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The Return of Al Qaeda and Jihad



With the ousting of Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, al-Qaeda has been vindicated and the terror-jihad exonerated, in the opinion of many Islamists, that is.

According to the Associated Press, in a new video, al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri “said the military coup that ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi provides proof that Islamic rule cannot be established through democracy and urged the Islamist leader’s followers to abandon the ballot box in favor of armed resistance [i.e., jihad].”

In fact, in the Arabic video, Zawahiri gloats over two points that he has championed for decades despite widespread opposition: that the Brotherhood was foolish to engage in democracy and elections in the first place, and that the triumph of Islam can only be achieved through jihad.

Interestingly, these two points go back to a long but internal debate between nonviolent Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and violent jihadis, like al-Qaeda. While both groups pursue the same exact goals—a Sharia-ruling caliphate followed by the subjugation of the “infidel” world, according to Islamic teachings—they follow different strategies. The Brotherhood has long argued that, because the Islamic world is militarily weaker than the West, now is not the time for an all-out jihad, but rather a time for infiltration and subversion, a time for taqiyya and short-lived promises. Conversely, jihadis generally disavow pretense and diplomacy, opting for jihad alone.

Since the 1960s in Egypt, Ayman Zawahiri was an outspoken proponent of jihad (see “Ayman Zawahiri and Egypt: A Trip Through Time for a brief biography). In the early 1990s, he wrote an entire book titled Al Hissad Al Murr, or “The Bitter Harvest,” where he argued that the Brotherhood “takes advantage of the Muslim youths’ fervor by bringing them into the fold only to store them in a refrigerator. Then, they steer their onetime passionate, Islamic zeal for jihad to conferences and elections…. And not only have the Brothers been idle from fulfilling their duty of fighting to the death, but they have gone as far as to describe the infidel governments as legitimate, and have joined ranks with them in the ignorant style of governing, that is, democracies, elections, and parliaments.”

Even so, after the terror strikes of 9/11, many became critical of al-Qaeda, whose actions were seen as setting back the Islamist agenda by creating more scrutiny and awareness in the West. The attacks further set off the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and gave many Arab governments—including former President Mubarak’s—free reign to suppress all Islamists. As Montasser al-Zayyat, Zawahiri’s biographer, wrote:

The poorly conceived decision to launch the attacks of September 11 created many victims of a war of which they did not choose to be a part…. Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s behavior was met with a lot of criticism from many Islamists in Egypt and abroad…. In the post-September 11 world, no countries can afford to be accused of harboring the enemies of the United States. No one ever imagined that a Western European country would extradite Islamists who live on its lands. Before that, Islamists had always thought that arriving in a European city and applying for political asylum was enough to acquire permanent resident status. After September 11, 2001, everything changed…. Even the Muslim Brotherhood was affected by the American campaign, which targeted everything Islamic.

If the West “targeted everything Islamic,” that was obviously short lived; for, from a different perspective, the post 9/11 world has proven to be the heyday of the Muslim Brotherhood. For starters, many Islamists began to see the wisdom of the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy of publicly renouncing violence (jihad) and appropriating Western language and paradigms in an effort to infiltrate and subvert.

And it certainly worked: the Brotherhood got what they wanted; their strategy of opting for elections and renouncing jihad, coupled with a highly sympathetic Obama administration, culminated with the Brotherhood leaving Egypt’s prisons and filling the highest posts of government, beginning with the presidency.

However, now that the Brotherhood and Morsi have been ousted, the jihadis—chief among them Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda—are in full “we told you so” mode, renewing the argument that Islamic Sharia can never be established through infidel democracy, but rather only through jihad, long recognized as the only way to force people—including Muslims themselves—to comply with Allah’s rule on earth. And it’s becoming harder for nonviolent Islamists to argue otherwise, especially the now disgraced Brotherhood.

Thus, among an increasing number of Islamists, al-Qaeda’s strategy—jihad and terror—has been justified and may well return in full force. Indeed, it’s in this context that one must understand recent news that the U.S. “ordered the unprecedented closure of embassies in 19 countries across the Middle East and Africa,” a decision sparked by Ayman Zawahiri’s recent communiques.

No doubt Western apologists will now argue that it’s in the West’s interest to support and make concessions to the Muslim Brotherhood, since the alternative will be a renewal in jihadi terror. However, aside from the fact that such an argument is tantamount to submitting to blackmail—or that the resumption of jihad is just another reminder that al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood are two faces of the same coin—is it not better to get the ugly truth out in the open now, while the U.S. still has some power and influence, rather than later, when it will likely be even more infiltrated and handicapped?

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Katibat Imam al Bukhari Renewed its Ideological Doctrine of the Jihad

Uran Botobekov



The leader of the Katibat Imam al Bukhari jihadist group Abu Yusuf Muhojir

On February 15, 2017 the Uzbek jihadist group of Katibat Imamal Bukhari from Central Asia, also known as the Imam Bukhari Jamaat, issued a special statement titled “Who are we?” The statement was published by the group leader, Abu Yusuf Muhojir, on his page on Telegram, which then was distributed via other social media among other Central Asian terrorist groups in the Middle East.

The statement clearly emphasized the extremist doctrine of the jihadist group and strategic targets set forth by Katiba tImamal Bukhari. For the full disclosure of the radical ideology of the group and its jihadist platform, we have analyzed the statement which, in our opinion, poses a serious threat not only to the integrity of the Islamic Ummah, but also to other world religions such as Christianity and Judaism.

The statement focuses on the issue of jihad and the commitment to wage a war against “infidel forces” of the West. The statement starts, as it usually does among radical Islamists, with the expression of endless love to Allah and his messenger Prophet Muhammad. Then it says, that “Rasulullah Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam (Prophet Muhammad) said that on the way to Allah you should choose jihad since Allah opens one of the gates to heaven only to those who follow jihad and give their lives in the name of Allah.”

The statement of the Katibat Imam al Bukhari jihadist group

The statement gives a brief description of the Katibat Imamal Bukhari group. That’s possibly why the statement is called “Who are we?”According to the statement, “the Katibat Imama lBukhari group consists of Muslims of Turkestan (an old name of Central Asia), who fought for the establishment of a Sharia regime in Fergana Valley, but due to religious views had to flee the repressions of kafir regimes. The Mujahideen of Katibat Imamal Bukhari have come to the land of milk and honey of Sham (Syria) following the call of Allah to help the suppressed Muslims of the Middle East to overthrow the infidel regimes and strengthen the Islamic laws in the liberated territories.”

In the statement, Katibat Imam al Bukhari has described its the main religious concept as “a jihadist one based on the Quran and Sunnah’s of the Prophet Muhammad [Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam].” Also, the statement says that “the strategic position of Katibat Imam al Bukhari is to establish the Islamic state in Syria and in the homeland of Turkestan (Central Asian states), where people would live and obey the laws of Allah. And only when the group achieves its goals, Allah would be pleased with the determination and faithfulness of his servants.”

