Counter-Terrorism/ The Arab Summit

Mar 28, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

March 28, 2008
Number 03/08 #08

This Update features a couple of interesting recent pieces on fighting al-Qaeda-style Islamist terrorism and also previews the upcoming Arab League summit to be hosted by Syria.

First up, former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens points out there is a growing rebellion by traditional Muslim scholars against the pro-terrorist rulings and means promoted by Osama bin Laden and his supporters. In particular, Stephens looks at the latest writings of Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, an imprisoned Egyptian radical imam who is a major spiritual inspiration to al-Qaeda, but who today rejects all attacks directed against civilians, using criminal means to support jihad, or embarking on jihad without permission from one’s parents. He says the way al-Qaeda has tried to fight back against such views shows they are quite worried about this attack on their legitimacy, which is probably inspired in part by al-Qaeda’s attacks on Muslim targets. For Stephens’ argument, CLICK HERE

Next up is former American government counter-terrorism specialist Michael Jacobson, who points out that learning about countering terrorism means also studying those who set out on terror missions but then back out, and what motivates them to do so. He details many examples, makes it clear that this phenomenon is really quite common, and suggests some interesting preliminary ideas about what explains the failure to carry out an intended terrorist attack. For the full article, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Syria expert David Schenker previews the Arab League summit taking place in Damascus this weekend. He points out that Syria’s behaviour in Lebanon and alliance with Iran has caused other Arab states to lower their level of representation, damaging Damascus’s hopes of using the summit to improve its image in the Arab world. He also includes a good discussion of the issues likely to be discussed and what to watch for in judging the summit’s success. To access all his analysis, CLICK HERE. More on the importance attached to the summit in Damascus, and Syria’s hopes of using Gaza as the issue to force Arab backing, comes from Israeli pundit Smedar Peri.

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GLOBAL VIEW: How al Qaeda Will Perish


Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2008

Do minors require their parents’ consent to become suicide bombers? Believe it or not, this is the subject of an illuminating and bitter debate among the leading theoreticians of global jihad, with consequences that could be far-reaching.

On March 6, Al-Sahab, the media arm of al Qaeda, released a 46-minute video statement1 titled “They Lied: Now Is the Time to Fight.” The speaker is Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu-al-Yazid, 52, an Egyptian who runs al Qaeda’s operations in Afghanistan, and the speech is in most respects the usual mix of earthly grievances, heavenly promises and militant exhortations. It’s also an urgent call for recruits.

“We call on the fathers and mothers not to become a barrier between their children and paradise,” says Abu-Al-Yazid. “If they disagree who should first join the jihad to go to paradise, let them compete, meaning the fathers and the children. . . . Also, we say to the Muslim wives, do not be a barrier between your husbands and paradise.” Elsewhere in the message, he makes a “special call to the scholars and students seeking knowledge. . . . The jihad arenas are in dire need of your knowledge and the doors are open before you to bring about the virtue of teaching and jihad.”

These particular appeals are no accident. Last year, imprisoned Egyptian radical Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, a.k.a. “Dr. Fadl,” published “The Document of Right Guidance for Jihad Activity in Egypt and the World.” It is a systematic refutation of al Qaeda’s theology and methods, which is all the more extraordinary considering the source. Sayyed Imam, 57, was the first “emir” of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, many of whose members (including his longtime associate Ayman al-Zawahiri) later merged with Osama bin Laden and his minions to become al-Qaeda. His 1988 book, “Foundations of Preparation for Holy War,” is widely considered the bible of Salafist jihadis.

Now he has recanted his former views. “The alternative” to violent jihadism, he says in an interview with the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat (translated by Memri), “is not to kill civilians, foreigners and tourists, destroy property and commit aggression against the lives and property of those who are inviolable under the pretext of jihad. All of this is forbidden.”

Sayyed Imam is emphatic on the subject of the moral obligations of the would-be jihadist. “One who lacks the resources [to fight jihad] is forbidden to acquire money through forbidden means, like [burglary],” he says, adding that “Allah does not accept martyrdom as atonement for a mujahid’s debts.” As for a child’s obligations toward his parents, he adds that “it is not permitted to go out to fight jihad without the permission of both parents . . . because acting rightly with one’s parents is an individual obligation, and they have rights over their sons.”

