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Writing the bin Laden Story

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Great, definitive biographies are rarely written by their subjects’ contemporaries. Generations often pass before sufficient evidence can be amassed, analyzed, and written into a narrative by a skilled and dispassionate biographer.

The biographies of Osama bin Laden currently in print are all flawed but necessary steps in the path leading to the definitive bin Laden biography. The magnitude and trauma of al-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks are so profound and far-reaching that it will likely take a biographer for whom the event is itself history to write the definitive bin Laden biography.

Still, the two-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden presents an opportune moment to review the biographies of America’s late enemy number one—with a focus on the more recent works written while he was still hiding in Pakistan—while anticipating a flurry of postmortem biographies sure to come.

Prior to bin Laden’s Death

Pre-9/11 bin Laden biographies are a rare few, predating the entry of “bin Laden” and “al-Qaeda” into the nation’s, indeed the world’s, lexicon. Anyone looking to learn about bin Laden on the afternoon of September 10 could find newspaper investigations, interviews, and television shows aplenty, but the only available book-length texts telling bin Laden’s story were Yossef Bodansky’s Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America[1] and Simon Reeve’s The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden, and the Future of Terrorism.[2] Bodansky refers to bin Laden’s “organization,” “group,” and “network” but does not yet use the name “al-Qaeda.” Reeve’s book, which does have a chapter titled “al-Qaeda,” shows how the FBI and CIA gradually became aware of bin Laden, at first deeming him merely a terror financier (a “Gucci Terrorist” as Reeve puts it) but gradually piecing together the story and revealing an unprecedented threat.

After 9/11, interest naturally grew, and more book-length biographies were written. But they are still only a handful, hardly more numerous than the pre-9/11 texts written over the near decade comprising bin Laden’s “underground” era. They were dominated early on by the journalistic accounts of Peter Bergen, one of the few Westerners to have interviewed the arch-terrorist, first in his Holy War, Inc.[3] and then The Osama bin Laden I Know.[4] Any post-9/11 biography of bin Laden had, and still has, to contend with Bergen’s work, a combination of biography and “new journalism,” a blending of traditional reportage with an account of the reporter’s quest for the information. In 2004, former Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal weighed in with Osama: The Making of a Terrorist,[5] and as one might suspect from a leftist journalist writing in the run-up to the reelection campaign of President George W. Bush, he seems more concerned with impugning the incumbent president than with writing bin Laden’s story. Unlike Bergen, Randal has difficulty curbing his new journalism proclivities: The author reveals almost as much about himself as about bin Laden, and his book might more aptly be titled “Covering Osama,” for he interjects himself into every situation, touching on nearly the entire history of the modern Middle East.

Two other important texts, while not exactly bin Laden biographies per se, tell his story in larger contexts. The first by intelligence specialist-turned-author Rohan Gunaratna is Inside al-Qaeda. Global Network of Terror[6] whose 50-page first chapter “Who Is Osama bin Laden?” is still an important source for bin Laden biographers. The other, by journalist/filmmaker/novelist Lawrence Wright is The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.[7] Wright’s grand (and grandiose) Pulitzer Prize-winning work is a narrative masterpiece, weaving together the lives of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, FBI specialist John O’Neill, and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki with the authority of a journalist and the skills of a novelist. But the bulk of that authority comes from Wright’s hundreds of interviews (there are 560 names in the “Author Interviews” appendix), and the downside is that the book thereby depends on often untraceable information. Readers are left with no way to follow up on the details and are expected to accept them as factual. A third work, Steve Coll’s The bin Ladens. An Arabian Family in the American Century[8] expanded the focus to the entire bin Laden clan.

Growing up bin Laden

Perhaps the two most important books post-dating 9/11 but predating bin Laden’s death are full-length biographies, and they are must-reads: Najwa and Omar bin Laden’s Growing Up bin Laden: Osama’s Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World[9] and Michael Scheuer’s Osama Bin Laden[10] published just weeks before bin Laden’s death.

In Growing Up bin Laden, the first wife and third son of Osama bin Laden attempt to humanize and yet distance themselves from husband and father. Eighteen chapters by son Omar and twelve by wife Najwa are book-ended by introductions, appendices, and occasional explanatory notes—short chapters really—by Jean Sasson in the role of interviewer/amanuensis/historian. Both Najwa and Omar are invested in the bin Laden legacy and stand to gain or lose depending on how their roles in that legacy are perceived. Both offer interesting and new information.

