Posts Tagged ‘Osama bin laden’

Slightly late posting here, but a longer review for my institutional journal RUSI Journal of two excellent recent books about terrorism – Al Qaeda’s Revenge by Fernando Reinares and The Exile by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark.

Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings/The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden


As an expression of human behaviour, politically motivated violence or terrorism is a constant. There will be extremists on most political spectrums and some of these will feel a need to use violence to awaken everyone else to their cause. Terrorists may occasionally come up with tactical innovations and ideological mutations, but their essential behaviour (the sorts of violence they will resort to) is generally repetitive. Although lone actors – instigated, inspired or directed by Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) – have received much attention, the reality is that even this expression of terrorism is deeply linked to what has been previously enacted. Similarly, government reactions are remarkably repetitive, seemingly unaware of lessons from the past. This excellent pair of books highlights these realities, drawing on extensive research into well-trodden stories, generating new insights and clarifying the nature of past threats, those we are currently confronting and what they will look like in the future.

The new details and insights offered by these books are striking, especially since the subjects have been written about substantially. Fernando Reinares’s authoritative review of the 2004 Madrid bombings draws on a wealth of new material from security sources, court documents and more, to tell the story of the brutal attack that remains Europe’s most deadly terrorist atrocity linked to violent Islamists. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s pacey volume reads like an action thriller, and draws on a wealth of interviews conducted with security officials, members of Al-Qa’ida and others, alongside an impressive wealth of new material to tell the story of Al-Qa’ida after the 9/11 attacks from the group’s perspective. Other books have dug into aspects of this tale, but this is the first work to provide details about what went on inside the Al-Qa’ida cluster that fled to Iran after the fall of Tora Bora in December 2001, and the centrality of Osama bin Laden’s family to the group’s post-Afghanistan journeys.

The shocking nature of individual terrorist attacks often leads to the conclusion that such attacks are a complete surprise. When these incidents occur, they seem to reflect a gap in the knowledge of security and intelligence agencies, which may seem unfathomable to the public. And indeed, the reality is that subsequent investigation usually uncovers connections, contacts and prior knowledge. Information that was previously ignored or overlooked assumes a greater importance, and with hindsight a clear story of how the attack slipped through undetected can be told. Whether the fault lies with inadequate oversight by relevant authorities or with the ability of the attackers to disguise their activities becomes a point of conjecture. Nonetheless, it usually emerges that security forces were aware of the groups that conducted the attack.

More recently this conventional pattern of how terrorists behave and how authorities respond has become more complex. The recent spate of lone-actor attacks, in which individuals appear to have acted on behalf of terrorist groups with which they have no discernible link, has started to confuse the picture. However, as research has shown, often the individual has some connections or demonstrated some activity that would show him or her to be less isolated than might initially appear.

After every incident there is a scramble to uncover what links exist and who might have known about them before the event took place. Ultimately, the aim is to apportion blame and explain the atrocity. However, often the information that comes out in the immediate aftermath of the incident is incomplete and incorrect.

These two books show in different ways how the consequences of this can be dramatic – something that was particularly visible in the wake of the Madrid bombings, when the government suggested that the atrocity might have been committed by ETA, the Basque separatist organisation. It soon emerged that the incident was in fact the product of a violent Islamist cell, which released messages claiming the attack. But many have linked this confusion and the degree to which the government was blamed for spreading the false rumour to the ultimate fall of the government of then Prime Minister José María Aznar. The most dramatic consequence was that Spain withdrew its forces from Iraq, in line with a campaign pledge by incoming Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Many have pointed to the link between the bombing and the withdrawal as evidence of successful political manipulation as a result of terrorism.

Yet, as Reinares shows in Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings by drawing on previously less well-covered meetings of senior Al-Qa’ida figures, the planning of the plot went back further than Spain’s decision to participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq. He traces it to December 2001, when two North African Al-Qa’ida-linked men plotted in Karachi to make Spain suffer. Of Moroccan descent, Amer Azizi and Abdelatif Mourafik had jihadist pedigree and, in Reinares’s account, harboured anger towards Spain that was in part a reflection of their failed attempts at jihadist overthrow in North Africa. Linked to both the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the men felt deep anger towards Spain, a power with historical and current influence over North Africa. In February 2002, they met again in Istanbul and decided to strengthen and develop the necessary networks in Western Europe and their home countries to launch a terrorist campaign, coordinated with the acquiescence of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian extremist who established Al-Qa’ida in Iraq soon afterwards. Attacks in Casablanca followed in May 2003, and in Madrid in March 2004.

As is often the case, Spanish authorities were on to the network, but had clamped down on only part of it. As the attacks in Madrid took place, a major counterterrorism operation was being brought to its conclusion in court, with 24 men facing trial after Operation Datil led to them being charged with involvement in terrorist networks. Some of the key figures in the 3/11 cell (as the group responsible for the Madrid bombings is known) expected to be detained as part of this arrest, and arguably the failure of the Spanish authorities to capture them may have accelerated the cell’s activity. This pattern was repeated in August 2017 by the terrorist cell that attacked Barcelona.