The ideological doctrine has identified four immediate goals of Katibat Imam al Bukhari:

  1. To overthrow the bloody regime of Bashar Assad and to establish afair Islamic system of ruling the land of milk and honey of Sham (Syria).Along with that, to keep on pursuing jihad to bring true Islamic freedom to Muslim brothers from Turkestan (Central Asia);
  2. Towage a violent fight in order to establish the Islamic religion among people, in communities and in states;
  3. To take an active part, as well as to wage a military fight in order to promote the Islamic Ummah;
  4. To train the army of Mujahideenout of the younger generation in order to secure the future of Islam and to protect all Muslims.

Also, Katibat Imamal Bukhari has identified its foreign policy priorities, which is the evidence of the international “ambition” of the jihadist group. In particular, the ideologists of the group find it necessary to establish a contact with the outer world and to cooperate with other Islamic jamaats on the basis of the Muslim brotherhood only.

The final part of the statement sets a task for the Mujahideen of Katibat Imam al Bukhari to be prepared to protect the Islamic values from the attacks of the Western crusaders and their hostile religions. The followers of Salafism and Takfirism are known to consider the Christianity and Judaism as the archenemy of Islam.

“In case of conflicts with other Islamic jamaats within the Muslim Ummah, they should follow the principles of mutual understanding and mutual forgiveness”, said the statement. In conclusion, the statement has noted that all decisions on foreign affairs and military issues are made by the Shura (Council) of Katibat Imam al Bukhari.

Analysis of the statement showed that the main goal of Katibat Imam al Bukhari is the armed struggle against the secular regimes of Central Asia and the overthrow of Bashar Assad’s power in Syria. Jihad is the main tool of the group, which tries to establish Sharia laws in society and in the state. In other words, Katibat Imam al Bukhari leads a jihad for the establishment of the Caliphate, which poses a serious threat not only to the countries of Central Asia, but also to the West. The group recently joined the jihad against the US on the Jerusalem issue. The leader of Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Abu Yusuf Muhojir, posted on his Telegram page a call for the protection of the Palestinians and for jihad against the godless regimes of Western countries, and for the Muslims of Central Asia to join the jihad as the only way to resist the aggression of the US and its Zionist allies.

However, the “novelty” in its ideological doctrine is the group’s desire to establish international cooperation with other Islamic jamaats and jihadist groups based on the Muslim brotherhood. In this way, Katibat Imam al Bukhari is trying to become a serious participant in the jihadist movement in the world.

Today Katibat al-Imam Bukhari is fighting in Syria as part of the al Qaeda-linked rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. The Katibat al-Imam Bukhari detachment was created in Afghanistan on the basis of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and pledged loyalty to the Taliban. After the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2012, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, on the recommendation of Al-Qaeda, moved to the province of Idlib and distinguished itself as one of the major rebel groups fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad. Part of the jihadists of the Katibat al-Imam Bukhariis based in Afghanistan today and is fighting together with the Taliban.

After the murder of the former leader, the group’s jihadists lost their morale. On April 27, 2017, during the evening prayer in the mosque of a Syrian city of Idlib, the leader of Katibat al-Imam Bukhari Sheikh Salahuddin was killed based on orders from Al Baghdadi by an Uzbek militant from South Tajikistan, who was a member of ISIS. The Islamic State distributed the following statement via Telegram messenger in this regard, “The emir of detachment of the Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Sheikh Salahuddin, was punished according to Sharia law for all the betrayals he committed.”But the overthrow of ISIS played into their hands.

The Uzbek militant from Tajikistan, known as Abu Yusuf Muhojir, was appointed the new leader of the group. The social networks have characterized him as a military strategist who has lead a series of successful operations against the army of Bashar Assad. From his video messages posted on YouTube it may be concluded that Abu Yusuf Muhojir has religious knowledge, oratorical skills, and leadership skills required in order to inspire the militants to perform holy jihad. About 600 militants are known to fight in the Katibat al-Imam Bukhari group together with their families, and unlike pro-ISIS’ militants from Central Asia, the group has managed to survive and maintain its combat effectiveness.

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Talking to Abu Qatada about Donald Trump’s Presidency and the Future of the Middle East

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D



Abu Qatada, Photo: ICSVE

Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.

AMMAN, Jordan: What does Abu Qatada, the so-called “spiritual father” of al-Qaeda in Europe and man responsible for a fatwa on Algeria that some argue offered ideological justifications for killing civilian family members of Algerian military officers, resulting in the beheadings of many,[2] have to say about the Trump Presidency and the territorial defeat of ISIS? Last January, shortly after the inauguration of President Trump, ICSVE’s Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci sat down with him on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, to ask him for his opinion on the Trump presidency and the future of the Middle East. Because his son was briefly imprisoned, by the Jordanians, Abu Qatada requested that we not publish this piece until now. Since then we have interviewed him twice again, in December 2017, during which he surprised us greatly with his views on the legitimacy of terrorist attacks against civilians (see part two of this series). This is thus a two-part series based on four total conversations over the past year with Abu Qatada.

Abu Qatada: Part One

Dressed in a long dark thobe and his grey beard reaching over his chest, Abu Qatada hosts us in a large diwan in his stone hewn home on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, its walls filled with scholarly books about Islam. As we are served coffee on a tray that Abu Qatada accepts from uknown female hands beyond a doorway inside his home, I glance about the room. His desk is filled with books, and like mine at home there are many piled up beside his chair. It’s obvious we are in the home of a scholar.

While an angry ideologue, Abu Qatada is also an articulate man who can illuminate how those supporting al-Qaeda consider how their strategic plans might unfold. He is a barometer of sorts on a whole other type of thinking. We start our discussion on President Trump and the future of the Middle East.

“It’s a very difficult question,” Abu Qatada answers regarding our question about what he thinks will be the future of the Middle East. “There is something coming, which nothing can stop it from changing this area,” he predicts, as his large brown eyes gaze across the room trying to glimpse what the future may hold. “The region will be more fragmented. This system of nation-states that was created after World War II will disappear in our region. Saudi, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan will dissolve. Their central governments will end.”

He told us the same in November 2016, mentioning that Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria had already collapsed, or were about to, and it was just a matter of time before the entire region of propped up dictators would fall and the region would be engulfed in conflicts.

“What will come in its place?” we ask.

“It will become more fragmented. I’m not sure, it could happen in America too,” he states. But here, I am sure it will happen, because the differences in society are becoming strong and the gap is deepening.” As Qatada continues.

As we consider his answer, one cannot help but reflect on the perceptions of class conflict that has also grown more prevalent in the recent years in the United States. How often, these days, the same words are said about American society in regards to tensions between the poor and the rich and to the losses in the middle class? Could inequalities in income and wealth ultimately lead to rebellion even beyond the Middle East, or even globally? Highly improbable, but points out the potential societal costs of inequality and the divisive politics it may potentially lead to both at home and more likely, abroad.

