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Al Qaeda

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Mullah Omar: More Trouble Dead Than Alive

Islamist fanatics, as you would expect, are very earnest about their beliefs. They accept that secrecy and deceit are necessary to mislead the enemy, but they do not expect their leaders to be lying to them. When they find out that they have been lied to, consistently and over a long period of time, they get very cross – and this has repercussions in the real world.

From the time that the Taliban conquered Kabul and took over most of Afghanistan in 1996, Mullah Muhammad Omar Mansoor was the man who ran the show and was effectively the head of state. He was the man who allowed Osama bin Laden to set up camp in Afghanistan. And although the Taliban lost power after the US invasion in 2001, Mullah Omar remained in control of the organisation until his death in 2013.

The trouble is that nobody told his faithful followers that he died more than two years ago in Pakistan. Until last week the Taliban was still issuing statements in his name – most recently, on 15 July, a message endorsing the Taliban’s recent peace talks with the current Afghan government. Now all Mullah Omar’s statements since April 2013 are in question, and so are the men who made them in his name.

This matters a lot, because Mullah Omar was not just the leader of the Taliban. He was also the most important figure in the broader alliance of Islamist groups known as al Qaeda. Indeed, he had as much right to claim to be its founder as the man who actually gets the credit, Osama bin Laden.

With his long record as a real fighter, Mullah Omar was much more respected than the man who formally inherited al Qaeda’s leadership after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, the reclusive Egyptian theorist Ayman al Zawahiri. Indeed, Zawahiri felt compelled to renew his pledge of allegiance (“baya”) to Mullah Omar when the rival jihadi group, Islamic State, declared its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, to be the “caliph of all the Muslims” in 2014.

This is not just internal politics in a local jihadi group. Al Qaeda and Islamic State are in a frequently violent competition for the loyalty of all the scattered Islamist groups in the Muslim countries. It was therefore very important for al Qaeda that Mullah Omar rejected Baghdadi’s claim to be the caliph – and it is very important to the rest of the world that the two jihadi organisations remain divided and hostile to each other.

Al Qaeda has been losing ground in this competition for some years now. Indeed, Islamic State recently set up its own rival franchises in the two countries where al Qaeda still dominates the struggle against the local regime, Afghanistan and Yemen. The two groups are currently at war with each other in both countries, but that could change fast if al Qaeda’s leadership is discredited by the lies it has been telling.

If Mullah Omar actually died in 2013, he could not have denounced Baghdadi’s claim to be the legitimate caliph in 2014. Similarly, Zawahiri’s pledge of allegiance to him in 2014 was either a deliberate lie, or a demonstration that he is hopelessly out of touch with what is actually happening beyond his hide-out, presumably somewhere in Pakistan. Either way, al Qaeda loses credibility.

So do the Taliban, of course. When the self-declared new leader of the Taliban, Mullah Muhammad Akhtar Mansoor, acknowledged that Mullah Omar is dead at the beginning of this month, he carefully omitted any reference to WHEN Omar died. But the Taliban fighting groups are in chaos, because Akhtar Mansoor, then officially Omar’s deputy, issued statements in Omar’s name condemning Islamic State as recently as last month.

Many Taliban groups are now questioning Akhtar Mansoor’s claim to the leadership. His response has been to break off peace talks with the Afghan government and launch some particularly vicious attacks against the Afghan police and army, but it may not be enough to secure his position. As for Ayman al Zawahiri, he hasn’t been heard from since last September.

There would be no reason to mourn the decline of al Qaeda except that the main beneficiary will be Islamic State. There is no strong reason to prefer one organisation to the other, either – except that the last thing the world needs is for Islamic State to take over all of al Qaeda’s franchises and create a single, much more powerful and attractive Islamist fighting front.

The current state of division of the extreme Islamist movement is deplored by almost everybody in both organisations. There is little ideological difference between them, although Islamic State is more apocalyptic in its vision. If al Qaeda’s claim to leadership is seriously undermined by its lies about Mullah Omar, the unification of most or all the Islamist groups under Baghdadi’s authority is a real possibility.

