May 27, 2008
Number 05/08 #10
According to the latest US reports and statistics, last week Iraq saw the lowest casualty figures, civilian and military, for four years. According to US military sources, part of the explanation is that al-Qaeda in Iraq is at its “weakest”, especially in the wake of the recent military operations which cleared al-Qaeda out of Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq.
We open with a report on the statements by US Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, in charge of the Central Command, including Iraq, and other senior military figures, on the state of al-Qaeda in Iraq. All agree that the organisation is not destroyed and could potentially re-group, but also say its network has been severely disrupted, and is finding it much harder to carry out further operations. For their statements about where the organisation is now, CLICK HERE.
Next up, according to the BBC, some experts are speculating on the meaning of recent statements by al-Qaeda’s leadership, which have ignored Iraq, the subject of most past statements, and focussed on Palestine. In essence, these experts are arguing that this may mean that al-Qaeda is essentially conceding defeat in Iraq – that their best efforts there have failed and they will need a new rallying point. For the full story, CLICK HERE. Some additional support for their view that al-Qaeda has essentially been all but defeated in Iraq comes from a jihadi posting on an extreme Islamist website, pointing out (in order to call for a greater effort) a 94% decrease, according to his figures, in attacks by the organisation.
Finally, in the New Republic, Peter Bergin and Paul Cruickshank, journalists and authors specialising in al-Qaeda, study several former Islamist terrorists who are now taking on al-Qaeda on its own theological grounds. They examine cases in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Britain where radicals take on al-Qaeda particularly over its killing of fellow Muslims and the theological grounds they use to justify it – the declaration that Muslims who do not agree with them are “apostates.” They find considerable reason to hope that this Muslim counter-reaction to al-Qaeda may lead to its increasing marginalisation. For this article on a potentially very important trend in counter-terrorism, CLICK HERE. The New Yorker also has a similar piece on the growing questioning of al-Qaeda’s theology of terrorism by former jihadists.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Dr. Daniel Mandel on why it was not a “gaffe” when John McCain said Iran was helping al-Qaeda in Iraq. Plus, a report that Iran paid Iraqis to kill British soldiers.
- A good account of Iraqi armed forces’ efforts to create order in the former Shi’ite militia stronghold in Baghdad, Sadr City.
- An interesting encounter with Iraq’s deputy PM Barhim Salih (scroll down).
- Former Bush Administration insider Douglas Feith reveals some details about some of the post-war debates about Iraq inside the White House.
- An account of counter-insurgency success in the Afghan province of Khost.
- An interesting Indonesian interview with Canadian Muslim reformer Irshad Manji, which is particularly worth reading on why she does not describe herself as a “moderate Muslim.” Also, former Indonesian President and Muslim scholar Abdurrahman Wahid discusses his relationship with the Jews and his own efforts to fight Islamic extremism.
- An interesting survey of Islamic antisemitism from German scholar Matthias Küntzel. Plus, more comment on the history of Islamic antisemitism from American scholar Raymond Ibrahim.
- The Wall Street Journal editorialises on the French court ruling vindicating a media critic who had called the media portrayal of the death of the Palestinian boy Muhammad al-Durra a “hoax.”
- A bizarre public relations stunt from Saudi Arabia.
Associated Press, Thursday, May 22, 2008
MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The Al Qaeda terror group in Iraq appears to be at its weakest state since it gained an initial foothold in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion five years ago, the acting commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Wednesday in an Associated Press interview.
Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who assumed interim command of U.S. Central Command on March 28, acknowledged that Al Qaeda remains a relentless foe and has not disappeared as a serious threat to stability. But he said an accelerated U.S. and Iraq campaign to pressure Al Qaeda has paid big dividends.
“Our forces and the Iraqi forces have certainly disrupted Al Qaeda, probably to a level that we haven’t seen at any time in my experience,” said Dempsey, who served in Iraq in the initial stages as a division commander and later as head of the military organization in charge of training Iraqi security forces.
“They can regenerate, and do from time to time,” he added in the interview in his office at Central Command headquarters.
Dempsey was in Iraq last week on a journey that also took him to Lebanon, where he consulted with the government and military commanders on their approach to dealing with Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters.
In separate remarks at a military conference just a few miles from Dempsey’s headquarters in Tampa, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Islamic extremist movements like Al Qaeda have been “built on an illusion of success” yet in some ways pose a more daunting challenge today than on Sept. 11, 2001.
Gates described these extremist groups as more diffuse and less reliant on a single figure like Usama bin Laden.
“It has become an independent force of its own, capable of animating a corps of devoted followers without direct contact,” Gates told an international conference sponsored by U.S. Special Operations Command. He said this adversary is now “capable of inspiring violence without direct orders.”
