'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Thursday, 27 January 2011


Moghadam and Fishman eds. (2010) Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions within al-Qa’ida and its Periphery, Harmony Project, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point

The Enemy Within

‘Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win’
-- Sun Tzu

Nearly eight years into the global war on terrorism, we have yet to engage successfully in the battle of ideas against radical Islamism. There is a growing recognition among counterterrorism specialists that the current struggle with al-Qa’ida must involve an ideological component to deprive it of supporters and recruits. An inside perspective on how extremists view themselves and their struggles, as well as a nuanced understanding of the ideological fissures that divide them, are steps in this effort.
-- Hafez, Self-Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions with al-Qa’ida and its Periphery, p.41

Audrey Cronin’s 2008 Adelphi Paper highlighted al-Qaeda’s ‘most potent source of strength as its powerful image and carefully crafted narrative.’ It has seemed that the West was complicit, after 9.11 in feeding the brand. Only has recent scholarly endeavour focused on analysing jihadi discourse – obtaining, translating and analysing the wealth of data that exists, and thus attempting to draw inferences from what is found there. Cronin’s paper turned the long war notion on its head when she stated that, ‘focusing on how terrorism ends is the best way to avoid being manipulated by it.’

This latest CTC volume from the Harmony Project builds on Vahid Brown’s important 2007 work, Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in al-Qa’ida, 1989-2006, that served to reorient scholarly focus; rather than edifying, homogenising and perceiving al-Qaeda as monolithic, ubiquitous in the Muslim world, Brown (a scholar of Bihai systems of thought) sought to deconstruct the entity through painstaking discourse analysis and understand internal conflict of the group driven by, ‘brand versus bureaucracy,’ as Brown notes:

‘In what boils down to a struggle between branding and bureaucracy, al-Qa’ida has consistently put its ability to inspire a broader movement over the development of its organizational capacities to pursue strategic military goals. While its guerrilla strategists have fought for the resources to build an effective military organization, its two supreme leaders - bin Ladin and Zawahiri - have preferred press releases over battlefield preparedness.’
(Brown, 2007)

Consisting of ten chapters that correspond to three broad areas of divisions—
theological, internal, and external areas of conflict , the latest report offers a conceptual framework, further dividing the drivers of disagreement into seven types: ideology, strategy, tactics, goals, enemy, organizational structure, and power.

Brown’s original thesis still flies and foregrounds many of the related theses in the chapters:

‘If bin Ladin and Zawahiri have power over these far‐flung affiliates, it is based on reputation and brand, not direct operational authority. Considering that affiliate leaders control more operational elements than bin Ladin and Zawahiri, it is reasonable to think they may actually be the critical leadership nodes in al-Qa’ida.’  

Despite the multitude of sources and new material that increases exponentially in the blogsphere, the databases such as Harmony, Open Source, OSINT, FBIS, BBC Worldwide Monitoring (to name a fraction), there is a need here to maintain a deep-rooted scholastic rigour. On occasion, it is betrayed here. The well-documented writings of Dr Fadl that were serialised and demonstrate an apparent reversal of his jihadi beliefs are highlighted in this volume. But Lahoud, in her brilliant The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction, explores this apparent ‘reversal’ by tracing a line through the entirety of Dr Fadl’s extant writings, as well as the circumstances surrounding that writing’s publication to add context to the reversal. Further, Hafez says of that ‘in 2005, U.S. forces in Iraq captured a letter by Zawahiri addressed to Zarqawi. The letter is dated 9 July 2005 and its contents were released by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence three months later’ (p.38). Whilst he is right to cast doubt on its authenticity in the footnote, further research would have led him to the London Times article from 2006 that suggests Israeli intelligence passed the letter to Washington and were angered when its contents were made public. This is possibly an attempt to add another layer of ‘history’ to the letter to further its ‘authenticity’ but it is worth noting here. Lahoud for example, believes the letter to be consistent with the style of Zawahiri (Lahoud Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction (2010) p.208).

For a bipartite ideology that ignores the state and its rulers, creating a single dynamic between God and the individual, Jihadism has encountered a singular problem – how to play at politics when the doctrine of your beliefs does not allow for such a field. Al-Rahman wrote in a latter to al-Zarqawi that ‘policy must be dominant over militarism. This is one of the pillars of war that is agreed upon by all nations, whether they are Muslims or unbelievers. That is to say, that military action is a servant to policy.’ Jihadi ideologues are well appraised of Western scholarly thought on strategy and this appears to be what the paper calls a Clausewitzian train of thought but which more explicitly seems to identify with the Powell Doctrine.

