Al Qaeda’s ‘Red Lines’?
Somehow, my friend Abu Muqawama is sharing a flat in London with a guy who apparently infiltrated Al Qaeda. (Yeah? Yeah? Well, one of roommates wrote an awesome book!) The guy’s account is fascinating, and reveals a side of the jihadist entity that most of us has never seen:
After coming back to London in 2006, I spent more than a year with British extremists – the vast majority of whom didn’t believe in attacks on British soil but viewed Zarqawi and his group as heroes. But, such attacks strained even their support. Of course, they felt that outwardly criticizing the glorious “mujahids” in Iraq was disloyal. So they relied on conspiracy theories to explain events that didn’t match their own narrative; al-Qaeda would never stoop to such actions, the Americans or British secret services must be behind them.
Practically all journalistic reporting on al-Qaeda assumes the group lives to kill non-Muslims — full stop. This idea helps justify policies built around the ideology of “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here”. Consequently, little thought is given to attempting to decipher the motivations of the group’s core or its many affiliates and supporters. And while it is true that the group doesn’t have an immediate constituency, it does have to modulate its actions keeping in mind the views of the disparate and widespread Sunni Muslim world. There are some things it must feel its international, cross class and background target audience will not swallow. The idea that al-Qaeda might have some red lines led me to Haider.
Abu Mooq’s friend, “Londonstani,” meets Haider in Beirut. Haider claims that his jihadi patron was warned off a chemical attack on New York by Ayman Zawahiri himself:
“He told me Sheikh Zawahiri had said using poison gasses was too much. It transgressed the present boundaries of actions that were permissible to us,” he said speaking in the standard Arabic of transnational Arab mass-communication.
“The Sheikh had told the others that a gas attack would be difficult to justify before God and the Muslim public,” he added.
In the West, the September 11 attacks are seen as unprovoked. But to the vast majority of the Muslim world – regardless whether they see them as justified or not – the attacks were al-Qaeda’s response to Western policy.
Read the whole thing. Londonstani concludes that Al Qaeda has an “arithmetic of response” — that is, despite employing methods of asymmetrical warfare like terrorism, its actions follow a concept of proportionate reprisal. Naturally I can’t vouch for this, but it makes at least sense: if Al Qaeda seeks, as it says it does, to radicalize the entire Islamic world (a grandiose and unachievable goal), then it has to take care not to offend the sensibilities of over a billion Muslims. We’ve seen what happened when Al Qaeda loses a battle for hearts and minds through brutality: it’s called the Anbar Awakening. Just because Zawahiri and company are evil doesn’t mean they’re incapable of strategy.