In a review, Owen Bennett-Jones writes: In Decoding al-Qaida’s Strategy Michael Ryan draws a useful distinction between the drawn-out or ‘deep’ battle of ideas and the ‘close’ battle of combat. The recent al-Qaida advances can be seen as close-battle victories of relatively little importance, but al-Qaida and the West are also engaged in a broad ideological struggle and it is here, significantly, that the West’s inability to put up a decent counterargument to al-Qaida is more worrying. In the last three years bin Laden and now al-Zawahiri have convinced millions of people that, for all their excesses, they have a point. Their key messages relate to Western double standards now so widely discussed as to require only the briefest rehearsal: the West’s creation and subsequent abandonment of a mujahedin fighting force to confront the Soviets; the neglect of the hallowed principle of habeas corpus implicit in extraordinary rendition; detentions without trial in Guantánamo; the humiliation and torture of prisoners in Iraq; the CIA’s use of drones in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; and, most recently, the NSA’s disregard for privacy. This litany of human rights abuses, al-Qaida argues, is explained by the West’s hatred of Islam. The actions of a few fringe figures such as Pastor Terry Jones who do indeed seem to hate Islam are then cited as supporting evidence.
One aspect of the US’s use of torture, incidentally, has received too little attention. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded no fewer than 183 times. At some point he worked out his interrogator’s protocols, including the length of time (40 seconds) he could have water poured down his throat. By the end he was seen counting down the seconds with his fingers. It’s said by people who have read the transcripts of his confessions that some of his information led to the arrests of leading jihadis. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed later told the Red Cross that he also gave false information so as to confuse the Americans. Crucially, he failed to answer questions about the location of either al-Zawahiri (despite having met him the day before his capture) or bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the man who led the Americans to Abbotabad. Other detainees told the Americans that al-Kuwaiti had been well known to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for years. So the waterboarding not only fed al-Qaida’s narrative, it was also ineffective.
Other examples of counterproductive Western policies abound. Take the 2013 drone strike on the Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. Mehsud was known to have deployed suicide bombers all over Pakistan, yet his death evoked a wave of sympathy in the country. It was simultaneously a close-battle victory for the US and a deep-battle defeat. Although many Pakistanis were happy that Mehsud was no long threatening them, their relief was outweighed by the thought that the US’s use of drones in Pakistan was an unacceptable breach of sovereignty and a national humiliation. Sympathy for Mehsud was punctured only when a journalist revealed that his house in the tribal areas was worth $120,000 (a huge sum in that part of Pakistan) and included extensive gardens with orchards.
At a stroke the news dented the Taliban’s carefully burnished image as selfless holy warriors renouncing worldly comforts for their faith. Some jihadis evoke the kind of admiration that Western socialists feel for the volunteers who fought in Spain. YouTube videos of fit young men, brave, idealistic and pious, washing themselves in mountain streams, give jihadism a romantic air. Bin Laden was perfectly placed to take advantage of this appeal, having given up his riches for a life of hardship and struggle. You can’t help thinking that the US would have been well advised to use the drones not to kill Mehsud but to leaflet his admirers with images of his luxurious lifestyle.
The carefully honed Robin Hood image is only part of the story. Ryan’s stated purpose in Decoding al-Qaida’s Strategy is to identify other aspects of radical Islam’s support base, the better to equip US strategists for the deep battle. The book consists of summaries, translations and analysis of important al-Qaida texts including al-Zawahiri’s Knights under the Prophet’s Banner; The Administration of Savagery by Abu Bakr Naji; A Practical Course for Guerrilla Warfare (actually not an ideological text but a description of military tactics) by Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin; various articles by Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi including Fourth Generation Warfare, which argues that al-Qaida should conceive of itself as a revolutionary vanguard; and finally a perennial favourite on many jihadi websites, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance by Abu Musab al-Suri.
Ryan’s survey pins down crucial elements of al-Qaida’s appeal. Even many of its detractors in the Middle East would accept that the organisation is trying to respond to the humiliations meted out to the Arab people by colonial European powers, the US, Israel and, according to al-Zawahiri, the United Nations, the multinationals, internet providers, the global news media and international aid agencies. All these stand accused of using puppet regimes in the Middle East to continue the colonial project by other means. As I travelled around the Middle East during the Arab Spring, the word that most often cropped up in the slogans in various capitals was not ‘freedom’ – the one the Western media recognised and highlighted – but ‘dignity’. The failure of the Arab Spring has reinforced al-Qaida’s case. For a moment it looked as if people power rather than jihadi violence would topple the authoritarian regimes bin Laden railed against. Today those hopes have been dashed. Indeed, the Egyptian army’s successful assault on the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government may turn out to be as useful to al-Qaida as the US invasion of Iraq. It’s already a familiar argument that only the jihadis have the resolve and drive to sweep away entrenched dictatorial regimes. [Continue reading…]