In a first effort to pin down Shaykh `Isa on the big Jihadi questions of the day, I read through his opinion on the near enemy/far enemy debate: “Are jihadi operations in the abodes of the original infidels preferable? Or in the lands of Muslims that are ruled by infidels?” The “original infidels” in the first part of the question are people who have never been Muslims. The unqualified “infidels” in the second part includes original infidels and Muslims who have apostatized.
In answering the question, `Isa offers America as an example of the “abodes of the original infidels” and Afghanistan as an example of the “lands of Muslims that are ruled by infidels.”
`Isa’s bottom line: “The apostate who has authority over Muslim lands is, in the eyes of the inhabitants of these countries, the near enemy, and the original infidels in their lands are the far enemy” (p. 20). A few paragraphs later he says, “Undertaking jihadi operations in countries that were ruled by Islam and then taken over by the enemy–like Afghanistan–are more obligatory and have greater priority than undertaking these operations in the abodes of the original infidels that Muslims have never conquered and in which Islamic law has never been applied–like America. Preserving capital has greater priority than new profit, especially when the person who has taken over Muslim abodes is an apostate” (p. 20). Elsewhere, he says that if the Muslims who live in these lands are unable to overthrow the apostate, then the duty to fight him expands to include the Muslims of the surrounding countries (p. 1).
Although the document is not dated, his remarks about Afghanistan being taken over by “the enemy” and an apostate taking power indicate that it was written after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the accession of Hamid Karzai. So `Isa is addressing a current debate, not a pre-9/11 debate.
`Isa’s position is at odds with the one publicly adopted by al-Qaeda’s leadership in the ’90s and today, so it is strange that he would have such a high-profile position in the organization. Perhaps `Isa is a more independent actor than press reports suggest. Or perhaps he gives himself wiggle room in this document by making the near enemy/far enemy debate dependent on the capacity of the locals to overthrow the local apostate. Or perhaps AQ Central is shifting its strategic focus back to the near enemy. Reading more of `Isa’s works and knowing more about his relationship with AQ Central will help sort out some of these questions.
Document (Arabic): abd-al-hakim-hassan-operations-in-foreign-infidel-countries-or-muslim-countries-ruled-by-infidels
(هل العمليات الجهادية في ديار الكفار الأصليين أفضل؟ أم في بلاد المسلمين التي استولى عليها الكفار؟)
I’m still somewhat new to studying this world, but this seems less surprising if one considers that:
1) Part of the original al-Qaeda approach, as far as I understand it, was always to lure the Far Enemy into a war in Afghanistan to exhaust it and so it would logically follow that with American forces still in that country (and in Iraq, of course) efforts should be focused on attacking them there. Even if those operations are focused on the Karzai regime, if this can be positioned as a means of exhausting the U.S. by keeping it in the region then such an approach would not signify a major departure.
2) He chose Afghanistan as his Near Enemy example. It would seem to me that doing so allows him to sell operations there as an irredentist jihad to recover conquered land, rather than simply as operations against an apostate Muslim regime. Irredentist jihad has always had the greater appeal for the wider masses, as far as I understand it. Further, given the anger many in the jihadist movement felt when the 9/11 operations resulted in the destruction of the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the closest anyone had gotten to a recreation of the Caliphate) it follows that ‘preserving capital’, in this case taking back this land for the Taliban, would play particularly well.
3) Following along this logic, as a key bridge for al-Qaeda Central to the tribal insurgents in Pakistan, promoting operations in Afghanistan – which presumably ranks higher on their priority list than attacking the U.S. homeland – makes sense. It would not be the first time an al-Qaeda cleric bent ideology to political necessity.
All this said, while al-Qaeda Central did become less strident about its Far Enemy focus post-9/11, if it is indeed re-prioritizing that would be a major shift. Like many, I’m curious to see how this plays out and appreciate your insights and efforts to bring these developments to light.
Hi Stephen, all of that is well said. The interesting thing about Isa is that he is becoming the chief ideologue for takfirism in Pakistan. Baitallah Mahsud, for example, gives him great deference (notice his new Salafi haircut!). So while Isa does adduce Afghanistan as his near enemy example (which, as you note, is a nice fudge), he seems to be pushing for a revolution in Pakistan. I’ll keep digging and see what I can find in his writings on Pakistan.