Dempsey, who was the Central Command deputy until Adm. William Fallon abruptly resigned amid reports that his views on Iran differed with those of the White House, is expected to remain as the acting commander until Gen. David Petraeus shifts from his post as top commander in Iraq, probably in September. Petraeus’s Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Earlier Wednesday, the Army general who oversees U.S. commando operations in the Middle East said that Al Qaeda in Iraq has yet to be vanquished but is increasingly running out of places where local Iraqis will accommodate the group’s extremist ideology.
“Is he still a lethal and dangerous threat to us? Absolutely,” Maj. Gen. John Mulholland said in an interview with reporters at the headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command, the organization with global responsibility for providing Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other commandos to combat terrorism.
Of the approximately 155,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, about 5,000 are special operations forces, who not only hunt and attack terrorist targets but also help train Iraqi security forces and work with local Iraqi governments.
Mulholland acknowledged that Al Qaeda, which U.S. intelligence says is led by foreign terrorists but is populated mainly by local Iraqis seeking to establish a radical Islamic state, still poses a major challenge in the Mosul area of northern Iraq and has occasionally slipped back into areas like Anbar province in western Iraq.
“Do we think he can at least try to regain a foothold in Anbar province? Yes, we do think he’s trying to do that,” Mulholland said.
While U.S. officials do not believe Al Qaeda is succeeding in re-establishing a significant presence in Anbar — which the group was forced to abandon a year ago as local Sunni Arabs turned violently against it — it does appear that small Al Qaeda cells can still slip into isolated areas and make trouble, he said.
“I don’t want to paint a picture — or to convey to you in any way — that Al Qaeda in Iraq is being completely destroyed or rendered irrelevant, because that’s not the case,” he said. “They are still potentially a threat capable of death and destruction against the Iraqi people and our own forces there. But it is not something he can do easily any more.”
Separately, Adm. Eric Olson, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a group of reporters that “the nature of the threat” posed by Iran’s support for anti-U.S. forces in Iraq is unclear.
He made the remark in response to a question about the ability of U.S. special operations forces to meet the Iranian challenge.
“It’s clear that there is some lethal aid originating from across the Iranian border,” Olson said. “We can’t say what the origin or the source of that is. So we are uncertain about our overall ability because we are uncertain of the nature of the threat. But I would say in general that special operations forces are well prepared and well equipped to meet the nation’s expectations in that regard.”
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent
BBC News website, May 21, 2008
Osama Bin Laden’s latest messages concentrate on Palestinians.
The two latest messages believed to be from Osama Bin Laden emphasise the centrality of a struggle against Israel and raise the question as to why he did not concentrate on Iraq.
In the first statement, posted on the internet on 16 May, he said: “My talk to you addresses the main root of conflict… namely, the Palestinian question. This conflict is escalating due to your [the West’s] current policies. I would like to stress here that the Palestinian question is my nation’s top issue.”
In the second, on 18 May, he attacked Arab leaders for not doing more to help: “Every day, the herd wishes the wolves would stop preying on it. Those kings and leaders sacrificed Palestine and Al-Aqsa [the mosque in Jerusalem] to keep their crowns. … But we will not be relieved of this responsibility.”
The reference to the Palestinians has always been present in the al-Qaeda leader’s statements over the years, but it has often been sidelined by other tactical and strategic interests, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to the Danish cartoons. Iraq has been one of the most prominent issues for him.
Waking from slumber
The two new statements contrast with the importance given to Iraq in another message in March: “Iraq is the perfect base to set up the jihad to liberate Palestine. Palestine will be restored to us, with God’s permission, when we wake up from our slumber.”
The word “slumber” (and his criticism of Arab rulers) gives a clue to Bin Laden’s thinking. He wants more to be done.
Hence perhaps the shift from Iraq, which has come to mean difficulties, to the “Palestinian question”, which can attract support.
This has led to a theory among some western intelligence analysts that al-Qaeda accepts that it is in trouble in Iraq.
Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said: “In reality al-Qaeda has not done much against Israel. It is hard to do so. Through its now dead agent in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it hoped to attack Israel after establishing a base in Iraq, but the hope of establishing that base has probably failed.
“Al Qaeda could now be preparing its followers for a strategic failure in Iraq. It therefore needs a rallying cry and Palestine is a no-brainer.”
Mr Inkster, formerly deputy head of Britain’s foreign intelligence agency MI6, adds that one reason for this possible shift is the number of complaints about Muslims killed in Iraq and elsewhere.
“Al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is like the chief executive officer to Bin Laden’s chairmanship, recently held an open day of questions on the internet,” he said.
“The issue of Muslim casualties was the biggest issue. Al-Qaeda recognises this is a not a good story and needs to rebrand. Hence this apparent move away from talking about Iraq.”
In that internet session, al-Zawahiri was forced to defend killing Muslim bystanders, who, he said, had died because of “unintentional error” or had been used as “shields” by al-Qaeda’s enemies.
