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Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 by Syed Saleem ShahzadGetting behind Al Qaeda

Seeing Al Qaeda and other Islamic movements as simply “evil” has the advantage for Western governments of avoiding any kind of analysis. It also covers up their real motives, allowing them to portray their military adventures as a “fight for civilisation” when they are little more than wars for resources, influence and continued domination.  

The origins of these movements, which have attracted thousands of young adherents, their history and the context of their existence are hardly mentioned. Two new books between them go a long way to filling this gap.  

Review by Peter Arkell

Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, by Syed Saleem Shahzad, provides a detailed and coherent account of the ideological background as well as the grand strategy of Al-Qaeda. The author describes the emergence of Al Qaeda during the holy war (Jihad) against the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan. He traces many of the key tenets of Al Qaeda back to the times of the prophet Mohammed, and he summarises the main teachings of the ideologues who have influenced its leaders.  

Shazad was found dead in a canal in North-East Pakistan in May of this year, no doubt because he has revealed the close connections between Al Qaeda and the Pakistan Intelligence Service ISI.

He pays particular attention to the influences on Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, the surgeon from Egypt, who is the real shaper of the organisation, its strategist and ideologist. His inspiration was the writings of Syed Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood member, executed in the mid-6os by the Nasser regime for writing inflammatory literature. Al-Zawahiri set about turning Qutb’s vision into reality, and inspired Osama bin Laden, “a simple-minded but concerned Muslim”, but also a rich and influential one with all his connections to the Saudi royal family, into supporting all-out war against the US.     

The author shows how Al Qaeda arrived at a global trans-national perspective. This distinguished it from the national Islamic movements (including the Taliban in Afghanistan) which confined themselves to actions within their own country only. The aim of Al Qaeda is to unite all Muslims in a revived global Muslim Caliphate and to free all Muslim lands from Western occupation and influence.  

Al Qaeda sees Afghanistan as the key battleground. A victory there would lead on to the next stage in the war which would culminate in the “End of Time” battles against Western forces for the liberation of Palestine.   

The basic strategy has been to constantly extend the ideas and influence of Al Qaeda, to work with and enlarge the perspectives of other Islamist groups, so that they would become conscious of a larger strategy, and then funnel this newly-gained power into key battles against NATO and the Western powers in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda planned the 9/11 atrocity on the twin towers in New York precisely in order to lure the US military machine into the wild terrain of Afghanistan. There, it was calculated, the advantages of a new kind of hit-and-run warfare would neutralise the conventional (though hi-tech) US forces.

The book, in both its account of this battle for ideas, but more especially in its analysis of the developing strategy of Al Qaeda as the situation changed, is a creditable piece of historical research and deduction, revealing the true extent of the influence of the group and the reasons for it.

The author relates how Al Qaeda was able to inspire its supporters to challenge the rule of the old tribal elders in Pakistan’s seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (locally administered areas) along the border with Afghanistan, to replace them with its own young cadres and win over all of these areas to the cause.

It was these tribal areas (always described as “lawless” by the mainstream press) that provided protection and refuge for the fighters as well as streams of new volunteers for the battles against the West. The Pakistan military, a large section of which was attracted to the ideas of Al Qaeda anyway, was constantly out-manoeuvred by local forces in its own backyard. And the US found that it had stirred up a hornet’s nest of resistance that threatened to lead to a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan.  

Shahzad travelled extensively in Afghanistan and the Pakistan tribal areas. He interviewed many of the lesser-known participants and lower commanders of Al Qaeda to give his readers an insight into how it was that so many of the youth in these areas and beyond were inspired to take up arms. Some of them became famous Al Qaeda heroes and leaders. He tells their stories, presenting them as a series of tales in a modern-day version of A Thousand and One Nights.

It would be wrong to call it a mass movement except maybe in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and of course it is a movement with ideas that appeal mainly to Muslims. As such it is limited by its inability to challenge the capitalist system itself or to unite with the oppressed masses of the Western world.

The author, in his introduction, writes:

“Al Qaeda set up the dialectic of the struggle, which initially redefined the Islamic faith to meet the needs of contemporary world politics. Al Qaeda emphasised monotheism as the basis of the Muslim faith... Any political system or other authority that refuses to be subservient to god’s will effectively creates a form of polytheism. The word NO (No God but Allah) symbolises a rebellion against any human-made system. Muslims who take this stance automatically reject any governance systems based on democracy, socialism or any ideology that is dependant on human-made laws as polytheistic, and argue that Muslims are required to struggle against any such system.”

