The May 2021 round of fighting in Gaza brought with it the upending of the unspoken understanding between Israel and Hamas and a level of intercommunal violence within Israel that has not been seen in quite some time. The scale of the rocket attacks on the Jewish state must also be counted among the unusual elements of this latest flare-up, with Iran clearly identifiable as the enabling state behind Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the two primary factions behind these attacks. Continue reading
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Muhammad Javad Zarif, took part in an oral history project intended for internal use by the clerical dictatorship in February and on 25 April the audio was leaked—so goes the story. There is every reason to think this is a controlled leak, which is to say an information operation or a piece of strategic messaging—more pejoratively, propaganda or disinformation: choose the terminology as you will—intended to assist the Iranian theocracy as it works through its negotiations on the nuclear file with the new American administration of President Joe Biden. Still, there are some insights from this episode, as with an interview Zarif gave—focused on Afghanistan—in December. Continue reading
A year ago, U.S. President Donald Trump gave the order to kill Qassem Soleimani, the de facto deputy leader of Iran. Arash Azizi’s The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the U.S., and Iran’s Global Ambitions is an effort to explain who Soleimani was, how he rose to controlling the lives of millions of people well outside the borders of Iran, and how in the end he was brought down. Continue reading
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
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
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