Of course, Osama Bin Laden can easily return to the theme of Iraq, and events there might prove the theory wrong, but the assessment that al-Qaeda is suffering from the reduction of its forces there is reflected in a wider concept about the current strengths and weakness of the organisation.
There is a lively debate at the moment about whether what is called “al-Qaeda Central” – the leadership probably based in the tribal areas of Pakistan – is in control or whether the group is now kept going by autonomous cells which form spontaneously.
Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and now writer on international security issues, is the leading proponent of what he calls “leaderless jihad” (the title of his latest book).
In an article in Foreign Policy magazine in April he argued that young, self-recruited activists constituted the latest wave of global jihad.
In a question and answer session following publication he said: “In the past three years, because of decreasing Pakistani military pressure in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan… some al Qaeda leaders have been able to regroup. They definitely try to plot against the West and the United States, but they have been unable to project their capability outside Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“But unlike [in] the years prior to September 11, al-Qaeda no longer seems to have the luxury of coordinating large transnational attacks without being detected. The difference has been the international community’s success in containing the threat in the past six years… Having said this, as long as al-Qaeda leaders exist, there is still a threat that cannot be ignored.”
One might take issue, in London and Madrid, with the claim that the threat has been contained, but the argument is clear: al-Qaeda has broken up into groups that are inspired by the leadership but not necessarily controlled by “al-Qaeda Central”. It gives them strength, in that they proliferate in unknown cells, but it also leaves them vulnerable to being isolated.
Nigel Inkster agrees up to a point: “Many people on the books of intelligence agencies have no real connection with al-Qaeda Central. But western agencies think that al-Qaeda Central still seeks command and control.”
He offered this overall assessment: “It is difficult to be categorical. Intelligence agencies are very worried about al-Qaeda in North West Pakistan. Yemen is a worrying trend, as is Somalia and North Africa.
“There is some evidence that support for Osama Bin Laden has been dropping in the Arab world because of revulsion about al-Qaeda behaviour and especially the killing of Muslims.
“On the other hand, there is still an appetite and ambition to engage in terrorism spectaculars in western Europe and US, though the capacity might not match the ambition.
“But they only have to be lucky once.”
The jihadist revolt against bin Laden.
by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank
The New Republic, Wednesday, June 11, 2008 edition
Within a few minutes of Noman Benotman’s arrival at the Kandahar guest house, Osama bin Laden came to welcome him. The journey from Kabul had been hard, 17 hours in a Toyota pickup truck bumping along what passed as the main highway to southern Afghanistan. It was the summer of 2000, and Benotman, then a leader of a group trying to overthrow the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, had been invited by bin Laden to a conference of jihadists from around the Arab world, the first of its kind since Al Qaeda had moved to Afghanistan in 1996. Benotman, the scion of an aristocratic family marginalized by Qaddafi, had known bin Laden from their days fighting the Afghan communist government in the early ’90s, a period when Benotman established himself as a leader of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
The night of Benotman’s arrival, bin Laden threw a lavish banquet in the main hall of his compound, an unusual extravagance for the frugal Al Qaeda leader. As bin Laden circulated, making small talk, large dishes of rice and platters of whole roasted lamb were served to some 200 jihadists, many of whom had come from around the Middle East. “It was one big reunification,” Benotman recalls. “The leaders of most of the jihadist groups in the Arab world were there and almost everybody within Al Qaeda.”
Bin Laden was trying to win over other militant groups to the global jihad he had announced against the United States in 1998. Over the next five days, bin Laden and his top aides, including Ayman Al Zawahiri, met with a dozen or so jihadist leaders. They sat on the floor in a circle with large cushions arrayed around them to discuss the future of their movement. “This was a big strategy meeting,” Benotman told one of us late last year, in his first account of the meeting to a reporter. “We talked about everything, where are we going, what are the lessons of the past twenty years.”
Despite the warm welcome, Benotman surprised his hosts with a bleak assessment of their prospects. “I told them that the jihadist movement had failed. That we had gone from one disaster to another, like in Algeria, because we had not mobilized the people,” recalls Benotman, referring to the Algerian civil war launched by jihadists in the ’90s that left more than 100,000 dead and destroyed whatever local support the militants had once enjoyed. Benotman also told bin Laden that the Al Qaeda leader’s decision to target the United States would only sabotage attempts by groups like Benotman’s to overthrow the secular dictatorships in the Arab world. “We made a clear-cut request for him to stop his campaign against the United States because it was going to lead to nowhere,” Benotman recalls, “but they laughed when I told them that America would attack the whole region if they launched another attack against it.”
Benotman says that bin Laden tried to placate him with a promise: “I have one more operation, and after that I will quit”–an apparent reference to September 11. “I can’t call this one back because that would demoralize the whole organization,” Benotman remembers bin Laden saying.