Najwa’s chapters take readers on her personal journey from her native Syria where she met her first cousin and future husband Osama to her married life in Saudi Arabia, then Peshawar during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, later Khartoum, and ultimately to Afghanistan. The chapters reveal small details in the domestic life of the bin Laden household where she was wife number one and, most importantly, mother of son number one, Abdullah.

These details include bin Laden’s love of fast cars (“my husband had enough money from his inheritance to buy the latest model automobile and loved seeing how fast it could go”) as well as wives, one of which Najwa herself chooses. She offers new information on the question of whether bin Laden ever came to the United States, claiming that the entire family accompanied her husband and Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor, to Indiana and remained there while the two men went briefly to Los Angeles. Najwa provides fond reminiscences of life in the Sudan where her husband’s “favorite undertaking was working the land.” These were the same years that al-Qaeda consolidated power with Egyptian extremist groups, confronted the United States in Somalia, financed the first World Trade Center bombing, and mapped out its global jihad. It is difficult not to read irony—and self-delusion—into her recollection: “Those are the best memories, to be busy and part of a worthy mission to produce something practical.”

More interesting historically are Omar’s chapters, recalling bin Laden’s life through the eyes of the son selected to take over the family terror business. Omar portrays himself as a pacifist who loves his father but hates his “work.” Najwa calls Omar her “most sensitive child,” and Omar plays this role to the hilt, letting readers experience the asceticism and cruelty of his father’s tough love through his sensitive eyes: long hikes through the mountains without water, Spartan accommodations in Tora Bora, the insistence that none of the children laugh, joke, or smile so much that they show their teeth, and other “absurd rules.” Omar’s chapters more often than not come off as equivocating and mewling but occasionally manage to evoke some sympathy as in his description of his predicament as an asthmatic whose father refused to allow any prescription medications in his house because they were not available in the time of the prophet Muhammad. But in spite of his sufferings and self-portrayal as a misunderstood son struggling to earn the respect of his father, he still offers up lines sure to aggravate many readers, such as, “My father was a brilliant man in many ways.” It is difficult to gauge the degree to which Omar is being disingenuous when he claims: “Our Muslim deaths were lamented, African deaths ignored, and American deaths celebrated. I was too young to understand the full madness of such thinking.”

Omar’s chapters also are filled with fascinating tidbits and important details that fill gaps left by previous biographers. For instance, most journalists assert that bin Laden was left-handed, a belief seemingly confirmed by the ubiquitous post-9/11 film clip of the smiling terrorist, firing and then lovingly cradling a Kalashnikov southpaw-style. But Omar reveals instead a childhood accident that left bin Laden “virtually blind in his right eye,” thus his adaptation to the injury by shooting left-handed. Omar also refutes the claims that bin Laden suffered from chronic kidney failure explaining that “the only explanation for this rumor is that my father … had a tendency to suffer from kidney stones.”

Omar’s chapters are designed to depict the barbarity of life with his father and his loyal supporters. The most shocking example of this is Omar’s version of an episode from Khartoum when his friend, the son of a high-ranking member of the jihadist al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya group, was raped by several men from Ayman al-Zawahiri’s sometime-rival group Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The rapists photographed their violation of the young boy and once the actual photos were spread around, it was the boy victim rather than the adult rapists who received the blame. Omar reports that Zawahiri became so incensed that the boy “was dragged into a room with Zawahiri, who shot him in the head.”

Ultimately, Growing Up bin Laden will, and must, be seen as a piece of propaganda—useful and insightful propaganda, but propaganda nevertheless. Bin Laden’s malevolence is frequently attributed, both directly and indirectly, to the Egyptians, portrayed throughout as the dominating forces in the terror-master’s thinking. Najwa hints at this influence but acknowledges that she was never privy to her husband’s secret meetings: “Like all women in Saudi Arabia, I would never attend such gatherings.” Omar is more direct, portraying Zawahiri in particular as the villain of his father’s life story claiming that “the Egyptian doctor had an evil influence over my father.” Sasson’s brief chapters also emphasize the malevolent influence of the Egyptians on bin Laden’s circle: “While [Palestinian] Abdullah Azzam was not in favor of violence against fellow Muslims, Zawahiri had no such scruples.” In sum, Growing Up bin Laden is destined to be read as an interesting but inevitably suspect and unreliable account of the life of Osama bin Laden.