There are further similarities with more contemporary events. Reinares identifies the cell as one that used robbery and the proceeds of drugs as a way to raise money for its jihadist activity. Describing them as ‘common delinquents turned into jihadists’, we hear how a number spent time in prison, where they were radicalised or made important connections. In general, there is a lack of clarity about the degree of direction from Al-Qa’ida Core: the strong connections between the cell and Al-Qaida’s leadership are repeatedly claimed, but specific direction is not always clear. The book points out that Osama bin Laden’s first threat message to reference Spain was released in October 2003. The day after the message emerges, the first known allusion to the bombing’s specific date is found in Molenbeek, Brussels: a date written on a piece of paper. A member of the Moroccan network affiliated with Al-Qa’ida is based there. The link to Molenbeek is relevant not only to the current wave of Daesh attacks, but also to the attack last year in Barcelona. The key preacher, Abdelbaki Es Satty, had spent some time in Molenbeek before the attack, something that highlights the persistence of certain locations as focuses for radicalisation and terrorism.

In the wake of the Madrid attack, the cell decided to first claim responsibility (after watching the confusion in the media about ETA’s responsibility), and then countermand a ceasefire declaration issued by Al-Qa’ida after the result of the Spanish election on 14 March, three days after the attack. Al-Qa’ida was keen to recognise the political message delivered through the election result, while the cell in Spain planned to continue its fight. This confusion highlights a key problem in the decentralised approach in terrorist plotting – by delegating responsibility and autonomy, control of the action on the ground is lost, which can lead to a perversion of the intended message. A similar confusion can be found in the attacks on London Bridge in 2017, when the acclamation expressed by Daesh-affiliated accounts online was matched by the opprobrium from accounts more closely linked with Al-Qa’ida.

This is a possible outcome of this sort of globalised insurgency. Abu Musab Al-Suri – whose whereabouts remain unclear – has achieved semi-mythical status in jihadist circles. This key ideologue is one of the few remaining senior figures in Al-Qa’ida whose death has not been confirmed and was last known to have been placed in a Syrian jail in 2014. Appearing in both books, he provides a link between the past and present, highlighting how the activities of Al-Qa’ida as a network have evolved from the pre-9/11 world, through the misery of the Madrid bombings to current-day Syria. In a particularly worrying hint of what might be, the leader of the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat Al-Nusrah, Abu Muhammad Al-Jawlani, is reported in Scott-Clark and Levy’s book as being a big fan of Al-Suri’s work, and while he eschewed Al-Suri’s push towards seeding Europe with lone-actor cells, he championed the theoretician’s approach to war and beseeches his fighters to read his texts.

Scott-Clark and Levy explicitly address this connection between past and present in their introduction. The text repeatedly shows the links between Al-Qa’ida, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Daesh and current events. The character of Hamza bin Laden is a key figure throughout the text, as Osama bin Laden’s clear heir among his many children, and the book ends by highlighting him as the group’s new figurehead. All of this happens as Hamza bin Laden assumes an increasingly prominent role in public, releasing videos calling others to arms and, most recently, eulogising his dead father. A growing number of profiles have now been written about him suggesting he might be the harbinger of a reborn Al-Qa’ida, and Scott-Clark and Levy show him being shuttled between safe houses and mentors as the group seeks to keep him and the rest of the Al-Qa’ida leadership and their families alive and safe.

The most striking part of The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden is the account of the time many members of Al-Qa’ida spent in prison in Iran. Quickly recognised by the Iranian authorities as useful pawns in a larger global strategic game, the Al-Qa’ida leaders and their families spent many years being moved between prisons, alternately given relatively lenient treatment and kept under tight control. The book reports occasional protests and escapes as the Iranian authorities try to play a game of controlling and using the people under their charge. This aspect of the Al-Qa’ida tale is one that has not previously been told in such detail; it is fascinating given that this is a story of a fundamentalist Sunni group aligning itself with a theocratic Shia regime – both of which have regularly condemned each other. Yet clearly Iran sees a bigger potential game at hand, and even figures such as the Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, feature in the Iranians’ discussion about what to do with the group of Al-Qa’ida men, women and children.

Scott-Clark and Levy also show how badly Iran played its hand in this story. Unable to control the group of Al-Qa’ida fighters, the Iranians tried to manipulate the members to advance their goals or do their bidding. But they failed, and instead, the group ended up using Iran as a staging point to undertake violence elsewhere. It is not always clear whether this was done with Iran’s full acquiescence, but it is just one instance the authors provide of how difficult it is to manipulate such groups. Similarly, Western (and particularly American) efforts frequently come under fire, as Scott-Clark and Levy condemn the Americans’ use of torture and show how these actions fed the radicals’ narrative. For example, Aafia Siddiqui, the US-educated Pakistani neuroscientist who was painted in public as a mastermind of Al-Qa’ida, is here depicted as an ethereal figure whose exact role in the organisation is never clear, but whose torture and disappearance become a cause célèbre for Islamists around the world.