We ask him what differences in society he is speaking of in the Middle Eastern context. “Shia and Sunnis are part of the scene, but are not the whole thing. The Jewish dream of dominating from the Nile to the Euphrates according to the Torah—you cannot accomplish it because of human nature. This also is part of the issue,” he explains, harking back to his own Palestinian roots and his longstanding anger at the establishment of the Jewish state and according to him, the illegitimate Israeli overtaking of Palestinian lands.

“Israelis cannot control Gaza. It’s the human dimension they cannot control. It’s the same with the Shia. They don’t have the human depth to rule this area. They could have [ruled], before the Syrian uprising. They could have been accepted. Everyone started for their own reasons loving Hezbollah after July’s war [with Israel], he says, referring to the 2006 Israeli incursion into Lebanon.  “But after Syria, the ones that like Hezbollah cannot be mentioned in Sunni circles,” he adds.

Indeed, speaking today with Iraqis, Jordanians, and Syrians in the Middle East, we hear much more today about the Shia-Sunni divide—and anger directed at the Shia by the Sunnis—whereas only ten years ago, this anger would more likely have been directed at Israel and the Jews.

The 2003-2006 U.S.- Coalition led war into Iraq followed by al Qaeda in Iraq’s Abu Musab Zarqawi unleashing a furious jihad against the Shia and their subsequent retaliations, coupled now with the Syrian conflict and the war in Iraq restarting, have all opened a sectarian rift and left scars of murderous rage alongside desires for revenge among the victims and their sympathizers on both sides of that divide.  It is not about Palestinians and Jews anymore. It has become a much wider sectarian conflict engulfing larger regions in the Middle East.

“Sunnah is not a sect. It is the original,” Abu Qatada asserts, echoing ISIS and al-Qaeda claims that Sunnis have the correct interpretation of Islam. Indeed, these groups claim to follow the original and true form of Islam, and call Takfir—that is deemed worthy to be killed—all those who do not adhere to their strict and brutal interpretations of Islam. As a person, Abu Qatada is more gentle than they are, but his ideological teachings are of the same ilk.

The Shiites, politically, I’m no longer afraid of them,” Abu Qatada explains. “And militarily, I’m not scared of them. The issue could be more complex. What stops the Sunnis from wiping out the Shiites? Are the regimes of the Sunni states?” he asks. “Let’s take Saudi Arabia, for example. The Sunni society in Saudi can achieve a big victory against the Houthis [Shia-led insurgency] in Yemen,” he says, predicting what soon starts to occur over the last months. “What is stopping them is the regime itself. What is stopping a Sunni leader appearing there are the Sunni regimes themselves, and not the Shite.”

“Right now the regimes are stopping the Sunni leadership and putting them in prison,” Abu Qatada states referring to his Islamist and militant jihadi brothers. “There is a marginalization of the Sunni power. If the regimes fall, there is Sunni power to wipe out the Shia power. Take the Lebanese, for example, this mosaic. If the state goes, supported by all the disputed parties, the Sunni power, with the Palestinian camps, will lead to getting rid of the Shia parties and its allies.” Abu Qatada again harks to his belief in Palestinian militancy and alludes to the proxy war in Syria and parts of Iraq, in which Iranians and Gulf actors serve as sources of financial support for both state leaders and terrorist groups.

“Now Sunnis in Iraq are the majority,” Abu Qatada stresses, although factually this is not true, even if Kurds are lumped in with Sunnis. “Everything is confirming that Sunnis in Iraq are the majority. Shia leadership belonging to Arab regimes, they are ruining the Sunni project in Iraq.”

“The vision and idea of the Middle East that is upcoming and in which those states will no longer exist brings important questions,” Abu Qatada states. “Will their collapse mean that there will be an invasion from the West to our region?”

This is the important question for those of Abu Qatada’s following.  If the West is non-interventionist, perhaps his vision can come into being with the Sunni Islamists rising to take power, as ISIS tried and briefly established its so-called “Islamic State”. If the West stays out will some or many of the Middle Eastern governments collapse, as Abu Qatada predicts, making way for something else, his vision of reshaping the region?

“So what do you think of President Trump?” we ask.

“I don’t see the problem in Trump,” Abu Qatada answers. “I worry after Trump, what will come to us on the land of al Bab [we presume he refers to Syria], the destroyed land of al Bab.”

Abu Qatada is angry about the injustices and bad governance in his region. Perhaps in some ways his anger mirrors the anger and fear over similar issues in the U.S. that propelled the most unlikely of candidates into the U.S. presidency.

“Trump is not the abnormal in the American situation. He didn’t’ come with an [armed] revolution. Trump is a simple man and he is a reflection of a phenomenon. This is a big loss given that a person like this was able to convince a wide spectrum.”

“In our region we should expect a lot of developments in the West that will affect us,” Abu Qatada explains. “In reality, when it comes to our [Islamist] goals, Trump may be a benefit. What matters most to us is if he is going to continue his support to those regimes who rely on American support? If he is an isolationist, will he stop the financial support for some regimes? If so, that will be very effective for us.” Abu Qatada states.

The reordering of American engagement in the Middle East keeps preoccupying Abu Qatada’s thought. He clearly wants the West to withdraw all of its support for current Arab leaders in hopes that their governments will collapse, hastening his version of the Islamic State that he would love to usher into the region in their place. He makes no mention of whether U.S. support that emboldens dictators to use coercive measures at home to suppress extremist dissent actually undermines the credibility of democratic values. Yet that too is an important concern globally as groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS rally the downtrodden and those with real and perceived grievances against their governments to believe in a totally alternative form of governance—as in the ISIS Caliphate—supposedly governed by Islamic ideals.  This is Abu Qatada’s dream as well although in a less brutal form.

In President Trump’s first moves, he invited King Abdullah to the White House and the U.S. continues unabated in its over one-and-a-half-billion-dollar annual investment in Jordan. At that meeting, President Trump reiterated his commitment to Jordan’s stability and security while both parties pledged continuing contributions to defeat the Islamic State. The extent of their partnership could be further exemplified by the withdrawal of the U.S. Ambassador in Jordan at the request of King Abdullah. Similarly, President Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May 2017 where he similarly reinforced U.S. support for their government. Abu Qatada also might be quite disappointed at the amount of public praise President Trump gave for the Arab leaders in the region.

What about the surrounding region—will the support continue despite poor governance, corruption, and human rights violations?  Will the U.S. continue to lend military support for the governments of Iraq and Syria to be bolstered to remain strong?  These are questions Abu Qatada worries over, as U.S. involvement and support for existing governments in the Middle East could thwart his plans.

“He is only interested in money,” Abu Qatada states. “Withdrawal and money. Will Trump, the businessman, give more money to these ally states? Will he continue the financial aid?”

Indeed, these are important questions as the West must come to terms with whether dictatorships should be supported to the extent they have in light of them ignominiously suppressing not only Islamist but also democratic movements in the Middle East. How should a U.S. President deal with authoritarian rulers who vehemently object to any criticism of their wrong doing or their human rights record, as is the case with many authoritarian rulers in the Middle East? These are important questions that may or may not be answered in this administration.

