After writing my post on Libya, AQIM, and the spotting of a flag that appeared to be al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s (AQI) hanging over a court building in Benghazi there has been much written over the past few days regarding this flag as well as one waved at a rally also held in Libya that showed the Islamic State of Iraq’s (AQI’s successor group) flag.[1] Earlier this morning, it sparked an interesting debate between Ed Husain and Will McCants on Twitter. The flags in question were the following two:

al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s flag. This was the one that appeared on top of the court house in Benghazi.

Islamic State of Iraq’s flag.

Husain contended that one should not describe this flag as an “al-Qa’ida flag,” stating: “By calling it AQ flag we give them what is not theirs. The Prophet used those colours in his raids against pagans.” On the other hand, McCantsargued that Muhammad may have used similar colors (i.e. black and white), but no other Islamic movement uses the exact same styled flag as the Islamic State of Iraq. Husain mentioned Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) as a counter example, yet that does not hold up to scrutiny, see:

Hizb ut-Tahrir’s flag

Indeed, in the case of the AQI and HuT flags they both use black as the background and contain theshahada (Islamic testament of faith: ‘There is no God, but God; and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’). While the Islamic State of Iraq’s only has the first half of the shahada at the top while on the bottom is the seal that Muhammad used in official documents. They all differ a bit though since they have different styled typeface. Further, if one were to contend as Husain did that “we” are giving al-Qa’ida something that is not theirs then we should look back and see what flags the Muslim prophet Muhammad actually used as well as the Rashidun Caliphate, Ummayad Caliphate, and the Abbasid Caliphate.

Muhammad used two flags depending on the type of raid or battle he was in. One was a solid white flag while the main flag he used was a solid black flag called rāyat al ‘uqāb (flag of the eagle). Neither flag had markings or symbols. The black flag derived from Muhammad’s tribe Quraysh’s flag, which was called the same thing, but actually did have an eagle on it. Muhammad’s two flags would have looked as follows:

Muhammad’s black flag

Muhammad’s white flag

Following the death of Muhammad, the Rashidun Caliphate continued to use Muhammad’s black flag as seen above. The Ummayad’s used the white flag in both Damascus and al-Andalus. Whereas the Abbasids used the black flag once more. As such, if one looks at early Islamic history there is no connection to the flag that al-Qai’da in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq adopted. Of course the Islamic State of Iraq uses the shahada on its flag to try and show Islamic legitimacy. The Islamic State of Iraq also incorporated the seal that Muhammad used in official correspondance:

Muhammad’s seal

That said, it does not necessarily mean one cannot state that the Islamic State of Iraq’s flag is not the al-Qa’ida flag since no one has ever used that specific design, typeface, and set up in the history of Islam.

[1] According to Leah Farrall, the Islamic State of Iraq’s flag was first designed and flown by the original al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, which was located in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s. It was popularized, though, by the Islamic State of Iraq.

Last week, Ansar al-Shari’ah, (Supporters of Shari’ah), based in Yemen, released its first video titled “The Opening [Conquests] of Zinjibar.” Since mid-April, many analysts and scholars have wondered where this apparently new group came from, who its members were, and what connections it has to al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The name Ansar al-Shari’ah was first mentioned in an unofficial audio release by AQAP’s leading shari’ah official, Shaykh Abu Zubayr ‘Adil bin ‘Abdullah al-Abab, who conducted a question and answer session with online global jihadi activists through PalTalk in Ghorfah Minbar al-Ansar (Pulpit Room of the Supporters). The first question was “What is the general situation of the mujahidin in Yemen and the status of the Shabab Ansar al-Shari’ah?” al-Abab responded that when they recruit new members to AQAP, they first introduce themselves under the banner of Ansar al-Shari’ah. But why would they need to do that? Has the AQ brand really become that tarnished? And is Ansar al-Shari’ah really AQAP?

Some have been skeptical of links between AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’ah. While conclusive evidence is lacking, there are several strong indicators. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s first video release, which was not published by AQAP’s media outlet al-Malahim (the Epics), highlighted “martyrs” who were also eulogized in the most recent issue of AQAP’s Inspire Magazine — Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, ‘Ali bin Salih bin Jalal and ‘Amar ‘Abadah al-Wa’ili. Although this is not proof of collusion, there clearly seems to be some overlap. Ansar al-Shari’ah may be a subsidiary of AQAP used for recruitment and foot soldiers in Yemen’s incipient civil war. It is telling that AQAP may be recruiting individuals using a different name.