After the attacks, Benotman, now living in London, resigned from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, realizing that the United States, in its war on terrorism, would differentiate little between Al Qaeda and his organization.
Benotman, however, did more than just retire. In January 2007, under a veil of secrecy, he flew to Tripoli in a private jet chartered by the Libyan government to try to persuade the imprisoned senior leadership of his former group to enter into peace negotiations with the regime. He was successful. This May, Benotman told us that the two parties could be as little as three months away from an agreement that would see the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group formally end its operations in Libya and denounce Al Qaeda’s global jihad. At that point, the group would also publicly refute recent claims by Al Qaeda that the two organizations had joined forces.
This past November, Benotman went public with his own criticism of Al Qaeda in an open letter to Zawahiri, absorbed and well-received, he says, by the jihadist leaders in Tripoli. In the letter, Benotman recalled his Kandahar warnings and called on Al Qaeda to end all operations in Arab countries and in the West. The citizens of Western countries were blameless and should not be the target of terrorist attacks, argued Benotman, his refined English accent, smart suit, trimmed beard, and easygoing demeanor making it hard to imagine that he was once on the front lines in Afghanistan.
Although Benotman’s public rebuke of Al Qaeda went unnoticed in the United States, it received wide attention in the Arabic press. In repudiating Al Qaeda, Benotman was adding his voice to a rising tide of anger in the Islamic world toward Al Qaeda and its affiliates, whose victims since September 11 have mostly been fellow Muslims. Significantly, he was also joining a larger group of religious scholars, former fighters, and militants who had once had great influence over Al Qaeda’s leaders, and who–alarmed by the targeting of civilians in the West, the senseless killings in Muslim countries, and Al Qaeda’s barbaric tactics in Iraq–have turned against the organization, many just in the past year.
After September 11, there was considerable fear in the West that we were headed for a clash of civilizations with the Muslim world led by bin Laden, who would entice masses of young Muslims into his jihadist movement. But the religious leaders and former militants who are now critiquing Al Qaeda’s terrorist campaign–both in the Middle East and in Muslim enclaves in the West– make that less likely. The potential repercussions for Al Qaeda cannot be underestimated because, unlike most mainstream Muslim leaders, Al Qaeda’s new critics have the jihadist credentials to make their criticisms bite. “The starting point has to be that jihad is legitimate, otherwise no one will listen, ” says Benotman, who sees the Iraqi insurgency as a legitimate jihad. “The reaction [to my criticism of Al Qaeda] has been beyond imagination. It has made the radicals very angry. They are very shaky about it.”
Why have clerics and militants once considered allies by Al Qaeda’s leaders turned against them? To a large extent, it is because Al Qaeda and its affiliates have increasingly adopted the doctrine of takfir, by which they claim the right to decide who is a “true” Muslim. Al Qaeda’s Muslim critics know what results from this takfiri view: First, the radicals deem some Muslims apostates; after that, the radicals start killing them. This fatal progression happened in both Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s. It is now taking place even more dramatically in Iraq, where Al Qaeda’s suicide bombers have killed more than 10,000 Iraqis, most of them targeted simply for being Shia. Recently, Al Qaeda in Iraq has turned its fire on Sunnis who oppose its diktats, a fact not lost on the Islamic world’s Sunni majority.
Additionally, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have killed thousands of Muslim civilians elsewhere since September 11: hundreds of ordinary Afghans killed every year by the Taliban, dozens of Saudis killed by terrorists since 2003, scores of Jordanians massacred at a wedding at a U.S. hotel in Amman in November 2005. Even those sympathetic to Al Qaeda have started to notice. “Excuse me Mr. Zawahiri but who is it who is killing with Your Excellency’s blessing, the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria?” one supporter asked in an online Q&A with Al Qaeda’s deputy leader in April that was posted widely on jihadist websites. All this has created a dawning recognition among Muslims that the ideological virus that unleashed September 11 and the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid is the same virus now wreaking havoc in the Muslim world.
Two months before Benotman’s letter to Zawahiri was publicized in the Arab press, Al Qaeda received a blow from one of bin Laden’s erstwhile heroes, Sheikh Salman Al Oudah, a Saudi religious scholar. Around the sixth anniversary of September 11, Al Oudah addressed Al Qaeda’s leader on MBC, a widely watched Middle East TV network: “My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed … in the name of Al Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God Almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions [of victims] on your back?”
What was noteworthy about Al Oudah’s statement was that it was not simply a condemnation of terrorism, or even of September 11, but that it was a personal rebuke, which clerics in the Muslim world have shied away from. In Saudi Arabia in February, one of us met with Al Oudah, who rarely speaks to Western reporters. Dressed in the long black robe fringed with gold that is worn by those accorded respect in Saudi society, Al Oudah recalled meeting with bin Laden–a “simple man without scholarly religious credentials, an attractive personality who spoke well,” he said–in the northern Saudi region of Qassim in 1990. Al Oudah explained that he had criticized Al Qaeda for years but until now had not directed it at bin Laden himself: “Most religious scholars have directed criticism at acts of terrorism, not a particular person. … I don’t expect a positive effect on bin Laden personally as a result of my statement. It’s really a message to his followers.”
