Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reading Al Qaeda In Karachi

In the preface to his book Inside Al Qaeda And The Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, the late Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote:

“I have never worked for any well-funded international news organizations. Nor have I worked for the mainstream national media. My affiliations have always remained with alternative media outlets. This has left me with narrow options and very little space to move around in… However, independent reporting for the alternative media best suits my temperament as it encourages me to seek the truth beyond “conventional wisdom”. ”

Available outside Pakistan

Before it led him to a tragic death, Saleem Shahzad’s quest for that elusive truth beyond conventional wisdom took him from walks on Clifton Beach with a military officer-turned-Al Qaeda strategist to nights spent in mud huts with Taliban militia men as helicopters passed overhead and drones struck in the distance. It took him from Pakistan to Iraq to Lebanon to Afghanistan and back to North Waziristan to meet raw recruits and hardened militants. Inside Al Qaeda And The Taliban, however, is not a book about one man’s fascination with other men who like guns. It is a well-researched, cogent argument for the need to recognize that a common tactical goal – death to America the 'Great Satan' – “does not make the two a single entity. Theirs is a unique relationship, in which Al Qaeda aims to bring the Taliban and all Muslim liberation movements into its fold and to use them to forward it’s global agenda.”

The creation and uses of the mujahideen – who helped defeat the Soviet Union – as a strategic asset to be deployed at will by the Pakistani military to help actualize its regional ambitions, has already been well documented. Shahzad’s book does, however, flesh out how exactly the transformation of some of them from idealistic Muslim youth seeking to repel invaders from Muslim lands into uber-violent jihadis thirsting for the blood of their former handlers, came about. Consider the story of Bin Yameen, also known as Ibn-e-Ameen, who the author identified as the actual enforcer behind the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) movement to declare Sharia law in Swat in 2009.

“Bin Yameen was 6 feet 2 inches tall, had a broad chest, was fair in complexion, and had a full head of hair. His looks were God’s gift, but his short temper was not inbuilt.… Born as a Behloolzai, a subtribe of the Youzufzai tribe, Bin Yameen was never the playboy of his village or a poet. He was a school dropout at the matric level. While he was still in his teens he went to Afghanistan and fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud. He was arrested in his first battle and then spent seven long years in the inhuman jails of the Northern Alliance. Bin Yameen often remembers how his fellow Taliban detainees died in the jail. Sometimes he witnessed their swift deaths while they were talking or cooking. After the Taliban defeat, he was released by the United States.

“But it was not his seven years in the Northern Alliance jails that embittered him. After his release from [a Panjsheri] prison, his manners were still extraordinarily polite. He always stood up to welcome any guest. The marriage and love life of any Pashtun has always been a very private business. No Pashtun from a village background would ever confide in anyone over matters of the heart. But Bin Yameen used to proudly say that his wife (also his relative) had fallen in love with him and that before their marriage, when they were only engaged during his prolonged imprisonment in Afghanistan, all the family members had pressed her to break her engagement to him and marry someone else. But against all Pashtun traditions, the girl defied her family and said that her name would be tied to Bin Yameen’s forever, whether he lived or died. When Bin Yameen was released and went back to his village the first thing he did was to marry her, proud that this was the girl who had steadfastly stood by him despite all the pressures put on her by her family to forget him.

“Bin Yameen always said that all the pain and agony of his days in the Afghan prison disappeared after the marriage. It was as if nothing had happened. He started his new life with a loving wife. His wife delivered a son and they moved to Peshawar.”

The turning point for this man, according to the author, came after the December 2003 attempt on then President Musharraf’s life. In its aftermath, security agencies starting rounding up the jihadis they had till then supported.

“On August 21, 2004, Pakistan’s security agencies raided Bin Yameen’s house in Peshawar. He was sleeping with his wife. In the next room were two prominent jihadis.” The two managed to escape but the police who had broken into the house captured both Bin Yameen and his wife and “literally dragged them to their vehicles. Bin Yameen was half asleep and half awake, but he saw strangers touching his wife. He attacked them like a wounded lion. He tried to snatch their guns. It took dozens of security personnel to overwhelm him... Later his wife and son were released but Bin Yameen never forgot the humiliation suffered by his wife at the hands of Pakistan’s security personnel.”

After his release three years later he went on to become Al Qaeda’s secret mole in TNSM. They recognized the value of his “unbelievable” hatred – his politeness had become an insatiable thirst to slit the throats of Pakistan army personnel – and recruited him precisely because of it. Interestingly, this is the only time a woman (Bin Yameen's wife) makes an appearance in the book as anything other than a suicide bomber, Osama Bin Laden's daughter, or a purdah-observing student of the Lal Masjid seminary. The world Shahzad wrote about is clearly a world of men, for men, and the lives of women do not in any way figure in the anecdotes, conversations, analysis or vignettes that peppers its pages.