We have also recently learned that Usama bin Laden may have been looking to change the name of al-Qa’ida central. According to press reports based on leaked information from the raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qai’da’s central leadership in Pakistan was debating a couple of options for its name. This was spurred in part by the Western habit of referring to the group as al-Qa’ida, rather than its official name of Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Base Organization of Jihad). The leadership felt that the West’s habit of omitting the word “jihad” robbed them of some of their religious legitimacy. Unfortunately for al-Qa’ida, the two alternative names on the table were a mouthful – Ta’ifat at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Sect of Monotheism and Jihad) and Jama’at ’I‘adat al-Khilafah al-Rashidiyyah (Restoration Group of the Rashidun Caliphate). Ultimately, they decided to stick with Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

The name game isn’t new. al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) attempted to rehabilitate its image following the death of its leader,  the notorious butcher Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. AQI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) as a way of rebranding itself because many Iraqis were repulsed by the organization’s overuse of violence, as well as the perception that it was made up of foreigners. The latter is also the reason they announced Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, a purported Iraqi, as their new leader, although it has been disputed whether he was actually a real person. In the years since, the name change has not done much for AQI’s credibility. It remains a threat, but is a shadow of its former self.

Another place where naming is an issue is in Somalia, where Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin (The Movement of the Holy Warrior Youth) has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden but has not changed its name to become an al-Qa’ida franchise. Leah Farrall recently wrote an excellent overview on this topic in the most recent issue of the CTC Sentinel. Although it is a great addition to the literature, there were also other explanations for the lack of formal name change. Reportedly, al-Qa’ida itself opposed the name change because it did not want al-Shabab to sully its so-called “street cred” by using its polarizing brand. It is difficult to ascertain whether these reports are credible. But the very discussion shows the growing pitfalls of the al-Qa’ida brand.

All told, the al-Qa’ida brand is not favorable anymore – even for its senior leadership. It’s a big problem if AQAP is able to recruit more individuals by rejecting the brand and taking on a name with more religious significance.[1]

Even if the brand name is discredited, AQ’s ideas still resonate with many, especially if it can be repackaged for local contexts, as in the apparent case of AQAP. As we have seen in the past, AQ is a very nimble organization that learns, evolves, and quickly adapts to a rapidly changing “battlefield.” It would be wise for our policy makers and government officials to heed these subtle changes in its counterterrorism strategies. Otherwise, we are fighting an imaginary enemy, one that only exists in our minds or that existed in 2001 or 2008, but not in 2011.


[1] Ansar or the supporters played an important role in early Islamic history when the Muslim prophet Muhammad was still preaching and calling people to Islam. Ansar were the individuals in Medina that helped Muhammad and his followers following its hijra from Mecca. Therefore, the use of the term Ansar acts as a strong link to the past that appeals to the average Muslim. Further, when attaching it to the Shari’ah, which has primacy in the lives of religious Muslims, Ansar al-Shari’ah becomes a catchy and useful name that is stronger in Islamic terms than Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

NOTE: Older quotes are first. Newest quotes toward the bottom of this post. This post was last updated 5/2/11 9:10PM US Central time.

“How sound is the news of the martyrdom of Sheikh Osama bin Laden?”

“O Allah, make this news not true”

“Allah protect us in our loss”

“God willing, news is not true. Catastrophic if it is authentic.”

“O Lord for your kindness”

“May Allah increase you rank in Jannah o Sheikh Usamah!”

“Ameen AMEEN AMEEN! May Allah give you a place next to our beloved Prophet (saws), ameen ameen”

“Please everyone calm and pray”

“We ask God to be the news is not true Lord of the Worlds”

“God damn you, Obama”

“Shut up and delete this thread”

“I think the Americans are doing this to make a good excuse for leaving Afg this year.”

“I hope with tears in my eyes that it is false. But if it is the will of Allah(swt) then may Allah(swt) grant the Sheikh ul Mujahideen, the status of a Shaheed and a place in Jannat ul Firdaus..”

“Inna li Allahi wa inna ilaihi raaji’oon. May Allah forgive his sins and raise him to the ranks of greatest Shuhada in the modern history of Islam.Ameen”

“Jihad will not stop because of Sheikh’s death, it will continue until we gain victory.”

“Kullna osama bin laden kullna osama bin laden kullna osama bin laden”

“I’m with Osama either in winning a victory or earning status as a martyr”

“May Allah accept his martyrdom and enter him into al-Firdaws with the Ambiya, Shuhada and the Saliheen.This day is the greatest day of shame in the history of Pakistan and what dignity had been left in calling oneself a Pakistani has now gone. Wallahi if the people of Pakistan keep on tolerating the kufr and riddah of that filthy kafir Zardari after this day, then may Allah deal with them as He sees fit.However, not all is so bad. Events like this are sent by Allah to remove the munafiqeen from the ranks of the Muslims. In the aftermath of this, we’ll see many munafiqeen, including ‘scholars’, come out in happiness and support for the Americans.Good news for Osama inshallah and good results for this Ummah inshallah.”