One must not forget that al-Qaeda rose out of the idea that Arabs would never be able to win dignity and justice as long as the West was propping up dictators who get in the way of movements seeking freedoms, using torture and imprisonments to do it, hence the al-Qaeda idea of going for the “head of the snake”—attacking the West to someday achieve freedom for Arab Muslims from dictatorial regimes.

“What will happen to ISIS?” we ask, changing the conversation to looking at the current Islamic State.

“ISIS is on its way to disappearing,” Abu Qatada answers (in January 2017). In November 2016, he refused to criticize ISIS because they were on their knees and militarily in retreat, but it was clear even then that he was not supportive of their brutal tactics and rush to declare a Caliphate—a premature move in his opinion.

“This leadership is gone. But something new coming is very possible. ISIS will be defeated, but is it the end of ISIS? Al Qaeda and Nusra are over in Syria. It is a reality. Al Qaeda and al Nusra ended in Syria, but a new development happened. A new organization appeared, not ISIS, but Tahrir al Sham, Fateh al Sham. This development will continue,” he adds referring to Salafi organizations formed from al-Nusra and other groups that appear to be continuing in the same ideology despite claiming to be no longer affiliated with al Qaeda.

“So, an armed Sunni rebellion and wanting to take control will continue?” we ask.

“In Syria, one hundred percent, yes,” he answers. “In Iraq, I don’t know. I cannot judge on this.”

Turning back to President Trump, Abu Qatada states, “There is no strategic vision of Trump on ISIS. It’s very clear he has a cowboy mentality. His way of solving a problem is carrying a gun and shooting, but the world is more complex than that. The Americans don’t have experience in our region, like the Europeans do. You have seen how things get out of your control,” he says, referring to the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq and the current Syrian war.

“Bush did a lot of killing, he was like the raging bull. Obama’s strategy was surgical operation. But with all of this, there are more losses for them. The problem is that people are running toward the problem and are not afraid of it.”

Ruminating about Trump, Abu Qatada asks, “Was he chosen for internal or external reasons? If they [the American people] chose Trump for external reasons, then the Americans are so stupid, worse than stupid, they are morons imbeciles, idiots.” We laugh as he says it.  Indeed, President Trump in his first months in office does not seem to be able to take a nuanced view of the Middle East, but perhaps Abu Qatada underestimates the U.S. military and Congress, or the President himself to catch on?

“Putin took advantage of the weakness of Obama,” Abu Qatada answers. “Obama was unable to solve this problem. I have no vision of the economic situation of Russia, but I wonder if their economic situation will allow them to intervene more? But there is obviously a romance going on with Trump.” Interestingly enough, we failed to ask if he thought of the relationship as being more than just a “romance,” as he calls it, perhaps an attempt to reinvigorate old alliances and find new allies to unlock indolent and frozen decades-old conflicts in the Middle East, as some claim?

Clearly Abu Qatada’s hope is that all Western powers will stay out of the region. He hopes that the existing governments will fall and that Sunnis will rise up to create their wider Islamic State.

“What will it look after ISIS?” we ask.

“To look as ISIS as being only the problem in the area is extremely wrong,” Abu Qatada states. Indeed, al-Qaeda in Iraq first rose in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and gained support and momentum in response to Sunni leadership being sent home while Shias rose to dominance and Zarqawi came sowing his seeds of terrorist discord. A similar thing happened with ISIS. Lacking security, justice, and dignity, the Sunni population easily supported them in their first moves inside Iraq.  Thus, we see that the real answer to terrorism is not only to defeat terrorists but to remedy the political issues that gave rise to them—issues that require fair and effective governance that delivers security and justice for everyone.

“This is an Islamic problem,” Abu Qatada states. “To look at ISIS and to think that we are fighting ISIS in Syria, Libya, and Yemen is wrong. ISIS is not even shining the most important aspect in this area. It’s part of an explosive and flaming problem in the area for the Muslims. All Muslims need answers. What is our problem? The situation is very bad, inside and out, and people know that the only way for change is fighting, and the only way to solve our problems is to have an Islamic State. There may be differences, but they all share the vision of an Islamic State. To talk about ISIS only is to forget the fact that we have a problem.”

While Abu Qatada insists that armed conflict will come to pass in order for Middle Easterners to be ruled justly, his words find a chord.  Focus testing our Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative videos in which former ISIS cadres denounce the group, Jordanian youth told us, “You know we all want the Caliphate.  We just aren’t sure if we want the ISIS Caliphate.”  This view was reiterated multiple times.  Clearly, there is a search for a just form of governance and that makes youth and others vulnerable to groups like ISIS.

“Please, clarify the “problems?” we ask.  “Are you speaking about justice, unemployment, what problems exactly?

“We are not talking only about injustices. Forget this. To convince the people we are on the right path,” Abu Qatada states imagining his vision of the Arab region. Qadafi is gone. Assad doesn’t control two thirds of Syria. Yemen is all fragmented. They are over,” he states, perhaps mistakenly discounting the influential Putin-Assad relationship, with Syrian President Bashar al Assad still controlling the areas of Syria that are of most strategic importance to him thanks to Russian airstrikes targeting everyone who threatens his regime.

“We can no longer talk about social justice as the problem. Now the issue is to reestablish the region. Now the organizations are talking about getting rid of injustice, but now we have a problem of defining the future. Those who think that we will simply put these states back together are mistaken.”

“The situation is developing in a very dramatic way,” Abu Qatada insists. “Forget about ISIS. I believe what Wael Hallaq [an American professor at Columbia University, specializing in Islamic jurisprudence] says, that the Islamic State is impossible to achieve given the context in the international world, in the West. These internal differences in the West are creating a bigger gap, but it will not be an Islamic State,” Abu Qatada continues. “States that fall will not be replaced. But it will be all the Muslims in the region living under Islamic rule, not a state, but as an Islamic nation.”

This was the vision of ISIS that is now disintegrating, but despite their loss of territory and capacity, the vision has staying power in a region that is plagued with corruption, security violations, injustice, and unemployment.  While Abu Qatada believes that President Trump will play into his hand, hastening the fall of current Arab governance, one would hope that all Middle Eastern rulers from Syria to Iraq, to Saudi Arabia and beyond would realize the need for better decision-making and the need to provide security, justice, economic possibilities and real freedoms to ward off future iterations of terrorist groups like ISIS.

When we return to talk with Abu Qatada in January of 2017, President Trump has been one year in office and has just recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has not been the non-interventionist in the region that Abu Qatada had hoped for, the American leader withdrawing all support from who he sees as corrupt regional leaders. And now the U.S. President has handed Jerusalem to the Israelis without any concession to the Palestinians.

“You are talking of Kushner with the deal of the century,” Abu Qatada states. “They want to get rid of us, kick us out of our country. But come to me after five years, keep on visiting me, but after five years, and all these grand [dealings] will be a mirage. It will have no reality on the ground,” Abu Qatada predicts.

