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
Last night it was reported that al-Qaeda’s overall deputy, Abu Khayr al-Masri, had been killed by the U.S.-led Coalition in Syria with a drone strike. This was soon seemingly confirmed by pro-Qaeda channels, and Abu al-Khayr was said to have been buried this morning. Though the emphasis on targeting jihadist leaders can be overdone, the demise of Abu al-Khayr is an important development, and one with significance beyond itself.
Abu al-Khayr’s career is demonstrative of a few interesting trends within the Jihadi-Salafist movement, primary among them the willingness of the Iranian revolution to work with the Sunni jihadists, al-Qaeda very much included, when it suits its purposes, particularly in undermining Western interests. Abu al-Khayr also elucidates the changed nature of al-Qaeda, where the “centre” (AQC) could now be said to be more in Syria than the Afghanistan-Pakistan, and where al-Qaeda operates both an overt and covert presence to try to secure a durable foothold in the Levant, which might in time be a base for attacks against the West, currently suspended only for tactical reasons. Continue reading
The Islamic State’s (IS) weekly newsletter, al-Naba, interviewed a high-ranking al-Qaeda defector, Abu Ubayda al-Lubnani, across two issues in February and March. Abu Ubayda appeared on a list of prominent clerics supporting IS’s caliphate declaration in February 2014, and two months later his defection from al-Qaeda to IS was announced by al-Battar. Abu Ubayda is described by al-Naba—as best as can be told accurately—as having been a member of al-Qaeda’s: Shura [Consultation] Council, a training officer in its Military Committee, and a counter-intelligence officer. Abu Ubayda is advertised as speaking about many secret aspects of al-Qaeda.
Among the topics Abu Ubayda covers is the alleged infiltration and manipulation of al-Qaeda by foreign intelligence services, specifically Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which is not only a violation of jihadist doctrine by collaborating with an “infidel” and illegitimate state but led to the deaths of a number of senior al-Qaeda leaders.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of what Abu Ubayda has to say relates to al-Qaeda’s attempt to take advantage of the Syrian revolution. This persistent campaign has followed a pattern of disguising al-Qaeda’s presence and attempting to influence and eventually co-opt the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One lever al-Qaeda relied upon, according to Abu Ubayda, was Ahrar al-Sham, an organization that disclaims all connections to al-Qaeda and dissimulates about its ideology. Whatever Ahrar’s dominant ideology, it is simply a fact that it has served as the bridge between the foreign-led jihadists and Syrian Islamists, and its connections to al-Qaeda are evident enough. Abu Ubayda suggests Ahrar’s connections to al-Qaeda are even deeper than they appear. Continue reading
The Islamic Republic of Iran released five senior al-Qaeda terrorists in March, ostensibly as part of a prisoner exchange for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Yemen by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But the murky circumstances in which al-Qaeda’s leaders were “held” in Iran and other inconsistencies cast some doubt on this version of events, and draw attention to some old questions about Iran’s support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates and offshoots. Continue reading