“This has not been confirmed by the Mujahideen what ever the out come Usamah bin Laden is the most influencial man of our times and May Allah accept all his sacrifices ameen”

“If it is true then we must thank Allah that America was not able to capture him alive. Else they would be humiliating him like Saddam Hussain. At last he may have find his greatest desire of Shahada.”

“Think not of those killed in the way of Allah dead, but alive with the Lord. We consider him a martyr. O Allah, accept the martyrs. And join us by the Lord of the Worlds”

“Brothers and sisters the order to attack the shaykh didn’t come from Obama, it came from Allah SWT and we should be aware that Allah SWT has the power to obliterate the White House in no time. So have yaqeen in Allah SWT because today the kufaar celebrate but tomorrow the ash of their fitna will block out their joy.”

“It seems obama has secured his seat in the white for the next term. This week only, he proved the world he was born in america by releasing his birth certificate and now he killed america’s worst enemy.”

“The celebrations are amusing. Cheer all you want kuffar, you only have a limited amount of time in this dunya in which to do it. And then you will see the reality of this life.”

“I hope Allah sends them [an] earthquake that will choke them further”

“And if its true it would be the most shameful moment for the pakistani people who could not protect 1 muslim hero…its a black day and a day when we should keep our voices and gazes lowi personally feel the lowest i have ever felt, we couldnt protect our beloved Sheikh”

“Mashallah the whole nation is celebrating the death of one man. Shaykh osama was a true lion.”

“We renew our pledge of allegiance with the Covenant and the first with the Lord to continue our path until the end. We will continue .. We will continue .. We will continue ..”

“Coming Oh America; Coming Oh Jews, Coming Oh rejectionists (Shi’a); Coming Oh Kufar, secularists, and apostates. Arrivals are coming and they are bringing the coffins with merciless devices”

“May Allah bring thousands osama to give nusra to his deen”

“Ya ikhwati wa akhawati, hold your horses. No conclusion should be derived until we get word from Muslims who are affiliated with him and who can confirm so. No words should be taken from the enemies of Islam and Muslims. They faked so many videos in the past of him, so why can this not be one of them? Just look at those beer-drinking, hog-eating, incestuous, red-necks, uncle sams, house negros, vatos locos, all celebrating outside the White House. It’s like a holiday for them. Really a sad bunch of people. I’m just waiting for the Chocolaty Muslims, Talafies, and those borderline murtad/moderates to join the ugly bandwagon of cheering this so-called victory.”

“I dont get it. How come Shaykh was living next to militray area and he was not seen before. Seems like a plot of america to wage war on pk. Anyways, it will be good to see pk fighting america ….actually Excellent!”

“please let them celebrate, they are celebrating their own end.
osama is in the heart of every muslim, even those who dont admit publicly.
in sha Allah its the start of something. this is the day muslims will remember Allah alot and seek the destruction of this pharoanic nation of our time.
oh Allah destroy this nation for their hatred and enmity toward your deen
oh Allah seal their hearts with disbelief they shall never taste faith untill they taste your severe punishment.
oh Allah send them endless tornados to destroy their homes and earthquakes to crash them.”

“Why can’t people admit he was killed? he is a human being, not a prophet. another man will replace his shoes, its easy.”

“The kuffar can show only symbolic success. Militarily, the beaten, like the Russians in Chechnya. Whenever the Russians have claimed that Doku Umarov has fallen and he reported back again and again.”

“Death of the commander of the Mujahideen Sheikh Osama bin Laden – as he had wished – a new victory for the approach of the Islamic Jihad”

Anjem Choudary’s reaction to the death of Bin Laden. He’s the leader of UK jihadi group al-Muhajirun:

“I think America knows that Sheikh Osama already passed away in recent years. Now they have planned to take advantage of his confirmed death. And they are taking advantage as US people have greatly appreciated the news. Also this news have pressurize the Pakistani intelligence that Osama was declared to be found in a sensitive settled area.”

“We should not forget that these illitarete idiots in the past have killed sheikh ayman zawahiri many times sheikh osama and cmdr ilyas kashmiri in their dream. Let the kuffar and murtadeen keep dreaming.”