The first victim of that would be the Assad regime in Syria, which is already tottering, and an Islamist takeover of the whole country. But much more might follow, and none of it would be good news.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“So…September”)

Another Bush Damaged by Iraq

He just misheard the question. A basically friendly interviewer on Fox News asked Jeb Bush, now seeking the Republican nomination for the US presidency: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorised the invasion (of Iraq)?” And he replied: “I would have.” When the storm of protest, even from Republicans, swept over him, he explained that he thought the interviewer had said: “Knowing what we KNEW THEN.”

An easy mistake to make. “Know now” sounds an awful lot like “knew then”. Besides, Jeb Bush is on record as claiming that he is Hispanic (on a 2009 voter-registration application), so the poor man was struggling with his second language. If only she had asked the question in Spanish, he would have understood it perfectly.

Enough. When you listen to the entire interview, it’s clear that Bush didn’t want to say a flat “No” to her question, because that would be a condemnation of his brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But as soon as he could, he switched to talking about the “intelligence failures” that misled his brother into invading the wrong country. Anybody can make a mistake. So nobody’s to blame.

Hillary Clinton, currently the favourite for the Democratic presidential nomination, uses exactly the same defence. In fact, every American politician who voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq at the time claims that the problem was faulty intelligence, and maybe some of them outside of the White House genuinely were misled.

But the intelligence wasn’t “faulty”; it was cooked to order. There was no plausible intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, so the US intelligence services were told to “find” some. There were no Islamist terrorists in Iraq either: Saddam Hussein hunted down and killed anybody suspected of being an Islamist activist, because the Islamists wanted to kill him.

The US Central Intelligence Agency agency tried very hard to create a link between al Qaeda, the organisation responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq. The only thing they came up with, however, was a rumour that a little-known Islamist from Jordan called Abu Musab al Zarqawi who knew Osama bin Laden had been in Baghdad receiving treatment for wounds received in Afghanistan in May-November 2002. (He was actually in Iran at that time.)

If you were on the White House staff in early 2003, you HAD to know that the “intelligence” you were using to justify the invasion of Iraq was false, because you were one of the people demanding that the spooks manufacture “evidence” for it. The decision itself had been taken even before Bush’s election in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorism.

The incoming Bush administration was full of people called “neo-conservatives”. They believed that the Clinton administration had failed to exploit the sole superpower status that the United States inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to put the world to
rights.

What was needed, therefore, was a display of US power that would make all the “bad guys” behave. So invade somewhere and take the local bad guy down. Iraq was the obvious choice, because it was very weak after a decade of arms embargo, and Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy.

We don’t yet know just how disastrous the invasion of Iraq was, because the damage is still accumulating. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the man who now rules “Islamic State”, the terrorist-ruled new country that occupies the easten half of Syria and the western third of Iraq, started fighting Americans as part of the Iraqi resistance in 2003.

By 2006 at the latest, he had joined the group then called Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was largely made up of jihadis from other Arab countries who had flocked to Iraq to fight the infidel invaders. And the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq was none other than Abu Musab al Zarqawi – who parlayed the reputation as a major jihadi leader that the US intelligence services gave him into a real leadership position in the resistance.

Through the years that followed, that organisation gained experience in guerilla war and terrorism, and through several changes of name and leadership (Zarqawi was killed in 2006) it ultimately morphed into Islamic State. Baghdadi was with it all the way, and now styles himself “Caliph Ibrahim”, demanding the loyalty and obedience of all Muslims everywhere.

So we owe a lot to the “neo-cons” in George Bush’s administration who pushed for the invasion of Iraq: people like Dick Cheney (Vice-president), Donald Rumsfeld (Secretary of Defense), and Paul Wolfowitz (Undersecretary of Defense). They just used the 9/11 attacks as a vehicle for their pre-existing Iraq invasion plans.

It was Wolfowitz, above all, who worked tirelessly to link Irak to terrorism. And guess who is the most prominent name on Jeb Bush’s current team of foreign policy advisers (apart from George W Bush himself). Why, it’s the very same Paul Wolfowitz. The problem with Jeb Bush is not the foolish answers he gives. It’s the company he keeps.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 9. (“Hillary…misled”; and “The incoming…guy”)

Franchise Wars

You can’t tell the players without a programme, and it’s no wonder that people feel confused by the plethora of names the terrorist groups use. To make matters worse they keep splitting, and sometimes they change their names just for the hell of it. So here’s a guide you can stick on your wall.