Al Oudah’s rebuke was also significant because he is considered one of the fathers of the Sahwa, the fundamentalist awakening movement that swept through Saudi Arabia in the ’80s. His sermons against the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait helped turn bin Laden against the United States. And bin Laden told one of us in 1997 that Al Oudah’s 1994 imprisonment by the Saudi regime was one of the reasons he was calling for attacks on U.S. targets. Al Oudah is also one of 26 Saudi clerics who, in 2004, handed down a religious ruling urging Iraqis to fight the U.S. occupation of their country. He is, in short, not someone Al Qaeda can paint as an American sympathizer or a tool of the Saudi government.
Tellingly, Al Qaeda has not responded to Al Oudah’s critique, but the research organization Political Islam Online tracked postings on six Islamist websites and the websites of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya TV networks in the week after Al Oudah’s statements; it found that more than two-thirds of respondents reacted favorably. Al Oudah’s large youth following in the Muslim world has helped his anti-Al Qaeda message resonate. In 2006, for instance, he addressed a gathering of around 20,000 young British Muslims in London’s East End. “Oudah is well known by all the youth. It’s almost a celebrity culture out there. … He has definitely helped to offset Al Qaeda’s rhetoric,” one young imam told us.
More doubt about Al Qaeda was planted in the Muslim world when Sayyid Imam Al Sharif, the ideological godfather of Al Qaeda, sensationally withdrew his support in a book written last year from his prison cell in Cairo. Al Sharif, generally known as “Dr. Fadl,” was an architect of the doctrine of takfir, arguing that Muslims who did not support armed jihad or who participated in elections were kuffar, unbelievers. Although Dr. Fadl never explicitly called for such individuals to be killed, his takfiri treatises from 1988 and 1993 gave theological cover to jihadists targeting civilians.
Dr. Fadl was also Zawahiri’s mentor. Like his protégé, he is a skilled surgeon and moved in militant circles when he was a member of Cairo University’s medical faculty in the ’70s. In 1981, when Anwar Sadat was assassinated and Zawahiri was jailed in connection with the plot, Dr. Fadl fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he operated on wounded mujahedin fighting the Soviets. After Zawahiri’s release from jail, he joined Dr. Fadl in Peshawar, where they established a new branch of the “Jihad group” that would later morph into Al Qaeda. Osama Rushdi, a former Egyptian jihadist then living in Peshawar, recalls that there was little doubt about Dr. Fadl’s importance: “He was like the big boss in the Mafia in Chicago.” And bin Laden also owed a deeply personal debt to Dr. Fadl; in Sudan in 1993, the doctor operated on Al Qaeda’s leader after he was hurt in an assassination attempt.
So it was an unwelcome surprise for Al Qaeda’s leaders when Dr. Fadl’s new book, Rationalization of Jihad, was serialized in an independent Egyptian newspaper in November. The incentive for writing the book, he explained, was that “jihad … was blemished with grave Sharia violations during recent years. … [N]ow there are those who kill hundreds, including women and children, Muslims and non Muslims in the name of Jihad!” Dr Fadl ruled that Al Qaeda’s bombings in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere were illegitimate and that terrorism against civilians in Western countries was wrong. He also took on Al Qaeda’s leaders directly in an interview with the Al Hayat newspaper. “Zawahiri and his Emir bin Laden [are] extremely immoral,” he said. “I have spoken about this in order to warn the youth against them, youth who are seduced by them, and don’t know them.”
Dr. Fadl’s harsh words attracted attention throughout the Arabic-speaking world; even a majority of Zawahiri’s own Jihad group jailed in Egyptian prisons signed on and promised to end their armed struggle. In December, Zawahiri released an audiotape lambasting his former mentor, accusing him of being in league with the “bloodthirsty betrayer” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; and, in a 200-page book titled The Exoneration, published in March, he replied at greater length, portraying Dr. Fadl as a prisoner trying to curry favor with Egypt’s security services and the author of “a desperate attempt (under American sponsorship) to confront the high tide of the jihadist awakening.”
Ultimately, the ideological battle against Al Qaeda in the West may be won in places such as Leyton and Walthamstow, largely Muslim enclaves in east London, whose residents included five of the eight alleged British Al Qaeda operatives currently on trial for plotting to bring down U.S.-bound passenger jets in 2006. It is in Britain that many leaders of the jihadist movement have settled as political refugees, and “Londonistan” has long been a key barometer of future Islamist trends. There are probably more supporters of Al Qaeda in Britain than any other Western country, and, because most British Muslims are of Pakistani origin, British militants easily can obtain terrorist training in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Al Qaeda’s main operational hub since September 11. And now, because it is difficult for Al Qaeda to send Middle Eastern passport holders to the United States, the organization has particularly targeted radicalized Muslims in Britain for recruitment. So the nexus between militant British Muslims, Pakistan, and Al Qaeda has become the leading terrorist threat to the United States.