“This has become pandemic in our times,” he adds in a pointedly non-theological aside. “We find parents who only learn that their son has gone to fight jihad after his picture is published in the newspapers as a fatality or a prisoner.”

These “Revisions,” as Sayyed Imam’s book is widely known in Arab intellectual circles, elicited a harsh and immediate response from unreconstructed jihadists. “What kind of guidance does the ‘Document’ offer?” asked al Qaeda commander Abu Yahyha Al-Libi in a March 9 Internet posting. “Is it guidance that tells the mujahadeen and the Muslims: ‘Restrain yourselves and [allow] us [Arab regimes] to shed your blood’?”

Even more sarcastic was Zawahiri himself. “Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?” he asked. “I wonder if they’re connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines.” Zawahiri then penned a 215-page rebuttal to Sayyed Imam, whom he accuses of serving “the interests of the Crusader-Zionist alliance with the Arab leaders.”

The gravamen of the hardliners’ case against Sayyed Imam is that he has capitulated (either through force or persuasion) to the demands of his captors, and has become, in effect, their stooge. The suspicion seems partly borne out by Sayyed Imam’s conspicuous renunciation of any desire to overthrow the Egyptian regime. One Turkish commentator, Dogu Ergil, notes that “in prison many jihadist inmates were encouraged by the Interior Ministry and security apparatus to engage in religious dialogue with clerics from al-Azhar,” a Sunni religious university overseen by the state. Mr. Ergil calls this part of a deliberate “counter-radicalization program” by the Egyptian government.

But whatever Sayyed Imam’s motives, it is the neuralgic response by his erstwhile fellow travelers that matters most. There really is a broad rethink sweeping the Muslim world about the practical utility — and moral defensibility — of terrorism, particularly since al Qaeda began targeting fellow Sunni Muslims, as it did with the 2005 suicide bombings of three hotels in Amman, Jordan. Al Qaeda knows this. Osama bin Laden is no longer quite the folk hero he was in 2001. Reports of al Qaeda’s torture chambers in Iraq have also percolated through Arab consciousness, replacing, to some extent, the images of Abu Ghraib. Even among Saudis, a recent survey by Terror Free Tomorrow finds that “less than one in ten Saudis have a favorable opinion of Al Qaeda, and 88 percent approve the Saudi military and police pursuing Al Qaeda fighters.”

No less significant is that the rejection of al Qaeda is not a liberal phenomenon, in the sense that it represents a more tolerant mindset or a better opinion of the U.S. On the contrary, this is a revolt of the elders, whether among the tribal chiefs of Anbar province or Islamist godfathers like Sayyed Imam. They have seen through (or punctured) the al Qaeda mythology of standing for an older, supposedly truer form of Islam. Rather, they have come to know al Qaeda as fundamentally a radical movement — the antithesis of the traditional social order represented by the local sovereign, the religious establishment, the head of the clan and, not least, the father who expects to know the whereabouts of his children.

It would be a delightful irony if militant Islam were ultimately undone by a conservative, Thermidor-style reaction. That may not be the kind of progress most of us imagined or hoped for. But it is progress of a kind.

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The Bombers Who Weren’t

By Michael Jacobson

Washington Post, March 23, 2008

On Dec. 10, 2001, after completing his al-Qaeda training in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sajid Badat returned home to Britain. Badat, a 22-year-old Muslim born in Gloucester, had an associate, a gangly man named Richard Reid, and the duo were now ready to carry out their mission: blowing up two separate aircraft traveling from Europe to the United States. Badat and Reid had been given identical explosive devices, specially designed to evade airport security and destroy an aircraft in mid-flight. On Dec. 22, Reid — now infamous as the “shoe bomber” — was jumped by his fellow passengers when he tried to light his device on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. He got further than Badat, who simply bailed on the plot, leaving his dismantled bomb in his parents’ house.

Badat is now serving a 13-year sentence in a British prison. He told prosecutors that he decided to “get away from danger and introduce some calm in his life.”

