Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Background Check

Last month, I did a batch of posts on my otherwise remote personal blog that focused on news stories from the Middle East. I was obsessing over the factions.

These posts, republished below, turned out to be precursor entries for the blog I'm starting right now, Josh vs. Al Qaeda.


May 27, 2008, Hex Readings #5:

Always an excellent occasion: Al-Qaeda expert Lawrence Wright has published a new article in the New Yorker.

Wright is the author of the definitive al-Qaeda history book, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. He also wrote the important Sept. 16, 2002 28-page New Yorker profile on al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

His latest article is about Egyptian political prisoner and (former?) jihadist, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif.

Sharif, more commonly know as Dr. Fadl, is a hero and revered intellectual among Islamic radicals. He's also a former Zawahiri comrade from Egypt's terrorist group Al Jihad. Dr. Fadl's influential 1994 1,000-page book, “The Compendium of the Pursuit of Divine Knowledge,” provided the basis for al-Qaeda's bloody philosophy, including justifying the notion of takfir, the dishonest excuse for Muslim-on-Muslim violence.

Wright's big news for the New Yorker: Dr. Fadl's new manifesto, November 2007's “Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World," written from prison in Egypt, denounces terrorism and ridicules the merits of al Qaeda's philosophy.

The premise that opens “Rationalizing Jihad” is “There is nothing that invoke the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood an wrecking of property.” Fadl then establishes a new set of rules for jihad, which essentially define most forms of terrorism as illegal under Islamic law and restrict the possibility of holy war to extremely rare circumstances. ... “There is no such thing in Islam as ends justifying the means.”

Family members must be provided for. “There are those who strike and then escape, leaving their families, dependents, and other Muslims to suffer the consequences,” Fadl points out. “This is in no way religion or jihad. It is not manliness.” Finally, the enemy should be properly identified in order to prevent harm to innocents. “Those who have not followed these principles have committed the gravest of sins,” Fadl writes.

To wage jihad, one must first gain permission from one’s parents and creditors. The potential warrior also needs the blessing of a qualified imam or sheikh; he can’t simply respond to the summons of a charismatic leader acting in the name of Islam. “Oh, you young people, do not be deceived by the heroes of the Internet, the leaders of the microphones, who are launching statements inciting the youth while living under the protection of intelligence services, or of a tribe, or in a distant cave or under political asylum in an infidel country,” Fadl warns. “They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves, and prisons.”

Indiscriminate bombing—“such as blowing up of hotels, buildings, and public transportation”—is not permitted, because innocents will surely die. “If vice is mixed with virtue, all becomes sinful,” he writes. “There is no legal reason for harming people in any way.” The prohibition against killing applies even to foreigners inside Muslim countries, since many of them may be Muslims. “You cannot decide who is a Muslim or who is an unbeliever or who should be killed based on the color of his skin or hair or the language he speaks or because he wears Western fashion,” Fadl writes. “These are not proper indications for who is a Muslim and who is not.”

And as if having to get one's parents' permission to go blow up buildings isn't bad enough, Dr. Fadl has some terrible news for Jihadist wannabes looking to score with hot virgins in the afterlife. It looks like they'll be in for something else: A banner up their ass:

The most original argument in the book and the interview is Fadl’s assertion that the hijackers of 9/11 “betrayed the enemy,” because they had been given U.S. visas, which are a contract of protection. “The followers of bin Laden entered the United States with his knowledge, and on his orders double-crossed its population, killing and destroying,” Fadl continues. “The Prophet—God’s prayer and peace be upon him—said, ‘On the Day of Judgment, every double-crosser will have a banner up his anus proportionate to his treachery.’”

Wright argues that the publication of Dr. Fadl's book may be a watershed moment in Middle East consciousness, capturing a shift among radical dissidents away from violence and towards political solutions.

Fadl’s fax confirmed rumors that imprisoned leaders of Al Jihad were part of a trend in which former terrorists renounced violence. His defection posed a terrible threat to the radical Islamists, because he directly challenged their authority. “There is a form of obedience that is greater than the obedience accorded to any leader, namely, obedience to God and His Messenger,” Fadl wrote, claiming that hundreds of Egyptian jihadists from various factions had endorsed his position.

Two months after Fadl’s fax appeared, Zawahiri issued a handsomely produced video on behalf of Al Qaeda. “Do they now have fax machines in Egyptian jail cells?” he asked. “I wonder if they’re connected to the same line as the electric-shock machines.” This sarcastic dismissal was perhaps intended to dampen anxiety about Fadl’s manifesto—which was to be published serially, in newspapers in Egypt and Kuwait—among Al Qaeda insiders. Fadl’s previous work, after all, had laid the intellectual foundation for Al Qaeda’s murderous acts.