In the beginning there was Al Qaeda, starting in about 1989. There were lots of other terrorist start-ups in the Arab world around the same time, but eventually almost all of them either died out or joined one of the big franchises. Al Qaeda is the one to watch, since the success of its 2001 attacks on the United States on 9/11 put it head and shoulders above all its rivals.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and foreign jihadis flocked into the Sunni Arab parts of the country to help the resistance, their leader, a Jordanian called Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, sought to affiliate his organisation with Al Qaeda to boost its appeal. In 2004 Osama bin Laden agreed to allow them to use the name Al Qaeda in Iraq, although there was little coordination between the two organisations.

It was Al Qaeda in Iraq that got the Sunni-Shia civil war going by persistently bombing Shia mosques and neighbourhoods, even though it knew that the more numerous Shia would win that war. It was profoundly cynical but strategically sound, since terrified Sunnis would then turn to Zarqawi’s organisation for protection.

Al Qaeda in Iraq formally changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006, but it didn’t really begin to flourish until a new leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, took over in 2010. Soon afterwards the Syrian civil war broke out, and Baghdadi sent a Syrian member of ISI, Abu Muhammad al Golani, into Syria to organise a branch there. It was called the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front grew very fast – so fast that by 2013 Baghdadi decided to reunite the two branches of the organisation under the the new name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But this meant that Golani was being demoted to manager of the Syrian branch, so he declared his independence and asked to join al Qaeda, whch leaves its affiliates largely free to make their own decisions.

Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri (by now bin Laden was dead), backed the Nusra Front because he felt that creating an Islamic state, as Baghdadi intended, was premature. Baghdadi thereupon broke relations with Al Qaeda, and in early 2014 the Nusra Front and ISIS went to war.

Thousands of Islamist fighters were killed, and after four months it was clear that ISIS could hold eastern Syria but could not conquer the Nusra Front in the west of the country. The two rival organisations agreed a ceasefire – and two months later, in June 2014, ISIS used its battle-hardened forces to invade Iraq.

The Iraqi army collapsed, and by July ISIS controlled the western third of Iraq. Counting its Syrian territories as well, ISIS now ruled over 10-12 million people, so Baghdadi dropped the “Iraq and Syria” part of the name and declared that henceforward it would just be known as Islamic State. The point of not naming it after a specific territory is that it can be expanded indefinitely with no further name changes.

Soon afterwards Baghdadi declared himself caliph, and therefore commander of all the world’s Muslims. Ths was an extremely bold step, since those Muslims who hear the call of “Caliph Ibrahim” and do not submit to his authority – even fighters in other jihadi organisations like the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda – are technically “apostates” and liable to death in the eyes of those who do accept his claim.

That includes all of IS’s fighters, who now have the legal right, at least in their own eyes, to kill most Sunni Muslims in addition to the Shias, Christians, Jews, and assorted other unbelievers they already had the right to kill. There is a potential genocide in the making if Islamic State expands further in Syria, where easily 75 percent of the population fits into one or another of those categories.

Some jihadis in other countries, most notably Boko Haram in Nigeria, declared their allegiance to “Caliph Ibrahim” and Islamic State at once. Other stayed loyal to Al Qaeda – the Nusra Front, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the al Qaeda branches in Yemen, Egypt, and the Maghreb – and rejected his claim. But Al Qaeda may declare a rival caliphate once Nusra has finished conquering Idlib province and established a firmer territorial base in Syria.

