized JN’s distinctiveness and priority among salafi fighters in Syria, sometimes even calling for an Islamic state.
In mid-March one jihadi author, an obscure Abu ‘Abd Allah Anis, explicitly called for founding an “Islamic emirate” in Syria in the jihadi magazine Majallat al-Balagh, a product of the media group Fursan al-Balagh. The author wrote (pg. 44): “We hope to witness [in Syria] in the near future an alliance of jihad powers and their establishment of a broad shura council leading to the announcement of an Islamic emirate.” He went on to talk about unifying all Islamic groups and battalions in this proposed alliance, which he saw as rightfully being led by JN. This vision of an Islamic emirate is certainly different from what al-Baghdadi announced yesterday, but it nonetheless captured the direction JN was headed.
Perhaps even more foretelling of the turn JN’s leadership would take was a fatwa issued back in February by the influential Mauritanian shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti. Writing in his capacity as a member the Shari‘a Council of Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, the website of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, al-Shinqiti strongly discouraged anyone interested in fighting jihad in Syria from forming or joining any group apart from JN. While he did not denounce or disparage other salafi groups fighting in Syria, he made it clear that he viewed their existence with skepticism. The mujahidin ought to “heed the command of God (who is exalted above all) to be one community, not separate communities; to fight under one banner, not different banners; to obey one commander, not multiple commanders; and to call themselves by one name, not by separate names.” It was therefore not appropriate to form or join a jihad group that did not pledge allegiance to JN’s leader.
The Islamic opposition at odds
It is as yet unclear what effect al-Baghdadi’s announcement of “the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria” will have on the armed Islamic opposition. Whether other salafi groups choose to distance themselves from ISIGS and its global scheme or not, it seems certain that ISIGS will henceforward more clearly emphasize its mission to achieve an Islamic state that exceeds the bounds of the Syrian nation.
Importantly, this mission includes an emphatic rejection of democracy in any form. In his statement al-Baghdadi warned the people of Syria not to “exchange these years of oppression for the religion of democracy, which the people of Iraq have preceded you [in accepting],” along with others in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. From the emphasis he lays on it, it seems that al-Baghdadi views democracy as al-Qaeda’s greatest threat in the near future, in Syria as elsewhere. Evidently he worries that salafi groups of more nationalist bent currently fighting the regime, like the SIF, could one day disarm and form political parties along the lines of Egypt’s salafi Nur Party. The difference that al-Baghdadi implicitly posits is one between salafis who adhere to the jihadi-salafi global mission of al-Qaeda (a minority) and those disposed to accept national affiliation—and possibly even to participate in a particular nation’s democracy.
It is noteworthy in this regard that the SIF leadership seems to hold a different outlook on democracy from that of JN (now ISIGS). As Lund points out, while SIF leaders have criticized the potential institutionalization of Western-style democracy in Syria, some of their statements exhibit tolerance for democratic practices such as voting and forming councils of elected officials. One informal Syrian adviser to the SIF, the prominent jihadi ideologue Abu Basir al-Tartusi, has intimated he would support the holding of elections in a post-Asad Syria. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, along with al-Qaeda leaning ideologues like al-Shinqiti, condemns the very practices of democracy, including voting, as shirk, or polytheism. Whether or not al-Baghdadi’s announcement heralds a newfound rift in the Islamic opposition’s daily business of waging jihad, it certainly confirms the presence of an ideological rift between Syria’s salafis.
Update (10 April 2013): In the above I suggested that JN’s leadership played a role in the decision to announce the new Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Apparently this was not the case. In an audio message released today JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani claimed not to have had prior knowledge of the decision to scrap the JN and ISI labels in favor of the ISIGS; in fact he only learned of the decision from the media. While clearly unhappy at the way that this news reached him, al-Jawlani nevertheless agreed to “comply with al-Baghdadi’s request.” He then affirmed (and reaffirmed) his allegiance, and that of JN’s “children and their general leadership,” to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Yet it appears that al-Jawlani was not willing to comply fully with al-Baghdadi’s request, objecting to the instruction to dispense with the name Jabhat al-Nusra. He stated: “the banner of the Jabha (Front) will remain as it is with no changes.”
