Cp4ab0lishm3nt’s Blog

“ISA” (Institutional Sacrificed Afflictions)

Posted in Law & Society / Sociological Jurisprudence, Philosophy of Law, Terrorism by cp4ab0lishm3nt on September 13, 2011

Now and then preventive detention laws without charges and trials are hotly debated topics on the Malaysian political scene. In the past, detention laws like for example, the Internal Security Act, was successful in creating peace inMalaysia. Its use to detain suspicious persons involved in communist activities, terrorism or activities that create unrest in society in the 50s, 60s, and 70s did bring notable outcomes. Despite their usefulness in those eras, these laws are now a miscarriage of justice. As a matter of fact, there is no justice. Justice here is based on the knowledge of the Government’s insistence for its policy to be either successful and/or accepted. It’s also a slippery slope where policies are justified to prevent deliberations.

Last year, Najib’s Administration tabled a bill to reform the Internal Security Act. Despite many governmental agencies and laypersons view this as progress, its not. Basically, detention laws like the ISA do not require a formal criminal trial in Court. As long as the Government thinks that a citizen’s action or activity is subversive and/or a threat to national security, they can order that person be detained without a trial. The question here is do we need these laws today? The answer is simple… ABOLISH ALL DETENTION LAWS! The following are why such laws are no longer useful.

A.      The simple fact is all democracies respect the rule of law

Detention laws are retaliatory in nature and de facto punishment without due process. It behaves like a bullet firing from a gun travelling at maximum velocity to its intending target incapacitating the individual to death or severe injuries. There is no space for arguments, conciliatory communication or counseling – these laws act as passive violence.

B.      Detention is indefinite

It does not specify how long an individual is detained. Basically, if the Government feels that the individual is dangerous, the detention order is prolonged. Come to think about it – it’s actually a form of solitary confinement, well, psychologically, the detained person feels confined to an institution and perhaps had waived any release date from his inhibitions. Even a prisoner sentenced to death has prior knowledge of his or her end of days.

C.      Cruel and unusual

Detentions in these centers are Spartan and basically they are penal coffins, especially when an individual is unable to secure a release date. Many citizens also do not have first hand knowledge as to the extent of these institutions for detention. Reports do not really discuss the conditions of these detention centers because they are to a certain extent classified. Albeit citizens do not have first hand knowledge of these institutions, there are irregular visits by officials to enhance the working order and image of these institutions run within the UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners. C’mon, lets not kid ourselves, these institutions are basically illegal under UN Minimum Rules because they detain people without trials.

D.      Unpredicted surge of overcrowding

If there is an en masse arrest of individuals under ISA or Emergency Ordinance, can all these arrested individuals be placed in these institutions? If everyone is jam packed or sardined into a containment facility, for an unspecified duration, this is overcrowding and situation in a packed/sardined prison cell can be treacherous – not forgetting hazards like spreading of contaminants, diseases or an outbreak of fire. Overcrowded institutionalized regimes easily lead to conflicts, fights and affrays.

E.      Due process & the light of truth

Detaining an individual without trial is detrimental to the truth behind the detentions. NGOs and interested individuals can easily concoct conspiracy theories to unravel the incorrigible actions of the Government and most times this may lead to “suppression of freedoms” generalizations. Such suspicions will only seep deeper as more citizens are aware of “tactics” which may generally be deemed totalitarian. Nevertheless, having a trial whether its good or bad, a trial can still minute and record proceedings and that’s the prove of record, albeit controversial, is still evidentiary material. Unrecorded verbatims are merely hearsay.

F.       Trials set precedent

Court cases once recorded are materials of reference and authorities will refer to purported cases and perhaps will not repeat mistakes again.  Legal authorities can always infer of court cases to caution authorities on high handed tactics and techniques.

Here again, I urge that the Government should repeal all the detention laws. Reforming the ISA is a futile exercise.



What the Death of “Sheikh Atiyyatullah” Means for Al-Qaeda – by Christopher Anzalone | The AfPak Channel

Posted in Drones by cp4ab0lishm3nt on September 13, 2011

What the Death of “Sheikh Atiyyatullah” Means for Al-Qaeda – by Christopher Anzalone | The AfPak Channel.

The reported killing in late August of Atiyyatullah Abu Abd al-Rahman (sometimes given in jihadi sources as Abu Abd al-Rahman Atiyyatullah al-Libi or simply Atiyah Abd al-Rahman) in a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan, if confirmed, deprives al-Qaeda Central (AQC) of one of its most versatile and important leaders and ideologues. Known more popularly in jihadi circles as “Sheikh Atiyyatullah,” he straddled the operational, media, and ideological sides of AQC’s global campaign. He was also at the forefront on a number of issues, including the militant organization’s attempt to embrace and co-opt the uprisings in the Arab world, and intervened forcefully in debates among jihadis, actively counseling against the use of mass violence against other Muslims.