On a recent trip to Cairo, I met with Gamal Sultan, an Islamist writer and a publisher there. He said of Fadl, “Nobody can challenge the legitimacy of this person. His writings could have far-reaching effects not only in Egypt but on leaders outside it.” Usama Ayub, a former member of Egypt’s Islamist community, who is now the director of the Islamic Center in Münster, Germany, told me, “A lot of people base their work on Fadl’s writings, so he’s very important. When Dr. Fadl speaks, everyone should listen.”

Although the debate between Fadl and Zawahiri was esoteric and bitterly personal, its ramifications for the West were potentially enormous. Other Islamist organizations had gone through violent phases before deciding that such actions led to a dead end. Was this happening to Al Jihad? Could it happen even to Al Qaeda?

However, Wright isn't kidding himself. His article also offers stats and quotes ("Hani el-Sibai, a Zawahiri loyalist who now runs a political Web site in London ... said of Fadl, 'Do you think any Islamic group will listen to him? No. They are in the middle of a war'" ...) pooh-poohing the notion of any impending cool out.

According to a recent National Intelligence Estimate, Al Qaeda has been regenerating, and remains the greatest terror threat to America. Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, says that although Fadl’s denunciation has weakened Al Qaeda’s intellectual standing, “from the worm’s-eye view Al Qaeda fighters have on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, things are going more their way than they have in a long time.” He went on, “The Pakistani government is more accommodating. The number of suicide bombers in both countries is way up, which indicates a steady supply of fighters. Even in Iraq, the flow is slower but continues.”

Meanwhile, new Al Qaeda-inspired groups, which may be only tangentially connected to the leaders, have spread, and older, more established terrorist organizations are now flying the Al Qaeda banner, outside the control of bin Laden and Zawahiri. Hoffman thinks this is the reason that bin Laden and Zawahiri have been emphasizing Israel and Palestine in their latest statements. “I see the pressure building on Al Qaeda to do something enormous this year,” Hoffman said. “The biggest damage that Dr. Fadl has done to Al Qaeda is to bring into question its relevance.”

But you cannot read the article without realizing that the angry "Arab Street" of 2002 is now sitting down at the cafe for a serious reevaluation.

UPDATE: The New Republic published a similar article today (Tuesday, May 27), documenting both al Qaeda's waning hold on the Islamic world and quoting former Qaeda allies' condemnations of bin Laden's ideology.

UPDATE #2: Slate zooms in on Wright's al Qaeda article, mostly quoting from the stir it has caused on security and diplomacy blogs—and also quoting "Seattle blogger Martian Bracelets at Hex Message." C'est moi.

UPDATE #3: The Wall Street Journal publishes its own editorial about the buzz on al-Qaeda in decline. They credit "The Surge."

May 26, 2008, The Clerics are Right:

I've always believed the scariest thing about Ahmadinejad's presidency is this: While all of Iran's recent presidents have had to bow to the authority of the Supreme Council of Clerics (which is scary enough), Ahmadinejad's fascist populist schtik has quietly elevated him above the ruling council. After becoming the teacher's pet of the far-right clerics in the 2005 presidential elections—and beating reform-minded, liberal President Khatami—Ahmadinejad now towers over his former right wing benefactors. It's a Frankenstein story.

The NYT report, "Iranian Clerics Tell the President to Leave the Theology to Them," explains that Ahmadinejad says Imam Mahdi—a Shiite prophet who is supposed to return after 1000 years in hiding and bring peace to the world—is a secret member of his kitchen cabinet.

The clerics, offended that Ahmadinejad is usurping their authority by claiming to have Imam Mahdi on speed dial, have publicly denounced his presumptuous rhetoric, adding that Ahmadinejad is using the religious bombast to cover up the fact that he's doing a lousy job with the economy. (Sounds like the clerics want a little separation of Church and State.)

Having the conflict out in the open has been a longtime coming, and I suspect it's going to reach a crisis point in the next year that will either fully consolidate Ahmadinjad's fascist-leaning rule or wind up bouncing him from office.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Mr. Ahmadinejad said Imam Mahdi was directing his government’s policies. He said he had the imam’s hidden support when he gave a speech at Columbia University in New York last September and was insulted by the president of the university.

With Imam Mahdi’s support, he said, 500 million people watched him on television. Mr. Ahmadinejad also said the United States had attacked Iraq because it had found out that “the divine hand” — apparently a reference to Imam Mahdi — was going to emerge there.