Scheuer’s Osama bin Laden

Michael Scheuer, who pursued bin Laden for years from within the CIA’s dedicated bin Laden unit, which he himself set up, is uniquely qualified to write a biography of his quarry. Along with John O’Neill who pursued bin Laden from the FBI’s dedicated bin Laden unit, Scheuer fought not only bin Laden and al-Qaeda but also “the wall” built between law enforcement and intelligence, a wall begun by the Carter administration in the wake of Watergate and then made insurmountable by the Clinton administration, with Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick’s infamous 1995 memo conferring constitutional protections on foreign terrorists through executive order.[11] Both O’Neill and Scheuer did everything the law would allow to capture, prosecute, or kill bin Laden, and both ended up quitting their posts, in part out of disgust over the rules of engagement forced on them, and in part out of trouble they encountered due to their unique styles. O’Neill would tragically perish on 9/11—a mere twenty days after beginning his new job as head of security for the World Trade Center—while Scheuer would go on to write books, first anonymously (while still at the CIA) and then later openly, after quitting in 2004:

The amount of individual negligence and culpability at the highest levels of the American government was completely whitewashed by the 9/11 commission. And I resigned because I wanted to speak out on those issues.[12]

His post-CIA books have been largely supportive of most aspects of U.S. efforts to destroy al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan but critical of the overall “war on terror” and especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This biography of bin Laden is his latest effort.

Of all the biographies surveyed, Scheuer’s is the most sophisticated in its assessment of both the life of Osama bin Laden and of previous biographies. Scheuer is not only an astute historian but also a literary critic, nimbly outlining the concepts behind what he calls “the bin Laden narratives”—a series of eight prevalent distortions of the terrorist’s life. Scheuer explains how each one is fallacious and dangerous. Three he dismisses out of hand: those that depict bin Laden and al-Qaeda as “tools of Iran … tools of the CIA … [or] tools of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.” The remaining five narratives are more nuanced and less easily dismissed, but Scheuer argues that several are in need of discounting, such as the perception of bin Laden as a madman, a common criminal, or a good and sensitive Muslim whose view of Islam was corrupted by the Egyptians who came to dominate al-Qaeda. Scheuer argues fervently and convincingly that the “story of al-Zawahiri craftily brainwashing bin Laden and hijacking al-Qaeda is cut from whole cloth by the Saudis and others as part of their ‘good-Saudi-boy-led-astray-by-evil-Egyptians’ narrative.” He is also clear and levelheaded in taking on myths such as the “blow-back” theory that blames Washington for the rise of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and that posits the notion that, in the post-Soviet era, U.S. administrations simply abandoned Afghanistan. While Scheuer takes Lawrence Wright to task for relying too heavily on selective sources (such as Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who Scheuer claims is also invested in the “good Saudi boy” narrative), he overlooks the possibility that he also relies too heavily on his own interviews or his own privileging of sources that may advance their own self-serving or self-exonerating narratives.

Scheuer’s is the best book yet to detail the importance of the Advice and Reform Committee (ARC), bin Laden’s “think tank” set up in early 1994 in the Sudan. He refers to the ARC communiqués as “our first extended look at bin Laden’s written thought” and demonstrates how the ARC essays, which were faxed to the London office and then disseminated to the world, reflect al-Qaeda’s increasingly radical agenda. Scheuer is also perhaps the best at explaining bin Laden’s tactics and the process by which the terrorist learned from his mistakes (especially at the August 1987 battle of Jaji against Soviet troops in Afghanistan) and later in Jalalabad in March 1989.

Scheuer is very good at exposing the popular but erroneous view of bin Laden as an untrained, neophyte scholar, uncredentialed and unschooled in matters that would confer upon him the title of sheikh and, therefore, unworthy of the authority to issue fatwas (Islamic edicts). Of course bin Laden did indeed issue fatwas. And, deservedly or not, he was called sheikh by his followers, who hung on his every word.