Apparently JN’s leader is concerned that too open an association with al-Qaeda could have a negative impact on JN’s reputation and perhaps alienate opposition allies. Al-Jawlani’s chosen solution seems to be to maintain the JN franchise name that has earned so much respect on the ground (encapsulated by the popular phrase “we are all Jabhat al-Nusra”) while professing allegiance to al-Qaeda and acceding (at least nominally) to the ISIGS. The message makes it unclear exactly what JN’s and the ISIGS’s next moves will be or what the operational linkages between the two (overlapping) groups really are.
Ansar al-Din was created in November 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali, a legendary Tuareg powerbroker in northern Mali who led two rebellions against the Malian government in the 1990’s and in 2006. According to journalistic accounts as well as scholarly writing, Ag Ghali grew increasingly religious and joined the Tablighi Jamaat, the Pakistani Islamic missionary organization known for its piety as well as quietist political views. However, Ag Ghali at some point moved away from the group, and in 2010 Saudi authorities expelled him from his diplomatic post in Jeddah due to suspected contacts with unknown radicals.
Various sources claim that Ag Ghali only founded Ansar al-Din after failing in his efforts to become the leader of the MNLA and of the Ifoghas Tuareg tribe, though as far as I can tell these claims all come from sources close to or within the MNLA. Initially composed of veteran rebels from the same tribe (and in many cases the same clan), Ag Ghali’s ranks were swollen in early 2012 by the addition of at least 40 AQIM fighters brought by his cousin, an AQIM commander named Hamada Ag Hama (commonly known as Abdelkrim el-Targui).
Ansar al-Din played a key role in fighting the Malian army in Aguelhoc (where nearly 100 Malian soldiers were reportedly executed), Tessalit, and Kidal. After the March 2012 coup and the departure of the Malian army from the north, Ansar al-Din took responsibility for the cities of Kidal and Timbuktu. At least one “Ansar al-Din” leader in Timbuktu, Sanda Ould Boumama (Sanda Abou Mohamed), was a suspected GSPC and AQIM member, and AQIM is largely believed to have exerted real control over the city.
Various Tuareg Ansar al-Din leaders and spokesmen engaged in negotiations in Burkina Faso and Algeria, and Ag Ghali himself endorsed mediation efforts to achieve a political solution to the Malian crisis. Nevertheless, the group’s leadership appears to be divided and has made contradictory remarks about the group’s goals, in particular where they sought to apply shari’ah (in Kidal? In northern Mali? In all of Mali? Across West Africa?). Ag Ghali himself put an end to the ambiguity when he announced the end of a ceasefire in January 2013, and then led an advance of Islamist forces into central Mali on January 10. This in turn prompted the French intervention in Mali the following day.
Much of the secondary literature in the West depicts Professor Ghulam Niazi as the progenitor of the mujahidin movement in Afghanistan in the 1960s. For a variety of reasons this contradicts primary sources that focus more on the various resistance efforts elsewhere in Afghanistan during this period. Of course, the primary sources are also influenced by the political projects of their authors.
Take, for example, the case of Yunis Khalis. Khalis’s biographers are more interested in a narrative that gives their subject a prominent role in the fight against the Soviets than they are in writing about the creation of an Afghan Islamist movement initiated by Professor Niazi at Kabul University. On the other hand, the two mujahidin parties that trace their founding mythology directly to Professor Niazi (Hizb-e Islami (Gulbuddin) and Jami’at-e Islami) have also been remarkably successful at setting the terms of the historical debate about the origins of the Afghan mujahidin. So it should be no surprise that the Khalis literature reflects the importance of the political gatherings hosted by Yunis Khalis and other eastern ‘ulama, while the material linked to the Kabul Islamists emphasizes Professor Niazi.
