Al-Qaeda from the inside out
Lawrence Wright traces the intellectual history of al-Qaeda in a marvellous article for the New Yorker. The view looking out from within al-Qaeda is completely different from the standard narrative provided by the newspapers. We learn about a man who converted Bin Laden to Salafism and who later accused him of leading the Jihad to catastrophe -- a man who is in US custody. Wright describes the pivotal role of Afghanistan in creating a place for Jihad to train and formulate its plans, and why September 11 is regarded by some Islamic radicals as a complete mistake.
From hiding places in Iran, Yemen, Iraq, and the tribal areas of western Pakistan, Al Qaeda’s survivors lamented their failed strategy. Abu al-Walid al-Masri, a senior leader of Al Qaeda’s inner council, later wrote that Al Qaeda’s experience in Afghanistan was "a tragic example of an Islamic movement managed in an alarmingly meaningless way.” He went on, “Everyone knew that their leader was leading them to the abyss and even leading the entire country to utter destruction, but they continued to carry out his orders faithfully and with bitterness."
In June, 2002, bin Laden’s son Hamzah posted a message on an Al Qaeda Web site: "Oh, Father! Where is the escape and when will we have a home? Oh, Father! I see spheres of danger everywhere I look. . . . Tell me, Father, something useful about what I see."
A picture emerges of a movement which experienced catastrophe in precisely the places the media declared them triumphant: in the shadow world in which American secret agents pursue them and in Iraq. A movement that is fragmented and held together only by thinkers who analyzed each catastrophe to find in them the seeds of victory, never losing sight of their goal: to rouse the whole Muslim world under one banner. Al-Qaeda looked at their efforts in Iraq and saw only catastrophe:
Zarqawi angrily refuted Maqdisi’s remarks, saying that he took orders only from God; however, he was beginning to realize that his efforts in Iraq were another dead end for jihad. “The space of movement is starting to get smaller,” he had written to bin Laden in June. “The grip is starting to be tightened on the holy warriors’ necks and, with the spread of soldiers and police, the future is becoming frightening.” Finally, bin Laden agreed to lend his influence to assist Zarqawi in drawing recruits to his cause. In October, 2004, Zarqawi announced his new job title: emir of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
From that time until he was killed by American bombs, in June, 2006, Zarqawi led a murderous campaign unmatched in the history of Al Qaeda. Before Zarqawi became a member, Al Qaeda had killed some thirty-two hundred people. Zarqawi’s forces probably killed twice that number. In July, 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s chief ideologue and second-in-command, attempted to steer the nihilistic Zarqawi closer to the founders’ original course.
The problem for al-Qaeda was how to get things back on track. Zarqawi refused to listen. He had another idea: he would conjure victory from chaos. He would make people so weary of bloodshed that they would turn in desperation to the certainty of sharia as an alternative to unending turmoil. Gradually his ideas were accepted as having a certain logic after all, and were joined to an earlier intellectual thread within al-Qaeda, which saw the road to the Caliphate sojourning temporarily through barbarism, or as they termed it, a period of "savagery". The trick was to manage savagery.
Zarqawi did not heed Al Qaeda’s requests. As the Iraqi jihad fell into barbarism, Al Qaeda’s leaders began advising their followers to go to Sudan or Kashmir, where the chances of victory seemed more promising. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, was confronting a new problem, which one of its prime thinkers, Abu Bakr Naji, had already anticipated, in an Internet document titled “The Management of Savagery.”
The theoretical basis for this strategy, an al-Qaeda document called the "Management of Savagery", has been the subject of study at West Point. It was anonymously authored by the mysterious Abu Bakr Naji, who anticipates the fact that while the Jihad will be everywhere tactically defeated by American forces, the necessary fate of each battlefield would be ruin and chaos; and it would not be an unfavorable outcome because chaos is on Allah's side. As the world's system administrator, America would be tied down attempting to restore order everywhere. The dilemma the US could not avoid was that to rule was to maintain order; but to fight the Jihad was to foul its own nest.
... the thesis of "The Management of Savagery" is drawn from the observation of the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, in his book "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" (1987), that imperial overreach leads to the downfall of empires. Naji began writing his study in 1998, when the jihad movement’s most promising targets appeared to be Jordan, the countries of North Africa, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen .... Naji recommended that jihadis continually attack the vital economic centers of these countries, such as tourist sites and oil refineries, in order to make the regimes concentrate their forces, leaving their peripheries unprotected. Sensing weakness, Naji predicts, the people will lose confidence in their governments, which will respond with increasingly ineffective acts of repression. Eventually, the governments will lose control. Savagery will naturally follow, offering Islamists the opportunity to capture the allegiance of a population that is desperate for order. (Naji cites Afghanistan before the Taliban as an example.) Even though the jihadis will have caused the chaos, that fact will be forgotten as the fighters impose security, provide food and medical treatment, and establish Islamic courts of justice.
In response to criticisms he was sowing barbarism in Iraq, Zarqawi shrewedly offered al-Qaeda leadership a strategy based on chaos. Expand the war to include Iran by attacking the Shi'ites, he argued, create enough trouble and America will recoil in disgust and horror.
...dragging Iran into conflict with the United States is key to Al Qaeda’s strategy. Expanding the area of conflict in the Middle East will cause the U.S. to overextend its forces ... Al Qaeda believes that Iran expects to be attacked by the U.S., because of its interest in building a nuclear weapon. "Accordingly, Iran is preparing to retaliate for or abort this strike by means of using powerful cards in its hand," he writes. These tactics include targeting oil installations in the Persian Gulf, which could cut off sixty per cent of the world’s oil supplies, destabilizing Western economies. In an ominous passage, [the writer] Hussein notes that "for fifteen years—or since the end of the first Gulf War—Iran has been busy building a secret global army of highly trained personnel and the necessary financial and technological capabilities to carry out any kind of mission." He is clearly referring to Hezbollah, which has so far focussed its attention on Israel.
As a model of directness, the idea of creating enough chaos to collapse the current world system has few peers. Overload the system administrator and the system crashes. But the path al-Qaeda's ideology took to reach this stunning conclusion is even more instructive. Al-Qaeda's own beginnings had its roots in the pre-OIF, pre-September 11 world. It was in the first instance a rebellion against the corruption and despotism in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Gulf States. Ironically, al-Qaeda was a defiance to the very same pillars of "stability" that critics of OIF now hanker to return to; those pillars which to al-Qaeda were the walls imprisoning the Muslim world.
In a world where any deviation from an American war plan three years old is seized upon as evidence of defeat, it is instructive to see the dynamic nature of enemy thinking; an enemy lacking in everything but the self-imposed taboo against adaptation. An America which once prided itself in a "can do" attitude has by comparison become a hidebound giant manacled by mealy-minded legalistic thinking; making the cardinal error of believing that its foe is simply an exotically caparisoned but mirror image of itself.