“Israel is becoming a burden on the world.”

Referring to President Trump’s time Abu Qatada points out, “When did Trump carry out this decision, what day did he do it, announce it? It was Dec 6, 100 years since Dec 6 1917 when the Balfour Declaration took place [allowing for the creation of Israel]. Do you think this is a coincidence?” he asks. “Trump has been now a year, why did he chose this day, definitely there is an ideological issue with it.”

When I tell Abu Qatada that not all Americans agreed with this decision, he states, “I’ve learned with Westerners, you always try to lessen the sharpness of the pain inside of us. You always try to soften the blow.”

“Despair could come out of it,” he says referring to the loss to Palestinians, “but take it as a basis of principle. There is something that exists in history, the reality of history, and it is the blunder,” Abu Qatada warns. “This blunder becomes stronger. The stronger the mistake is, the more powerful the mistake is in its destruction. Israel is a settlement state—a garrison state—and garrison states always will always be defeated. I describe settlements as putting a foreign entity in your body. You always need serums and injections to support them.”

Turning back to the larger Arab world, Abu Qatada predicts, “There will be strategic changes in the world and America will be affected by the changing situation. I believe there will be new governments in Saudi and Egypt. They will deal with the U.S. as Iran is dealing with America. They will say the word ‘no’. And the quiet majority will be crying over what Trump did. After Trump new things will come…”

While Abu Qatada is certainly correct in regard to regional alliances shifting and Arab leaders that may continue to be toppled, and that the region is and may continue to be plagued with challenges from corruption, suppression of human rights, religiously linked terrorism and armed conflict, how the Trump administration plays its hand in the region may make for something far less violent than he is predicting. On that, only time will tell.

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (February 14, 2018) Speaking to Abu Qatada about Donald Trump’s Presidency and the Future of the Middle East. ICSVE Research Reports

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Another Face of Abu Qatada: Speaking on the Principle of Terrorism

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D



Abu Qatada, Photo: ICSVE

Abu Qatada, who many have called the spiritual father of al Qaeda in Europe, is a scholar of Islam and what many might deem a terrorist instigator, or an ideologue who puts out arguments in support of militant jihad, but never himself fights jihad or spills blood. Yet, in these interviews, the third and fourth ICSVE researchers have made with him over the past year, he spoke candidly about his views on terrorism—making statements that will surprise many.

Palestinian by birth, Abu Qatada grew up in refugee camps in Jordan, carrying within himself a heritage of bitterness over his lost homeland. He is angry and rebellious against what he believes to be Western hegemony. He does not hide his strong desire to see a fundamental reordering of the Arab world. In this interview, we spoke to him about the changes he longs to see in the Middle East and the guiding principles by which to influence such changes, including his predictions as to what might actually happen.

Earlier in his career, Abu Qatada resided in London, where he was editor in chief of the Usrat al -Ansar weekly magazine, a propaganda media outlet that he started on behalf of the Groupe Islamique Army’s (GIA). In the early 90s, Abu Qatada issued a fatwa, which was published in his weekly bulletin Al-Ansar, after the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win elections in Algeria but was denied an impending electoral victory by a military coup. Some hold his issued fatwa against the military responsible for justifying GIA massacres against innocent civilians, including unleashing a rampage of beheadings. [1] In 2006, the GIA who Abu Qatada was aligned with in London, announced a union with Al-Qaeda, and by 2007 the group changed its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In 2000, Abu Qatada was deemed by the UK as a security risk and was arrested as a terrorism suspect, imprisoned and subjected to a secret parallel system of justice. He was held in Belmarsh Prison without a conviction, on and off for 10 years, under an emergency legislation that authorized indefinite detention of “certified” foreign nationals in the U.K. representing a national security risk.

Held with the aim of disrupting a network of extremist ideologues from promoting acts of violence in the UK, he was never officially and directly linked to any terrorist plots in Europe. A source close to the case, however, shared that intercepts of those who visited Abu Qatada revealed that they were later contacted and invited to meet others actually involved in terrorism, although nothing was ever found to directly implicate Abu Qatada.

Abu Qatada’s angry grievances and teachings against the West are believed to have inspired numerous al-Qaeda- related terrorists plots and killings, allegedly including, through second generation ties, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacres.

While a Jordanian court convicted Abu Qatada in 2002 in absentia on terrorism charges related to the thwarted millennium terrorist plots aimed at attacking Western and Israeli targets in Amman, such charges were overturned in 2014 on the grounds that evidence may have been acquired by torture. In 2013, after many delays, due to concerns that he might be tortured in Jordan, or again convicted on the basis of evidence taken under torture, Abu Qatada was deported back to Jordan. Already railing against the West and siding himself with al-Qaeda, Abu Qatada does not forget his time in Belmarsh. He is still angry over it, though, as we were able to witness, his anger profoundly resonates with a power of righteousness and moral superiority that must also affect his followers.

No longer in prison, Abu Qatada now resides in his stone hewn home on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan. Dressed in a long dark thobe and his grey beard reaching over his chest, he hosts us in a large diwan, with its walls filled with collections of books—translations of histories and philosophies from around the world, and books about Islam. Surrounded by towering shelves supporting hundreds of such books, mostly in Arabic, one could not help but be drawn to the “intellectual warmth” we sensed, including the room’s distinct touch and setting that offered a glimpse into Abu Qatada’s character, interests, and passions.

During our two days of conversing with him, he covers a whole range of topics and makes numerous statements. The most surprising to us, however, is that Abu Qatada, the supposed terrorist instigator, does not appear to support terrorism at all. Despite expecting armed conflict in the Middle East and hoping for the demise of regional dictatorships and the rise of an Islamic State of sorts, he strongly condemned the use of terrorism.

This is our third time talking to Abu Qatada and we already know he is a fervent advocate of the Palestinian cause. Speaking about the defensive posture he feels he was born into, Abu Qatada states, “We [Palestinians] have only one choice. [We were] forced to take one choice of adapting to a reality on the ground. If you are put in the corner, you have to scratch out to defend yourself.”

Having witnessed the Palestinian-Israeli peace process fail repeatedly, he is also cynical. “I’m very afraid of the word peace, because it’s the word most used by the oppressor,” he says. Furthermore, he adds, “You talk about peace after you take your rights…you are not given rights, through oppression. For the Palestinian, regardless of other identities, ‘peace’ is not in his interest.”

“Twenty-five years ago, when they told us the word ‘peace,’ they presented it to us as hope, but now after the experience of ‘peace,’ we found out it is a lie. Now, when I hear the word ‘peace,’ I hold my pocket, for the new theft going on, ”Abu Qatada says with a smile crossing his face.

“Beautiful things are only built with strong foundations,” he explains. “When you entered the house, you saw the book shelves and chandelier, but didn’t see the foundation that is represented under the stones. You can’t talk about dialogue without a fundamental basis.”