The militants in Swat were eventually pushed back into the Hindu Kush mountains, but Shahzad suggested there was another way to look at this apparent military victory.

“Pakistan’s secularists then boldly stood up against the Islamization of Pakistan. They called for the wings of Islamic seminaries in the country to be clipped. The government arranged religious conferences led by Sufis who spoke out against the Taliban. The Taliban retaliated by killing prominent Islamic scholars like Sarfaraz Naeemi. It seemed at first that the situation had turned against the militants, but behind the scenes Al Qaeda had succeeded in exploiting the ideological contradictions in Pakistan’s society, and deepened the ideological divide.

“In pursuit of this, Al Qaeda’s dialectical process, thousands of people were displaced, hundreds of people were killed, the national economy of Pakistan was on the verge of collapse, and Pakistan became completely dependent on US aid.”

Inside Al Qaeda And The Taliban offers many other examples of Al Qaeda’s ideological opportunism. Shahhzad sketches with forensic skill the way the movement capitalized on the growing disillusionment of operatives like Ilyas Kashmiri, the brothers Captain Khurram and Major Haroon, Major Abdul Rahman (three of whom were instrumental allegedly in the planning and execution of the Mumbai attacks), and Lal Masjid's Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, with the institutions that had once fostered them. Any questions or doubts anybody has about the chronology or motivations for the Lal Masjid incident might well be addressed by reading his take on life beyond the soundbites, the still images, the regurgitated narrative of revolutionary fervor meeting arrogant military might.

Shahzad also establishes chronologically, in detail, the character and purpose behind the umbrella group of what is today known as the TTP or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. He traces how Al Qaeda, the heart of which is a philosophy held sacred by mostly foreigners who are relatively few in number, has over time infiltrated, influenced and started controlling these 'Neo Taliban.'

According to Shahzad, both the Masjid and the TNSM takeover of Swat were meant to divert attention from the tribal areas and buy Al Qaeda more time to consolidate its position there. Its ultimate goal? Expand the theater of war to include all modern day parts of ‘ancient Khurasan’, where the prelude to the “End of Times” battles were prophesied to begin. Khurasan today includes parts of Iran, the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Ghazwa-e- Hind, or the battle for India, is also supposed to happen. After this the Muslim armies will march to the Middle East to join forces with the promised Mahdi and do battle against the Antichrist and its Western Allies for the Liberation of Palestine.

Essentially, Al Qaeda recognized Af-Pak way before the American and Pakistani establishment did. This is because, according to Shahzad, the organization has – thanks to the inspired use of its ‘human resources’ – always remained one step ahead of the great game.

“Before October 7, 2001 – when the United States attacked Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, most of Al Qaeda’s top minds had already left the country, their mission focused on several targets:
• to ideologically cultivate new faces from strategic communities such as the armed forces and intelligence circles
• to bring in new recruits and establish cells
• to have each new cell assigned to raise its own resources and devise a plan, but have only one cell implement the plan, while the others served as decoys to 'misdirect' intelligence agencies”

Methods for ‘raising resources’ have included robbing banks and kidnapping Hindus and Ahmedis for ransom.

Since Musharraf first allied Pakistan to the US post-9/11 and the inevitable crackdown on jihadis began – the author’s thesis goes – Al Qaeda has waited, watched, and selected the, if not brightest, at least most committed former children of the US/Pak military machine to turn on their parents. On one level, it is Freudian: kill your mother (Pakistan), kill your father (the army, any army, dates are fluid, and which parent remembers the exact moment of conception anyway?). On another level, it is frightening: we are not even targets, we are collateral damage, and the suicide bombers' strings are being pulled by a parasitic entity that spreads from host to host in less time than it takes for Ansar Abbasi to go from ‘ISI good’ to ‘ISI bad.’

Other points that the book makes:

• Al Qaeda wants to keep the US in the region, engaged and off balance, till such time as the world’s mightiest ‘military machine’ has been bled dry

• Al Qaeda does not wish for a peace deal between the US and the Afghan Taliban because they want to continue to use US occupation of ‘Muslim lands’ as a rallying call for Muslims around the world. The creation of the TTP, the ‘Neo Taliban’, could also be seen as a move to woo fighters away from purely Afghan Taliban interests, which have more to do with ending the US invasion than they do with waiting for the Mahdi

• Al Qaeda feels – correctly as it turns out – that Pakistan’s tribal areas, with their virtually impregnable mountain ranges, are the perfect bases for the global Islamic insurgency. (Sadly, the book was completed before the ‘Arab Spring’, and any opportunity for the author to comment on how that changed the propaganda context.)

• Al Qaeda accomplished what no one had been able to do in Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies before: break the back of the local sardar/ jirga system

• Al Qaeda’s “Egyptian camp” of core ideologues can be perceived as the ‘intelligentsia of fundamentalism.’ This can either mean they are highly intelligent, learned, well read scholars of history, religion, philosophy and warfare. Or that every third Friday after lights out they regroup in a forest wearing all black to drink wine, smoke cheroots and debate existentialism. Probably the former.