So there you have it: two rival franchises competing for the loyalty of all the other jihadi organisations. There’s not really much difference between them ideologically or practically, but the franchise wars will continue. I hope that helps.
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To shorten to 725 words, omits paragraphs 4 and 11. (“It was…protection”; and “That includes…categories”)

Terrorism is Marginal

27 November 2008

Terrorism is Marginal

 By Gwynne Dyer

The US National Intelligence Council’s report on global trends, published this month, predicts that the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda “may decay sooner” than many experts expect because of its “unachievable strategic objectives, inability to attract broad-based support, and self-destructive actions.” Hot on the report’s heels come the terrorist attacks in Bombay (Mumbai) last week, which killed at least a hundred people. Is the National Intelligence Council wrong?

Not at all. There is no evidence that al-Qaeda had anything to do with the attacks in India’s financial capital, nor does it seem very likely. Besides, this event will be forgotten within a year by everyone who was not actually there — as it should be.

Fifteen years ago, there was a much worse attack in Bombay.

Thirteen bombs exploded all across the city, killing 257 people and injuring 713 others. Although the 9/11 atrocity in the United States in

2001 has come to overshadow all other terrorist attacks in terms of loss of life, the Bombay bombings of 1993 remain the third-worst incident in the history of terrorism. Yet who remembers them today?

I do, because I was in Bombay with a film crew at the time, and they barely escaped with their lives. The Stock Exchange was bombed only twenty minutes after they finished filming there. For hours afterwards the centre-city streets were full of people who had evacuated their offices for fear of more bombs, and I still recall how calm and disciplined they were.

I was in central London during the 2005 bombings that killed 52 people, and the mood was the same. Given a story like this, the media will always try to depict it as the apocalypse on roller blades, but the general public didn’t buy it. The attacks were a tragedy for a few hundred people and an enormous nuisance for hundreds of thousands of others, but they didn’t change anything important. How could they?

Terrorism is only as important as you let it be. The people who do it, whatever their goals, are by definition few, weak and marginal. If they were many, strong and central, then they would be a major political movement or a government, and they wouldn’t feel the need to resort to terrorism. Since they are not, the wisest course is to treat them as common criminals.

All good anti-terrorist strategies deny the terrorists the status of a legitimate enemy. Maybe you have to get the army’s help occasionally when the police are overstretched, but dealing with terrorists should remain primarily the job of the police and the ordinary courts. Don’t pass any special laws, and never set up special courts and detainment camps. The terrorists are marginal; keep them that way.

Germany wisely followed these rules in the 1970s, at the time of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Spain observes the same rules against ETA. Britain did less well in Northern Ireland, detaining hundreds of innocent people and implicitly granting the IRA the status of a liberation army. Russia broke all the rules in Chechnya, although it finally managed to smother the insurgency through sheer weight of numbers and firepower.

India, which for the past two decades has suffered from worse terrorist attacks than any other independent country, handles them very

well: it does not let them grow into a national emergency requiring extreme measures. That is why the latest atrocity in Bombay, like the 1993 one, will soon be forgotten. It is tragic and wicked, but it is a relatively small event in the life of a nation.

The response of the Bush administration to the 9/11 attacks, by contrast, provides a horrible example of the cost of over-reaction. Two invasions, two lengthy military occupations by American troops, and two major guerilla wars against the occupations. A huge rise in the reputation of al-Qaeda, and the radicalisation of political opinion throughout the Muslim world. Torture abroad, and a major assault on American civil liberties at home.

For seven years, George W. Bush served as al-Qaeda’s most valuable (though unwitting) ally. The fact that the terrorist organisation is still in decline despite having such a useful idiot in charge of American foreign policy is proof of what a marginal outfit it is. As the National Intelligence Council said, its strategic goals are unrealistic, and its actions are so brutal that they alienate most of the people whose support it wants.

Al-Qaeda has little influence on what happens in India. While the terrorists there may copy some of its tactics, they do not need direction from a bunch of ageing Arab terrorists. Nor will they make significant progress so long as the Indian state does not panic.

Most people assume that the long American panic is now coming to an end. If Barack Obama’s talk about winning the war in Afghanistan and violating Pakistani territory in pursuit of Osama bin Laden is just a smoke-screen to avoid public controversy until he is ready to walk away from the “war on terror,” then all may yet be well.

But it is also possible that Obama really believes in waging a war against terror, in which case the nightmare will continue.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“Germany…firepower”; and “Al-Qaeda…panic”)