“Principles?” I ask, eager to discuss this very thing, as we want to hear where he stands on the principles underlying terrorism.

“No, before principles, it’s rights,” Abu Qatada answers.

We discuss Trump and his recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while we wait for the opportunity to ask him about how he justifies Palestinian terrorism. Using the example of Wafa Idris, the first female suicide bomber whose surviving family members I interviewed in 2000, I tell him about my visit to her family and ask him about Wafa’s attack on civilians. A number of Palestinians I spoke to at that time told me, “We have to use our bodies to fight back against a much better armed force, to explode ourselves to equalize the battle.” But she exploded herself among civilians, in a shoe store. Do you agree with this?” I ask.

“To talk about details distracts!” Abu Qatada answers, with his face reddening in sudden fury. “To take the whole Palestinian issue and to drill down to such details!” he sputters.

“But it’s not details, it is the principle behind details. Is it correct to say that if I’m fighting a much stronger enemy I can attack children, for instance?” I ask.

“No, this is not accepted,” Abu Qatada responds, still unable to avoid the barrage of angry expressions showing on his face. “But I am not talking about people talking with their emotions,” he continues. “I am Abu Qatada talking from a scientific [i.e. religiously defended] position. This I will not allow it. I consider it a destruction to the issue that I believe in.”

He goes on to tell me that Wafa Idris was acting from emotions, and that we cannot possibly know the depth of pain for what motivated her to engage in suicide bombing and target civilians. Indeed, having interviewed her family members, I know her story intimately. I know that she served as a nurse on Fridays with the Red Crescent during the Second Intifada and witnessed countless casualties from demonstrations against the Israelis. For instance, shortly before the suicide bombing, she was helping to transport a man whose skull had been fractured by Israelis. Her job was to hold his skull together as the ambulance bounced over rough Palestinian terrain, but she ended up with his brains falling out into her hands as he died. Her brother stated she was never the same again.[i] While Abu Qatada might not necessarily know all the details of her story, he does not have any trouble imagining them.

“This attempt to enter details to discuss the moral reality of the fight from our side, it is like a denial, a journalist denial,” he practically shouts, as he stands up now. “Like being mad at a child under the boot of a solder because he doesn’t have the right appearance, ” he adds. His face is now red with anger, and I wonder if our interview will be abruptly terminated. I wonder if I have touched a raw nerve of Abu Qatada or trampled upon what he views as the Palestinian right to fight back, even using terrorism as a weapon.

“Definitely Wafa Idris was mobilized by her emotions and her anger,” he continues, calming somewhat. “The question should be why a young girl’s emotions would be moved to this extent.”

That is a powerful and meaningful statement indeed. Having traveled throughout the West Bank and Gaza during the second Intifada, I know what it is like to be mistaken for a Palestinian woman and hauled out of buses at Israeli gunpoint or nearly run off the road by Israeli Humvees. It is a constant feeling of threat with no rights, except in my case when I presented my American passport. Then everything changed—for me at least.

“I know my mother, my wife, my daughter. I know how they think. I know what mobilized her. A human emotion that should not be discussed ideologically,” he continues.

“I was in her home,” I counter. “Her nieces and nephews were playing beneath this giant-sized poster glorifying her and her act. Do you think that’s the right thing to do?” I ask, trying to draw him out on the principles of the battle for the things he wants most in life and for which he is willing to encourage others to fight.

“To consider her an icon within her society just because she represented the anger,” Abu Qatada sputters again. “It’s not whether she went into a shoe shop or a military camp,” he states. Piercing me with his eyes and standing tall in his dark thobe, he gestures with his hand warning me, “I’m angry now.”

That was already obvious, but he has put it out there, so I try to calm the situation, keep him talking, as I want to know what he really thinks.

It does matter if it was a shoe store frequented by civilians or a military camp—that is the heart of the matter. I want to hear him address it, but we will not get there if he abruptly ends our interview.

“If we brought the Muslim world, not just the Arabs, and put them on a scale and compared their deeds to the deeds of the Westerners,” Abu Qatada states. “And talk about history. How many people did you kill? How many bodies did you bury?”

The argument amounts to what I often heard all through my time in Palestine: that the Israelis killed civilians at a much higher rate than Palestinians killed Israeli citizens. The question I always countered with was whether the Israelis specifically targeted Palestinian civilians, as the Palestinian terrorists targeted the Israeli civilians? The answers were often vague: that Israelis did not aim for civilians but when they targeted their enemies they knew full well that they were killing civilians as well, and in high numbers, and still did not refrain from carrying out their acts. “So, what is the difference?” the Palestinian terror leaders would ask me and that would be our stalemate—perhaps to be repeated here as well.

For me the difference between targeting civilians vs allowing for collateral damage is important, although one could argue that the moral difference between the two can become slim indeed. When premised upon the right to live a full life, the morality of killing innocent human beings becomes unjustifiable in both scenarios, but is still much different when the intention is to kill innocents versus acts aimed at heinous criminals in which innocents also get killed. Nonetheless, these issues have troubled many even former Shabak (Israeli Security Agency) leaders who discuss these very points as documented in the 2012 Israeli film, the Gatekeepers.

“These are the guys, these are the Jews, who went into villages and massacred them—the Egyptians, slaughtered them with kitchen knives,” Abu Qatada states referring perhaps to the Rafah and Qibya events.

“Then you come to a society, you don’t know how a young girl in our society can…” Abu Qatada booms, but his voice trails off, overcome with emotion. “I am a man, I am an extremist, a terrorist, but I cannot explain Wafa. On a human level, I don’t understand what mobilized Wafa. But, the explosion of emotions and the anger I can understand,” he states, his eyes blazing, still towering above us.

“The pain, people do things that cannot be understood ideologically,” he continues, as I recall him telling us in the first interview that he feels the pain of his lost homeland every day. The gnawing bitterness inside. “I am not going to apologize for what she did.”

We talk a bit about the recent recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and as we talk politics, Abu Qatada sits down again and calms himself down.

“Those barbaric settlers have no values,” he states. Suddenly, the conversation veers into the issue of settlements and my unpleasant experience way back at a checkpoint in Nablus with settlers supported by Americans. I shared my fear and anger when Israelis pointed guns at my face, including my feeling of disappointment and temptation at the time to remind them that “my tax dollars probably paid for the rifles they pointed at me.”

“I don’t hate very many people, but I hated them,” Abu Qatada states, clearly glad to hear that I also did not think well of the settlers’ misbehavior at their checkpoint. “They take from Americans the weapons,” he continues. “Everyone knows that a solution would come if America disengages from Israel.”

I try to steer the conversation back to the discussion on principles. Which principles does Abu Qatada stand by when he advocates for fighting back to win back Palestine, to bring down corrupt and unrighteous governments in the region, or to bring his hoped-for ideal of an Islamic state in the Middle East? I tell him how the Palestinian terrorist leaders I spoke to in the West Bank and Gaza would argue that it was permissible to kill Israeli civilians, even children, because they all eventually end up serving in the military—that Israeli society is militarized with the aim of keeping Palestinians down.