By contrast, Scheuer downplays the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on bin Laden. In fact, there is no serious analysis of the influence of the Brotherhood on bin Laden’s thought or that of Sayyid Qutb or Hasan al-Banna, seminal leaders of the organization. This unfortunate omission leads Scheuer to overlook completely bin Laden’s caliphate irredentism, the longing to fulfill his prophet Muhammad’s quest and to institute Shari’a law, at first in the lands of the “near enemy” (i.e., Saudi Arabia) but surely later in the lands of the “far enemy” (the West). Scheuer might understand bin Laden’s project in the larger context of Islamic history and polity were he to read carefully Efraim Karsh’s excellent Islamic Imperialism: A History,[13] but, in fact, he dismisses Karsh’s work wholesale, along with that of Victor Davis Hanson, Douglas Feith, Bernard Lewis, Charles Krauthammer, George Weigel, John Bolton, William Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz, all of whom are denounced as neoconservative imperialists afflicted with a “blind faith in the moral superiority of Israel in general and Likudites in particular.”

Readers of this journal may bristle at Scheuer’s failure to grasp the natural U.S. connection to Israel as fellow targets of Islamist terrorism. His anti-Israel stance is consistent throughout the book, and he has been unabashed about it since leaving the CIA as in his response to a question posed in an interview conducted prior to bin Laden’s death: “I carry no case for the Israeli relationship—I think it is a terrible relationship for America. The public opinion of the Muslim world is deeply hateful towards Israel. If you are going to satisfy the public in this new secular age of democracy you are going to have to be anti-Israeli and probably allow your people to help the Palestinians.”[14]

As one might suspect, the author of the anonymously-published Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror[15] has little good to say about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but, along the way, he paradoxically argues: “While in power, Saddam was the best ally of Israel and the United States when it came to Israel’s security. He dabbled with supporting Palestinian insurgents, but he also performed yeoman service in preventing the westward flow of Sunni fighters from South Asia to the Levant.” The numerous $25,000 checks signed variously by Saddam and his son Uday sent to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers amount to far more than mere “dabbling” from both a moral and legal standpoint. Scheuer also ignores Iraq’s role in international terrorism: Salmon Pak, Saddam’s premier terrorist training camp, is not mentioned. For Scheuer, the decision to invade Iraq played right into bin Laden’s master plan.

The most surprising (and disturbing) aspect of Osama Bin Laden is the degree to which Scheuer admires his subject, a tendency present in his earlier work. In his view, bin Laden is a celebrity, “one of those ‘Great Men’… [who] has had a greater impact on how Americans view their society, government, and security than any other individual in the past fifty years.” Fawning admiration also permeates Jonathan Randal’s descriptions of bin Laden (“Che Guevara, Robin Hood, Saladin and Avenging Angel of Death rolled into one”). Excessive and unnecessary Osama admiration is also evident in the work of Bruce Lawrence, whose otherwise valuable and necessary anthology Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden[16] is marred by a 13-page introduction filled with moral equivalencies (comparing bin Laden to Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, for example) and by footnotes and introductory paragraphs that always seem to accept bin Laden’s view of history and take his side while opposing the American version. But even Lawrence (who recently made a splash in Hyderabad’s Sissat Daily with the proclamation that, as Robert Spencer put it, “Islam has no connection with terrorism”) recognizes the hyperbole of Scheuer’s 2004 description of bin Laden in Imperial Hubris as “a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim.”

Scheuer follows Randal’s lead with the grating comparison of bin Laden to Saladin and Robin Hood, but he goes further, comparing the arch-terrorist to a Western management guru using his “skills to run a multiethnic, multinational, and multilingual organization that is unique in the Muslim world … display[ing] the cool reasoning of a cost-benefit-calculating businessman, and the sophistication of a media mogul.” Readers will decide for themselves whether such rhetoric is overblown or fair. What is fair, however, is to charge Scheuer with too readily believing bin Laden’s own narrative for al-Qaeda’s reign of terror. Scheuer argues for instance that al-Qaeda is only engaging in defensive jihad when in fact anyone who has read Raymond Ibrahim’s The Al-Qaeda Reader[17] cover-to-cover (which Scheuer acknowledges as an important but incomplete text) knows that both bin Laden and Zawahiri have taken great pains to disguise as defensive their plainly offensive jihad. Nonetheless, Scheuer accepts bin Laden’s jihad as a defensive one largely due to the latter’s portrayal of a U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia (beginning with Desert Shield in August 1990) as an “occupation.”