His loss would be a severe blow to an organization that is already reeling from the loss of its charismatic founder-leader Osama bin Laden, and more recently the arrest of another key operational planner, Younis al-Mauretani. Atiyyatullah’s death has been claimed by U.S. government sources but has not been confirmed by AQC itself, casting some doubt on to whether he was actually killed. Reports surfaced in October 2010 that he had been killed but were proven wrong when he surfaced in film and audio releases from al-Qaeda’s al-Sahab Media Foundation in mid-March of this year.


Much of Atiyyatullah’s career, which began in the 1990s, as an AQC envoy and later one of its key leaders, was spent out of the limelight and in the shadow of the organization’s public faces, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Despite not being in the public eye, though, Atiyyatullah played an important role in AQC, first in the 1990s as the organization’s envoy to Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA, in French). He ultimately was unable to convince GIA leaders to modify their positions and was even imprisoned by them for a period of time, after which he left the country. After the dispersal of AQC leaders from Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, Atiyyatullah reportedly served as AQC’s representative in Iran and to regional affiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). His career as a jihadi began in the 1980s when he traveled to Afghanistan to participate in the anti-Soviet jihad. Atiyyatullah also reportedly was in contact with Dr. Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian who carried out the December 2009 suicide bombing inside the U.S. military base in Khost, Afghanistan.

For much of his career his identity as Sheikh Atiyyatullah, a prolific AQC ideologue, was debated by analysts, some of whom argued that Atiyah and the “Sheikh” were one and the same. Atiyah appeared with his face fully visible and identified as “Sheikh Atiyyatullah” in The West and the Dark Tunnel, a two-part video released by al-Sahab in late September 2009. He has subsequently been featured both solo and with other senior AQC leaders such as fellow Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi, who is the organization’s unofficial mufti or chief jurist, in a number of videos, audio messages, and written tracts — including June’s lengthy two-part video You are Not Responsible Except for Yourself. It is not known for certain why AQC decided to connect Atiyah with the mysterious personality it had created as “Sheikh Atiyyatullah,” but it may have decided to cash in on the mystique and capital it had built up around him over several years. The organization has done this with other ideologues, such as Abu Mansur al-Shami, who was killed in a drone missile strike in Waziristan in January 2011.

Most recently, Atiyyatullah was one of the voices spearheading AQC’s attempt to co-opt the ongoing uprisings against autocratic governments in Arab countries, together with fellow Libyan al-Qaeda leaderAbu Yahya al-Libi and al-Zawahiri. On March 18, as forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi besieged the city of Misrata, al-Sahab issued an audio message online from Atiyyatullah that purportedly identified him by his real name, Jamal Ibrahim Ishtaywi al-Misrati, or the “one from Misrata.” In this message, A Tribute to Our People in Libya, he praised the people of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt for revolting against their dictatorial governments, and Libyans to establish an Islamic state. Interestingly, despite AQC leaders’ general rejection of democratic systems of governance and other forms of government they deem “un-Islamic,” Atiyyatullah appealed to the Libyan people to ensure the primacy of Islam and Islamic law (shari‘a), and enshrine Islamic law (as defined by al-Qaeda, of course) in the country’s new constitution.

The Libyan ideologue also played a major but often overlooked role in internal jihadi debates about the excommunication of (takfir) and violence against other Muslims, two issues that have long dogged AQC and its affiliates and allies. Atiyyatullah urged other jihadis to be selective in their use of violence, in part because mass killings of other Muslims has led to a backlash against jihadis in many parts of the Muslim world. In late 2009 and early 2010, he also participated in a concerted effort by AQC and its ally Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to shift blame away from themselves and onto the U.S. and Pakistani governments and the military contractor Blackwater for a series of bloody attacks in civilian areas of Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal regions. This campaign included the release of an audio message from AQC’s then-general commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, and a video message from TTP spokesman Azam Tariq blaming the attacks on their enemies. A lengthy Urdu e-book was also published on November 14 that identified Blackwater as the “Army of the Dajjal,” an anti-Christ type figure who features importantly in Islamic apocalyptic literature.

Atiyyatullah’s contribution to this propaganda campaign was a question-and-answer tract that was issued to jihadi Internet forums on January 21, 2010, Advice and Compassion in Speaking about the Market Bombings: Questions and Answers about the Bombing of the Peshawar Market. In a series of responses to questions about whether it is permissible to rejoice in the killing of other Muslims, even if they are allegedly “impious,” he bluntly stated that it was not. Such attacks, he continued, are a means of spreading corruption and division (fitna) within the Muslim community, and are in stark contradiction to Islamic law (shariah). Further, he argued that the “mujahideen” could not have carried out such attacks, because they are the “true followers” of shariah. Logically then, he concluded, the U.S. and its apostate Muslim allies and mercenaries must be at fault, pointing to their long record of killing Muslims around the world.

