Credible reports over the last few days indicate that Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is dead, and there are even clearer reports that two of his most senior deputies have been killed. The terrorist network itself, however, will survive. Al-Qaeda has, in the last ten years, survived the killing of its charismatic founder Usama bin Laden, the upheaval of the “Arab spring”, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS)—all of them greater challenges than whatever short-term turbulence might attend the succession process. Continue reading
At the beginning of September, New America published a paper, based on recovered al-Qaeda documents, which concluded that there was “no evidence of cooperation” between the terrorist group and the Islamic Republic of Iran. New America’s study lauds itself for taking an approach that “avoids much of the challenge of politicization” in the discussion of Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda. This is, to put it mildly, questionable.
A narrative gained currency in certain parts of the foreign policy community during the days of the Iraq war, and gained traction since the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, that Iran can be a partner in the region, at least against (Sunni) terrorism, since Tehran shares this goal with the West. Under President Barack Obama, this notion became policy: the US moved to bring Iran’s revolutionary government in from the cold, to integrate it into the international system. Continue reading
In less than a week, it will be the seventeenth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s “Plane’s Operation”, the assault on the United States. It is a vertiginous enough reflection that many of us have been alive more years since 11 September 2001 than before it, and positively alarming that many of those who will soon move into the government, media, and other leading societal institutions will have been born after an event that still shapes so much of the international scene. As Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan put it in The Eleventh Day: The Ultimate Account of 9/11 (2011), we are left with “the brief name ‘9/11’,” the context and meaning stripped away all this time later. The book is a useful overview of an event that should always be to some degree fresh in mind, though it is not without its problems in its analytical sections. Continue reading
Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video statement on 20 February 2018, entitled, “Oh Our Brothers in Syria, Reconcile Amongst Yourselves”. The speech continued themes Dr. al-Zawahiri has hit on many times before, notably encouraging the Syrian insurgency to avoid allying with the West or other foreign states, to unite behind al-Qaeda since all outside actors are conspiring against the Syrian opposition, and to refuse all compromise in imposing the shari’a. Simultaneously, al-Zawahiri suggests that his adherents avoid trying for quick results and “cling[ing] to ground”, an echo of the advice given in the summer of 2016 that al-Qaeda’s operatives and the Syrian insurgents they can co-opt should prepare for a long war focused on guerrilla tactics, rather than holding territory. An English translation of al-Zawahiri’s speech was made by As-Sahab Media, disseminated by pro-al-Qaeda Telegram channels, and is reproduced below with some editions for syntax and transliteration. Continue reading
Muhammad Saladin Abd al-Halim Zaydan (Sayf al-Adel) wrote a letter on 13 June 2002 to Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM or Mukhtar), the operational planner of the 9/11 massacre. Zaydan criticises KSM’s handling of al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban, and calls on him to surrender control to others. At that time the latter was written, Zaydan had been the head of al-Qaeda’s military committee for about seven months, replacing Muhammad Atef (Abu Hafs al-Masri), who was killed by an American airstrike in Afghanistan in November 2001. Zaydan was based then—as he is now—in Iran, with much of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, at the invitation of Qassem Sulaymani, the head of the Quds Force, the component of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tasked with exporting the Iran’s Islamist revolution. The letter is reproduced below with the key sections highlighted in bold.
Phrased with much surrounding politeness, Zaydan gets to the point: KSM has been on a spree of external operations—notably with “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and José Padilla (Abdullah al-Muhajir)—that have failed spectacularly and exposed al-Qaeda to ridicule. Instead of learning from his mistakes, KSM has heedlessly rushed to the next plot, says Zaydan. Usama bin Ladin might have signed off on these plots, Zaydan writes, but Bin Ladin is also reckless and refuses to heed advice—instead changing the advisor to get the answer he wants. (Bin Ladin had done this—or tried to—for the 9/11 attack itself, stacking the executive committee with loyalists before the key vote, which he ended up not bothering to hold anyway.) KSM should halt all plots currently underway and resign his duties to others so that stock can be taken of how these disasters have befallen the organisation, Zaydan concludes. Zaydan adds a final note demanding the removal of a post on an al-Qaeda forum that identifies his children by their real names. Continue reading
A letter released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on 20 May 2015, the “Letter to Abu Abdallah al-Hajj”, was written by an al-Qaeda leader on 17 December 2007. The letter, reproduced below with some editions in transliteration and some important sections highlighted bold, is interesting for several reasons. Continue reading
Muhammad Atef, best-known as Abu Hafs al-Masri, but who also went by the names Taseer Abdullah or Taysir Abdullah and Subhi Abu Sitta, was al-Qaeda’s military leader between 1996 and 2001, and one of the three people most responsible for the terrorist attack in the United States on 11 September 2001. Continue reading
The new book by the investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, charts the career of al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, up to the day he became a household name—11 September 2001—through his downfall in 2011, to the end of 2016, when al-Qaeda was more powerful than ever. It is a thoroughly absorbing account, bringing to light vast tranches of new facts, including many intricate details of how al-Qaeda operated on a human, day-to-day level, and of those states and para-states that shielded the terror network, collaborated with it, and enabled it—and still do.
The gathering of the Bin Laden network in Sudan and then in the Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan in the 1990s is a familiar story, but the splits and debates among the Arab jihadists around Bin Laden, including the opposition of significant numbers of them to the 9/11 massacre, is perhaps less well known. The authors trace out how Bin Laden manipulated his own quasi-institutions to get his way. First, Bin Laden took on the plan of a man, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM), who was not even a member of al-Qaeda, and then, ahead of the crucial vote, packed the shura (consultation) council with ultra-zealous Egyptians by engineering a merger between al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Continue reading