The story, of course, has no conclusion except that this conflict is not going to end in the foreseeable future. In Scott-Clark and Levy’s interpretation of the Abbottabad documents (captured when US Navy SEALs stripped the property where they shot Osama bin Laden), they see a network that is regrouping and continuing on its trajectory of conflict. Incidentally, they are angry that these documents were released in choice leaks to friendly journalists, which they say was intended to paint a picture of a group in decline – something which by the time of publication of The Exile had been rectified through a massive data dump by the CIA. They see little optimism in Pakistan’s behaviour, or that of other supposed allies who are likely to be feeding the conflict for their own reasons. And when looking at what might be done to counter such groups, they add a healthy dose of scepticism to the idea that voices countering extremist ideologies might work. The totemic jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi made a substantial assault on Daesh by rebuking its ideas and approaches, but this had done little to stunt the group’s appeal. Rather, he spoke to an earlier generation whose ability to exert influence over the current wave of potential extremists may have passed.

And this in some ways is one of the bleaker conclusions to draw from these books: terrorist groups have long narratives and histories, and are focused on horizons that extend well beyond those of the security services and governments they are fighting against. The past determines the present, and the present determines the future. Thus far, the West has been unable to stay ahead of the curve, and there is little evidence that it will be able to in the future. Both of these books help to cast a clearer light on the past and its links to the present, and how persistent and dangerous the terrorist threat that we face from violent Islamist groups, and Al-Qa’ida in particular, remains. 

A new book review for International Affairs, this time of Dr Fawaz Gerges The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda for Oxford University Press. Another short book that reads like a long essay, and has some interesting detail in it. Unfortunately, the review itself is behind a firewall, so you’ll have to reach out to me directly if you want a copy. Should they decide to post it openly like previous ones, I will be sure to add it here. For those with a password, you will be able to find the review here.

The rise and fall of Al-Qaeda. By Fawaz A. Gerges. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2011. 214pp. Index. £15.99. ISBN 978 0 19979 065 4.

A new post for Free Rad!cals, this time using the case of Umar Patek, the Bali bomber just going on trial in Indonesia, to explore some bigger themes about terrorist networks that I wrote about in an earlier journal article. I should add that it was also sparked off by the fact that I happened to catch late last week the National Geographic show Seconds from Disaster: Bali Bombing that highlighted a detail I had not really noticed before about the plot, and that was that a device also blew up in front of the US Consulate in Bali at the same time as the bombings. The show seemed to conclude that there was a connection. As usual reactions or thoughts welcome.

Peripatetic Jihadi

View more articles by Raff Pantucci

Filed under: Philippines, Terrorism

The case opens this week in Jakarta against Umar Patek, aka Hisyam Bin Alizein also known as “Demolition Man,” one of the supposed key bomb-makers in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed some 202 people. Captured just over a year ago in Abbotabad, the start of his trial is being referred to as that of the “last remaining” terrorists responsible for that attack, and therefore possibly bringing closure to that case. It also seems to be another nail in the coffin for his much degraded al-Qaeda affiliated network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the formerly menacing Southeast Asian terror network that was responsible for the Bali bombings and a number of other attacks on Western interests and Christians in the region.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to focus on Patek’s group (for that I would recommend the work of Sidney Jones of the International Crisis GroupZachary Abuza of Simmons College and Ken Conboy’s book The Second Front), but rather to focus on the individual as a figure within a terrorist network and use him as a case study for examination of different roles such individuals can play. My thinking was set off by a line in this excellent AP report that claims to draw on police interrogation and other documents that detail the “peripatetic life Patek led.” A truly global jihadi, Patek seems to have been fluent in English, computer savvy, recruited early into JI, and travelled extensively amongst radical groups across Asia setting up cells and support networks wherever he went. His role in the Bali bombing seems to have been as the explosives expert who arrived in Denpasar weeks prior to the attack to assemble the device, before leaving two days prior to the actual bombing.

But the question is whether we should view Patek as a lone wanderer who simply travelled through the parallel world of global jihadism, or whether we should see him as a key fixer whose movements reflected a calculated set of opportunities that all furthered his organisation’s goals. Or in other words, should we see him as a “middle manager” (as PeterRyan and myself laid out in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism) or is he in fact more of a Ramzi Yousef figure (the man responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who seems to have wandered the world seeing himself as something of an international playboy terrorist figure). The distinction is interesting as it serves to highlight the importance of the different figures within terrorist networks – the middle manager versus the itinerant fighter.