Over the last half-year, we have made several trips to London to interview militants who have defected from Al Qaeda, retired mujahedin, Muslim community leaders, and members of the security services. Most say that, when Al Qaeda’s bombs went off in London in 2005, sympathy for the terrorists evaporated.
In Leyton, the neighborhood mosque is on the main road, a street of terraced houses, halal food joints, and South Asian hairdressers. Around 1,000 people attend Friday prayers there each week.
Usama Hassan, one of the imams at the mosque, has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from Imperial College in London, read theoretical physics at Cambridge, and now teaches at Middlesex University. But he also trained in a jihadist camp in Afghanistan in the ’90s and, until a few years ago, was openly supportive of bin Laden. And, in another unusual twist, he is now one of the most prominent critics of Al Qaeda. Over several cups of Earl Grey in the tea room next to the mosque, Hassan–loquacious and intelligent, every bit the university lecturer–explained how he had switched sides.
Raised in London by Pakistani parents, Hassan arrived in Cambridge in 1989 and, feeling culturally isolated, fell in with Jamiat Ihyaa Minhaaj Al Sunnah (JIMAS), a student organization then supportive of jihads in Palestine, Kashmir, and Afghanistan. In December 1990, Hassan traveled to Afghanistan, where he briefly attended an Arab jihadist camp. He was shown how to use Kalashnikovs and M-16s and was taken to the front lines, where a shell landed near his group’s position. “My feeling was, if I was killed, then brilliant, I would be a martyr,” he recalls. Later, as a post-graduate student in London, Hassan played a lead role in the student Islamic Society, then a hotbed of radical activism. “At the time I was very anti-American. … It was all black and white for us. I used to be impressed with bin Laden. There was no other leadership in the Muslim world standing up for Muslims.” When September 11 happened, Hassan says the view in his circle was that “Al Qaeda had given one back to George Bush.”
Still, as Al Qaeda continued to target civilians for attacks, Hassan began to rethink. His employment by an artificial intelligence consulting firm also integrated him back toward mainstream British life. “It was a slow process and involved a lot of soul-searching. … Over time, I became convinced that bin Laden was dangerous and an extremist.” The July 2005 bombings in London were the clincher. “I was devastated by the attack,” he says. “My feeling was, how dare they attack my city.”
Three days after the London bombings, the Leyton mosque held an emergency meeting; about 300 people attended. “We explained that these acts were evil, that they were haram,” recalls Hassan. It was not the easiest of crowds; one youngster stormed out, shouting, “As far as I’m concerned, fifty dead kuffar is not a problem.”
In Friday sermons since then, Hassan says that he has hammered home the difference between legitimate jihad and terrorism, despite a death threat from pro-Al Qaeda militants: “I think I’m listened to by the young because I have street cred from having spent time in a [jihadist] training camp. … Jihadist experience is especially important for young kids because otherwise they tend to think he is just a sell-out who is a lot of talk.” This spring, Hassan helped launch the Quilliam Foundation, an organization set up by former Islamist extremists to counter radicalism by making speeches to young Muslims in Great Britain about how they had been duped into embracing hatred of the West.
Such counter-radicalization efforts will help lower the pool of potential recruits for Al Qaeda–the only way the organization can be defeated in the long term. But the reality facing British counterterrorism officials, such as Detective Inspector Robert Lambert, the recently departed head of the Metropolitan police’s Muslim Contact Unit, is that “Al Qaeda values dozens of recruits more than hundreds of supporters.” In order to target the most radical extremists, the Metropolitan police have backed the efforts of a Muslim community group, the Active Change Foundation, based around a gym in Walthamstow run by Hanif and Imtiaz Qadir, two brothers of Kashmiri descent.
Hanif Qadir, now 42, revealed to us that he himself was recruited by Al Qaeda after the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Jihadist recruiters in east London, no doubt noting wealth, sought out Qadir, who had earned enough money running a car repair shop to buy a Rolls-Royce and live in some style. “The guy who handled me was a Syrian called Abu Sufiyan. … I’m sure he was from Al Qaeda,” recalls Qadir. “He was good at telling you what you wanted to hear … he touched all my emotional buttons.” Qadir agreed to join. He drew up a will and, in December 2002, bought a first-class ticket to Pakistan. But, as the truck he was in crossed the dirt roads into Afghanistan, a chance occurrence changed his life: A truck, carrying wounded fighters, approached them from the other direction. Among them was a young Punjabi boy whose white robes were stained with blood. “These are evil people,” another of the wounded shouted. “[W]e came here to fight jihad, but they are just using us as cannon fodder.” Qadir’s truckload of wannabe jihadists made a u-turn. “That kid, he was like an angel. He kicked me back into reality,” recalls Qadir. “When I landed back in the U.K., I wanted to find [the Al Qaeda recruiters] and cut their heads off.”