He has addressed the issue of takfir in Advice and Compassion and a second question-and-answer tract, Responses to the Ruling on Leaving for Battle and the Precondition of Takfir, released on August 1, 2010, as well as in a video message, Maximizing the Sanctity of Muslim Blood, released on March 18, 2011. While recognizing the well-established Islamic tenet of “enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong” (amr bi’l ma’ruf wa’l nahy ‘an al-munkar) based on the words of God as expressed in the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, he cautions Muslims from misinterpreting it as a means of evaluating another Muslim’s piety. It is impossible for anyone to truly know the religious state of being of those Muslims killed in such attacks, he said, whether righteous or sinful, and thus it is not permissible for any other Muslim to rejoice in their death. His cautious views on violence against other Muslims, including Shi‘ites, who most Sunni jihadis view as being outside the fold of Islam, have also been shared publicly by other Sunni jihadis, including Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who is one of the most influential voices within the Sunni jihadi movement. There is a tactical reason for this, namely that such mass excommunication alienates other Muslims, whom jihadis view as potential supporters.

As I noted before, a question mark still hangs over reports of Atiyyatullah’s death. Unlike when other senior leaders have been killed, AQC has yet to confirm and eulogize him, casting some doubt as to whether the Libyan is actually dead. The organization confirmed the death of bin Laden the same week he was killed and it also acknowledged the killing of Mustafa Abu’l Yazid soon after his death. Additionally, on August 30 when Al-Sahab released a new audio message from Atiyyatullah, The Promise of Victory in the Month of Patience (Ramadan) in which his name is followed by the prayer, “may God protect him,” which is only used for living persons.

It is possible that AQC’s surviving leaders, who were already reeling from the major setback of bin Laden’s death, are seeking to minimize the fallout from Atiyyatullah’s death before announcing it publicly (something made especially important by the capture al-Mauritani in Pakistan on Monday). The Promise of Victory features nearly identical background to the previously released A Tribute to Our People in Libya with the exception of the text identifying him and the message’s title. This may be because al-Sahab released the new message ahead of schedule in an attempt to counter reports of his death. But if his death is confirmed, it will be an enormous blow to al-Qaeda; he was truly a jihadi renaissance man, combining both strategic and ideological savvy. Atiyyatullah will be very difficult, if not impossible, to replace, and his loss will further damage an already handicapped AQC.

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual culture. He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.


Al Qaeda’s Challenge

Posted in Terrorism by cp4ab0lishm3nt on September 10, 2011

Al Qaeda’s Challenge | Foreign Affairs.

The Jihadists’ War With Islamist Democrats

William McCants
WILLIAM MCCANTS is an analyst at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies and an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Founding Gods, Inventing Nations: Conquest and Culture Myths From Antiquity to Islam [1].

A May 1st update to the print story from the September/October 2011 issue: Al Qaeda leaders often compare the outcome of their jihad to that of a harvest. One year after the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s crop seems mixed. The organization’s central leadership, operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has nearly collapsed, but its offshoots are mounting full-blown insurgencies in Somalia and Yemen. The group’s operatives have failed to carry out major strikes on U.S. or European soil, but its online supporters still excite fear among Western governments and media. And al Qaeda’s argument against democracy has lost out in Arab nations where long-ruling autocrats have fallen, but its gospel of violence continues to resonate in those countries where dictators refuse to abdicate. Yet although some al Qaeda plots have continued to succeed, the organization has hardly experienced the bounty that it long expected.

Following the assassination of bin Laden and several of his most capable operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda has largely shifted its attention away from Central and South Asia to Somalia and Yemen. In Somalia, the militant group al Shabab, engaged in a long struggle to conquer the country, formally joined al Qaeda in February to staunch recent losses at the hands of intervening armies. Although it remains unclear whether the entire organization endorsed the merger, al Qaeda can now likely count large parts of Somalia as its own. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the front group of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ansar al-Sharia, has exploited the country’s political turmoil to capture territory in the south. The organization quickly began providing basic services to the inhabitants of captured areas, documenting its efforts as part of a savvy public relations campaign.

With its attention focused on its insurgencies around the Gulf of Aden and its top commanders imprisoned or killed, al Qaeda has proven unable to replicate the large-scale operations that it once conducted in the United States and Europe. Weakened and disorganized, the group has turned to calling on supporters to commit lone-wolf attacks — calls that have largely gone unanswered. Those few attacks that have succeeded, such as the recent shooting spree in Toulouse, France, did kill innocent civilians, but caused nowhere near the same carnage as the Madrid train bombings or September 11th. Nevertheless, Western governments and media remain worried that the propaganda activity of al Qaeda supporters on the Internet, such as images portraying New York City as a terrorist target or the Twitter activity of al Shabab, will translate into attacks on the homeland.