“Yes, the Covenant continues until the establishment of the law of God in the land”

“We are all Osama bin Laden, God willing; We are all Osama bin Laden, God willing; We are all Osama bin Laden, God willing; We are all Osama bin Laden, God willing”

New statement from Hānī al-Sibā’ī: “Congratulations Osama .. Woe Obama .. And Woe to the Traitors of Pakistan”

“Si la nouvel est vrai ,mon coeur sera plus que jamais brisé par cette nouvel , mais j’ai moi aussi le sentiment que cela est vrai , car il ont annoncer qu’il détenait le corps du Cheikh ( Allahou A’lem ) et ces derniers temps , je ne sais pas si ça explique cet nouvel , mais je faisait un rêve quasiment toujours le même ou je perdais mes dents et ou j’avais une barbe encore plus grosse que d’habitude , j’ai fait des recherches on m’a dit que cela signifiais la mort la mienne ou celle d’un proche , je sais que cheikh Oussama n’est pas un proche au sens propre mais je l’aime pour Allah énormément comme s’il faisait partie de ma propre famille voir plus.”

“En tout cas s’il était vraiment vivant et que les amerloques l’ont vraiment tué, je pense que hervé ghesquière et stéphane taponier ont du soucis à se faire…”

“If Osama is martyred then we are all Osama. And the march of struggle will inevitably continue.”

“I’ll cut the head of everyone who says Sheikh Osama is dead”

New Elegy from Ḥāmid Bin ‘Abdullah al ‘Alī: “To the Lion Shaykh Usāmah Bin Lāden, God Have Mercy”

“After the news of the killing of the Sheikh a sharp drop in oil prices and gold and silver. U.S. stock market is witnessing an unprecedented profit. How much are you [worth], O great Osama? Blessed, living and dead. What if all the heads of Arabs killed in one day were influenced by oil prices? Gold? Silver? The stock market?”

“The absence of trophy photos, like they had with zarqawi and saddam hussein’s sons, is highly suspicious.”

“Agggh!!! This news on TV is annoying. These sell out Muslims really piss me off. I hope that Allah (swt) raises them with their community of shaytaan who they chose to side with, make friends with and obey instead of His (swts) law in the duniyah. May these sell outs also be thrown into the lowest depths of Hell with no respite.”

“The denial of the Pakistani Taliban has been relayed by the Russian news agency, so nothing prevents us from asserting that denial. Since when Mujahideen use the Russian news agency to connect?”

“My father woke me with this news, I had tears…The worst is when I saw the Kuffar celebrate on TV, I felt lousy”

“The killing of Sheikh Osama bin Laden does not affect the progress of victory, God willing. After the death of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, Jihad did not stop. And went on…….. And went on……… And went on ………”

“God willing, it’s a lie and we should not rush in denying news media organizations patience patience. We do not believe them and will not believe, but our media only.”

“al-Qaeda are the people of the Victorious Sect, which recognizes the last of the banner to the Mahdi”

“Jihad will continue until the Day of Resurrection”

“If it is authentic [that] Osama [died], indiscriminate killing is the solution, is the solution, is the solution.”

“Sheikh Bin Laden is not dead! What a farce from the Tawaghit!!”

“Hope that this act will not go unpunished.”

“We have our horror when we heard of the way in which knowledge of the place of Sheikh Osama bin Laden. It has been suggested that the Guantanamo prisoner [KSM] is [the] one who gave the information that led to access to the martyed sheikh … It has already happened [before] … one ex-Guantanamo prisoner led to the achievement of discovering the operations of the parcel bombs launched by the Mujahideen brothers in Yemen. Similarly, in a number of things [it also] led to the deaths of many of the Mujahideen. Are Guantanamo prisoners disclosing the secrets of jihad and the mujahideen? … Are the Mujahideen in danger?”



AQIM Pic2.jpg

In the wake of Tunisia’s popular uprising this past week, some are debating whether Twitter,WikiLeaks, or even George W. Bush might have played a role in enabling the historic protest movement. But one thing seems clear: The jihadist movement, which has long defined itself as Arab governments’ staunchest and most authentic opposition, had nothing to do with it. Jihadists’ non-involvement in organizing, encouraging, or even participating in the Tunisian protests suggests that the jihadist current has been largely irrelevant to Tunisia’s popular uprising. For as long as jihadists have been in business, one of their main goals has been to overrun an “apostate” Arab leader such as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But with the possible exception of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s 1981 assassination, they never came close. That Tunisia’s protesters succeeded where the jihadists so often fail, and appear not at all driven by anything close to jihadist ideology or even general religious grievances, has left members of the online jihadist community unsure how to respond. The uprising, after all, fulfills a top jihadist goal, but it also rebukes their belief that only violent and pious struggle can bring down a man like Ben Ali.

