Seeds of destruction


Verified SOF
Jan 15, 2008

A long article but revealing.

Seeds of destruction

BY mid-2001, al-Qa'ida training camps in Afghanistan were buzzing with the news that a big operation was under way. Details of the project were known only to Osama bin Laden's inner circle, the suicide operatives and their trainers. But rumours that something dramatic was afoot had been circulating for weeks. Bin Laden himself had hinted that an attack was looming and had urged trainees in Camp Faruq to pray for "the brothers in America".

Bin Laden knew that his dream of a spectacular attack on the US was vehemently opposed by many in the jihadist movement and would cause a deep schism in al-Qa'ida. As a result he had kept the project secret even from his own governing shura council.

The bitter debate about bin Laden's strategy and the resulting split in the jihadist fraternity are revealed in internal al-Qa'ida communications discovered by the Americans and declassified for release by the US Defence Department. This invaluable cache of documents provides an intriguing inside account of the splintering of al-Qa'ida in the months before and after September 11, 2001.

The "planes operation" had been on the drawing board for seven years. It was the brainchild of Kuwaiti-born, US-educated engineer, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, known widely as KSM, who had joined al-Qa'ida in the late 1990s and proposed to bin Laden the use of commercial aircraft as weapons to attack theUS.

Bin Laden seized on the scheme, devising a list of targets and selecting the first four suicide operatives to be trained for the project.

Bin Laden's 1996 "Declaration of Jihad against the Americans" was by no means universally supported among his peers. Apart from the resistance within al-Qa'ida, his desire to hit the US was not shared by his Afghan hosts the Taliban.

Since relocating from the Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996, bin Laden's relations with the Taliban had been prickly. While Taliban leader Mohammad Omar had happily given him sanctuary, bin Laden's 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen had placed enormous international pressure on the Taliban regime.

In an attempt to control him, the Taliban had confiscated bin Laden's satellite phone and placed him under armed guard. In June 2001, Omar declared that any fatwah (religious ruling) by bin Laden was "null andvoid" because he had no authority to issue them.

Omar feared - correctly - that a direct attack would prompt the US to declare war on the Taliban just when they seemed on the verge of victory over their long-time enemy, the Northern Alliance. However Omar drewthe line at expelling bin Laden or surrendering him.

The opposition to a strike against the US was even more intense among bin Laden's colleagues on al-Qa'ida's shura council. The most outspoken was the Egyptian-born military strategist and jihad veteran, Mustafa Hamid, known among his comrades as Abu Walid al Misri. (Al Misri means the Egyptian.)

Abu Walid was a legendary figure among the mujaheddin. A mechanical engineer from Alexandria University, he had joined the jihad after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and became renowned as a commander and strategist. He was an avid student of military history and a prolific writer whose extensive diaries and correspondence - some published on Islamist websites, others found by the Americans - provide a unique internal chronicle of the jihadist movement.

Abu Walid was married in 2000 to Australian woman, Rabiyah Hutchinson, whose own jihadist connections and work on health projects in Afghanistan had brought her in close contact with the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. Hutchinson recounts:

"Abu Walid was extremely intelligent and very easygoing. He was also very liberal, very much a modernist."

As for his view of bin Laden: "Abu Walid respected Osama for his manners. He said he was very humble (and) very charismatic. But he hated Wahhabis. He never saw Osama as a leader (and) never gave him the title ofemir."

Abu Walid's role in al-Qa'ida and his testy relationship with bin Laden is documented in a report by the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US Military Academy at West Point, Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in al-Qa'ida, 1989-2006.

The report notes that Abu Walid's defining feature was his pragmatism. "(He) approached jihad as, above all else, a military struggle" and believed "the foremost requirement of a jihadi strategy is that it be effective, not that it be ideologically pure or symbolically potent".

Abu Walid regarded bin Laden as a hopeless military commander. After a failed sortie led by bin Laden against the Russians in Afghanistan in 1989, Abu Walid likened it to a horde of children "being led to their doom by the pied piper". He declared that, had he been in charge, he would have court-martialled bin Laden and sentenced him to death. Abu Walid considered bin Laden's autocratic style "unhealthy" and wrote that al-Qa'ida's "limited mentality will always be disastrous to their operations".

Even after being appointed to the al-Qa'ida shura in 1998, in recognition of his skills as a strategist, Abu Walid continued his critique, describing its organisation in 2000 as "random chaos".

A close ally and intimate of Omar, Abu Walid believed the purpose of the jihad was creating an Afghan Islamic state, and that taking on the superpower would be suicidal.

"He thought it was absolute lunacy for anybody in Afghanistan to entertain the thought of taking on America," Hutchinson recalls. "He thought it was waving a red flag in front of a humungous enraged bull."