Al Qaeda has also struggled to respond to the Arab Spring. In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, Islamists have rejected al Qaeda’s model of autocratic governance through sharia law in favor of parliamentary politics. Even many of al Qaeda’s theological fellow travelers, such as the ultraconservative Salafis in Egypt, have embraced the democratic process and formed political parties to compete in elections. Al Qaeda supporters in Egypt grapple over whether to remain loyal to the organization or embrace their local Salafi religious leaders, who have endorsed the party system. Some foreign Jihadi scholars popular on the Internet, to whom these al Qaeda adherents have turned, have conceded that although party politics is an unacceptable evil, it is at least better than dictatorship. But if al Qaeda has lost the ideological battle in countries that have overthrown their tyrants, its message remains potent in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad refuses to abdicate. Seizing the opening, a number of al Qaeda supporters have migrated to Syria to fight the regime and teach their trade to rebels willing to receive it.

Tallying its harvest, al Qaeda has victories to savor. It holds territory in two weak or collapsed states; it still provokes anxiety in the United States and Europe; and its message resonates in some Muslim-majority countries undergoing violent transition. But the people of the Arab Spring, when allowed to choose their own destiny, have voted against the despotic political vision of al Qaeda. For the organization’s leadership, which spent a generation sowing the seeds of its vision in the region, this is a bitter fruit to reap.

“Al Qaeda’s Challenge” from the September/October 2011 issue:

The Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden represent a moment of both promise and peril for the global jihadist movement. On the one hand, the overthrow of secular rulers in the heartland of the Muslim world gives jihadists an unprecedented opportunity to establish the Islamic states that they have long sought. On the other hand, jihadists can no longer rally behind their most charismatic leader, bin Laden. And the jihadist flagship that he founded, al Qaeda, may lose its relevance in the Muslim world to rival Islamist groups that are prepared to run in elections and take power through politics.

The last time jihadists faced such a crossroads was at the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent collapse emboldened jihadist strategists. Convinced that they had defeated a global superpower, they plotted to overthrow secular Arab governments and replace them with Islamic states, with the goal of eventually uniting them under a single caliphate. At the same time, however, the Soviet Union’s demise opened up the Arab world to U.S. influence. Having been long constrained by the Soviet presence in the region, the United States quickly asserted itself by spearheading the coalition against the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, thus increasing its military presence in the Arab world. As a result, jihadists — and al Qaeda in particular — concluded that Washington now enjoyed virtually unchecked power in the Middle East and would use it to prevent the creation of the Islamic states they desired.

Several established Islamic organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, shared this belief with al Qaeda. But al Qaeda rejected the Brotherhood and like-minded groups because of their willingness to work within existing systems by voting for and participating in legislative bodies. Such tactics would fail to establish Islamic states, bin Laden and his comrades asserted, because they involved pragmatic political tradeoffs that would violate the principles of such future states and leave them susceptible to U.S. pressure. Only attacks on the United States, al Qaeda argued, could reduce Washington’s regional power and inspire the masses to revolt.

Two decades later, bin Laden’s long-sought revolutions in the Arab world are finally happening, and the upheaval would seem to give al Qaeda a rare opportunity to start building Islamic states. But so far at least, the revolutions have defied bin Laden’s expectations by empowering not jihadists but Islamist parliamentarians — Islamists who refuse to violently oppose U.S. hegemony in the region and who are willing to engage in parliamentary politics. In Tunisia, the Islamist Renaissance Party leads in the polls ahead of legislative elections in October. In Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party, the new faction created by the Muslim Brotherhood, is likely to gain a large number of seats in parliament in elections this fall. Should countries that have experienced more violent revolutions also hold elections, such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Islamist parliamentarians are well positioned to compete in those nations as well.

Al Qaeda and its allies will not support these Islamists unless they reject parliamentary politics and establish governments that strictly implement Islamic law and are hostile to the United States. The Islamist parliamentarians are unlikely to do either. Having suffered under one-party rule for decades and wary of rival Islamist parties, the Arab world’s Islamist parliamentarians (like their secular counterparts) will be unwilling to support such a system in the future. And although they will certainly seek to implement more conservative social laws, the Islamist parliamentarians will likely come to accept that their countries require the economic and military aid of the United States or its allies.

Unable to make progress in countries where Islamist parliamentarians hold sway, such as Egypt, al Qaeda will instead attempt to diminish Washington’s clout by attacking the United States and focus on aiding rebels in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. But even in those countries, it will need to make compromises to work with existing rebel groups, and these groups, like their fellow Islamists elsewhere, may accept some level of U.S. support should they take power. What all this means is that despite the seemingly opportune moment, al Qaeda is unlikely to make much progress toward its ultimate goal of establishing Islamic states in the Arab world.


Both al Qaeda and today’s Islamist parliamentarians are outgrowths of the Islamism that arose in the nineteenth century as a response to the colonial domination of Muslim lands. Islamists believed that Muslims’ abandonment of their faith had made them vulnerable to foreign rule. In response, they advocated for independent Muslim rulers who would fully implement Islamic law, or sharia. A large number of these Islamists adhered to Salafism, a revivalist ideology that sought to purge Islam of Western influence and supposedly improper legal innovations by returning to the religious instruction of the first generations of Muslims, or Salaf. Pan-Islamic sentiment intensified after World War I, when France and the United Kingdom created colonies out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Sunni Muslims were further outraged when the new secular government in Turkey abolished the caliphate, a largely symbolic institution that nonetheless had represented the unity of the Muslim empire under a single leader (or caliph) in the religion’s early days.