The escalation of the dispute in recent days seemed to suggest that Mr. Ahmadinejad was challenging Shiite clerics assumed to be the sole interpreters of the faith.

Several of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s critics said that by linking his government to Imam Mahdi, he was trying to deflect criticism of his economic policies, which have led to double-digit inflation.

A senior conservative cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, warned him weeks ago not to talk about Imam Mahdi and said that even the founder of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, did not claim any links with the imam.

May 17, 2008, Re: Hex Readings #3:

NYT AP Photo from Beirut last week

Earlier this week, when I wrote about a batch of NYT reports from the Middle East (including a series of breaking news stories from Lebanon), I noted that, "In a rare lapse for the NYT, they failed to answer a few elementary questions or lay out the basics behind the news. This isn't a big deal criticism, but it's helpful to have a little more context."

Thankfully, on its website today, reporting the details of kidnappings, torture ("electrical shocks to his genitals") and funerals transformed into impromptu sectarian pogroms, the NYT—with sections like "Battling in the Streets" and "Solidifying Hatred"—filed a 1700-word primer about the situation in Lebanon. I imagine it will be on the front-page of their Sunday edition tomorrow.

The story explains the mainstage conflict between the Shiite Hezbollah movment and the Sunni-leaning government coalition, which is affiliated with secular Sunni leader Saad Hariri's Future Movement. Hezbollah's state-within-a-state status (similar to Hamas' rebel status in Gaza—although, Hamas is Sunni) is nudging the country toward a second civil war.

Here are two disquieting paragraphs from this must-read 101 on Lebanon:

After Hezbollah supporters humiliated Lebanon’s main Sunni political leader, Saad Hariri — crushing his weak militia, forcing his party’s television station off the air and burning two of his movement’s buildings — many of Mr. Hariri’s supporters were enraged, and they said they would look to another Sunni leader who would help them fight back.

That sentiment has stirred fears that moderate, secular Sunni leaders like Mr. Hariri could lose ground to more radical figures, including the jihadists who thrive in Lebanon’s teeming Palestinian refugee camps. Fatah al Islam, the radical group that fought a bloody three-month battle with the Lebanese Army in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon last year, issued a statement Thursday condemning Hezbollah’s actions. The group also gave a warning: “He who pushes our faces in the dirt must be confronted, even if that means sacrificing our lives and shedding blood.”

SUNDAY UPDATE: The NYT did, in fact, put the Lebanon primer on Sunday's front page (top right). They also continued filing news reports from Pakistan with more on Baitullah Mehsud and his militant Tehrik-e-Taliban group. MONDAY UPDATE: The story in Pakistan continued with a suicide bombing.

May 15, 2008, Hex Readings #3:

The NYT filed a batch of stories from the Islamic world on Tuesday, May 13. All the stories were breaking news items: In Pakistan, key members quit the fragile governing cabinet; in Sudan, rebel forces attack the capital; in Lebanon, the army steps in to quell factional violence in the mountains outside Beirut.

The Middle East has world history by the collar right now, and these stories are the news hooks into the action:

In Pakistan: Representatives from Nawaz Sharif's conservative Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML) abandon the fragile governing coalition cabinet after their demand that the government immediately reinstall anti-Pervez Musharraf judges fails. President Pervez Musharraf, who seized control of Pakistan in a 1999 coup when he ousted Sharif, suspended the Constitution in late 2007, declaring martial law and dismissing several judges from Pakistan's Supreme Court after the Court declared Musharraf's brazen measures unconstitutional.

The PML is the minority faction in the governing coalition cabinet with the left-leaning Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The PML/PPP coalition emerged after emergency elections were held earlier this year, taking control of the Parliament and cabinet and threatening President Musharraf's long standing military rule.

But the issue of reinstating the anti-Musharraf judges, like deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has put the coalition at risk. Ali Zadari's majority PPP, formerly Benazir Bhutto's party before she was assassinated, is more willing to compromise on the judges. Zardari, by the way, is Bhutto's widower.

In Sudan: The Justice and Equality Movmement (JEM), an anti-government rebel force heavily involved in the Darfur war in the South, attacks Sudan's capital city, Khartoum. The government thinks the flamboyant Islamic/maverick demagogue, Hassan al-Tarabi, a former colleague of Osama bin Laden and a former ally of current President Omar al-Bashir, helped coordinate the alarming assault.