An honest historical evaluation recognizes that both Desert Shield and Desert Storm saved “the land of the two holy sites” from what would have been a genuinely brutal Iraqi occupation, like the one experienced by Kuwait. Subsequent arms and training deals cut between the Saudis and the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were mutual agreements between two sovereign nations. Bin Laden’s failure to secure the job that the Saudi royal family ultimately entrusted to the U.S. government caused him to portray the relationship between Washington and Riyadh as an occupation: Scheuer should know better.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the book concerns the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman. He was central to the foundation of the so-called Services Bureau (Maktab al-Khidamat or MAK) and then to its takeover after the assassinations of first Abdullah Azzam and then of Mustafa Shalabi, whom Azzam selected to run the Alkifah Center in Brooklyn—MAK’s most important hub. Scheuer’s work at the CIA presumably put him in a position to know something about the disastrous and perplexing decisions of the U.S. government to admit Rahman at least three times (in 1986, 1987, and 1990)[18] followed by the catastrophic decision to grant him a green card in 1991[19]—despite everything known about him. Bin Laden’s numerous written fatwas demanding Rahman’s release, and the 2000 video fatwa urging Muslims to “revenge your sheikh,” more than justify an analysis of Rahman’s role in bin Laden’s life story. Scheuer’s failure to provide that analysis can only be seen as an evasion.

The driving principle behind Scheuer’s bin Laden narrative is the argument that the “status quo U.S. foreign policy generates Islamist insurgents faster than they can be killed” and that only a change in that foreign policy can change the situation. But again Scheuer is selective in his evidence. A glance at bin Laden’s 2002 diatribe, “Why We Are Fighting You,” shows that foreign policy is indeed a problem, for the polemic focuses about half of its attention on U.S. foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis the Israeli-Arab conflict. But the other half is devoted to matters that touch at the core of America, matters such as personal freedom, which bin Laden sees as our insufficient submission to God, the fact that Americans “separate religion from your policies,” and U.S. law’s refusal to prosecute people for “immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury.” He complains that women in America are allowed to work and that sex is sold and traded “under the name of ‘art, entertainment, tourism, and freedom.'” All of these complaints and others add up to bin Laden’s lament that America is “the worst civilization witnessed in the history of mankind.” The only solution he offers is that Americans convert: “The first thing we are calling you to is Islam.” Scheuer seems earnestly to believe that a change in U.S. foreign policy will end al-Qaeda’s war, but he arrives at that conclusion by selectively focusing on parts of bin Laden’s program while ignoring others that do not fit his narrative. Sometimes he allows this stance to blind him to reality as when he claims of bin Laden’s jihad: “The war is being fought, for now, only on Muslim territory.”

Conclusion

Omar and Najwa bin Laden, as participants in the life and history of Osama bin Laden, are able to tell us about their subject through their firsthand dealings with him, relying on their memories rather than research. Lawrence Wright is a storyteller whose sweeping narrative omits and ignores much in the interest of crafting a coherent portrayal of four different lives, spanning decades and continents, producing a work of art and of artifice. But Michael Scheuer is all three: a skilled analyst and historian, a capable storyteller, and a participant in the events of bin Laden’s life out to set the record straight.

The future of what may come to be known as “bin Laden studies” and the legacy of the man are still in question. Scheuer’s is the most recent biography with all subsequent books likely focusing on the hunt for and killing of bin Laden. And while it is too early to tell what the postmortem biographies will look like (none was available at this writing), it is likely that some will downplay and diminish the role of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, depicting the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Taliban, or some other nation-state or non-state entity as the more important force that pushed bin Laden onto the world stage while others will elevate and exaggerate the role of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Still others will claim bin Laden was never killed in May 2011 at all. One wonders how Hollywood will present him in the bio-pics that are sure to come.