When nationalist movements succeeded in ending the direct rule of foreign powers in the Middle East, beginning when Egypt gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, Islamist activists sought to replace the secular laws and institutions governing the newly independent states with systems based on sharia. Perhaps the most famous of the Islamist organizations of this period was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in the 1920s. Yet when it tried to compete in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 1942, the Egyptian government, under British pressure, forced it to withdraw. Although they failed to achieve their aims through parliamentary politics, some Brotherhood activists turned to peaceful social activism, whereas others, such as Sayyid Qutb, who was one of the group’s most prominent members, developed an ideology of violent revolution. Qutb rejected the idea of man-made legislation and held that Muslim-led governments that made their own law, as opposed to adopting sharia, were not truly Muslim. Qutb encouraged pious Muslims to rebel against such regimes; his writings have inspired generations of Sunni militants, including the founders of al Qaeda.

Islamists continued to focus on domestic matters until the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. In a burst of pan-Islamic spirit, thousands of young Arab men flooded into Pakistan hoping to battle the Soviets. Among them was bin Laden, who recruited men, procured equipment, and raised money for the cause. His training camps in Afghanistan, and others like it, gave jihadists of all backgrounds a shared identity and mission. In doing so, they served as early incubators of global jihadism. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan nearly a decade later, the jihadists believed that they had helped defeat a superpower.

Al Qaeda, which was created in 1988, grew out of those camps. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian Islamist who merged his organization, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, with al Qaeda in 2001, explained al Qaeda’s mission in 2010 as providing a “base for indoctrination, training, and incitement that gathered the capabilities of the ummah [universal Islamic community], trained them, raised their consciousness, improved their abilities, and gave them confidence in their religion and themselves.” This base, Zawahiri said, involved “large amounts of participation in jihad, bearing the worries of the ummah, and seizing the initiative in the most urgent calamities confronting the ummah.” In other words, al Qaeda envisioned itself as a revolutionary vanguard and special operations unit working to defend the Muslim world.


Al Qaeda’s early years seemed full of possibility. The collapse of the Soviet Union created new opportunities for radicals in the empire’s former client states. Islamists took control of Sudan in 1989, and Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 galvanized Islamist political protests in Algeria, culminating in an Islamist victory in the country’s elections the following year. When the secular Algerian military nullified the results and retained power, it only underscored the perceived need for a committed Muslim vanguard.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait turned al Qaeda’s attention to the United States. Bin Laden offered to send al Qaeda operatives to Saudi Arabia to help protect the country from attack by Saddam. But the Saudis rejected his proposal and instead invited the U.S. military to lead an assault on Iraq from their territory. The decision insulted bin Laden and raised his fears about the growth of unchecked U.S. power in the Middle East. Bin Laden’s concerns grew the following year, when the United States deployed peacekeeping troops to Somalia soon after he had moved al Qaeda’s headquarters to Sudan — although he celebrated the U.S. withdrawal following the infamous “Black Hawk down” ambush (in which al Qaeda operatives claim to have participated). By 1993, al Qaeda members began identifying U.S. targets in East Africa, and in 1994 they sent explosives to Saudi Arabia to attack an unspecified U.S. facility.

Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996 after Islamist-controlled Sudan expelled him at Washington’s behest. He viewed his exile as further evidence that Arab Islamists could not build Islamic states until Western power in the region was diminished. In a public declaration that same year, he announced that he was turning his gaze from Africa to the Persian Gulf and urged Muslims to launch a guerrilla war against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden not only resented the Saudis for refusing his help in the Gulf War and banning him from the kingdom but also could not tolerate the continued presence of U.S. forces in the country. If jihadists inflicted enough damage on the United States, he argued, the U.S. military would withdraw from Saudi soil, a move that would allow the Islamists to confront the deviant Saudi royal family directly. Although bin Laden did not have the resources to carry out his threat, his statement infuriated the Saudi government, which instructed its clients in Afghanistan, the ruling Taliban, to restrict his activities.

But bin Laden only escalated his rhetoric against the United States. In 1998, in a joint fatwa with the leaders of other militant organizations, he called on every Muslim to murder Americans. Soon thereafter, al Qaeda made good on this threat by bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden later described these attacks in his will and testament as the second of three “escalating strikes” against the United States — the first being Hezbollah’s bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and the third being 9/11 — all of which would “lead to the withdrawal [from the Middle East] of the United States and the infidel West, even if after dozens of years.”