It is not immediately clear which group Patek falls into. Apparently recruited by fellow Bali plotter Dulmatin in the early 1990s/late 1980s, Patek claims to have been trained at a militant camp in Sadda province, Pakistan and then in Turkhom, Afghanistan from 1991-1994. He describes his courses as being “from basic to very difficult.” Following this, he returned to Indonesia from where he was dispatched to neighboring Philippines where he helped run a joint training camp JI established with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao. According to regional expert Zachary Abuza, he helped build the camp into a major centre, and in 1999-2000, following the fall of President Suharto, he seems to have been part of a group of exiled JI leaders who came home to Indonesia from where he is believed to have helped in a number of bombings. In 2002, Imam Samudra, the man described as the “commander” of the Bali operation, asked him to help the group build a bomb. He moved to Bali and spent around a month there mixing explosives while fellow radical Dulmatin built the timers. He then left the island prior to the attacks and ended up in the Philippines with his wife and fellow plotter Dulmatin and his family.

According to one report quoting Dulmatin’s wife, they stayed with MILF helping train the group and providing a support network for operatives back in Indonesia until 2004 when peace talks between the MILF and government meant they could no longer host them. The men transferred themselves to the protection of the Abu Sayyaf group, another Philippine Islamist terrorist network. From here they continued to plot and help train networks until 2009 when they separately snuck back into Indonesia. Dulmatin appears to have decided that Aceh was an area ripe for establishing a training camp and set off to develop al-Qaeda in Aceh while Patek instead told investigators that he wanted to fight on a bigger battlefield and instead headed towards Afghanistan-Pakistan. A temporarily smart choice as Indonesian forces reacted rapidly and heavily to the news of al-Qaeda affiliate in Aceh, killing Dulmatin in a shoot-out in March 2010.

Using false identities, Patek and his wife snuck to Lahore sometime in 2010, though the details of his journey there are not entirely clear. One report pointed to him attending a mysterious meeting of Southeast Asian jihadists in Mecca in between. However, by early 2011 he was in Abbotabad where he was in contact with a known al-Qaeda operative whom Pakistani authorities had become aware of (or their American friends were watching and telling them about). Trailing this connector, Tahir Shehzad, the Pakistanis were first able to grab a pair of French jihadis who were heading to the lawless Northwest Frontier Province and then eventually catch Patek.

So we can see how Patek was a key plotter, bomb-maker, trainer, terrorist with connections to JI’s networks as well as al-Qaeda networks in Pakistan. But does this make him a “middle manager” or something else? In our previous article, Peter, Ryan and myself define the “middle management” in al-Qaeda as:


The middle management combines several of the characteristics of the top leadership and the grass-roots. Like the top leadership, middle managers are experienced and skilled, and maintain contact with members of the leadership. They may have met bin Laden, but do not necessarily have a close, personal relationship. Importantly, they are not permanently based in the tribal areas but have returned to their home countries or other non-battlefront states, sometimes travelling back and forth, building support networks and raising money for the global jihad. Like the grass-roots, then, their outlook and ideology is global but most of their activities are focused locally.


In many ways Patek would fit this profile: he was clearly in contact with top leaders (it would be surprising if his presence in Abbotabad, where bin Laden was killed was merely a coincidence, and the fact he was able to hide for so long in Indonesia with such a substantial bounty on his head must have meant he was well connected there), he was widely travelled and helped establish support networks for his organization, and was certainly a skilled and experienced warrior.

But the distinction of him from the “middle management” community comes into play when we focus on him as a figure who travelled around a lot aligning himself with whatever local terrorist network he was able to connect with. Clearly, his first allegiance lay with his home group, JI, but he seems to have been at ease building up MILF and Abu Sayyaf – though in both cases he appears to have also been supporting JI networks from a distance. However, when his old comrade Dulmatin asked him to join him in Aceh, he declined, instead wanting to join the jihad in Afghanistan. Something suggestive of a personality more inclined to jihadist activity in support of a global movement than the maybe more parochial Indonesian focus suggested by establishing operations in Aceh. Seen in this light, we can view Patek as part of the community of itinerant jihadists to have emerged from the mess of Afghanistan in the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on bringing murder and mayhem wherever they could in advance of their vision of violent Islamism. Travelling around Southeast Asia, Patek provided support and his bomb construction skills wherever he could; aiding whichever group he was with at the time.

The importance of this distinction is not simply academic. The “middle manager” figure can be hard to identify, but is crucial in providing connective tissue between a radical group’s leadership and the warriors in the field carrying out operations, while the freewheeling itinerant jihadist is a dangerous figure who simply has to be tracked down and captured. The latter figure can sometimes act as a “middle manager” but is a far more operational individual who is dangerous as a highly trained terrorist with a global grudge. The middle manager probably lacks this operational edge, but this will make them a harder figure to identify.

Of course, the specifics of Umar Patek’s case may come out further in the course of his trial. His long career and close affiliation with various terrorist networks point to an individual that is best kept off the streets – whether he was a “middle manager” or something else.

