Al-Qaeda's 'sword of justice' and the coming war of attrition with the West

by Praveen Swami      Last updated: November 12th, 2010

Praveen Swami is the Daily Telegraph's Diplomatic Editor

His name could be Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi or Ibrahim al-Madani and some people used to call him Omar al-Somali. The Federal Bureau of Investigations, which wants him for murder and conspiracy to kill, says he’s dark-eyed, olive-skinned and was born in 1960. Or perhaps it was 1963.

Bar his vainglorious pseudonym Saif al-Adel – which means ‘the sword of justice’ – there is little public-domain knowledge about the man Osama bin-Laden has picked as al-Qaeda’s new chief for operations targeting the West. We know this much, though: he’s among the most skilled and dangerous operatives al-Qaeda has ever had.

Al-Adel wants to conduct a prolonged war of attrition against the West, built around low-cost, low-risk operations, like the bombs planted on cargo flights out of Yemen. He hopes this will push Western governments to retreat from Afghanistan, and to back away from brewing conflicts in north Africa, the middle-east and central Asia.

If the plan works, it will open the way for al-Qaeda to wield power in an Islamist-run state, like Afghanistan was before 9/11 . Al-Adel opposed those attacks on the reasonable grounds that it would provoke US retaliation, strip al-Qaeda of a safe base, and thus inflict long-term damage on the jihadist movement.

Parts of al-Adel’s thinking can be pieced together from a memoir he wrote in 2005. In 1987, the memoir records, al-Adel was a colonel in Egypt’s special forces. He was arrested that year on charges of aiding the Egyptian terror group al-Jihad. Prosecutors said he had planned to drive a bomb-laden truck into Egypt’s parliament, and to crash an aircraft into the building – tactics that al-Qaeda would later use to effect.

But al-Adel was less than impressed by his al-Jihad brothers-in-arms, holding them guilty of “over-enthusiasm that resulted in hasty action.”

For reasons that remain unclear, al-Adel was let out of prison and travelled to Peshawar in Pakistan.

In 1991-1992, he trained al-Qaeda jihadists at camp near Khost, in Afghanistan. Later, he travelled to Khartoum, providing explosives training at bin-Laden’s Damazine Farm base. Mohammed Odeh, a jihadist jailed in the US, recalls al-Adel telling him that as the fighting in Afghanistan was winding down, it was time to “move the jihad to other parts of the world.”

For the next several years, al-Adel hopped between al-Qaeda training facilities in Asia and Africa. He negotiated an alliance with jihadists in Iraq, and plotted to assassinate Australian mining magnate and orthodox Rabbi Joseph ‘Diamond Joe’ Gutnick

Like other top al-Qaeda operatives, al-Adel was involved in planning the 9/11 attacks. In July, 2001, however, al-Qaeda leaders were told the operation did not have the support of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader. The US’s official investigation of the 9/11 strikes, records Mullah Omar’s dissent was endorsed by al-Adel and his associates Mahfouz al-Walid and Mustafa Uthman.

Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001, al-Adel left for Iran. US intelligence believes he masterminded several attacks on US targets while based there. In response to US pressure, Iran later detained al-Qaeda leaders operating from its soil. Al-Adel lived under house arrest near Tehran with his wife and children until April, when he was released in return for a kidnapped Iranian diplomat.

There are two big reasons why the world needs to be paying special attention to al-Adel’s new project.

First, as the Australian counter-terrorism analyst Leah Farrall has been pointing out, the top al-Qaeda leadership holed out in the war-torn Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands is still key to the global jihadist project.

US intelligence officials had been claiming to have degraded al-Qaeda to the point of no-return, but that’s starting to sound suspiciously like a declaration of victory intended to hide a precipitate retreat. “Like a snake backed into a corner,” the terrorism expert Peter Bergen pointed in a review of al-Qaeda’s capabilities, “a weakened al-Qaeda isn’t necessarily less dangerous.”

That means the West needs to prepare itself to deal with the war of attrition al-Adel is planning – which, like all wars of attrition, will be messy and unpopular.

Second, a resurgent al-Qaeda could tip the balance of power in an ongoing struggle between a battered Taliban leadership open to talking peace and a new generation of radicals.

In November, 2009, Mullah Omar, issued a statement assuring “all countries that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as a responsible force, will not extend its hand to cause jeopardy to others.” That statement is the foundation of hopes for a dialogue that could lead to peace.

But Afghanistan analyst Anand Gopal recently noted that a new generation of Taleban commanders were increasingly bucking their leadership, and raised the prospect that the organisation’s top leadership in Pakistan may not be able “to enforce decisions on its rank-and-file.”

Even an the end of war with the Taliban, this suggests, might not mean the beginning of peace.

In a 1939 essay, Abul Ala Mawdudi, the ideological patriarch of the global jihadist movement, argued that the pursuit of power, rather than what he called a “hotchpotch of beliefs, prayers and rituals”, constituted the essence of Islam. The religion, he wrote in Jihad Fi’Sabilillah [Jihad in the Way of God], was in fact “a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world.” This made it imperative, in Mawdudi’s view, for Islamists to “seize the authority of state”.

Al-Adel is working to that end. The world must decide on the price it’s willing to pay to stop him.

Story from the UK Telegraph
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