Two days before Ben Ali’s ousting, the amir (leader) of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud, released a statement titled “In Support of the Intifadah of our People in Tunisia.” He appealed to Tunisians, selling AQIM as an ally in their protests. “I found it a fit chance to inform you, on behalf of my Mujahideen brothers in the Islamic Maghreb, our partisanship and consolation with you. And our stand alongside you in your problem and uprising, with advice, inspiration and affirmation,” he wrote. “Your battle you fight today isn’t alienated from the general battle the Muslim Ummah is engaged in against its external and domestic enemies. … And I encourage our people in Tunisia to be ready and prepare preparations and send their sons to us to train on weapons and gain military expertise. … My Muslim brothers in Tunisia: your Mujahideen brothers are with you, and your problem is our problem and your happening is ours, and the bereaved isn’t like the adopting.”

The statement, an effort to attach AQIM to the Tunisians’ cause, has had no appreciable effect. After all, AQIM’s jihadist ideology, which has never been very popular in Tunisia anyway, has next to nothing in common with the protest movement. What small role Tunsians have played in the jihadist movement, and that the movement has played in Tunisia, only underscores their irrelevance in the country. On September 9, 2001, two Tunisians working with al-Qaeda helped assassinate Ahmad Shah Massud, the leader of the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Between August 2006 and August 2007, thirty-three Tunisians, just 5.5 percent of the total foreign fighters, joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to the recordsrecovered by U.S. coalition forces. Earlier this month, a Tunisian member of AQIM threw an explosive at a French embassy building in Mali, “lightly injuring” two people. A U.K.-based terrorism researcher, who asked to remain anonymous because his work has not been publicly published, estimated that Tunisians only account for 1-2% of the members in AQIM, which he said has “very limited operational capacity that they could project into Tunisia.”

As the protests mounted, jihadist activists outside of Tunisia have tried, and failed, to assert a role in the historic uprising. In the days before Ben Ali fled, Abu Tariq al-Tumi, a member of the Arabic-language jihadist forum the Majahidin Electronic Network (MEN), urged the “brothers” to contact friends in Tunisia over Facebook and make them aware of the importance of implementing Shari’ah law once the Tunisian regime fell. A video produced by Sharia4Belgium called for establishing a Tunisian Caliphate. Once Ben Ali left, forum members such as Ashaq al-Hur al-Tunisi, ecstatic that longtime enemy Ben Ali was finally defeated, also argued that now is the time to organize a Caliphate in Tunisia. Others, such as al-Khalifa al-Qadim, expressed shock that non-jihadist Tunisians could and would topple the secular Ben Ali. Azaf al-Rasas, another MEN member, downplayed the protests’ importance, predicting that little would ultimately change in Tunisia. In one particularly disturbing message, member Ri’bal posted a video educating Tunisians on the weapons and tactics they could use against “apostates.” Abu al-Munthir al-Shanqiti produced a fatwa for the influential Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad asserting that the Tunisian government’s “fight against Islam” was one of the main factors that led to the uprising.

At another prominent forum, the Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum, members have been overjoyed at President Ben Ali’s deposing and excited for what they see as an opportunity for the jihadist movement to make its mark on Tunisia. Khadijah al-Afghaniyyah urged Tunisians to “raise the banner of Islam” as seventh century Arab generals had in their “fatah” (conquests) of North Africa. Another member, Bint al-Sahabah, expressed hope that Tunisia would soon become the “Islamic Emirate of Kairouan,” named for the Tunisian city, founded by Arabs in 670 CE, which has become what some consider the fourth holiest city in Islam. One member asked whether mujahidin would step in to lead the uprising into a mass “jihad fi sabil illah” (jihad in the way of God) across North Africa and the Middle East. Another ominously warned that AQIM would be coming to Tunisia.

There’s not much credibility to these threats, though, as groups such as AQIM have little reach in Tunisia. But it’s telling that the members would be so eager to claim ownership over the protests, especially given how little involvement they actually have. Although jihadists have been passing around a YouTube videoextolling the creation of a Caliphate in Tunisia, scarcely any Tunisians, and no significant Tunisian organizations, have shown any real interest in replacing Ben Ali with such a government. Reading the jihadist forums, one often gets the sense that its memberships live in denial, believing that the righteous mujahidin are always one campaign away from toppling secular Arab dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali. As the jihadists watched a non-religious uprising finally succeed where they had failed for so long, it’s unsurprising they would retreat even further into visions of grandeur. In Tunisia at least, the jihadist call to arms has rarely seemed less relevant.