This set of ideas was useful in targeting the many Muslim states that were under the influence of the US, but inevitably clashed with the broader struggle against capitalism in the West. “Marx defined his dialectic in terms of an economic class war,” Shahzad writes, “whereas the neo-Islamist dialectic polarises society on the basis of faith and practices, before categorising two levels of struggle — Islamists versus polytheists in the Muslim world, and Islam versus the West.”

It is unfortunate that the author was not able to consider the significance for Al Qaeda of the recent, secular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world. These ongoing revolutions toppled dictators because millions united behind simple demands of getting rid of corrupt regimes in the pockets of the West who were unable to do anything about rising food prices, unemployment. Whatever the limitations in terms of long-term perspectives, they were and are genuine mass movements, in a way that Al Qaeda has never been.  

The second book, Understanding Al Qaeda: Changing War and Global Politics by Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou examines Al Qaeda’s political aims and its development as it pursues those aims, from its formation in 1988/9. The book sets out to identify and analyse what is new about the organisation and why it has so comprehensively confounded the Western intelligence agencies and the military.  

“The war against terrorism was”, he writes, “effectively lost the moment it was decreed. With traditional allies alienated and those who followed opportunistically fast retreating and Al Qaeda’s tactical victories fast piling up, the United States is unambiguously perceived in Iraq and Afghanistan as an illegitimate and brutal occupier rather than the benevolent liberator it insists on depicting itself as being.”

The real reasons for Al Qaeda’s declaration of war against the US were ignored, never seriously analysed, he insists. America stayed aloof, substituting justifications of their own such as “they detest democracy and freedom”.    

Why did Al Qaeda attack the US in September 2001? “Mainly, the answer is a deep and heavy sense of injustice harboured by a transnational armed group self-championing the feelings of millions around the Arab and Islamic world. The issue is not Islamic fundamentalism, religious fanaticism, poverty or the lack of democracy in the Arab world. It is justice and the yearning for it.” The three reasons for going to war constantly put forward by Al Qaeda are: the presence of US troops in the Middle East, its support for repressive Arab and Muslim regimes and its support of Israel.

Al Qaeda is a new phenomenon, argues Mohamedou, marking a trend towards a decreasing monopoly by the state over the use of force, and the emergence of transnational terrorism, where, once again the old state forms are by-passed by new forces.       

And he develops this line of argument: this war takes place between a major state and a few thousand motivated individuals, not organised impersonally by a state; the new asymmetric warfare is likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined, with no battlefields or fronts and with a disinclination to prosecute the war swiftly with large set-piece confrontations; the citizens of the states with which it is at war bear a responsibility for the policies of their governments, and therefore are considered legitimate targets.   

“For all its novelty,” writes Mohamedou, “far from being an aberration or an anomaly, Al Qaeda’s war is the outcome of a natural development whereby the perceived failures of particular states to act on behalf of populations and their interests has led to the creation of a regional entity seeking to undertake those martial responsibilities globally.” And Al Qaeda’s continuous transformation and mutation is what makes counter-terrorism measures against it so difficult, “almost doomed to failure in the face of an evanescent organisation”.  

The book is a valuable analysis of the fundamental characteristics of Al Qaeda as a new type of global player. It is, in essence, a rigorous academic dissertation to pin down the real nature of an organisation that has baffled the military and political establishments of the West for so long. His conclusion?

“The outcome of the confrontation is unclear. What is certain is that neither side can defeat the other. The United States will not be able to overpower a diffuse, ever-mutating, organised international militancy movement, whose struggle seeks to tap into the injustice felt by large numbers of Muslims. Correspondingly, as a formidable enemy, Al Qaeda can score tactical victories on the United States and its allies, but it cannot rout the world’s sole superpower at a time when that superpower is mightier than ever in its history.”

And later on:

“The extent to which Al Qaeda can achieve its goal of getting the United States, under any administration, to alter the nature of its policies in the Middle East towards Muslims in general, and the degree to which the United States can manage to have Al Qaeda cease its attacks on the United States and its allies constitute the mainstay of this political conflict. The nodal point is the following: is the United States prepared to rethink some of its foreign policy choices?”

The book is a tightly-organised treatise on the characteristics of Al Qaeda, so the mass movements of the Arab Spring, though mentioned once, do not feature. This is a pity because, in a sense, these mass movements have swallowed up, perhaps superseded and negated the prescriptive outlook of Al Qaeda. Furthermore they are not easily attacked by US drones.  

1 October 2011

Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 by Syed Saleem Shahzad. Pluto press. £17.99

Understanding Al Qaeda: Changing War and global Politics by Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou. Pluto Press.  £16.99

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