In fact, 9/11 did not mark the logical culmination of the Lebanon and Africa bombings, as bin Laden suggested. Instead, it represented a subtle but significant shift in al Qaeda’s strategy. Before 9/11, al Qaeda had targeted U.S. citizens and institutions abroad, never attacking U.S. soil. The idea behind a mass-casualty attack against the U.S. homeland arose only after the Africa bombings. Two months before 9/11, Zawahiri, who had become al Qaeda’s second-in-command, published Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, which offers insight into why al Qaeda decided to attack the United States within its borders. In it, he stated that al Qaeda aimed to establish an Islamic state in the Arab world:

Just as victory is not achieved for an army unless its foot soldiers occupy land, the mujahid Islamic movement will not achieve victory against the global infidel alliance unless it possesses a base in the heart of the Islamic world. Every plan and method we consider to rally and mobilize the ummah will be hanging in the air with no concrete result or tangible return unless it leads to the establishment of the caliphal state in the heart of the Islamic world.

Achieving this goal, Zawahiri explained elsewhere in the book, would require a global jihad:

It is not possible to incite a conflict for the establishment of a Muslim state if it is a regional conflict. . . . The international Jewish-Crusader alliance, led by America, will not allow any Muslim force to obtain power in any of the Muslim lands. . . . It will impose sanctions on whomever helps it, even if it does not declare war against them altogether. Therefore, to adjust to this new reality, we must prepare ourselves for a battle that is not confined to a single region but rather includes the apostate domestic enemy and the Jewish-Crusader external enemy.

To confront this insidious alliance, Zawahiri argued, al Qaeda had to first root out U.S. influence in the region, which it could best accomplish by attacking targets on U.S. soil. Zawahiri predicted that the United States would react either by waging war against Muslims worldwide or by pulling back its forces from Muslim lands. In other words, the United States would either fight or flee. A successful direct strike against U.S. centers of power, he believed, would force this choice on the United States and allow al Qaeda to overcome the obstacles preventing it from rallying the Muslim masses and ending U.S. hegemony in the Middle East: a lack of leadership, the lack of a clear enemy, and a lack of confidence among Muslims. Al Qaeda would soon test that theory on 9/11.


From an operational perspective, the 9/11 attacks succeeded far beyond bin Laden’s imagination, killing more than 3,000 civilians and unexpectedly destroying the World Trade Center. But to al Qaeda’s dismay, 9/11 did not rally Muslims to its cause. Indeed, the organization lost legitimacy when bin Laden, hoping to avoid angering his Taliban hosts, initially denied responsibility for the attacks. And when the United States retaliated against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, it did so without providing the group with the kind of clear enemy — a large “Crusader” army — the militant Islamists had hoped for. The United States kept its footprint small, using overwhelming airpower and deploying special operations forces and CIA agents to work with allied tribes to depose the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda’s base of operations.

Although the U.S. military failed to capture bin Laden, it quickly overran the Taliban and toppled what many jihadists considered the only authentic Islamic state. Afghanistan’s fall thus represented a huge blow to al Qaeda, whose professed goal, of course, was to establish such states. The majority of al Qaeda’s Shura Council had reportedly counseled bin Laden against attacking the United States for fear of precisely this outcome.

Having failed to rally Muslims to his cause or bog down the U.S. military in a protracted ground war, bin Laden fled to Pakistan and refocused his efforts on the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia had been at the forefront of bin Laden’s thoughts since 1994, and he now had the resources to launch a major offensive against the U.S. presence in the kingdom. In early 2002, he sent hundreds of jihadists to Saudi Arabia to organize attacks on U.S. military and civilian personnel in the country. After a year of preparation, bin Laden and Zawahiri impatiently launched these attacks over objections from their Saudi branch that it was not ready. The campaign was a disaster. Although al Qaeda attempted to strike only U.S. targets, it killed many Arab Muslims in the process, turning the Saudi public against the group. In one particularly disastrous example, an al Qaeda attack on a residential compound in Riyadh in November 2003 killed mainly Arabs and Muslims, many of whom were children. After a two-year battle, Saudi forces had stamped out the organization’s presence in the kingdom.

Yet al Qaeda’s targeting miscalculations were not the only reason for its failure in Saudi Arabia. Despite a series of spectacular attacks, the organization could not compete for attention with the battle in Iraq. The U.S. invasion of that country in 2003 inflamed Muslim opinion worldwide and had finally given jihadists the clear battle they craved. Bin Laden and Zawahiri seized the opportunity to recover from their strategic blunders in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and to spark an all-consuming battle between the United States and the Islamic world. They hoped that this struggle would rally Muslims to al Qaeda’s cause and, most important, bleed the United States of its resources. As U.S. casualties mounted in Iraq, al Qaeda strategists began citing the lessons of Vietnam and quoting the U.S. historian Paul Kennedy on the consequences of “imperial overstretch.” By the end of 2004, bin Laden had begun publicly referring to al Qaeda’s “war of attrition” against the United States.