Badat’s case sheds some light on a rarely considered question: Why do some terrorists drop out? We rightly think of al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups as formidable foes, but the stories of would-be killers who bail give us some intriguing clues about fault lines that counterterrorism officials should exploit. The reasons for a change of heart can be strikingly prosaic: family, money, petty grievances. But they can also revolve around shaken ideology or lost faith in a group’s leadership.

It’s become a truism of counterterrorism that we must understand how and why individuals become jihadists in the first place. But almost nobody is studying the flip side of radicalization — understanding those who leave terrorist organizations. We’d do well to start. Figuring out why individuals walk away from terrorist groups can help governments predict whether an individual — or even a cell — is likely to go through with a plot. Understanding the dropouts should also make it easier for governments to determine which terrorists might be induced to switch sides, help stop radicalization and craft messages that could peel away people already in terrorist organizations. The more we know about why terrorists bail, the better we can fight them.

So where to start? Despite al-Qaeda’s reputation for ferocity and secrecy, plenty of wannabes wind up dropping out from it and its affiliates — not just the hapless Badat.

Consider the Sept. 11, 2001, plot. Even in Osama bin Laden’s greatest triumph, not all of his recruiting efforts paid off. Two Saudis who were selected for the plot — Mushabib al-Hamlan and Saud al-Rashid — decided not to participate in the attacks after leaving the training camps in Afghanistan. And in the summer of 2001, Ziad Samir Jarrah, who became the hijacker pilot on United 93, agonized about whether to withdraw from the operation. In an emotional conversation, Ramzi Binalshibh — the Hamburg-based liaison between the plotting cell and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan — persuaded Jarrah to stay.

Al-Qaeda prides itself on its esprit de corps, but key members have turned against the group from its earliest days. These include Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a Sudanese radical who was one of al-Qaeda’s first members and helped work (unsuccessfully) in the early 1990s to procure uranium for the organization; Essam al-Ridi, an Egyptian veteran of the 1980s jihad against the Soviets who later purchased an airplane in the United States to help ship Stinger missiles from Pakistan to Sudan; and L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan who trained to serve as bin Laden’s personal pilot. (All three became prosecution witnesses in the trial of the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998.)

Looking at al-Qaeda dropouts, some clear patterns emerge. Some left after becoming disillusioned with the group’s tactics and strategy. Probably the unkindest cut from any former member was delivered by bin Laden’s fourth son, Omar bin Laden, who had spent nearly five years living in Afghan training camps. After 9/11, Omar quit al-Qaeda, calling the attacks “craziness,” according to the journalist Peter Bergen. “Those guys are dummies,” bin Laden’s son said. “They have destroyed everything, and for nothing. What did we get from Sept. 11?”

Another factor driving jihadists to drop out is a general lack of respect for the group’s leadership. Ridi testified during the embassy bombings trial that he resented having to take battlefield orders during the Afghan jihad from bin Laden and others who lacked military experience. For Ridi, the final straw was a battle in which many jihadists died — in his view needlessly — thanks to inept leadership, but that al-Qaeda nonetheless declared a victory. Jarrah, the 9/11 pilot, felt cut out by ringleader Mohamed Atta’s leadership style.

Another reason bad guys bail out is money. Like the rest of us, some terrorists see inadequate compensation as a sign of unfair treatment. Fadl, the Sudanese radical, fumed over his salary while al-Qaeda was based in Sudan and began embezzling funds — stealing approximately $100,000 from bin Laden, according to his testimony in the embassy bombings case. (When bin Laden got wind of Fadl’s theft, he ordered Fadl to repay the money; after forking over about $30,000, Fadl fled, fearing retribution.)

Don’t forget the role of petty slights, either. Kherchtou grew bitter after a bin Laden aide turned down his request for $500 to cover the costs of his wife’s Caesarean section — and grew livid when al-Qaeda subsequently paid the expenses of a group of Egyptians sent to Yemen to renew their passports. “If I had a gun,” Kherchtou later testified, “I would shoot [bin Laden] at that time.”

The final factor seems to be good old family ties. Terrorists who maintain contact with friends and family outside their cell or organization seem more likely to drop out. This may be why Atta forbade the 9/11 hijackers to contact their families to say goodbye. The wobbliest of the hijackers, Jarrah, resisted al-Qaeda calls to cut his ties with his fiancee in Germany and his family in Lebanon, souring his relationship with Atta, according to the 9/11 commission.