The most significant addition to the story will come with the declassification and release of the treasure-trove of information removed from bin Laden’s dingy hideout in Abbotabad.[20] Thus far of the dozens of hard-drives, thumb-drives, lap-tops and disks removed by the Navy SEALs, a mere seventeen documents have been made available to West Point’s Counter Terrorism Center.[21] Over time that data will be released, and it will be invaluable to future bin Laden biographers, assuming it consists of more than bin Laden’s pornography stash[22] and his collection of self-indulgent videos, like the one released on May 7, 2011, of a grey-haired bin Laden squatting in front of a television watching videos of himself.

first published in Middle East Forum

[1] Roseville, Calif.: Prima Lifestyles, 1999.
[2] Holliston, Mass.: Northeastern, 1999.
[3] London: Phoenix Paperbacks, 2002.
[4] New York: Free Press, 2006.
[5] New York: Knopf, 2004.
[6] New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
[7] New York: Knopf, 2006.
[8] New York: Penguin Press, 2008.
[9] New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009.
[10] New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011.
[11]A Review of the FBI’s Handling of Intelligence Information Prior to the September 11 Attacks, Special Report, Redacted and Unclassified,” Nov. 2004 (released publicly June 2005), Office of the Inspector General, chap. 2: Background.
[12] Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, Jan. 8, 2007.
[13] New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
[14] Paul Davis, “IACSP Q & A with Michael Scheuer,” The Journal of Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security International, 2 (17), p. 70.
[15] Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2004.
[16] London: Verso, annotated ed., 2005.
[17] New York: Doubleday, 2007.
[18] The New York Times, July 22, 1993.
[19] Time Magazine, July 5, 1993.
[20] Mark Owen, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden (New York: Dutton Adult, 2012), p. 247.
[21] CNN News, May 4, 2012.
[22] CBS News, May 14, 2011.

A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

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Terrorism

Can the Taliban tame ETIM?

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Uighur jihadists of Turkestan Islamic Party

The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a Uyghur Islamic extremist organization founded in the Xinjiang province of China. TIP is the new name, although China still calls it by the name ETIM and refuses to acknowledge it as TIP. The ETIM was founded in 1997 by Hasan Mahsum before being killed by a Pakistani army in 2003. Its stated aim is to establish an independent state called ‘East Turkestan’ replacing Xinjiang. The United States removed it from its list of terrorist Organizations in 2020. The group and its ties to Muslim fundamentalism have compounded Chinese concerns about the rising threat of terrorism within the country.

In Tianjin, the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar again pledged to “never allow any force” to engage in acts detrimental to China. Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson, said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that many ETIM members had left Afghanistan because Taliban had categorically told them that Afghanistan can’t be used to launch attacks against other countries. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had also asked the Taliban to crack down on the ETIM, which is based out of the Xinjiang province. In view of the Taliban’s pro-China stance on the ETIM, the article will assess the feasibility of the Taliban’s promises of not providing sanctuaries to the groups which are direct threat to the national security of China.

First, this statement surprises the experts in view of the Taliban’s historic relationship with the ETIM.  According to a recent United Nations Security Council report, ETIM has approximately 500 fighters in northern Afghanistan, mostly located in Badakhshan province, which adjoins Xinjiang in China via the narrow Wakhan Corridor. Most of Badakhshan is now under Taliban control, but according to some reports, Tajik, Uzbek, Uighur and Chechen fighters comprise the bulk of the local Taliban rank and file, rather than Pashtun fighters. This scenario appears very challenging for the top leadership of the Taliban to deny sanctuaries to such loyalists.

Second, ETIM is operating in Afghanistan since 1990. It has strong links with the local Taliban commanders. The local Taliban commanders may put pressure on the top leadership or hinder the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, thinks that ETIM members in Afghanistan still have some influence. It may not be easy for the Taliban to fully cut ties with all ETIM members in Afghanistan as it may hurt other military militants that used to support it.

Third, the Taliban’s capacity to tame the ETIM is limited because its all members and leadership have scattered across Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey. Zhang Jiadong, a professor with the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times, “In recent years, the ETIM also changed its living areas overseas. The exact number of ETIM members is hard to know but “its core members are living in countries including Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. More of them stay in Syria than in Afghanistan and have been keeping a low profile in recent years”.

Fourth, the ETIM has developed close ties with international militant organizations, including Al Qaeda. Moreover, Al Qaeda has significant influence over the Taliban. Al Qaeda has ability and resources to sabotage the extradition of ETIM members from Afghanistan. Some militant organizations including IS-K have developed the ideological differences with the Afghan Taliban. IS-K recently used a Uyghur fighter for suicide campaign in Afghanistan just to show fissure between the Taliban and ETIM. So, this trend can be a challenge for the Afghan Taliban.