Al Qaeda hoped that Iraq would be the first Islamic state to rise after the loss of Afghanistan. In a 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leader of the Iraqi insurgency who eventually joined al Qaeda and formed the subsidiary group al Qaeda in Iraq, Zawahiri asserted that victory would come when “a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world. . . . The center would be in the Levant and Egypt.” Zawahiri argued that to expel the United States and establish an Islamic state, jihadists needed “popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries.” Zawahiri told Zarqawi that gaining this support would be easier while U.S. forces continued to occupy Iraq. But to preserve their legitimacy after a U.S. retreat, Zawahiri said, jihadists would need to avoid alienating the public through sectarianism or gratuitous violence. They had to cooperate with Muslims of all ideological and theological stripes as long as they shared the desire for a state dedicated to sharia. Zawahiri warned Zarqawi that if he declared an Islamic state before al Qaeda had built an effective coalition of Muslim groups and garnered popular approval in Iraq, the state would fail and the jihadists’ secular and Islamist opponents would take power.

Zarqawi’s followers did not heed Zawahiri’s advice. Al Qaeda in Iraq declared the founding of an Islamic state soon after Zarqawi was killed in an air strike in 2006, and, as Zawahiri had warned, the group ended up alienating more moderate Sunnis through its brutal implementation of Islamic law and its relentless assault on Iraq’s Shiites. It also lost many of its allies in the insurgency by demanding their obedience and then targeting them and their constituencies if they refused to cooperate. Additionally, the fact that al Qaeda in Iraq’s so-called Islamic state controlled so little territory earned the scorn of fellow Sunni militants in Iraq and abroad. Al Qaeda had botched its first real attempt at state building. Even if it had followed Zawahiri’s counsel, however, al Qaeda in Iraq, as well as the larger organization, would have faced a new threat on the horizon: Islamist parties with the desire and know-how to enter the political system.


Whereas al Qaeda’s brutal, sectarian tactics turned the Iraqi populace against it, the Sunni forces willing to engage in parliamentary politics gained the most power. Chief among them was the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Iraqi Islamic Party dominates Sunni politics in Iraq today and regularly supplies one of the country’s two vice presidents.

The jihadists, of course, reject this success. Zawahiri has been particularly critical of Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fatouh, a one-time member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership council who is now an independent candidate for president in Egypt. Abou el-Fatouh stated before the Arab revolutions that the Brotherhood would respect the results of any popular election in Egypt and remain in loyal opposition should its opponents win. This idea was anathema to Zawahiri, who argued that a government’s legitimacy derives not from the ballot box but from its enforcement of Islamic law. “Any government established on the basis of a constitution that is secular, atheist, or contradictory to Islam cannot be a respected government because it is un-Islamic and not according to sharia,” he wrote in a revision of Knights published in 2010. “It is unacceptable that a leader in the Brotherhood evinces respect for such a government, even if it comes about through fair elections.”

To be clear, Zawahiri does not oppose all elections; for example, he supports elections for the rulers of Islamic states and for representatives on leadership councils, which would ensure that these governments implemented Islamic law properly. But he opposes any system in which elections empower legislators to make laws of their own choosing. In the second edition of Knights, Zawahiri outlined al Qaeda’s vision for the proper Islamic state:

We demand . . . the government of the rightly guiding caliphate, which is established on the basis of the sovereignty of sharia and not on the whims of the majority. Its ummah chooses its rulers. . . . If they deviate, the ummah brings them to account and removes them. The ummah participates in producing that government’s decisions and determining its direction. . . . [The caliphal state] commands the right and forbids the wrong and engages in jihad to liberate Muslim lands and to free all humanity from all oppression and ignorance.

Bin Laden agreed with Zawahiri’s take on elections, stating in January 2009 that once foreign influence and local tyrants have been removed from Islamic countries, true Muslims can elect their own presidents. And like Zawahiri, bin Laden argued that elections should not create parliaments that allow Muslims and non-Muslims to collaborate on making laws.

Although al Qaeda’s leaders concurred on elections, they differed on the utility of using nonviolent protest to achieve Islamist goals. In bin Laden’s January 2009 remarks, he claimed that demonstrations without weapons are useless. This contradicted a statement made by Zawahiri a week earlier, in which he called on Egyptian Muslims to go on strike in protest of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Now that Zawahiri has replaced bin Laden as the leader of al Qaeda, his openness to nonviolent tactics may help the organization navigate the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. Even so, his hostility toward parliamentary politics cedes the real levers of power to the Islamist parliamentarians.


Al Qaeda now stands at a precipice. The Arab Spring and the success of Islamist parliamentarians throughout the Middle East have challenged its core vision just as the group has lost its founder. Al Qaeda has also lost access to bin Laden’s personal connections in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf, which had long provided it with resources and protection. Bin Laden’s death has deprived al Qaeda of its most media-savvy icon; and most important, al Qaeda has lost its commander in chief. The raid that killed bin Laden revealed that he had not been reduced to a figurehead, as many Western analysts had suspected; he had continued to direct the operations of al Qaeda and its franchises. Yet the documents seized from bin Laden’s home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, reveal how weak al Qaeda had become even under his ongoing leadership. Correspondence found in the raid shows bin Laden and his lieutenants lamenting al Qaeda’s lack of funds and the constant casualties from U.S. drone strikes. These papers have made the organization even more vulnerable by exposing its general command structure, putting al Qaeda’s leadership at greater risk of extinction than ever before.