• Saudi Osama Bin Laden might have been the face of Al Qaeda, but Egyptian Ayman Al Zwahiri was always the brains

• Zwahiri’s strategic vision has been to divide and rule, create splits between establishment/ ruling elite and the ordinary citizens of Muslim countries, discord between rulers and people being fertile recruiting ground for pan-Islamic ideals as well as yet another way to diffuse energy that might otherwise be directed at tackling Al Qaeda itself

Like the title suggests, Shahzad’s book is more about the growth and spread of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and tracing the patterns of diversion and consolidation contained therein than it is about the merits and demerits of the policies of the United States of America. It assumes that anyone reading it already has a cursory grasp of recent history. There is, therefore, only the occasional reference to the ‘cowboy’ nature of the American state (throw a rock at it and it will charge you in a tank). It is pretty much assumed that that a particular nation’s role in getting itself into the situation it finds itself in today is understood. Similarly short shrift is paid to Pakistan’s political leadership. Despite the role of the Jamaat-e-Islami, members of PML(Q), Imran Khan and Maulana Fazlur Rehman in giving militants legitimacy in the eyes of the public, they come across as a bunch of non-entities, attached like remoras to the sharks in the water.

It is also pretty much assumed that the reader understands that the Pakistani establishment’s official policy towards the spread of pseudo-Islamic fascism is dictated largely by the aforementioned American cowboys.

“Benazir Bhutto’s murder had undone the US scheme for Pakistan. Washington was compelled to change its entire roadmap. Under the new arrangement General Musharraf was an irritant and he was bade farewell. The United States then welcomed Zardari as the new president… it was now Admiral Mullen and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani who were central to the Pakistan-US equation.”

Shahzad listed some of the salient features of the new relationship. They included: The Pakistan Army being in sole charge of military operations while “parliament and the civil administration were there simply to provide coordination and moral support ”, a US$1 billion plan to expand the US presence in Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad, private security firms (DynCorp aka Blackwater) setting up offices in Islamabad “where they had already rented 284 houses, besides setting up bases in Peshawar and Quetta. In addition, Pakistan was to provide land in Tarbela to the United States for its operations ”, and the ISI setting up a “syndicated intelligence service under a proxy network to provide information to be transmitted to the CIA predator drones used to target the top Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas.”

That plan never came to fruition though. Shahzad established how often the Pakistani national security apparatus was outmaneuvered, sabotaged or made to just look plain stupid. This ranged from things like assuming the US would be defeated in Afghanistan in five years, after which ties with militants it wanted dead could be quietly resumed, to not predicting that the deadly cadres would turn their attention to Pakistan’s cities, to not knowing Musharraf's security officer Major Farooq was a member of Hizbur Tahrir and helped Major Haroon bring night vision goggles into the country from China, to not preparing adequately to fight a guerilla war, to mistreating the wrong prisoners during interrogation, to pampering the wrong prisoners during detention, to not knowing militants were about to utilize a shelved ISI contingency plan for a terror attack in India in the tragic events in Mumbai in 2008.

To this we can now add, not knowing Osama Bin Laden was in Abbottabad, and not knowing who killed Syed Saleem Shahzad.

Syed Saleem Shahzad: writing with his blood

We are left to draw our own conclusions about, on a policy level, how much of that failure to recognize an enemy within was deliberate or unwitting. Khaled Ahmed, in this excellent piece for The Friday Times, lists what some of those conclusions might be: TTP does nothing without approval from Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda killed Benazir, Pakistan army has ex-officers in Al Qaeda as well as serving officers collaborating with these ex-officers, and Islamic radicalization of Pakistani society and media mixed with fear of being assassinated by Al Qaeda agents - who include ex-army officers - have tilted the balance of power away from the state of Pakistan to Al Qaeda.

The book also examines the ideological and literary inspirations behind Al Qaeda, and compares and contrasts it with other ‘Muslim liberation’ movements across the globe. These brief chapters, and the few times Shahzad felt compelled to romanticize mountain warriors as Iqbal’s shaheen(s) “Swooping, shocking, then retiring, pouncing on the prey/ I do all this to keep my blood warm”, are the only times the author’s voice deviates from the dispassionate narrator position he inhabits for most of the book.

It takes a particularly courageous, or particularly foolish, person to probe the murky world of terror outfits and ambiguously-oriented militaries in the way that the late author did. Those who do tend to either be accused of fulfilling someone else’s agenda, or dismissed as conspiracy theorists because most of what they write cannot be verified immediately. This dilemma, and the narrative sensitivity Syed Saleem Shahzad displayed when discussing abstract philosophy and human psychology, only makes one more curious about who he was, how he was able to experience people and places others have been unable to access, and which of the exceedingly dangerous positions he put himself in was responsible for his horrific murder.