There are two unrelated loose ends to Patek’s tale I will end on. Specifically, his capture in the same town as bin Laden is a curiosity and makes one wonder whether he was on his way to meet the leader or whether al-Qaeda simply use the city as a way point with the junior leadership having no idea that they are in the same city as their leader (something that would be a particularly audacious approach to protecting bin Laden). I wonder if more on this will ever come out. And secondly, whatever happened to the two Frenchmen who were supposedly captured prior to Patek’s capture by following the same courier that led to Patek? The story of his capture is still a bit murky, but from what I can tell, those two individuals (described as “of Pakistani origin [and] the other described as a white Muslim convert”) are still out there somewhere, presumably in custody. If anyone has come across any stories about them, please feel free to send them my way.


Slightly belatedly another review in a new journal, this time for Chatham House’s International Affairs journal, looking at Frazer Egerton’s “Jihad in the West: The Rise of Militant Salafism” for Cambridge University Press. I see that the publisher liked my review and have already incorporated it into their webpage for the site. The book was a quick read and provided a good overview of a number of streams of thinking about jihad. Unlike other reviews I post here, it seems as though Chatham House publish these through their website, so I have pasted the full text below (with a link at the top that gets through to all the reviews in that edition of the journal).

Jihad in the West: the rise of militant Salafism. By Frazer Egerton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011. 222pp. Index. Pb.: £18.99. isbn 978 0 52117 581 4.

Why do they hate us? This burning question lies at the heart of much research and writing on the troublesome issue of why young men and women born or raised in the West can turn so violently against it. The key to understanding, according to Frazer Egerton, is a set of questions around identity formation among a self-selecting community of people in the West drawn to an ideology he defines as ‘militant Salafism’.

Given its centrality in the text, it is useful to highlight exactly how Egerton defines his ideology: ‘Militant Salafism is a movement inspired by a religious and political metanarrative that demands militancy in the face of alleged Western hostility towards Islam’ (p. 21). The rest of the book is an attempt to pry into the many different explanations that have been provided into what draws young people ‘either born or who have lived for a consider- able time in the West’ (p. 6) towards this ideology. Separate chapters focus on ‘alienation’ (chapter two), the ‘political imaginary’ (chapter three), ‘hypermedia’ (chapter four) and ‘movement’ (chapter five)—a final chapter (six, there is also a brief conclusion) brings this all together, summarizing why it is that these ideas catch on among such a concentrated community.

In each chapter, Egerton is assiduous in citing academia and providing case-studies from the panoply of Islamist terror cells that have troubled the West. Particular cases seem to occur more frequently, like the September 11 Hamburg cell, with Egerton making the astute point that it is Ziad Jarrah (the Lebanese hijacker who crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania) ‘who seemed for so much of his politically and religiously moderate life to be detached from the issues allegedly inspiring militant Salafism’ (p. 159) who often attracts the most attention.

The reason for this is that Jarrah, unlike cell leader Mohammed Atta, who is repeat- edly described as dour and serious, was a cheery sort from an affluent family, making him a surprising candidate for an ideology that is often described as being rooted in grievance and alienation. Egerton’s chapter on alienation focuses on how ‘infuriatingly loosely’ it has been defined in the past (p. 43) and points out the many contradictions in using alienation as an explanation for terrorism.

Instead, he posits the greater importance of the ‘political imaginary’ and the role of what he characterizes as ‘hypermedia’ in conjuring a narrative that draws young men in. Both of these chapters are well written and offer some interesting insights into the role of the internet, radical preachers, videos and other ideological paraphernalia in fostering the violent ‘militant Salafist’ identity. His points on the ‘deterritorialization’ of the globalized world and the ‘fluidity in identity’ it generates (p. 61) cast some useful light on the topic. Similarly, the importance of images and the dislocating effect they can have throws some incisive analysis onto their role in persuading individuals to become involved in terrorist groups.

Unfortunately, the subsequent chapter on ‘movement’ is slightly less sharp. Egerton makes the rather obvious point that most individuals involved in ‘militant Salafism’ in the West have at some point in their lives travelled and a majority are immigrants. As the chapter goes on, it becomes clearer that he is pointing to the idea that this motion in part explains the globalized ummah narrative that is at the heart of so many extremists explanations for their actions. What is underestimated is the importance of travelling to fight or train in persuading young westerners to participate in jihad. The thrill of participating in a clandes- tine army is significant in understanding the appeal of jihadism to young men in the West.

This introduces another point that seems to be missing. Egerton quite correctly highlights the importance of charismatic leaders who provide others with figures to emulate (p. 142), but he misses a tactical point. Often it is already active extremists who provide the connective tissue that helps transform the radical individual into an active terrorist. When asking the question of why some join and others do not, it is sometimes just the absence of this connection that might be the answer.