In Lebanon: Days after Hassan Nasrallah's anti-government Hezbollah takes over sections of West Beirut (before voluntarily stepping off the following day), the Lebanese army moves in to stop follow-up fighting between Hezbollah and pro-government Druse fighters in the mountain outskirts.


In a rare lapse for the NYT though, in their rush to report, they failed to answer a few elementary questions or lay out the basics behind the news. This isn't a big deal criticism, but it's helpful to have a little more context.

The story on Pakistan, for example, doesn't explain where the influential radical fundamentalists from North Western Pakistan, like Baitullah Mehsud and his Tehrik-e-Taliban party, fit in. Do they support Nawaz Sharif's center-right Muslim League-N party? The answer is: No. The fundamentalists, traditionally represented by the ultra-right MMA, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Council of Action), lost power in the 2008 elections and are not formally a relevant player in the standoff between Sharif's Muslim League-N and Asif Ali Zardari's center-left Pakistan People's Party.

The story on Sudan doesn't explain why Sunni Islamist rebels would attack the Sunni Islamist government in Khartoum nor where the notorious Janjaweed armies of Darfur fit in. The answer is unclear, but I do know that the rebels, the non-Arab Islamist Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), is fighting the Arab-Janjaweed, who are supported by Omar al-Bashir's central government in Khartoum.

The story on the factional mess in Lebanon doesn't give any details about the government (its agenda? its politics? its religion? its legitimacy?) nor about the Lebanese army. The army—the star of the story—stepped in a little late, according to nervous government supporters, to check Hezbollah, the powerful, armed Shiite dissidents. Nor does the article explain Hezbollah's fundamental grievance with the government.

Lebanese politics are unintelligible. I do know that Hezbollah, operating in Southern Lebanon, is an armed Shiite faction supported by Iran and Syria. Hezbollah originally sought an Islamist government in Lebanon, but now—as a member of the Parliament—simply seems opposed to the multi-culti government, the March 14 Alliance. The March 14 Alliance is made up of secularists, Sunnis, Druse, Christians, and Socialists (but not Shiites) and is united in its opposition to Syrian meddling. The March 14 Alliance is led by Saad Hariri. Hariri, a Georgetown-educated telecom exec, is the son of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Rafik Hariri was assassinated (many suspect Syria) in February 2005. His assassination led to Syria's expulsion from Lebanon and the "Cedar Revolution" which created the March 14 Alliance.


On Wednesday, May 14, there was more news from the Middle East as the marquee conflict in the region—Israel vs. Hamas —continued to boil.

And throughout the week, the NYT continued to follow the stories in Lebanon and Pakistan: There was an article reporting on Lebanon's decision to give in to Hezbollah's demands; a second article detailing how a new round of talks in Lebanon will formalize Hezbollah's increasing power; an editorial on Lebanon faulting the Bush administration for not having the clout to get involved in the crisis; an article about the Pakistani government's pending deal with Islamic militants in North Western Pakistan that, to the chagrin of the U.S., does not address the militants' cross-border raids into Afghanistan nor the presence of foreign Arab fighters there who are using the region as an al Qaeda station; and an editorial about Pakistan urging the U.S. to help fortify the governing coalition in Pakistan rather than derelict President Musharraf.

Finally, just last month, the NYT covered breaking news from a lower profile, but equally zeitgeist conflict in Somalia where the Ethiopain-backed warlord patchwork government in Mogadishu is fighting the Sharia-fetishist Islamic Courts Union (ICU). And this week, the NYT ran a depressing article about starvation in Somalia.

I've tried to write about all this before, using the conflict in Somalia as a lens to lay out the theory that al Qaeda's popular revolution is a ruse. Their "vanguard" movements have been relegated (symbolically enough) to netherland territory like the limbo southern region between Somalia and Kenya and to the remote mountains of Western Pakistan. Their situation is in telling contrast to historic resistance movements like the Viet Cong who found popular refuge in strategic centers, successfully setting up base in South Vietnam. And I use that word "base" as a dig, given that al Qaeda means "the base."

1 comment:

GrimTim said...

It reminds me of the news reporting done by Shirer in "Berlin Diary" and the events leading up to both the Russian revolution and Chinese revolution: One confusing thing after another for years. No pattern emerging, but one day, as if someone dropped ice9 into some soup, crystalizing into a new pattern, without much popular support, made by inspired fanatics and ultimately leading to disaster.

So, you made me think maybe the Middle East is in this stage of years of patternless confusion that will one day soon coalesce into a recognizable pattern of history. You also made me think that Al-Qaeda missed its chance to be the fanatics that crystalize it, partly due to the efforts of the US and its coalition.