As America celebrates the death of its greatest foe, a younger cadre is ready to direct jihad against the West – including one whose real name no one knows. By our Diplomatic Editor Praveen Swami.
History,” wrote Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s mentor, “does not write its lines except with blood… Glory does not build its lofty edifice except with skulls; honour and respect cannot be established except on a foundation of cripples and corpses.” Osama bin Laden has become one of those corpses. But even as America celebrates the death of the man who more than any other came to represent evil in our time, there is little reason for jubilation.
The stark truth is this: a decade after 9/11, the jihadist movement is more powerful than at any time in the past. Bin Laden himself, the scholar C. Christine Fair has noted, has emerged as a “kind of Che Guevara of the jihadist movement” – an inspirational icon who could fire the imagination of young recruits. Bin Laden’s death – or, to the faithful, his martyrdom – might prove to be his last service for his macabre cause.
In 2001, on the eve of 9/11, al-Qaeda had a core of just less than 200 cadre – 120 of them in a crack fighting unit. Perhaps 1,000 men had graduated from its Afghan training camps, but they were riven by ideological dissension. Now, jihadist groups that associate themselves with al-Qaeda’s project are asserting influence from eastern China and central Asia to the furthest reaches of North Africa. The war against terror has thus seen al-Qaeda flower, not die.
For years before 9/11, bin Laden had sought to become the principal leader of the jihadist movement by developing loose alliances with ideologically affiliated organisations – alliances that were built around personal relationships and cemented with his own cash. Both ambition and pragmatism underpinned this strategy. In 1996, when international pressure led Sudan to expel the jihadist leader, his following numbered just 30. He had resources, but had demonstrated little organisational genius, and nor had he authored a corpus of original doctrinal thought that would draw followers. He compensated for this by drawing media attention and authorising spectacular attacks. In 1998, soon after declaring war against the United States, he set up the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jews. Soon after, al-Qaeda bombed the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Even then, bin Laden did not acquire the status he craved: bar the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, few proved willing to suborn themselves to his authority. In Afghanistan, Ali Mohamed al-Fakheri and Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn stonewalled his attempts to exercise control over training camps set up for Arab Mujahideen. Syrian-born Spanish national Mustafa Sett Mariam Nasar, considered by many to be the foremost Islamist ideologue of his generation, also chose not to recognise bin Laden’s authority. The Iraqi jihadist Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal – aka Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi – was willing to use bin Laden’s resources to train men, but did not acknowledge his leadership. Even Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, refused to give charge of all foreign fighters in Afghanistan to bin Laden.
September 11, 2001, did for bin Laden what he had been unable to do for himself: as the United States became involved in multiple theatres of conflict, it emerged as a common enemy for organisations that, while linked by ideology, had until then focused on local concerns.
Part of the push came from al-Qaeda leaders who fled to Iran, where they developed new strategies to weave together the disparate jihadist movement. Zarqawi’s group now submitted to the authority of bin Laden, even though it commanded significantly larger numbers than al-Qaeda. In North Africa, so did the Salafist Organisation for Preaching and Combat, giving the organisation new reach.
Leah Farrell, an Australian former counter-terrorism analyst who is among the pre-eminent scholars of al-Qaeda, has noted that as these new organisations “pursued local agendas, the franchises were required to undertake some attacks against Western interests”. “Leaders of groups joining al-Qaeda,” she wrote, “had to be willing to present a united front, stay on message, and be seen to fall under al-Qaeda’s authority – all crucial for demonstrating the organisation’s power and attracting others to its cause.”
The cause itself had long been known: Abdullah Azzam had written that the Islamic state he hoped to found would “send out a group of Mujahideen to their neighbouring infidel state[s]. They should present Islam to the leader and his nation. If they refuse to accept Islam, jizyah [a tax] will be imposed upon them and they will become subjects of the Islamic state. If they refuse this second option, the third course of action is jihad to bring the infidel state under Islamic domination.”
The new al-Qaeda that grew up after 9/11 gave teeth to these ideas. From 2003, when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula first plotted an abortive attack on New York’s subway, the organisation’s affiliates became increasingly active. Major attacks on the West, such as the 2009 plot to bomb a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, or last year’s near-successful targeting of United Parcel Service flights, came from affiliates, not units directly under bin Laden’s command. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was able to attack Western interests in Niger and Mali; al-Shabaab, in Somalia, drew extensively on European and US-born recruits.
In 2010, the Pakistani jihadist Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri joined al-Qaeda, bringing with him a formidable pool of fighters and deep logistical resources in the country’s north-west, as well as access to diasporic communities in the UK. Kashmiri is believed by Western intelligence services to have been involved in an abortive attack on Denmark’sJyllands Posten newspaper – which had incensed many Muslims by publishing cartoons purported to be blasphemous – and in attempted suicide attacks in Europe last autumn.
Said al-Masri, a top al-Qaeda operative killed in drone strikes, last year left a posthumous message calling on “the youth of our Muslim nation to inflict damage on the enemies of Allah the Exalted, the Americans, on their own soil, and wherever they are to be found”. That is the task bin Laden’s successor will now have.
Even though Zawahiri, as bin Laden’s deputy, will take charge of the organisation, intelligence officers believe real power will lie with a younger generation of leaders – key among them a dark-eyed, olive-skinned man whose real name no one knows. Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi, also known as Ibrahim al-Madani, Omar al-Somali and Saif al-Adel – which means “the sword of justice” – is believed to have been picked to direct operations targeting the West. He seeks to conduct a prolonged war of attrition, hoping to force war-weary Western governments into retreat.
Long a trainer for al-Qaeda bomb-makers around the world, al-Adel wrote a 2005 memoir in which he criticised Egyptian jihadists for planning high-profile attacks that would provoke state responses they could not resist. They were guilty, he said, of “over-enthusiasm that resulted in hasty action”. He opposed the 9/11 attacks on precisely the same grounds – correctly, as it turned out. Islamist political cells in countries such as the UK will be key to al-Qaeda’s new strategy – and the “martyrdom” of bin Laden is likely
to be a useful tool
in mobilising resources.
Last summer, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, had a message for Pakistan. “I assume somebody in [this] government, from top to bottom, does know where bin Laden is,” she
said. “I’d like to know, too.” On Sunday, the Americans found bin Laden – but the war against al-Qaeda is still far from over. Winning it, as the experience of the decade since 9/11 shows, will need coherent political strategies, not just guns and bombs.