“The young often realize the truth before the old and that laymen often recognize the truth ahead of the scholars.” – Adam Gadahn

For the second time in three weeks, Adam Gadahn has released a video message, this one titled “The Arabs And Muslims: between the Conferences of Desertion .. and the individual Duty of Jihād.” In it he uses the Mardin Conference, which was held this past March as a springboard to discuss the importance of jihād as being an individual duty (farḍ al-‘ayn) upon Muslims. I would like to highlight a few points:

From the Ashes of Iraq

Gadahn first directs his attention toward Arabs. Gadahn is trying to refocus Arabs and show them what is at stake: “Return once again to the call … and finish what you started.” Further, he argues that the possibility of mistakes and transgressions by the mujāhidīn is not an excuse to abandon the individual obligation of jihād: “A mistake isn’t treated by an even bigger mistake.” He affirms that these mistakes are not even close to the level of the transgression of the Crusaders and its proxies. This further reiterates the idea that following Abū Muṣ’ab al-Zarqāwī’s bloodlust in Iraq most Arabs were completely revulsed by AQ and they are still digging their way out of that mess.

‘Awlakī and “Lone-Wolfism”

Footage of Anwar al-’Awlakī from a previous AQAP video release appears interspersed with Gadahn’s message. This could suggest that AQSL believes ‘Awlakī has become an asset to their cause. If this is the case, then one has to only look at ourselves, specifically the mainstream media and non-expert pundits who have hyped him up to the point where he could be seen by AQSL as an important tactical tool in their arsenal. It is a sad state of affairs that a guy who was mid-level AQAP at best has in only eleven months become so much more than his actual worth or standing in the wider AQ movement. One should look to J.M. Berger’s take on ’Awlakī’s appearance in the video, which is a valid counterpoint to my above statement.

Gadahn also endorses the “lone-wolf” model that ‘Awlakī and his American pal Samīr Khān, the creator of Inspire Magazine, have called for recently, which was originally postulated by Abū Muṣ’ab al-Sūrī. Gadahn stated: “Don’t wait for some else, to do what you can do yourself.” To embolden potential recruits further, Gadahn continued:  “Here you are in the battlefield.” Gadahn also provided examples of who “lone-wolf’s” should take as an example: Muḥammad Aṭā (9/11), Ṣidīque Khān (7/7), Muḥammad Būyīrī (Theo Van Gogh), Niḍāl Ḥassān (Fort Hood), ‘Umar Fārūq ’Abd al-Muṭallib (Christmas Day), and Faiṣal Shahzād (Times Square).

Veiled Snipe at Recanters

Toward the end of Gadahn’s statement he directs a message to those who have recanted. He does not directly say anyone or a particular group, but one could infer he was speaking to Sayyid ‘Imām ash-Sharīf (Dr. Fadl), the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), or others. He argues that the movement still is in need of their expertise and efforts. He tries to remind them of the good old days by articulating that those involved now are the sons of the second and new generation, which are indebted to their previous efforts. Gadahn concludes: “Finish what you started, and aid your religion and ummah.”

Mardin and Ibn Taymīyyah

Fundamentally, the thing that should be taken away from this video is that the Mardin conference is a thorn in the side of AQ since it delegitimizes the foundation of much their theoretical work and raison d’être. This is the epitomy of the so-called “war of ideas.” Since AQSL is taking this message on they most likely feel threatened by its message and clarification of Taqī ad-Dīn Ibn Taymīyyah’s fatwā (legal opinion/decree) at Mardin (see first conclusions 1-7 here).

As is highlighted by the quote at the top of this analysis, Gadahn and AQ are in an uphill battle since they do not have classically trained religious and scholarly credentials. Gadahn also undermines his argument when he discusses the importance of Ibn Taymīyyah to the AQ movement. He states that those who are carrying out the obligation of jihād are not relying or following Ibn Taymīyyah in the first place in issues of jihād or other things. Instead, they have their own fiqh(jurisprudence), ‘ulamā’ (religious scholars), and books, which they abide by far away from the Ḥanbalī legal school (there are four Sunnī legal schools). For example, Gadahn says the commanders and scholars of the Ṭālibān in AfPak are from the Ḥanafī legal school and would therefore not take their ideas from Ibn Taymīyyah. That is a slight of hand, though. To those who have no background in the madhhab’s (legal schools) then one might take Gadahn’s statement at face value. As the well respected Islamic scholar Shaykh ‘Abd al-Hakīm Murād explained:

It was at that time [circa 11th century], too, that the attitude of toleration and good opinion between the Schools became universally accepted. This was formulated by Imām al-Ghazālī, himself the author of four textbooks of Shāfi‘ī fiqh, and also of Al-Mustasfa, widely acclaimed as the most advanced and careful of all works on uṣūl,uṣūl al-fiqh fīl madhhab. With his well-known concern for sincerity, and his dislike of ostentatious scholarly rivalry, he strongly condemned what he falled ‘fanatical attachment to a madhhab’. While it was necessary for the Muslim to follow a recognised madhhab in order to avert the lethal danger of misinterpreting the sources, he must never fall into the trap of considering his own school categorically superior to the others. With a few insignificant exceptions in the late Ottoman period, the great scholars of Sunnī Islam have followed the ethos outlined by Imām al-Ghazālī, and have been conspicuously respectful of each others madhhab. Anyone who has studied under traditional ‘ulamā’ will be well-aware of this fact.

As such, Gadahn is either way out of his league or he does not recognize this precedent since he articulated that AQ has in effect their own legal school above. From this, one can see that the Mardin Conference caused Gadahn to enumerate apologética for his and AQ’s understanding of Islām. The question is who is winning this battle of ideas, the classically trained ‘ulamā’ or the global jihadist ‘ulamā’? I will have more to say about this at a later date.


Last week, news agencies around the world reported that a plot hatched in the Pakistani tribal regions was aiming to conduct a “Mumbai-style” attack in London and major cities in France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium. Since then, each day has brought new revelations about its extent and scope. In the past, jihadists targeting the West have used spectacular, carefully synchronized suicide bomb attacks on various modes of transportation or in highly populated areas. But the reported plan to mimic the 2008 Mumbai attack, in which Pakistani gunmen shot at civilians in “soft” targets such as hotels and restaurants, reveals an important shift for al-Qaeda. Pressured by the increased effectiveness of Western governments’ counterterrorism efforts and learning from its string of recent failed bomb attempts, al-Qaeda is adapting its tactics.

Since the July 7, 2005, attack in London, in which coordinated suicide bombings targeted commuter buses and trains, there has not been a large-scale jihadist attack on Western soil. (The obvious exception, the March 2010 suicide bombings in Moscow subways, was more about Chechen separatism than global jihadism.) The U.S. and European leadership have adjusted their counterterrorism measures by enacting new laws to better prosecute terrorists, sharing more intelligence, monitoring terrorist cells more effectively, disrupting training camps in the Pakistani tribal areas, just to name a few. Since then, though the terrorists are still plotting, the success rate for their attacks has dropped precipitously.

One of the most important changes is al-Qaeda’s deteriorating ability to train and deploy bomb-makers. Prior to 9/11 and, later, during al-Qaeda’s regrouping in the Pakistani tribal regions from 2004-2008, the group had the time and breathing room to effectively train its operatives in bomb making. Its training camps lasted at least a month, with some trainees even going on to a kind of graduate school for advanced bomb making. But President Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of Sept. 11 and, later, President Obama’s ramped up drone strikes severely disrupted their ability to openly train operatives over an extended period of time. Al-Qaeda was forced to outsource much of its training to local Pakistani groups that had mobile training camps, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and Lashkar-e-Janghvi. But these groups lack al-Qaeda’s expertise and their abbreviated training is less effective. Faisal Shahzad, the Time Square bomber, received five days of bomb-making training from a Pakistani group but, as evidenced by his failed bomb, which included bales of non-flammable fertilizer, he clearly did not know what he was doing.

Further, these developments also raised the status of the Yemen and Somalia battlefield since they provided alternative locations to train individuals while not being harassed, as they would be in the Pakistani tribal areas.

With suicide bombings no longer an ideal or practical option, it should be no surprise that al-Qaeda is seeking to mimic the 2008 attack in Mumbai. It was classic urban warfare, involving ten attackers conducting ten simultaneous bombing and shooting attacks across Mumbai. Some took hostages as well. Prior to the assault, the conspirators used GPS to familiarize themselves with the locations of their targets. In the aftermath, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained the logic of the attack over a suicide bombing: because the attack could be drawn out over several hours or days, it forced the closure of much of Mumbai, an economic hub for India. If a similar attack shuttered one or more European capitals for a day, the economic repercussions would be significant and global.