Furthermore, the selection for Egerton’s database may have accidentally dated his conclu- sions. The radical narrative that drew in Ziad Jarrah and Mohammed Atta and the path they took is different from that which persuaded young Arid Uka to pick up a pistol and shoot two American servicemen as they waited to be deployed at Frankfurt Airport. And while Uka’s actions may have taken place after Egerton had completed his research, Nicky Reilly’s, the young Muslim convert who tried to blow himself up in an Exeter restaurant in May 2008, did not. The lure of jihad clearly continues to exist, its manifestations are evolving, and while Egerton has effectively distilled the existing research into some incisive points, the subject is one that is so live that it almost immediately requires refreshing.

Raffaello Pantucci, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, UK

Another book review for Terrorism and Political Violence journal, this time about Camille Tawil’s excellent “Brothers in Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists.” The book looks at the evolution of the various Arab groups that evolved out of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets and later melded with al Qaeda in the 1990s. Rich in entertaining anecdotes and interviews with primary players, the book offers a detailed view on the trials and tribulations of the Egyptian, Libyan, Algerian, Syrian and other factions as they tried to first bring jihad back to their nations after Afghanistan and then became part of the community of itinerant holy warriors that became one of the backbones of al Qaeda. It is particularly interesting to read about Ayman al Zawahiri in this context, as you get a sense of his leadership skills and capabilities suggesting a drop in al Qaeda core’s capability now that Osama is dead.

The review is, unfortunately, behind a firewall. But if you reach out, I may be able to help you get a copy.

A longer paper on the current state of the Islamist terrorist threat to Europe ten years on from 9/11 for Chatham House. It was written and presented prior to news of Awlaki’s death, so that is not included, but I do not think it alters a huge amount the thrust of the piece, except to shift the threat a bit from AQAP. I have a feeling his death will have an impact on western radicalisation, as I do think individual religious leaders like himself are important in getting young European’s excited. Will explore that in another longer piece I have forthcoming, but in the meantime here is the paper:

And a link to the event: – it was part of the European Security and Defence Forum series that Chatham House run, and thanks to Benoit and Claire for the invitation to attend and the efforts with the paper!

A new piece for Foreign Policy, this time in reaction to Ilyas Kashmiri’s possible death. The ideas have been percolating around for a while and the possible death of Kashmiri inspired me to put pen to paper. I am not entirely sure I have given them enough space here – understanding better the importance of these leaders within the context of these groups is something that needs a bit more clinical examination in my mind and is something that I will try to explore in a longer text once I have some time. In the meantime, if anyone comes across any good texts or articles on the topic, please forward them on!

Al Qaeda’s Toughest Task

Slain jihadi leaders like Ilyas Kashmiri and Osama bin Laden aren’t so easily replaced.


The reported death last week of Ilyas Kashmiri, the notorious jihadi leader — if true — is merely the latest in a long line of decapitations of al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Osama bin Laden fell a few weeks before him, and men described as “senior” or “important” leaders, like Baitullah and Abdullah Mehsud, Hamza Rabia, Mohammed Atef, Saeed al-Masri, and others, have fallen before them.

But does cutting the head off the snake really matter? Can’t they just be replaced by the next militant waiting in the wings?

Not so easily. Although the consensus among experts is often that the deaths of such tactically and ideologically important leaders do not destroy groups, their loss does have an effect. Kashmiri’s death will not herald the end of violence in Pakistan or the threat to the West, but it will reduce al Qaeda’s capacity to strike. Long-standing warrior leaders are important figures in the ideological clash against groups believing themselves in a millenarian struggle. Bringing the big men down will help accelerate their groups’ demise.

Leaders like Kashmiri, who lost a finger and an eye in the Afghan war against the Soviets, are able to provide inspiration through their biographies. His time as a fighter in Afghanistan and Kashmir gave him connections across groups and networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and gave him a reputation as a fierce warrior leader. He built this personal narrative and connections into a formidable network operating under the name 313 Brigade, in reference to the 313 companions who fought alongside the Prophet Mohammed at the Battle of Badr, and was named by Masri as the leader of al Qaeda in Kashmir. He was also clearly effective in providing direction to terrorist cells, as shown by his suspected involvement in the May 22 attack on Karachi’s naval base (his latest attack on the Pakistani state), strikes in India coordinated from his base in Pakistan, and his ambitious plan to attack newspaper offices in Copenhagen.

A similar portrait can be painted of bin Laden. His life story embodied the jihadi ideal of an Islamist warrior giving up everything to fight against the unbelievers. His strong connections to the community of wealthy Gulf Arabs with deep pockets and pro-jihadi sympathies strengthened his inspirational role and made him a prize asset for al Qaeda. Many other longtime leaders and warriors fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan — their histories and connections stretching back to before the current conflict — claim the same mythical status.

But Kashmiri and bin Laden will be hard to replace. Their historical roles as front-line warriors not only earned them credibility with other local militants, but also brought them into contact with the community of regional and global warriors, giving them tentacles around the world. Bin Laden’s network is well-known while Kashmiri’s is currently on display in Chicago, where a key trial witness named David Coleman Headley is highlighting connections between Kashmiri — seemingly his key al Qaeda contact — and cells in the United States, Britain, India, and Sweden.