Qadir never found them, but he became determined to stop others like him from being recruited. In 2004, he and his brother opened the gym and community center in the Walthamstow neighborhood of east London. Soon, hundreds of young Muslims were attending.
The scale of the challenge was quickly clear. Soon after the center opened, he got wind that pro-Al Qaeda militants were secretly booking rooms there for their meetings. Worse, in the summer of 2006, several of those arrested in connection with the Al Qaeda airlines plot, including alleged ringleader Abdulla Ahmed Ali, were found to have attended his gym. But, rather than shutting the radicals out, Qadir continued to allow them to meet. “Sometimes our youngsters get into debates with these people, for example on jihad, and make them look ridiculous in front of their followers,” he says. Qadir believes his approach is finally starting to pay off: “The extremists are burning out: The number of radicals in Walthamstow is diminishing, not growing.”
At another mosque in London, the Muslim Brotherhood joined forces with the British authorities to reclaim the institution from pro-Al Qaeda militants. The Brotherhood is the most powerful Islamist group in the Arab world, with chapters throughout Europe and North America. It has long opposed Al Qaeda’s jihad, a stance that so angered Zawahiri that he published a book, The Bitter Harvest, condemning the organization in 1991. From the late ’90s, the Finsbury Park mosque in London had been dominated by the pro-Al Qaeda cleric Abu Hamza Al Masri. During that time, few selfrespecting jihadists traveling through London passed up the free accommodation in its basement. Visitors included Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “twentieth hijacker” of the September 11 plot, and Richard Reid, who tried to down a U.S.-bound airliner with a shoe bomb in December 2001.
In 2003, British police shut the mosque, but Abu Hamza’s followers continued to have a strong presence in the area. In February 2005, police helped broker a deal for the mosque to re-open under the leadership of the local chapter of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), a Muslim Brotherhood group. No sooner had the moderates gained control of the Finsbury Park mosque than they were confronted by Abu Hamza’s angry followers, led by the pugnacious Atilla Ahmet, who calls himself “the number-one Al Qaeda in Europe” and who, in October, pled guilty to providing British Muslims with terrorist training. “They brought sticks and knives with them,” recalls Kamal El Helbawy, spokesman for the new trustees at the mosque.
Undeterred, a few days later Helbawy gave the first Friday sermon, explaining that this was a new start for the mosque and stressing how important it was for Muslims to live in harmony with their neighbors. Detective Inspector Lambert, the Metropolitan police officer who helped broker the takeover, says that, because of its social welfare work and its track record supporting the Palestinian cause, the MAB has “big street cred in the area and [has] made an impact on Abu Hamza’s young followers.”
Salman Al Oudah, the Saudi preacher, spoke at the re-opened mosque in 2006, as has Abdullah Anas, an Algerian former mujahedin fighter based in London who has been a critic of Al Qaeda for years. Anas worked with bin Laden in Pakistan during the ’80s, fought in Afghanistan for almost a decade against the communists, and married the daughter of a Palestinian cleric who is still lionized as the spiritual godfather of the jihadist movement, the most radical wing of which would morph into Al Qaeda. Anas told us that his critiques of Al Qaeda were not well-received in 2003, but that, “in the last two or three years, there has been a change in opinion,” citing the Madrid and London bombings as turning points. In 2006, Anas went public with his criticisms of Al Qaeda, in an interview with Asharq Al Awsat, one of the leading newspapers in the Arab world, criticizing the London subway bombings as “criminal deeds … prohibited by the Sharia.”
Detective Inspector Lambert told us preachers like Anas and Al Oudah “can’t be discounted. … When you have Muslim leaders who are attacked both by Al Qaeda supporters and by commentators who oppose engagement [with Islamists], then they are in a useful position.”
In December, Al Qaeda’s campaign of violence reached new depths in the eyes of many Muslims, with a plot to launch attacks in Saudi Arabia while millions were gathered for the Hajj. Saudi security services arrested 28 Al Qaeda militants in Mecca, Medina, and Riyadh, whose targets allegedly included religious leaders critical of Al Qaeda, among them the Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd Al Aziz Al Sheikh, who responded to the plot by ruling that Al Qaeda operatives should be punished by execution, crucifixion, or exile. Plotting such attacks during the Hajj could not have been more counterproductive to Al Qaeda’s cause, says Abdullah Anas, who was making the pilgrimage to Mecca himself. “People over there … were very angry. The feeling was, how was it possible for Muslims to do that? I still can’t quite believe it myself. The mood was one of shock, real shock.”