Al Qaeda has elected Zawahiri as its new chief, at least for now. But the transition will not be seamless. Some members of al Qaeda’s old guard feel little loyalty to Zawahiri, whom they view as a relative newcomer. Al Qaeda’s members from the Persian Gulf, for their part, may feel alienated by having an Egyptian at their helm, especially if Zawahiri chooses another Egyptian as his deputy.

Despite these potential sources of friction, al Qaeda is not likely to split under Zawahiri’s reign. Its senior leadership will still want to unite jihadist groups under its banner, and its franchises will have little reason to relinquish the recognition and resources that come with al Qaeda affiliation. Yet those affiliates cannot offer al Qaeda’s senior commanders shelter. Indeed, should Pakistan become too dangerous a refuge for the organization’s leaders, they will find themselves with few other options. The Islamic governments that previously protected and assisted al Qaeda, such as those in Afghanistan and Sudan in the 1990s, either no longer exist or are inhospitable (although Somalia might become a candidate if the militant group al Shabab consolidates its hold there).

In the midst of grappling with all these challenges, al Qaeda must also decide how to respond to the uprisings in the Arab world. Thus far, its leaders have indicated that they want to support Islamist insurgents in unstable revolutionary countries and lay the groundwork for the creation of Islamic states once the existing regimes have fallen, similar to what they attempted in Iraq. But al Qaeda’s true strategic dilemma lies in Egypt and Tunisia. In these countries, local tyrants have been ousted, but parliamentary elections will be held soon, and the United States remains influential.

The outcome in Egypt is particularly personal for Zawahiri, who began his fight to depose the Egyptian government as a teenager. Zawahiri also understands that Egypt, given its geostrategic importance and its status as the leading Arab nation, is the grand prize in the contest between al Qaeda and the United States. In his recent six-part message to the Egyptian people and in his eulogy for bin Laden, Zawahiri suggested that absent outside interference, the Egyptians and the Tunisians would establish Islamic states that would be hostile to Western interests. But the United States, he said, will likely work to ensure that friendly political forces, including secularists and moderate Islamists, win Egypt’s upcoming elections. And even if the Islamists succeed in establishing an Islamic state there, Zawahiri argued, the United States will retain enough leverage to keep it in line. To prevent such an outcome, Zawahiri called on Islamist activists in Egypt and Tunisia to start a popular (presumably nonviolent) campaign to implement sharia as the sole source of legislation and to pressure the transitional governments to end their cooperation with Washington.

Yet Zawahiri’s attempt to sway local Islamists is unlikely to succeed. Although some Islamists in the two countries rhetorically support al Qaeda, many, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, are now organizing for their countries’ upcoming elections — that is, they are becoming Islamist parliamentarians. Even Egyptian Salafists, who share Zawahiri’s distaste for parliamentary politics, are forming their own political parties. Most ominous for Zawahiri’s agenda, the Egyptian Islamist organization al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), parts of which were once allied with al Qaeda, has forsworn violence and recently announced that it was creating a political party to compete in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. Al Qaeda, then, is losing sway even among its natural allies.

This dynamic limits Zawahiri’s options. For fear of alienating the Egyptian people, he is not likely to end his efforts to reach out to Egypt’s Islamist parliamentarians or to break with them by calling for attacks in the country before the elections. Instead, he will continue urging the Islamists to advocate for sharia and to try to limit U.S. influence.

In the meantime, Zawahiri will continue trying to attack the United States and continue exploiting less stable postrevolutionary countries, such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, which may prove more susceptible to al Qaeda’s influence. Yet to operate in these countries, al Qaeda will need to subordinate its political agenda to those of the insurgents there or risk destroying itself, as Zarqawi’s group did in Iraq. If those insurgents take power, they will likely refuse to offer al Qaeda safe haven for fear of alienating the United States or its allies in the region.

Thanks to the continued predominance of the United States and the growing appeal of Islamist parliamentarians in the Muslim world, even supporters of al Qaeda now doubt that it will be able to replace existing regimes with Islamic states anytime soon. In a recent joint statement, several jihadist online forums expressed concern that if Muammar al-Qaddafi is defeated in Libya, the Islamists there will participate in U.S.-backed elections, ending any chance of establishing a true Islamic state.

As a result of all these forces, al Qaeda is no longer the vanguard of the Islamist movement in the Arab world. Having defined the terms of Islamist politics for the last decade by raising fears about Islamic political parties and giving Arab rulers a pretext to limit their activity or shut them down, al Qaeda’s goal of removing those rulers is now being fulfilled by others who are unlikely to share its political vision. Should these revolutions fail and al Qaeda survives, it will be ready to reclaim the mantle of Islamist resistance. But for now, the forces best positioned to capitalize on the Arab Spring are the Islamist parliamentarians, who, unlike al Qaeda, are willing and able to engage in the messy business of politics.

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