However bin Laden paid scant heed to such qualms, keeping his plan secret from all but his most loyal lieutenants until the eleventh hour.

As 2001 wore on, the al-Qa'ida chief was growing impatient. The planes operation had originally been slated for May 2001 but KSM needed more time. Bin Laden pestered him repeatedly to speed up the operation, according to KSM's testimony, recounted in the 9/11 Commission Report.

At one point a frustrated bin Laden remarked, "I will make it happen even if I do it by myself", according to one al-Qa'idadetainee.

It was not until late August that bin Laden notified the shura council an attack against the US would take place in the coming weeks. His announcement provoked furious debate, with a majority of the council opposed to it. Bin Laden ignored their objections while KSM said he would have carried on regardless even if the council had ordered him to cancel theoperation.

Among the most outspoken dissidents was Abu Walid, who called the 9/11 attack "a tragic example of an Islamic movement managed in an alarmingly meaningless way".

Another dissenter was Abu Walid's son-in-law Saif al-Adel, a fellow council member, who wrote that the attack had plunged the jihadist cause "from misfortune to disaster".

Hutchinson recalls being at Abu Walid's home in Kandahar watering the garden when the news of the attacks broke on September 11. "The whole place erupted. There was gunfire and people screaming and yelling out 'Allahu Akbar' (God is great) and blowing their car horns in the streets."

Abu Walid came running through the gate, shouting, "They've attacked the twin towers! The shabab (young men\) have flown planes into the World Trade Centre!"

A few hours later, after watching television footage of the twin towers collapsing, Abu Walid put his head in his hands and wept, "Y'Allah (oh God), what have they done?"

Afterwards Abu Walid became bin Laden's most strident critic. He declared that the US had achieved victory through "psychological warfare", by causing bin Laden to believe "that he had become a great and frightening superpower, thus his decisions and actions were influenced by that illusion".

In the wake of the attacks, as the US prepared to strike back at Afghanistan, the two factions of the al-Qa'ida leadership separated and fled in opposite directions. The moderates led by Abu Walid fled across Afghanistan's western border into Iran, where they were detained under house arrest by the Revolutionary Guards. Abu Walid is believed to be still imprisoned, incommunicado, in Iran.

Bin Laden and his loyalists fled into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan where they survived a relentless bombardment by US-led forces before crossing the border in December 2001 to take refuge in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

By 2002, al-Qa'ida and its Taliban allies seemed a spent force; divided, defeated and their numbers decimated. But several key factors conspired to enable their survival.

The first was the protection afforded them by elements of the Pakistan military and intelligence and the Islamist parties that controlled much of the northwest. The second was the fateful decision by the US - even as the jihadist movement was regrouping and rebuilding - to shift its focus to a new war, inIraq.

Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid writes in his book Descent into Chaos that Washington's response to the Taliban resurgence was "blanket denial". Afghanistan was ignored, "depriving US forces of the technical surveillance needed to catch bin Laden because everything had been shifted to Iraq". While the US and Australia were busy in Iraq, Pakistan's tribal belt was being transformed into terrorism central; the new launchpad for al-Qa'ida and a reinvigorated Taliban that today threatens the security and sovereignty of both Afghanistan and Pakistan itself.

The third factor that ensured al-Qa'ida's survival was the potent resonance of its cause, a fact the West has struggled to comprehend.

Vahid Brown from the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point writes: "Al-Qa'ida's real strength has never been as a guerilla fighting force. Rather, its strength comes from its ability to transform the local concerns of Islamist activists around the world into a unifying vision of apocalyptic inter-civilisational conflict."

The dichotomy was encapsulated in the internal struggle between the military purists such as Abu Walid, who saw al-Qa'ida primarily as a guerilla force, and the ideologues led by bin Laden who saw it essentially as a brand name, "a battle standard that could inspire and unify groups around the world engaged in violent Islamist resistance", in Brown's words.

In the end it was bin Laden's vision that prevailed, enabling al-Qa'ida to withstand the damage inflicted on its military strength. The global brand bin Laden envisaged has survived and flourished, and will continue to do so even if and when the man who created it is finally captured or killed.

Sally Neighbour is a senior reporter with The Australian and ABC's 4 Corners and author of In the Shadow of Swords and The Mother of Mohammed.
Interesting article! I've got her book In The Shadow of Swords sitting here actually, she got something quite wrong within the first 10 pages so I sidelined it. Might have to pick it up again.
Might be an idea, the 4 Corners mob have a good reputation. Mustafa Hamid gets the Yamamoto Prize. How was the mistake you noted factually inaccurate?
Just having picked it up after I wrote that, I'm not entirely happy with her translations of Arabic words- it seems they're either wrong or they've been dumbed down. I'll keep reading.