New leaders tend to either be less strategically seasoned or prove unable to replicate the formula the old leader had. Al Qaeda in Iraq was never the same after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, and Yemen’s Aden-Abyan Islamic Army never really survived the death of its leader Abu al-Hassan, instead becoming subsumed by regional al Qaeda-linked cells. In both cases, the deaths of leaders with contacts and celebrity deprived the groups of their appeal. This means fewer recruits, less funding, and less capacity to launch audacious plots. Spectacular attacks like May 22’s brazen assault on Karachi’s naval base, which some have linked to Kashmiri, require great nerve and audacity to pull off, driven by an inspirational figure who can convince fighters to die for the cause.

Technical skills also matter. Bomb-makers often prove to be an essential ingredient in making an effective terrorist organization. In Yemen, it may be Anwar al-Awlaki who provides the English-language narrative that is drawing young Western fighters to his side, but it is Ibrahim al-Asiri who is building the innovative bombs with which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to penetrate airport security. Both play key roles and, if removed, would damage their organization.

But neither of these individuals has the caliber or longevity of Kashmiri or bin Laden. Asiri’s technical skills, like those of numerous other master bomb-makers before him, are replicable: They can be written down, taught, and ultimately learned by others. Awlaki’s stirring rhetoric and message would be missed, but he has not yet managed to enter the pantheon of leaders of global jihadism and is still learning the ropes as a jihadi preacher.

When dealing with a terrorist organization like al Qaeda or Brigade 313, it is unlikely that what comes next is going to be any different from what came before. For this reason, it doesn’t much matter whether key jihadi leaders are eliminated, because their successors will likely follow the same radical path. Al Qaeda in Iraq may have been damaged by the death of its butcher-in-chief Zarqawi, and there is little evidence that the group has deradicalized in his absence.

But when dealing with a tribal insurgency like the Taliban, the radicalization that results from decapitating strikes can backfire. Those who follow are likely to be more radical than their predecessors and carry additional grudges that will impede them from putting down arms. The tribal codes that dictate life in Pakistan’s lawless provinces and Afghanistan often demand a response that may supersede reason.

Drone strikes and SEAL teams directed by strong intelligence are waging an effective war in bringing down key leaders in al Qaeda. With the deaths of bin Laden and Kashmiri — two irreplaceable giants of the global jihad — we can at least start to see the end of the core group hiding in Pakistan.

My first contribution to the ongoing hyper-covered story – this one for the Oriental Morning Post. Some more bits on this forthcoming. For the whole thing in Mandarin see here (have also pasted it below including images).

Is the War Over?

The death of Osama bin Laden is unlikely to make any major difference in the immediate war on terrorism, but nonetheless it is a big psychological victory for the United States. Historians will look back at this moment as a major marker in the conflict against Al Qaeda and her affiliates, and it is likely the beginning of a long trajectory by which the group slowly fades as the global force that it previously was. Coming almost ten years after Al Qaeda burst into the world’s collective consciousness, this is a significant moment that closes an important chapter in recent history.

The immediate impact to China of this event is going to be limited – but it is going to mark a shift in America’s involvement in South Asia and this will have major longer-term repercussions for the region.

The relief at his death was tangible in Washington, where less than an hour after the news had broken, crowds gathered outside the White House waving flags and singing the national anthem. President Obama spoke of “the death of bin Laden” as the “most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda.” And for the large industry of commentators, thinkers and security officials that had been trying to track him down or read what his next move was going to be, this is indeed an important moment. At a personal level, as someone who has been following his movement as a researcher for many years, it feels like something important has indeed taken place. Some certainty that progress is being made by the forces trying to defeat Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, concerns remain about what this means in practical terms.

Osama bin Laden first founded Al Qaeda in the wake of his experiences as a young man fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. A young idealist who gave up a life as a Saudi prince to live the life of a travelling holy warrior, he decided that victory against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was not enough. Instead, he wanted to push on and defeat the other great power of the day America, showing the power of God’s message. And so he launched a global jihad against America and her allies, creating in Sudan, Afghanistan and finally Pakistan a set of mobile training camps were other holy warriors could come and train with him before being sent back to carry out their deadly trade wherever they were able.

And initially, the organization Al Qaeda (whose name translates as “The Base”) was directly ruled and controlled by this man. He was closely involved with the plotting of the organization’s first attacks: the 1998 double bombings of US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania that killed some 200 people; the 2000 attack on a US battleship off Yemen that resulted 19 deaths; and the 2001 attack on New York and Washington that led to some 3,000 deaths. It was this last attack that brought him to global attention, leading to American invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq and an explosion globally of interest in his extremist message of imposing Islamic shariah law violently around the world.

But this reaction also forced him to go underground. Reports to emerge from his inner circle show that he may not have been expecting the sort of reaction that his attacks got, and as a result his role as an operational manager for the group seems to have gone down as he withdrew into hiding.

