Osama's death a gift to resurgent al-Qaeda

Ten years after 9/11, the jihadist movement it represented is stronger than ever before.

Updated - November 17, 2021 01:39 am IST

Published - May 03, 2011 02:05 am IST

An alleged al-Qaida  member, second left, is being led from a building of the federal court to a helicopter in Karlsruhe, Germany, Saturday, April 30, 2011. German officials say three suspected al-Qaida members were working on making a shrapnel-laden bomb they could use in an attack on a crowded area such as a bus or bus stop when they were arrested Friday. The attack was "still in the experimentation stage," said anti-terrorism prosecutor Rainer Griesbaum in a news conference Saturday. (AP Photo/dapd, Michael Latz) SWITZERLAND, AUSTRIA AND GERMANY OUT

An alleged al-Qaida member, second left, is being led from a building of the federal court to a helicopter in Karlsruhe, Germany, Saturday, April 30, 2011. German officials say three suspected al-Qaida members were working on making a shrapnel-laden bomb they could use in an attack on a crowded area such as a bus or bus stop when they were arrested Friday. The attack was "still in the experimentation stage," said anti-terrorism prosecutor Rainer Griesbaum in a news conference Saturday. (AP Photo/dapd, Michael Latz) SWITZERLAND, AUSTRIA AND GERMANY OUT

“History,” wrote Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden's mentor, “does not write its lines except with blood.” He then added: “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 became one of those corpses on Monday: but even as America, and many others across the world, celebrate the killing of a man who more than any other came to represent evil, there is in fact 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. The small group bin Laden built in Afghanistan has flowered

Bin Laden himself, the scholar C. Christine Fair has noted, has emerged as a “kind of Che Guevara of the jihadist movement”: an icon important not for the operational role he played, but an inspirational figure who could figure the imaginations of young recruits. Put another way, bin Laden's death — or, to the faithful, martyrdom — might prove to be his last service for his macabre cause.

Back in 2001, at the perceived peak of its power, the al-Qaeda had a core of just under 200 cadre — 120-odd grouped together in a crack unit, and a small number of foot-soldiers handling logistical work and training. Perhaps a thousand men had graduated from the training camps it ran in Afghanistan, but they were riven by ideological disputation and personal feuds.

For years before them, 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 cash from his coffers.

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 cash, but he had demonstrated little organisational genius, nor had he authored a corpus of original doctrinal thought.

Bin Laden had sought to draw attention by declaring war against the United States and, in 1998, forming the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jews. More than a few organisations signed on to the declaration, but bar the Egyptian jihadist, Ayman al-Zawahiri, none proved willing to suborn themselves to the Saudi jihadist's authority.

Facing extinction, bin Laden ordered a series of increasingly audacious attacks. In 1998, the al-Qaeda bombed the United States' embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Even then, though, he did not acquire the status he craved.

In Afghanistan, the Libya-born jihadist, Ali Mohamed al-Fakheri, and Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, a Saudi national now held in Guantanamo Bay, stonewalled his attempts to exercise power over their training camps. Syria-born Spanish national Mustafa Sett Maryam Nasar, considered by many to be the foremost Islamist ideologue of his generation, also chose not to recognise bin Laden's authority.

Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal — the Iraqi jihadist who was later to become infamous under the pseudonym Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi — was willing to use bin Laden's resources to train cadre, but not to recognise his authority.

In the build-up to 9/11, bin Laden's efforts to take control of a large group of foreign fighters in Afghanistan were repulsed by the Taliban's Mullah Muhammad Omar himself, who gave it instead to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — another group that bin Laden had been attempting to take charge of.

Perhaps paradoxically, 9/11 did for bin Laden what he had been unable to do for himself: as the U.S. became involved in multiple theatres of conflict, it emerged as a common enemy for organisations linked by ideology, but until then focussed on local concerns.

Part of the new push came from al-Qaeda leaders who had fled to Iran after 9/11, where for a time they enjoyed some freedom to organise. The al-Qaeda leadership in Iran developed new programmes and ideological strategies to weave together the disparate jihadist movement into a single cause.