Important distinctions are reinforced. Brooke’s separation of near (apostate regimes) and far enemy (Western Imperial backers) helps further to group the rhetoric that emanates from the jihadi ideologues and can assist in explanations of strategy, fitna (civil strife in the sense of internal schism) and ideology. Brown’s recent work on the Global/Local dichotomy and the sway that Nationalist sentiments still hold has been borne out recently, especially in papers on Somalia.

Stenersen’s chapter on the Taliban shows the early separation that bin Laden enacted by his global jihad. As a trainee asked bin Ladin in the summer of 2000, ‘how is it that you raise the call to fight America, knowing that the Taliban wouldn’t hear of such a thing, for reasons of the safety and security of Afghanistan (may God protect the Taliban)?’ Alia Brahimi, in her rigorous working The Taliban’s Evolving Ideology identifies a letter written from Mullah Omar to President Clinton, in 1996, ‘making a bifurcation between the domestic and the international arenas.  He sought to re-assure the Americans that the Taliban had neither the intent nor the capability to attack the US: “whatever we are—even  if we are as you say fundamentalists—we are far from you and we do not intend to harm you and cannot harm you either”’ (Brahimi, p.5).

Finally, Abu Waleed al-Misri, editor of the Taliban’s Arabic‐language journal, wrote: Afghanistan, the strongest fortress of Islam in history, was also lost because of a series of losses that reached a disastrous level because of the deeds of Bin Laden in Afghanistan. This disaster is worse than the calamity of the Arabs and Muslims in their wars with the Jews in 1948, which the Arabs call the “catastrophe” and the 1967 war, for which they invented the term “Setback.”

Attacks on Muslims are seen a main source of alienation and internal disagreement in Jihadi actions. Hafez writing that, ‘First, these attacks, even if permissible from a jurisprudential viewpoint, alienate broader Muslim support, which is essential for the long war against the United States and local tyrants. Second, these attacks unnecessarily open too many fronts when the priority should be given to expelling invading forces from Muslim lands. Third, indiscriminate attacks against Muslims tarnish the image of Islam and, thus, defeat the broader objective of drawing people to the Islamic faith.’ Under Zitouni’s leadership (1994 to 1996), the GIA descended into such indiscriminate savagery as to alienate the entire international jihadi movement, and ‘what happened in Algeria in the mid-1990s’ has become a euphemism in jihadi discourse for complete abandonment of any vestige of religious or ideological coherence in the nihilistic pursuit of violence.

Though there is a certain repetition in the chapters, especially from the application of certain sources (Zawahiri’s internet Question and Answer from early 2008 is widely used), this volume represents the cutting edge in dissection of jihadi discourse gleaned, with the majority of references (the 240 page document contains over 700 footnotes) coming from jihadists forums, sites and blogs. Stenersen writes presciently on foreign/local fighters in the arena of Afghanistan, and is complimented by chapters on Ikhwan/Jihadis, AQ/Hamas and AQ/ Shias: ‘Al-Qa’ida is indelibly tarred by its association with attacks on Shi’a and is therefore identified strongly in the minds of many Muslims as a radical sectarian movement that cannot claim to be the defender of Islam.’

Still there are problems with the ubiquity of the al-Qaeda label, Moghadam and Fishman observing that, al‐Qa’ida remains operationally capable, as demonstrated by the Christmas Day 2009 bombing attempt of Northwest Flight 253; by the suicide bombing of a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan; and by the murderous rampage of U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan at Ft. Hood, Texas, to name a few examples.’ Where the influence of al-Qaeda in these acts is still largely open to debate: Hasan wrote emails to al-Awlaki but was acting under his own conscience, driven by Jihadi ideas, but far from a ‘member of al-Qaeda.’

The editors of the volume urge caution in their final policy recommendations, observing that, ‘one of the main findings of this volume is that the global jihad movement’s dynamism and multi-dimensional nature-both hierarchical and flat, distinct and amorphous-makes it concurrently more susceptible, but also more impervious, to divisions.’ The jihad movement, it is noted, operates in a highly contested Islamist marketplace.’ And, ‘long after al-Qa`ida will have been destroyed, a variety of jihadi groups will continue to fight in various places around the globe, in some cases with little interest in the United States, just as they did before 9/11.’

See Further:
Deol, Jeevan and Kazmi, Zaheer, eds. (2011) Contextualising jihadi thought (Hurst & Co., London, UK) Forthcoming
Lahoud, N. (2010) The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction (New York: Columbia University Press)

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