(Editor’s note: I am delighted to introduce our next guest blogger, Vahid Brown from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Vahid is a linguist and historian with deep knowledge of the history of al-Qaida and the jihadi movement. He is the author of Cracks in the Foundation and the co-author of several well-known CTC reports. Vahid and I share many research interests, so I am thrilled that he will be with us for the next month or so.)
Mustafa Hamid Abu’l-Walid al-Masri, once a senior member of al-Qa’ida, has re-emerged lately after several years of relative silence and is once again chronicling, critiquing and offering strategic guidance to the jihadi movement. He began posting new “editions” of his voluminous early writings to a blog in 2007 and ‘08, and this July he began to add newly-written articles on the Afghan insurgency, one of which has already been covered by Leah Farrall on her blog and in the Australian.
The October issue of the Taliban monthly al-Sumud reveals that Abu’l-Walid, author of at least two of the articles in the latest issue, has taken up one of his old jihadi jobs: official Taliban propagandist and media strategist. His recent output also leaves little doubt that Abu’l-Walid is still at odds with the al-Qa’ida senior leadership over a wide range of ideological and strategic issues, and that he has every intention of continuing to publicly air al-Qa’ida’s dirty laundry.
All of which makes the timing of Abu’l-Walid’s appearance in al-Sumud very interesting, and for two reasons. First of all, the writings that Abu’l-Walid has posted to his blog are among the most damning criticisms of al-Qa’ida in existence, and his newer articles continue to ridicule Bin Ladin; in this one from September, for instance, UBL is singled out as the spokesman of the Salafi jihadi movement, which Abu’l-Walid slams for its do-it-yourself approach to Islamic jurisprudence. That such a vociferous critic of al-Qa’ida has been given an official platform by the Taliban, in their flagship Arabic magazine, clearly sends an important signal.
Second, as documented by Farrall, Abu’l-Walid broke his operational silence, so to speak, in July, by publishing an essay giving strategic advice to the Taliban – advocating a concerted campaign to kidnap American soldiers. Aside from a lot of rather predictable anti-ISAF propaganda, the only piece of strategic guidance in Abu’l-Walid’s two al-Sumud articles appears in the one titled “They are Killing NATO Soldiers… Are They Not?,” (al-Sumud vol. 40, pp. 40-3), where he writes, “I say again that the mujahidin need direct guidance from their political leadership to the effect that taking prisoners is of far greater importance than capturing weapons or war booty.” That Abu’l-Walid’s guidance on this issue has moved from a blog to an official Taliban organ is obviously an important – and disturbing – development.
Also interesting is that on October 2, the same day that the latest issue of al-Sumud was released online, “Hawadit,” the pseudonymous administrator of Abu’l-Walid’s blog, posted there two letters written that day to the editors of al-Jazeera and to al-Quds al-‘Arabi, respectively, taking both papers to task for relying on Leah Farrall’s aforementioned piece in the Australian in their reports on Abu’l-Walid’s pro-kidnapping essay. Why cite a counter-terrorism security official, writing in a “Zionist” newspaper, when they could have referenced the available writings of Abu’l-Walid himself – “one of your own former correspondents,” al-Jazeera is asked. Most interesting, though, is the one and only detail that “Hawadit” takes issue with Farrall about: her description of Abu’l-Walid as a “senior al-Qa’ida figure.” Both letters are emphatic on this point: Abu’l-Walid is most certainly not a member of al-Qa’ida at this time.
(For background on Abu’l-Walid, see the brief biographical profile I wrote for the CTC a couple of years ago; Muhammad al-Shafi’i’s excellent series of articles on Abu’l-Walid in al-Sharq al-Awsat, including this one in English; and Sally Neighbour’s Mother of Mohammed (Melbourne University Press, 2009, and forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press), which tells the story of Rabiah Hutchinson, an Australian woman who married Abu’l-Walid in Afghanistan in 2000.)