It may be decades before it is possible to untangle the accounts that have already been published by eye witnesses to this chaotic period of Afghan history; so many of the principal actors have died that we will probably never know the full story. But while it is too early to offer a full depiction of the resistance activities in Nangarhar in the years before 1979, my recent research on the biographies of Yunis Khalis has given me some unexpected insight into the kinds of political discussions that were taking place in eastern Afghanistan before the mujahidin parties had fully formed. While Khalis did not take a major leadership role in the early days of the resistance movement, he was active in a variety of circles and led many discussion groups with students and others about political and religious issues. These meetings were generally much less public or contentious than the sometimes raucous activities organized by the Muslim Youth, but they were not without their own controversy.
At one such gathering at Nangarhar University in 1349/1970, a doctor (or medical school student–Khalis’s biographer Din Muhammad equivocates) spoke out on an issue that apparently touched one of Khalis’s nerves. According to Din Muhammad the doctor said that “Mullahs are up to no good when they preach against money or they teach children; they must not take money or a salary (Din Muhammad 2007, 32).” Although we do not get a full picture of this doctor or his argument, Khalis’s contemptuous response to him is fascinating and I include it here in its entirety:
I studied in private mosques, and I paid my own expenses for traveling to and fro for my education, and I worked in the mosques. There were very many students like me who did not even have full bellies, and we had no clothing, and we would go long distances barefoot to find teachers to educate us in the mountains. And you, the cost of your housing is paid, and you study in beautiful cultivated areas; to you living expenses have been given for passing the night in beautiful places. From among you doctors are made, and the national budget has decreased because of you, while nothing has been spent on me. Come, in the manner of a mullah I pledge to you that I take absolutely no money for being an imam, and I teach classes for children without such money. You, a doctor, come to me and pledge to me that you will write prescriptions for sick people without charge. (Din Muhammad 2007, 32-33)
This argument at a gathering at Nangarhar University echoes a theme that Din Muhammad elaborates in his discussion of Yunis Khalis as a homeopathic healer: healers should serve the poor for no charge (Din Muhammad 2007, 224-226). Without having more information about other similar gatherings, it is hard to know the extent to which this discussion at Nangarhar University was typical. But even so, it reveals something about Khalis’s perception of himself, his own life story, and the role of social justice in his political ideology.
The critical importance of providing for the poor in the community is also discussed prominently in the context of Khalis’s decision to create a new housing development called Najm al-Jihad south of Jalalabad after the end of the Soviet-Afghan War (Din Muhammad 2007, 266-267). Din Muhammad explicitly states that the name for this neighborhood was chosen to reflect its connection to the famous Mullah of Hadda, also known as Najm al-Din Akhundzada. Today Khalis’s neighborhood is only a few kilometers west of the Mosque at Hadda, and future investigations may help to uncover whether Khalis’s connection to the famous Mullah of Hadda goes any deeper than his choice of a name for a housing development that was ostensibly designed in part for poor people, the disabled, and war widows.
The Khalis biographies should not be read as a coherent argument against Professor Niazi’s prominent position in the development of Afghan Islamism. However, they do offer important clues about the political activities of prominent ‘ulama in eastern Afghanistan in the 1970s who were only peripherally involved in the Kabul Islamist movement. In the process of depicting these largely informal discussion groups and gatherings, Din Muhammad goes out of his way to stress the critical role that social justice played in Khalis’s politics. Any serious conversation about the history of the Afghan mujahidin will always have to account for the better known activities of Professor Niazi’s protégés in the Muslim Youth and Jami’at-e Islami.
However, this story of Khalis’s argument with a doctor at Nangarhar University in 1349/1970 is a helpful reminder that the relatively cosmopolitan scene at Kabul University was not the only important site of political contention in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s. It is too early to say who attended these kinds of gatherings in Nangarhar or what significance this participation may have had for the later development of the mujahidin movement, but as more sources are published these kinds of investigations promise to show us a much richer picture of the early days of the anti-leftist political resistance in eastern Afghanistan.
