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al-Qaeda

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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.

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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.