Is Al Qaeda going to dissipate as a result of the criticism from its former mentors and allies? Despite the recent internal criticism, probably not in the short term. As one of us reported in The New Republic early last year, Al Qaeda, on the verge of defeat in 2002, has regrouped and is now able to launch significant terrorist operations in Europe (“Where You Bin?” January 29, 2007). And, last summer, U.S. intelligence agencies judged that Al Qaeda had “regenerated its [U.S.] Homeland attack capability” in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Since then, Al Qaeda and the Taliban have only entrenched their position further, launching a record number of suicide attacks in Pakistan in the past year. Afghanistan, Algeria, and Iraq also saw record numbers of suicide attacks in 2007 (though the group’s capabilities have deteriorated in Iraq of late). Meanwhile, Al Qaeda is still able to find recruits in the West. In November, Jonathan Evans, the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5, said that record numbers of U.K. residents are now supportive of Al Qaeda, with around 2,000 posing a “direct threat to national security and public safety.” That means that Al Qaeda will threaten the United States and its allies for many years to come.
However, encoded in the DNA of apocalyptic jihadist groups like Al Qaeda are the seeds of their own long-term destruction: Their victims are often Muslim civilians; they don’t offer a positive vision of the future (but rather the prospect of Taliban-style regimes from Morocco to Indonesia); they keep expanding their list of enemies, including any Muslim who doesn’t precisely share their world view; and they seem incapable of becoming politically successful movements because their ideology prevents them from making the real-world compromises that would allow them to engage in genuine politics.
Which means that the repudiation of Al Qaeda’s leaders by its former religious, military, and political guides will help hasten the implosion of the jihadist terrorist movement. As Churchill remarked after the battle of El Alamein in 1942, which he saw as turning the tide in World War II, “[T]his is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Noman Benotman, bin Laden’s Libyan former companion-in-arms, assesses that Al Qaeda’s recent resurgence, which he says has been fueled by the Iraq war, will not last. “There may be a wave of violence right now, but … in five years, Al Qaeda will be more isolated than ever. No one will give a toss about them.” And, given the religio-ideological basis of Al Qaeda’s jihad, the religious condemnation now being offered by scholars and fighters once close to the organization is arguably the most important development in stopping the group’s spread since September 11. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell tacitly acknowledged this in his yearly report to Congress in February, when he testified that, “Over the past year, a number of religious leaders and fellow extremists who once had significant influence with Al Qaeda have publicly criticized it and its affiliates for the use of violent tactics.”
Most of these clerics and former militants, of course, have not suddenly switched to particularly progressive forms of Islam or fallen in love with the United States (all those we talked to saw the Iraqi insurgency as a defensive jihad), but their anti-Al Qaeda positions are making Americans safer. If this is a war of ideas, it is their ideas, not the West’s, that matter. The U.S. government neither has the credibility nor the Islamic knowledge to effectively debate Al Qaeda’s leaders, but the clerics and militants who have turned against them do. Juan Zarate, a former federal prosecutor and a key counterterrorism adviser to President Bush, acknowledged as much in a speech in April when he said, “These challenges from within Muslim communities and even extremist circles will be insurmountable at the end of the day for Al Qaeda.”
These new critics, in concert with mainstream Muslim leaders, have created a powerful coalition countering Al Qaeda’s ideology. According to Pew polls, support for Al Qaeda has been dropping around the Muslim world in recent years. The numbers supporting suicide bombings in Indonesia, Lebanon, and Bangladesh, for instance, have dropped by half or more in the last five years. In Saudi Arabia, only 10 percent now have a favorable view of Al Qaeda, according to a December poll by Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based think tank. Following a wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan in the past year, support for suicide operations amongst Pakistanis has dropped to 9 percent (it was 33 percent five years ago), while favorable views of bin Laden in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, around where he is believed to be hiding, have plummeted to 4 percent from 70 percent since August 2007.
Unsurprisingly, Al Qaeda’s leaders have been thrown on the defensive. In December, bin Laden released a tape that stressed that “the Muslim victims who fall during the operations against the infidel Crusaders … are not the intended targets.” Bin Laden warned the former mujahedin now turning on Al Qaeda that, whatever their track records as jihadists, they had now committed one of the “nullifiers of Islam,” which is helping the “infidels against the Muslims.”
Kamal El Helbawy, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who helped bring in moderates at the Finsbury Park mosque in London, believes that Al Qaeda’s days may be numbered: “No government, no police force, is achieving what these [religious] scholars are achieving. To defeat terrorism, to convince the radicals … you have to persuade them that theirs is not the path to paradise.”
Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank are research fellows at New York University’s Center on Law and Security. Peter Bergen is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Osama Bin Laden I Know.
© The New Republic 2008