Update 9/21/2012: Here’s a Foreign Affairs essay I wrote about the roll of Salafis in the riots.
Below are some thoughts I shared with a friend this morning who asked about the protests. I had to edit one pretty heavily in light of the events of the past few hours, and I’m sure I’ll have to revise them again in the coming weeks given how confusing everything is right now. If I’ve made any egregious errors in well-established facts, please let me know here or on twitter and I’ll update it.
1. Who’s behind the film? A Coptic Christian living in California who claimed to be an Israeli-American. Other Coptic Christians living in the US promoted the film on their Arabic websites and also enlisted the support of Terry Jones (ie Qur’an burner).
2. How did the film get to the Arab world? An Egyptian channel supervised by a Salafi cleric (Muhammad al-Zughbi) was the first to broadcast clips of the obscure film, which it likely obtained from YouTube.
The Egyptian commentators on the news channel seem to be Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood variety, if we can stereotype from appearances (short, full beards, suits and ties). I was told by a reporter that the host, Shaykh Khalid Abdullah, caters to Salafis (ie Sunni puritans). Consider him the equivalent of the usual Fox news commentators, finding obscure insults to their religion to fire up their conservative viewers.
3. Who’s behind the protests? It’s not clear yet who organized them but Salafis and Ikhwanis in Egypt seem to have fanned the flames. Soccer hooligans and anarchists were also in the mix. Once news of their protests made it to twitter, facebook and satellite TV, it was only a matter of time before they spread.
4. Who will be targeted for retaliation? Copts are going to be a major target in Egypt, and anyone associated with the production of this film in the US is likely going to be targeted by Islamist terrorist organizations. Perhaps Israelis will be targeted too if it doesn’t get out that the director lied about his Israeli identity. YouTube/Google might also be targeted for carrying the film clips. As for the attacks on the US embassies, the protesters blame the United States for the film because many Arabs don’t understand how we treat free speech; they believe we have the power to censor films as is done in Arab countries or proscribe them with hate speech laws like those in Europe.
5. Is this just about the film? The film was the trigger, and most of those protesting are furious about it, whether they’ve seen it or not. Sabb al-nabi (insulting the Prophet) is bad, bad stuff in classical Islamic law (it’ll get you killed). But there are other things at play too, like public discontent with the slow pace of reforms and prominent officials and firebrands stirring the pot out of conviction or for more cynical reasons.
6. What’s al-Qaeda going to do? This is a major win for AQ. Protesters (some unwittingly it seems) are flying the AQ flag (specifically the Islamic State of Iraq’s flag) as _the_ flag of protest. Jihadis everywhere are celebrating this symbolic victory. If AQ was also involved in the killing of the ambassador, it’s a major operational victory. The fact that they are now shaping events in the more stable Arab Spring countries, in addition to their prominent profiles in the Yemeni and Syrian insurgencies, is a huge shot in the arm for the jihadi movement. They will try to capitalize on the Muhammad film by vowing to undertake revenge attacks on those responsible for its distribution. They will certainly blame the United States and perhaps Google/YouTube for not shutting it down.
7. What does this all mean going forward? If we’ve learned one thing during the Arab Spring, it’s the demonstration effect of large protests. People in the Arab world have now seen that the US embassies can be targeted with impunity for slights to Muhammad originating in the United States. There will certainly be more slights because “anti-jihad” Christian extremists in the United States and Europe will be all too happy to stir the pot, particularly after they’ve seen what can be achieved with such a shabby film. That being the case, we can expect more protests like these. New Islamist governments like the one in Egypt will have to be careful how they thread the needle. They have to strongly condemn known insults to Muhammad, and they can’t afford to curtail popular anger too much lest it be turned on them. But they’ve also got to be careful about alienating the United States.
8. Is there a silver lining? The reaction of Libyan citizens to the US ambassador’s death was pretty remarkable. Perhaps citizens in other countries will be moved to demonstrate similar solidarity with Americans against religious extremism of all stripes. Moreover, Obama’s unscripted, not-an-ally statement got positive results out of Egypt. I’d love to see more of the same to remind the more belligerent of the new governments that they should not take US support for granted.