Instead, the direct operational role of plotting terrorist attacks to advance his ideas has been taken up by many middle managers in his organization that have plotted and carried out numerous attacks around the world in his name. Plots in London, Istanbul, Tunisia, Bali, and across Afghanistan and Pakistan can all be linked to the group he founded. In addition to this, the message that he proclaimed found a resonance amongst other terrorist networks in different parts of the globe. Groups in North Africa, Somalia and Yemen all claimed some part of his message and started to publish messages in which they directly praised and thanked him for his leadership. And beyond these organized groups, young overexcited men and women seeking meaning in their lives found his message of global anti-Americanism appealing and tried to carry out actions in its name.

No matter how decreased his role as an operational leader was, however, his role as a figurehead for Al Qaeda and for the global Islamist movement was significant. His regular recorded messages from what we now know was a compound in Abbottabad were waited for with baited breath and listened to attentively by followers around the world. His continuing concealed existence was a symbol to radicals that the war was ongoing and that victory was maybe possible. And his death within this context is important both for those who are fighting for him and against him. This is a war of ideas and he was the lead messenger for the other side.

Of course, Al Qaeda’s many affiliate groups will use this as an opportunity to strike back at the west. Cells connected to the core network operating out of Afghanistan and Pakistan will no doubt take this as a sign to attempt to launch attacks globally. And beyond this immediate reaction, in the medium-term we will continue to see regional groups from North Africa, Somalia and Yemen attempting to launch deadly strikes from their bases. Already this year we have seen numerous deadly attacks around the world and it is likely that they will continue. The war will go on.

But nevertheless, an important leader has been killed by what was an audacious and verifiable strike by American forces in Pakistan. This shows that the west is able to strike successfully and is indeed fighting a war in which it is slowly grinding its enemy Al Qaeda down, something that makes people fighting for Al Qaeda’s ideas on the ground increasingly question what they are doing. In much the same way that the civil unrest in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya confused Al Qaeda since it showed that people could overthrow long-term dictators using public protest and did not have to resort to mass murder as Osama bin Laden and his friends called for, his death must make them wonder about what their prospects of victory are. No matter what is said, his death will help lower Al Qaeda’s global appeal to some degree.

The significance of all of this to China is somewhat low in the short term. China was, and is, seen as a second tier target by the group. But in the long term this signifies that American attention and involvement in Afghanistan and South Asia is going to decrease. President Obama had been looking for a way to get out of the wars he inherited since he came into office and this will now give him a clear signal that he accelerate this process. Ten years on from Al Qaeda’s most successful strike against the west in September 2001, the United States government has the lead plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Guantanamo and has now killed the ideological head of the group. While American security planners know this is not the end of Islamist inspired terrorism against them, politicians know that the problem will now slowly be relegated into second place in the public’s attention. And this means that a process that had already started with President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan last year will continue as the President tries to extricate his nation from the religiously fuelled civil wars that are causing so much misery in South Asia.

The danger to China comes in the details of how the assassination strike was carried out. Early news reports indicate that the operation was conducted by American forces with limited Pakistani knowledge or awareness, something that is unsurprising from the perspective of the current high tensions between Pakistan and the United States. But it also seems as though Osama was living in a rather obvious compound not far from the capital, under conditions that seem like they should have been noted at the nearby military bases. The suggestion therefore is that the Pakistani government is still not tackling the beast of radicalism within its country effectively, and this means that a terrorist haven of some sort still exists on China’s borders.

This is of course something that also remains an American and western problem. In the past few years, we have seen a number of large-scale and high profile plots be organized and directed from Pakistan and in the wake of Osama’s death these will continue. Clearly, American and NATO security forces in Afghanistan will need to continue to fight on the ground to make sure these plots are not able to succeed and until Afghanistan can at last become a safe and stable country from where such plots cannot be organized. But the death of Osama means that the heart of the issue from a western public’s perspective has been removed and Al Qaeda will increasingly be spoken of in the past tense. Politicians will focus on it less and the public will generally move onto worrying about other threats – unless, that is, there is another attack in America that is larger or on the same scale as 9/11.

The result will be a continuing de-escalation of American and NATO presence in Afghanistan. Some presence will remain to make sure plots that are still being organized are disrupted before they can reach western shores, but the overall presence will go down. This means that it will be increasingly up to those in the region to try to address the long-term strategic issue of Pakistan as a center of extremism and as a nuclear-armed state with individuals in positions of influence who still seem in some ways sympathetic towards extremists that have supported international terrorists.

Osama bin Laden’s death is an important marker in the conflict against violent Islamist extremism, but it is not the end. It is, however, going to seen by historians as one of the steps along the path to the end.


 作者 潘睿凡   发表于2011-05-03 02:54




















拉丹之死是在与伊斯兰极端主义的斗争中的重大事件,但这并不是斗争的终点。历史学家将会看到,这不过是通向终点的一步而已。(白澜 译)