Zarqawi's Jamaat Tawhid wal'Jihad thus submitted to the authority of bin Laden, even though it commanded significantly larger numbers of cadre than the al-Qaeda, suborned itself to bin Laden.

Zarqawi, whose organisation renamed itself the al-Qaeda in Iraq, also persuaded the al-Jamaa'at al-Salafiyyatu lil'Dawati wal-Qitaal, or the Salafist Organisation for Preaching and Combat, to become part of the al-Qaeda umbrella, giving the organisation new reach in North Africa. The al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as it became known, gave the organisation new reach — staging high-profile attacks in countries from Mali to Niger and Algeria.

Leah Farall, a former Australian counter-terrorism analyst who is among the preeminent scholars of al-Qaeda, notes 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 in a seminal article in the journal Foreign Policy , “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 organization'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. 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 the idea. From 2003, when the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula first plotted an abortive attack on New York's subway system, the organisation's affiliates became increasingly active.

Major attacks on western nations, like the 2009 plot to bomb a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, or last year's nearly successful targeting of United Parcel Service flights, came from affiliates — not units directly under bin Laden's command.

In 2010, the Pakistani jihadist, Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri, joined the al-Qaeda, giving it a formidable pool of cadre and deep logistical resources in Pakistan's northwest.

Kashmiri is believed by western intelligence services to have been involved in an abortive attack on the Jyllands Posten , which incensed many Muslims by publishing cartoons purported to be blasphemous, as well as last autumn's attempted suicide-squad attacks in western Europe.

Last year, Said al-Masri, a top al-Qaeda operative killed in a drone strike, 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 the al-Qaeda's deputy amir, will take charge of the organisation, intelligence officers believe that real power will lie with a younger generation of leaders — key among them a dark-eyed, olive skinned man whose 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.

Al-Adel wants to conduct a prolonged war of attrition, built around low-cost, low-risk operations. He hopes this will push western governments to retreat from Afghanistan, and to back away from brewing conflicts in north Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

In 1991-1992, he trained al-Qaeda jihadists at a camp near Khost in Afghanistan. Later he travelled to Khartoum, providing explosives training at bin Laden's Damazine Farm base. Mohammed Odeh, a jihadist jailed in the U.S., recalls al-Adel telling him that as the fighting in Afghanistan was winding down, it was time to “move the jihad to other parts of the world.”

Parts of al-Adel's thinking can be pieced together from a memoir he wrote in 2005. In 1987, the memoir records, al-Adel was a colonel in Egypt's special forces when he joined Zawahiri's group, the al-Jihad. Prosecutors said he had planned to drive a bomb-laden truck into Egypt's Parliament, and to crash an aircraft into the building — tactics that the al-Qaeda would later use to effect.

But al-Adel was less than impressed, holding them guilty of “over-enthusiasm that resulted in hasty action” which brought the wrath of the authorities before the al-Jihad was prepared.

Like other top al-Qaeda operatives, al-Adel was involved in planning the 9/11 attacks. In July 2001, however, al-Qaeda leaders were told the operation did not have the support of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader. The U.S.'s official investigation of the 9/11 strikes, records Mullah Omar's dissent was endorsed by al-Adel and his associates Mahfouz al-Walid and Mustafa Uthman.

Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, al-Adel left for Iran. U.S. intelligence believes he masterminded several attacks on U.S. targets while based there. In response to U.S. pressure, Iran later detained al-Qaeda leaders operating from its soil. Al-Adel lived under house arrest near Tehran with his wife and children until April, when he was released in return for a kidnapped Iranian diplomat.

Last summer, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “I assume somebody in government, from top to bottom, does know where bin Laden is. I'd like to know, too.” Now, she does — but the war against al-Qaeda is still very, very far from over.

(Praveen Swami is Diplomatic Editor of The Daily Telegraph , London.)

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.