Several months ago, President Obama signed an executive order establishing an interagency center to coordinate the US government’s public messages against terrorist organizations. A major component of this Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) was in the news lately for its clever campaign against AQAP on Yemeni tribal forums.
Because the center is new, most people are unfamiliar with its mandate or how it operates. More broadly, people are unaware of the complexities of government messaging against terrorist organizations. To shed light on these subjects, the first coordinator of the CSCC, Ambassador Richard LeBaron (now retired), has given me permission to post his recent remarks on what he learned during his tenure. It’s very instructive for anyone interested in counter-propaganda and how the US government is coping with the new information environment.
Well, perhaps not quite. Nevertheless, readers of Jihadica will be interested to know that my book on Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the most prominent jihadi ideologues alive, was recently published by Cambridge University Press. Maybe the book doesn’t tell you everything you want to know about the man, his ideas and his influence, but together with some of my articles, it will surely satisfy most people’s curiosity.
Over the past several days, Leah Farrall and I have been debating on Twitter about her recent blog post on the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi by a US drone. In her post, Leah argues that the US policy of killing senior al-Qaeda Central leaders is wrongheaded because those leaders are “a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu.” Leah compares these strikes to the practice of killing older elephants to thin a herd, which leaves younger elephants without any respectable elder to turn to for guidance as to how to behave. By analogy, killing senior al-Qaeda Central leaders means there will be no one with enough clout to rein in the younger generation of jihadis when they go astray.
As a measure of the moderating influence of al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders, Leah contends that those leaders are very discriminating about the kinds of physical targets they choose to attack when seeking to affect the behavior of their intended audience. If you kill these leaders, she argues, the next generation will not be as discriminating, presumably meaning that they will widen their scope of physical targets and methods of attack in the West.
There might be good reasons not to kill al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders with drones but their potential moderating influence is not one of them. Here’s why:
1. AQ Central Senior Leaders Are Not Discriminating When Choosing What Kinds of People to Target in the West: Although AQ Central’s senior leaders have expressed concern about killing Muslim non-combatants, they have expressed no concern about indiscriminately killing people who are citizens of non-Muslim majority countries they do not like. Thus in the 1998 joint fatwa:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…
This basic targeting guidance has not changed in the ensuing years. Like any terrorist organization, al-Qaeda attacks civilians to create fear in its intended audience for the furtherance of its objectives. But unlike a lot of terrorist organizations, al-Qaeda has not focused on a particular category of civilian from Western countries (e.g. political leaders, the bourgeoisie, officials, businessmen). Any citizen living in the United States or a non-Muslim majority country aligned with the United States is a potential target. That’s a lot of folks.
2. AQ Central Senior Leaders Discriminate When Choosing How To Kill Civilians in the West But They Do Not Seek Low Body Counts: When Leah argues that al-Qaeda Central is discriminating in its external operations, she means that they choose physical targets and methods of attack very carefully to elicit the desired response from their audience. She might also mean that they do not seek large body counts (she’s been unclear on this point).
It is certainly the case that al-Qaeda Central senior leaders have expressed a variety of opinions on how to kill civilians in the West and prioritized some means over others. And in their actual attack planning, tactics like bombing planes and subways are preferred because they are more terrifying than other tactics. But al-Qaeda senior leadership has also supported more indiscriminate, high-casualty attacks like exploding a nuclear weapon and unleashing chemical or biological agents. They’ve also advocated the low-tech tactic of lone al-Qaeda supporters in the West buying a gun and going on a shooting spree. On the latter point, as recently as 2011 Adam Gadahn, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and Atiyya made a long video encouraging AQ supporters in the West to acquire handguns and shoot civilians indiscriminately (pt 1, pt 2). If Bin Laden differed with the other senior members of AQ over the use of this tactic in the West, I haven’t seen evidence of it.