“I told you from the start, religiously I oppose the idea of killing children and all civilians. But I understand the emotions. Israel is a militarized society, but it does not justify killing children.”

“I cannot understand, not just psychologically but religiously also, how could anyone justify killing a child,” he states unequivocally.

“We are talking about when we can control the battle,” he adds, and I nod.

“Throughout history, Westerners were the ones who first started using civilians to put pressure on soldiers,” Abu Qatada explains, citing various examples from history. “ Even Hitler, they used civilians to pressure soldiers to submit,” Abu Qatada argues.” If there were those [civilians] affected by us, they were more affected by the West. We never used [killing] civilians to pressure as a strategy.”

I ask again, as I’m surprised to learn that Abu Qatada’s views seem to stand in stark contrast to those of other Palestinian terrorist leaders I spoke to in the West Bank and Gaza. They justified terrorist killings of Israeli citizens by arguing that Israeli men and women are part of the military—arguing that even their children who will grow up to serve. They also argued that Israelis have modern equipment while Palestinians have only their bodies to explode in terror attacks. None of this sways Abu Qatada from his clear denunciation of terror attacks against innocent civilians, particularly against killing children.

“I am surprised that there is any Islamists who will support it,” he says. As we have spoken for hours at this point, he tells us we need to adjourn the interview until two days later.

When we return, Abu Qatada begins the interview telling us that he told his wife about our discussion on suicide terrorism aimed at civilians. The topic has clearly caught his attention, and he has been brooding on the subject.

“From that day to today, I have been thinking how can anyone with feelings issue a fatwa of killing women or children outside of the battle, I honestly ask you?” Abu Qatada asks, his big brown eyes sincerely gazing into mine as he speaks.

I have been thinking about it as well and am ready to list Palestinian leaders for him who justified killing innocents using suicide terrorism. Khaled Mashal [the leader of Hamas] and Ahmad Sa’adat [the General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP, an organization that engaged in terrorism], we mention for starters.

“Who was Hamas following?” Abu Qatada asks.

When I tell him that Sheik Yassin supported martyrdom operations against civilians during the second Intifada, Abu Qatada answers that Yassin did not have the ability to issue a fatwa of this type.

“Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] doesn’t deal with things like symbols,” Abu Qatada explains. “In the sharia [Islamic law derived from the Quran and Hadith], there is a big difference between targeting civilians and targeting a military man, as with collateral damage, trying to reach a military target and the consequences of reaching a target.”

“No one announces that they target civilians, like the Russians did. This is not the act of a person of resistance or of ideology. This is an act of revenge. I cannot imagine an Islamist or a Palestinian who does this,” Abu Qatada states with what appears to be full sincerity, as I wonder where he was during the Palestinian second Intifada, when Palestinians were engaged in suicide bombings in crowded Israeli restaurants, nightclubs, and grocery stores. I find his stance on the issue surprising to say the least.

“I really thought about our talk,” he continues, appearing disturbed. “The people inside [Palestine] are more aware of things than me. They look at every [Israeli] man and woman as a military person. Israeli society is a military society. They look at the Jewish guys in Palestine as military guys.”

“I cannot imagine going against children,” he repeats.

What about beheading journalists like ISIS has done in recent years?” I ask, curious to know if he is willing to condemn such acts as terrorism as well.

This gets us off on a discussion of whether journalists are who they say they are, as Abu Qatada references what he calls, “the dirty work of the CIA.”

“[What] if you catch someone who says I’m one thing and is something else?” he asks. Yet, ISIS has assassinated numerous journalists who were highly unlikely to have been spies, James Foley being one of them, I tell Abu Qatada, also mentioning that I have met and spoken to his bereaved mother in person, hoping this human element will make him feel the horror of it.

“You judge a journalist as you judge a messenger,” Abu Qatada answers. “A messenger is never to be killed. But if there is a journalist who is really a soldier, he will be dealt with as a soldier.”

I press him on the journalist James Foley and Nicholas Berg, both beheaded by terrorists (ISIS and al Qaeda) in Iraq.

“I don’t know this issue. I didn’t study this issue,” Abu Qatada answers. He appears sincere in what he is saying. Perhaps he is so buried in his religious and political studies that he just blanks out all the violence carried out by those on his side?

“I understand the grudge and bitterness that is carried against the Americans,” Abu Qatada explains, kindly excluding me from that hatred, which makes me wonder if sharing my many experiences of being mistaken as a Palestinian in dealings with the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, and how I, too, felt under threat and sometimes felt the urge to fight back has somehow softened his heart these days when he is talking with us, or is this how he normally feels when it comes to terrorism. We are two women talking to him after all, I wonder if he is showing a softer side on these days for us, but it is not how he really feels? But it does not seem that way, as he continues to repeat himself.

“You can never kill civilians intentionally,” Abu Qatada stands firm in his statement. “Our battle is not with civilians. This is an indisputable rule.”

“Why do people around the world think you say something else?” I ask, dumbfounded to hear him disavow terrorism.

“No one has interviewed me,” Abu Qatada answers a smile crossing his face. “I expected to sit with you once only. Most come only once,” he states. This is our fourth time visiting Abu Qatada. With each visit, we have ensured that we do not overstay his welcome, but have talked with him for hours. Although considered the spiritual father of al-Qaeda in Europe, I cannot underestimate his wide range of knowledge on the most pressing global issues, not to mention his intellectual potency and immutability in character when it comes to narrating the story of human suffering, particularly as it pertains to Palestine and the Palestinians. He is clearly well read, follows politics closely, and has a fire inside for justice: “No one has heard of me and sat with me, except [when] he was stunned by what I said,” Abu Qatada explains as his friendly smile covers his face. “It’s a big propaganda [about me], ”he adds.

“Many reports credit you as having issued a fatwa to kill civilians in Algeria,” I say, letting the harsh words come out between us like the wood table that separates us as we talk. I am afraid it will anger him again, but better to get it all out in the open.

“What I said was…if the Algerian army used our women and children to pressure our fighters, the mujahideen are allowed to use the threat of killing their women and children, if they continue in this way,” Abu Qatada explains. “It was a battle to stop the ugly way of killing civilians if this battle continued. On this message it would not have continued,” he explains. “It was the reason to stop an ugly battle going on.”

“If the only way I can stop your killing my wife and children is by threatening to kill your wife and children, then so be it,” he explains, looking exacerbated at this point. “The reality of this fatwa was not to open the door to actual killing of women and children,” he explains.

“Sometimes a surgery will take you 15 minutes to do but will give you rest for the rest of your life,” Abu Qatada says, suddenly feeling defensive. He is obviously disturbed knowing that he many have repeatedly blamed him for the carnage that resulted after his fatwa was issued. It appears it was not his intent, as our conversation today indicates.