The ease of the Mumbai attack on “soft” targets likely appeals to terrorist groups plotting attacks within the open societies of the West. As Malou Innocent emphasized in a recent article in The National Interest, a key passage in Bob Woodward’s new book Obama War’s reports that the Mumbai attack became a game-changer for the U.S. intelligence community. They realized that this type of attack could also occur in the United States – and that it was much tougher to detect or disrupt. I am sure al-Qaeda noticed, too.

Of course, even if al-Qaeda is expanding its tactical arsenal it does not necessarily mean it will not attempt suicide attacks in the future. The group has always been a fluid and dynamic organization that exploits every potential opportunity. For the time being, however it appears to have bent to outside pressure. While its move away from suicide bombings is a welcome reprieve, al-Qaeda’s highly adaptive and nimble nature virtually ensures it will continue to plague Western governments for years to come.

Usāmah Bin Lāden has released a new audio statement today titled “Stop the Method of Relief Work.” I would like to address this title first as there has been some interesting discussion about it on twitter this morning with Leah Farrall and Florian Flade. The English language forum Anṣār al-Mujāhidīn incorrectly translated the statement as “Some Points regarding the method of relief work.” As I articulated they did so most likely because the actual title could be misconstrued as UBL saying to stop relief efforts in Pakistan because it was God’s punishment against the Pakistani people for not instituting Islamic law, etc. boiler plate rhetoric. Rather, the way one should interpret the title of the statement is stop with the current method of relief work because there is another way of doing it, which he then proceeds to outline in the audio, but he is not saying stop relief efforts. Just stop the particular method that has been used.

I’m not going to delve deep into the actual content of this message since I think the implications are more important. In the actual message itself he highlights the problems of global warming, poor agricultural practices, and the importance of better relief efforts for the Pakistanis and Muslim ummah. For more on the content, read Florian Flade’s blog as well as a brief write-up from the BBC.

Although Leah Farrall in a quick-take post on this audio message highlights al-Qā’idah’s past aversion to relief work I believe that is no longer the case at least rhetorically. As Jarret Brachman has been stating for some time now and yesterday reiterated, al-Qā’idah Central’s main role is no longer as a terrorist organization:

Al-Qaeda has transformed in recent years from a terrorist organization (illegal) that haphazardly used media to advance their cause (not illegal) to a media organization (not illegal) that haphazardly uses terrorism to advance their cause (illegal).  In other words, by reconceptualizing their illegal organization into a legal movement, they managed to rope in thousands, if not tens of thousands of new followers.  This reconceptualization, by sheer numbers, structurally flipped the ratio of their labor hours from being  3/4 illegal stuff (terrorist operations) and 1/4 legal stuff (media operations)  to 1/4 illegal stuff (terrorist operations) and 3/4 legal stuff (propaganda operations).

This statement from UBL would further suggest this transition. Also, if one looks at the pattern of the most recent messages from al-Qā’idah’s main leaders one can see more of an emphasis on relief work and environmental issues. Two days ago, Adam Gadahn released a video message titled “The Tragedy of the Floods” and two weeks ago Ayman al-Zawahiri  A Victorious Ummah, A Broken Crusade,” which highlighted the importance of relief efforts while fighting the Jihād. Further, UBL has discussed environmental issues in the past, therefore this is not completely new. This time he is adding relief work and agriculture to the mix. This past January, UBL’s statement discussed issues related to global warming. In addition, he also talked about global warming in a release in September 2007.

Overall, one can conclude from this that this is yet another example of al-Qā’idah’s efforts to rebrand itself in the aftermath of the slaughter in Iraq, which revulsed much of the Arab and Muslim world. Moreover, the CTC report that stated that al-Qā’idah’s attacks killed Muslims 85% of the time brought light to the hypocrisies of the organization that purported to be at war with the “Zionist-Crusaders” and not a war between al-Qaeda and Muslims. Although most Muslims did not read this report it was fairly obvious to them too who al-Qā’idah killed most of the time. Therefore, al-Qā’idah has tried to be a more inclusive organization and part of this rebranding is a softer message such as this one. At the same time, one should not be fooled by this. Brachman correctly points out the problem in this strategy:

The challenge is that for as much as AQ continues trying to build itself into an inclusivist social movement, it keeps slamming its head into the big brick wall of reality that AQ is founded on exclusivist, elitist doctrine and methodology. Any organization with Ayman al-Zawahiri at the top is by definition the opposite of populist.  This is the fundamental contradiction that AQ cannot escape, no matter how much they ask Muslims to donate to earthquake relief funds or rockslide relief funds or talk about climate change. AQ offers nothing more than empty rhetoric and elitism.