It’s important to note that when AQ Central deliberates about attacks in the West, they prefer attacks that 1) they can successfully carry out and 2) will have the maximum impact on policy. Body count only factors into the discussion as a measure of impact (the greater the body count, the greater the impact), not as an inhibitor to action. Again, if there is a memo or statement fretting about killing too many non-Muslims, I haven’t seen it.
3. Abu Yahya al-Libi is Not a Moderating Force: It’s true that Libi is a very influential voice in al-Qaeda and that he might be able to take al-Qaeda in a less violent direction if he moderated his positions. But there was nothing in his career to suggest he would moderate al-Qaeda’s 1998 targeting guidance for Western countries. Even for ops in the Muslim world, he was more of a hardliner than other members of the senior leadership like Atiyya. For example, see Libi and Atiyya’s disagreement over over the status of former regime officials in Libya (Libi took a harder stance that Atiyya).
4. Even If al-Qaeda Central Senior Leaders Moderate, It Doesn’t Mean the Affiliates Will: The interplay between the affiliates and AQ Central is complicated and well researched by others, including Leah, so I don’t want to belabor this point. But just one well-known example of how hard it is to moderate the behavior of an affiliate: AQ Central failed to rein in AQ in Iraq after trying repeatedly.
Again, regardless of whether some in the senior leadership are trying to moderate the affiliates when it comes to targeting Muslims, they have not budged on the operational guidance given in the 1998 fatwa. Any new affiliate that joins accepts that guidance as foundational to their membership (of course, not all of them can act on it).
In summary, al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders seek to kill as many citizens as possible in the non-Muslim majority countries they don’t like, particularly the United States and its Western allies. AQ Central’s senior leaders choose their physical targets and means of attack overseas based on opportunity and policy impact. High body counts are welcome. They sanction these attacks for a variety of strategic reasons, the main one being that they want to pressure the US and its Western allies to reduce their influence in Muslim-majority countries so that it will be easier to establish Islamic states.
It is hard to imagine a more virulent current in the jihadi movement than that of al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders. Anyone with a desire or capability of moderating that organization was pushed out long ago. AQ Central may have moderated in how it conducts itself in Muslim-majority countries, but it certainly hasn’t moderated toward the United States, which is what has to be uppermost in the minds of US government counter-terrorism policymakers.
For a host of reasons, the US should take a hard look at the efficacy of its drone program. But the potential moderating influence of the current crew of old bull elephants leading al-Qaeda Central isn’t not one of them.
Update: Daveed weighs in.
The al-Qaeda supporters on the Shumukh forum have mixed reactions to the Abbottabad documents released by the CTC. Here’s a summary of the main thread (159824) that discusses the documents:
- These documents are not real. They are designed to sow discord among jihadis and create tension b/n al-Qaeda and the online jihadi forums.
- The documents are real and show normal disagreements between a commander and his subordinates. No big deal.
- We need to wait for Sahab (AQ’s media wing) to validate the documents.
- Even if the documents are false, most outside analysts agree they show the sincerity of AQ and its seriousness.
- Each of the documents contains an element of truth but the CTC has also mixed in falsehood, such as the bits about divisions between AQ leadership and the affiliates
- We need to see all of the Bin Laden documents to really know what’s going on. This is just a slice of the whole, intended to manipulate us.
- The documents were chosen very carefully. We should believe the nice parts and ignore the rest.
- We can actually benefit from the documents. There’s a lot of good advice for the jihadi movement in them. They cast Bin Laden in a good light.
While you wait patiently for the CTC’s release of a few Bin Laden documents tomorrow, here are three articles I’ve written recently on what’s happened since Bin Laden’s death (plus a video):
- A Brookings memo explaining why many of Egypt’s Salafis have embraced party politics after railing against it for decades
- An update to my Foreign Affairs piece
- An exploration of the implications of al-Qaeda holding territory in Yemen and Somalia
- A panel discussion on al-Qaeda’s status with Stephen Tankel and Mary Habeck