Something similar happened to two would-be 9/11 plotters, Rashid and Hamlan. Both men bailed out when they left the fanatical, insular atmosphere of the Afghan training camps and returned home to Saudi Arabia. After getting a visa to enter the United States, Hamlan contacted his family, despite clear al-Qaeda instructions to the contrary. He found out that his mother was ill and decided not to return to Afghanistan, despite intense pressure from his handlers. Hamlan later moved back in with his parents and returned to college. Similarly, Badat, the would-be shoe bomber, appears to have decided to abandon the plot once he returned to Britain and resumed contact with his family.

There’s no obvious silver bullet here, of course. But the tales of the terrorists who weren’t are of more than academic interest. Counterterrorism officials have spent a great deal of effort trying to understand the process of radicalization that turns ordinary people into killers. But strikingly little work has been done on the flip side of the coin: on the factors that can turn a fanatical would-be killer into a somewhat chastened citizen. We’d do well to spend some time trying to understand how Mr. Hyde turns back into Dr. Jekyll. It might help us beat back a rising tide of radicalization — and win a war that is clearly not going well.

Michael Jacobson, a former staff member of the 9/11 commission, is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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The Damascus Arab Summit: Arab Divisions Ensure Modest Achievements

By David Schenker

PolicyWatch #1360, March 27, 2008

This weekend, the much-anticipated annual Arab Summit will convene in Damascus. The run-up to the twentieth summit — the first ever held in Damascus — has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Syria’s role in undermining Lebanon’s presidential elections. And Damascus has exacerbated regional concerns by inviting Iran to attend the summit. As a result of these developments, several Arab states have downgraded their planned level of representation at the meeting, dashing for now Syria’s hopes of improving its tarnished image in the Arab world. Given these tensions, it is likely that this summit — like so many of its predecessors — will fail to make good on its ambitious agenda.

Lebanon Casts a Shadow

Lebanon has been without a chief executive since the departure of Syrian-backed president Emile Lahoud in November 2007. Initially, the “March 14” anti-Syrian majority had sought to elect its candidate of choice, but fears of violence left it unwilling to directly challenge the Hizballah-led, Syrian-backed opposition. After months of Arab League mediation, the March 14 coalition and Hizballah seemingly reached a compromise: the election of Gen. Michel Suleiman, the Syrian-anointed chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces. Shortly after his selection, however, the pro-Syrian opposition rejected the Arab League initiative and revoked its support for Suleiman (see PolicyWatch no. 1336).

In an effort to resolve the presidential crisis prior to the summit, dozens of Arab delegations have passed through Beirut in recent months. Despite generating a great deal of buzz, the visits failed to end the stalemate. Saudi Arabia and Egypt in particular tried to use the summit as leverage to lift Syria’s opposition to a solution, but Damascus refused to budge. As Syrian foreign minister Walid Mualem told the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat in mid-January, Damascus would “not sacrifice its interests and positions [on Lebanon] for the success of the summit.” Eventually, Arab League secretary-general Amr Mousa publicly blamed Syria (and Iran) for scuttling the deal and prolonging the crisis.

Impact on Summit Attendance

Typically, Arab League summits are attended by heads of state. Earlier this week, however, when it became clear that an end to Syrian meddling in Lebanon was not imminent, Saudi Arabia broke ranks and indicated it would downgrade its delegation. Instead of King Abdullah, Riyadh decided — in a clear snub to Damascus — to dispatch Ahmed Qatan, its representative to the Arab League. Several other states have followed suit. Egypt’s delegation will be led by the relatively unknown State Minister for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mufid Shehab, while Algeria will reportedly send its foreign minister and Jordan its information minister. An announcement from Morocco is pending, but it seems a forgone conclusion that King Muhammad VI will not show.

Damascus does not appear particularly concerned about the dearth of senior-level Arab participation in the event. President Bashar al-Asad seemingly dared his Arab allies to boycott the summit when he invited Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad to attend. According to Syrian prime minister Nijih Atari, Damascus is intent on “deepening [its] strategic cooperation” with Tehran. Although Ahmadinezhad will not attend, Iranian foreign minister Manoucher Motaki will represent Iran among the twenty-two Arab delegations.