“My picture is an atom on the head of a needle compared to bombs dropped on a city to stop a war,” he says, while remaining defensive. “Were the Japanese killing women and children for the other side to threaten them?” he asks, and continues, “There is a difference between threatening to kill innocents and actually doing it.”

I decide to ask him what I asked Ahmad Sa’adat in a prison interview with him during the second Intifada, telling him to imagine I am dedicated to the “cause.” “I want to go bomb myself in Jerusalem for al Aqsa, will you give me your blessing?” I ask.

“No I won’t give you my blessing. I won’t give my blessing to kill a clear civilian,” he answers, again unequivocally and without hesitation denouncing terrorist acts aimed at innocents.

“Do you remember when the Palestinian groups started hijacking planes?” he asks. “ Wadie Haddad, [the Palestinian leader of the militant wing of the PFLP] was the architect. He was with George Habash [the founder of the PFLP]. They asked him why he was doing this? I want the world to hear the Palestinian message,’ he answered.”

“In this thing now,” Abu Qatada asks, “What will a civilian target accomplish for me now?”

“Even when the military targets a civilian target, it’s a loss from a military perspective,” he adds.

“So, 9-11, was it wrong?” I ask.

“I went to prison for 11 years because I answered a question that wasn’t right,” Abu Qatada fires back, referring to his time in British prisons. “I don’t like my answer to look like I want sympathy from Americans,” he demurs.

“If Hamas did something against civilians, if they went to a religious kids school [to attack it], is it up to me to condemn or to be hung?” Abu Qatada asks, placing the responsibility back on the group.

“There is an area of agreement between us, and all Muslims: that it is not allowed to kill women and children,” he explains. “We all agree on this, but in any dialogue, someone will come and tell me, I did this in different circumstances. This is a sub dialogue and could create an exception,” he states. Referring to when there are disagreements on exceptional cases, he adds, “This disagreement that will come out would not make me go towards my enemy. At the same time, to be honest, I will have no sympathy for my opponent. I cry for my family, my people.”

He further explains that it is important for him to show solidarity for his own people. “The sheiks, because of their positions, from certain times, they started sympathizing with the opponents of the nation; they went against those in the ummah who fight their enemies,” he explains. “I will not go against anything an Islamist did,” he adds.

“So you will not go against ISIS?” I ask.

“My problem with ISIS is that they killed Muslims,” Abu Qatada explains. “And I never said anything against them when they killed Muslims, he adds, reflecting how he doesn’t like to break ranks even when he fundamentally disagrees with [such] tactics and principles.

“My priority is my nation,” he continues. “I always want to be in sync with their feelings. I am not willing to upset Hamas or the mujahedeen in exchange for hand clapping by the West.”

I can see his point, but ask him all the same. “Does not a person of principle have to have his principles and openly state them?”

“My principle is to be on the side of my nation. If a Palestinian is listening to me saying I condemn the killing of James Foley, then what is this in comparison to what Human Rights Watch documents?”

I tell him that I see resemblance in his response to what Shamil Baseyev, a Chechen terrorist, admitted to a journalist after over 300 schoolchildren and their parents were killed in the 2004 Beslan siege. While he grudgingly admitted to being a terrorist in that interview, he also demanded that the journalist add Putin to his terrorist list, as an even worse terrorist, as Basayev killed over 300 while Putin killed 40,000 civilians in carpet bombing the capital of Chechnya. “Yet, his terrorists shot those children in their backs as they tried to escape,” I point out as Abu Qatada reaches out to his toddler granddaughter who has entered the room. She is adorable, with curly dark hair and a red dress.

“To take them as hostages to use them,” Abu Qatada states, referring to the Beslan children, then kisses his granddaughter on the head as she passes by. “There is a difference between using and killing the children,” he concludes. “I will be guilty if I show compassion,” he adds.

“But, is there right and wrong?” I press as my heart breaks that we are discussing such things while he is kissing his grandchild so sweetly.

“With my words, I cannot simplify 99 rights and concentrate on one wrong.

It will condemn all 99 rights,” Abu Qatada explains. “They [Westerners] will use our words against us,” he warns, while admitting, “We do have an internal debate, and it’s known that I don’t handle these debates.”

I remind him of how mercilessly the terrorists shot the children while attempting to flee the school during the Beslan siege. His granddaughter is running around our table as we talk, and I cannot wipe from my memory, while gazing at her pure innocence, the images of the bereaved parents I talked with—whose children had been killed there and the traumatized siblings who survived when their brothers and sisters did not.[ii]

“I’m 58 years old and I learned how to resist my emotions, even when I see a documentary of what happened to my opponents,” Abu Qatada answers. Everyone is sympathizing with our opponents. No one is sympathizing with us. I understand. You, as an American, want to be just in distributing your sympathies, but me as a Palestinian, I visit my father every two weeks, and he cannot sit with me once without talking to me about Palestine.”

“Sympathy is not the same as principles,” I press.

“I don’t own a media podium that will be equal to what my opponents have when I talk about the pain of my nation,” Abu Qatada explains. “But when I talk about what my brother does, the whole world will listen to it and use it? Which is about something that is right but reaches a wrong. You should not [judge] as the act itself but the end itself.” While what he is saying might read as “the end justifies the means”, he does not quite mean that. He proceeds to explain that he is referring to the possibility of his standing up for principles being used to delegitimize what he holds sacred, such as the Palestinian struggle, or the Muslim/Arab struggle, for that matter.

“When my word is being used, whether in right or wrong against my people,” Abu Qatada explains, while temporarily halting his speech. “I saw how people who made this type of mistake and were coopted into the fold of the opponent, whether they meant to be or not. We have a saying: don’t hang your dirty laundry outside. Don’t do that especially now, when we are at the point of weakness. He goes on to explain that he does not want his words condemning attacks on civilians to be twisted against the Palestinian or the greater Muslim struggle, especially when he feels that instead of his call for a reordering—even if by armed struggle, if necessary—to bring justice to both, only that particular sound bite will be extracted from his many statements,

“Once I am able to reach out my word to the nation’s enemies in the same strength as my opponent is using against my brothers, then I can speak out,” he comments

“It’s not a question that just happened now,’ he continues. “The whole time I was in prison [in the UK] it was the same. I could have gone out in public and condemned 9-11… and become a hero, well known…and obtained UK nationality, among others. I didn’t accept it. It would be a betrayal.”

“When a nation is in a battle, you must balance what you should and should not say,” he metaphorically encapsulates his reticence to publicly condemn terrorism at this point in time. “When things are more relaxed, it’s the time to talk. It’s dumb to give your opponent a weapon,” Abu Qatada concludes.

Drinking coffee together, we end our chat with Abu Qatada. We drive away trying to make sense of the so-called spiritual father of al Qaeda in Europe apparently being against attacks against innocent civilians or terrorism essentially. We wait to hear if he will deny having said it or quietly accept his words in print—hopefully not used to harm the legitimate bases of his cause in any way.

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne (February 14, 2018) Another face of Abu Qatada: Speaking on the Principle of Terrorism. ICSVE Research Reports

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