Despite the downgrading of key Arab delegations, several heads of state are slated to attend, including the president of Yemen as well as the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait. Libya, the sole Arab state to reject the Arab League compromise initiative and side with Syria, will be represented by Muammar Qadhafi. Conspicuously, however, Lebanon will not be represented at all. Recently, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told the Lebanese daily al-Nahar that “No one can represent Lebanon [at the summit] except the president.” On March 25, with no end to the crisis in sight, Beirut officially announced that it would boycott the summit.

How to Judge the Meeting

The summit agenda contains many perennial topics of discussion, ranging from condemnations of Israeli nuclear weapons to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. As is customary, the agenda was scripted in the weeks leading up to the gathering — details for the Damascus summit were finalized during a March 11-13 meeting of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Irbil, Iraq. A closer look at the IPU’s resolutions from that meeting provides a window into how the Arab League will address — or more likely avoid — difficult issues this weekend. Some of the key issues to keep in mind when assessing the summit include:

Lebanon. In its final communique from the Irbil meeting, the IPU legitimizes Hizballah’s right to retain its weapons, recommends a compromise solution to the presidential crisis via the Arab initiative, and calls for an end to external interference in Lebanese internal affairs. If the Arab League summit is to have an impact on Lebanon, it should build on the latter IPU resolution, condemning by name those states that are interfering in Lebanese affairs and recommending sanctions against them.

Syria. Ironically enough, the IPU communique follows its section on Lebanon with a section declaring Arab “solidarity with Syria.” The document “rejects” pressure, sanctions, and efforts to “isolate” Damascus. Given Syria’s pernicious role in Lebanon, the presence of this type of language in the final Arab Summit communique would be regrettable. Damascus seeks to use the summit to end its isolation; the Arab League should not give it that opportunity.

Palestinian issues. The IPU document calls for unity among Palestinian factions, but it does not mention Hamas by name or demand international recognition of the group. If the Arab Summit communique changes this formulation, it would represent a setback. The Arab League should, however, rectify the IPU’s failure to mention another important issue: the 2002 Arab initiative toward peace and normalization with Israel.

. As with Lebanon, the IPU communique “rejects” external interference in Iraqi internal affairs and calls for the return of Arab diplomatic representation to Iraq. On the former point, the Arab Summit communique should name the interfering states — like Iran — to which the IPU’s oblique language most likely refers. Consensus regarding the return of Arab diplomats would also be positive.

United Arab Emirates territorial issues. The IPU document supports the emirates’ position on the territorial dispute over the three islands of Greater and Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa, occupied by Iran since 1971. Interestingly, Iraq made its first real post-Saddam foray into Arab politics by inserting a “note” of exception — the only one in the twelve-page document — differing from the consensus Arab position on the islands. In an apparent nod to Iran, Iraq urged a softer line, encouraging a bilateral dialogue between the “two Gulf Muslim states.” It seems unlikely that this issue will make the Arab Summit communique, but if it does, a unified Arab position vis-a-vis Iran would be productive.


Arab League summits have a long history of division and inconclusiveness, and the Damascus meeting is unlikely to depart from that norm. The controversy surrounding this weekend’s gathering is only the latest demonstration of the deep divisions in the Arab world. Unlike previous summits that were marked by intra-Arab disputes of a more personal (and less serious) nature — between Libya and Saudi Arabia, for example — this summit reflects more existential divisions related to Arab national security concerns.

For many Arab states, Lebanon represents a debate about regional trends — in particular Tehran’s growing role in Arab politics, a trend that threatens the long-term stability of “moderate” Arab regimes ostensibly aligned with the West. As such, Syria’s profoundly unproductive role in Lebanon and its increasingly close ties with Iran provide the underlying context of this week’s meeting.

Damascus had hoped that a successful summit would prove to be another nail in the coffin of U.S.-led efforts to isolate and pressure the Asad regime into changing its behavior. Contrary to Syria’s wishes, however, the effective Arab boycott of the summit suggests that many Arab capitals — like Washington — are not ready to accept the re-integration of an Iranian-aligned Damascus into the Arab fold.

David Schenker is a senior fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.

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