The Taliban’s new stance of not providing sanctuaries to the ETIM contradicts with some of its founding principles. The Taliban’s new version on ETIM is not easy to follow. Time will be the true judge of the feasibility of Taliban’s new stance.

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The heartwarming story of Uighur jihadists

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In the wake of 9/11, the US government scooped up all the terrorist networks and made an assessment of which ones were a threat to America. The prisoners held in Guantanamo were of the jihadist Islamic militant type. It’s not like the US government, in order to help other governments, filled Guantanamo with random, latent secessionist movements from around the world – Quebec, Catalonia, the IRA in Ireland, or the Tigray in Ethiopia. You wouldn’t find any of them in Guantanamo. The Guantanamo profile was clearly that of the Islamic militant jihadist that poses a threat to America.

Guantanamo was not a charity project where governments from around the world could dump and keep their separatists. There was a shared counter-terrorism interest between the United States and China, specifically in the area of combating Uighur jihadists, and that’s not a story that can be erased.

There were 22 Uighur jihadists held in Guantanamo, in total. Uighur jihadists were and still are the China-oriented spinoff of Al-Qaeda. Their organization, the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) was formally listed as a terrorist organization by the US Treasury Department and the US State Department during the war on terror. ETIM is still on the UN Security Council’s list of sanctioned for terrorism entities. The Uighur jihadists stayed on the Security Council’s list after a recent review of their status was completed in November, 2020. ETIM is also a part of the UN report on the status of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Very recently, in July 2021, the UN said that the Uighur jihadists group ETIM has several hundred fighters in Afghanistan on the border with China, and that they are affiliated with Al-Qaeda, even though the US government de-listed them from its terrorist organizations list in 2020 and has argued that they no longer exist. This was a purely political move by the US government that does not reflect the reality on the ground, and signifies a shift that the American public is expected to follow.

Just after 9/11, in 2002, Uighur jihadists plotted a terrorist attack on the US Embassy in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. At the time, the Washington Post said: “The U.S. Embassy in Beijing said today there is evidence that an obscure Muslim organization fighting Chinese rule in the western province of Xinjiang has been planning a terrorist strike against the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan”. That marked the first time China and the US shared a common terrorist enemy. That same year, the same terrorist group (ETIM) shot dead a Chinese diplomat in the same city. 

The Uighur jihadists threatened the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing; they are responsible for political assassinations, bombings and wide-spread, clear-cut terrorism of substantial scale. Uighur jihadists perpetrated a terrorist attack in Thailand in 2015, killing 20 people in a tourist resort. The same group of Uighur jihadists successfully carried out a suicide car-bomb attack on the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan in 2016, 14 years after the US Embassy there shared the same risk. You didn’t hear about more plots against America by the Uighur jihadists because the US government went after them right away: some went to Guantanamo; others were scattered.

The US State Department reported in 2002 that ETIM was a terrorist organization with over 200 acts of terrorism committed in the 1990s. China did not start making things up only after 9/11, just to fit in the US counter-terrorism narratives and priorities in order to get rid of uncomfortable critics of the regime. China was already experiencing a big, very real terrorism threat of the same kind the US faced in the 2000s. It was the same enemy.

Something as big as a terrorism plot against a US Embassy would have definitely counted in a time when even borrowing the Quran from a library was followed. If put through the ordinary legal system, a foiled plot on a US embassy could give you 15-20 years in jail or less, and then you’d be out, or maybe you would just walk if the judge didn’t like the source of the evidence. If you were “only” training with Al Qaeda and Bin Laden without an actual plot, that would also give you only several years in jail, or no jail time at all, if the judge didn’t like the source of the evidence. That’s the kind of things Guantanamo was created to prevent: a place to keep “the worst of the worst” where the US government didn’t have to think about the regular legal system. Current Attorney General, Merrick Garland, in fact, was one of those judges back in the days of the Guantanamo court wars, who ruled to release Uighur jihadists on the basis of over-reliance on evidence from the Chinese government. If the Chinese are saying it, they can’t be terrorists, was the argument there, so they had to be released. With the parents-as-terrorists DOJ memo by Garland and the recent confirmation that the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit indeed puts red flags on parents as potential terrorists in 2021, one has to be reminded that Garland rarely gets it right in the area of terrorism. More often than not, it’s exactly the other way around. Jihadists can leave, parents can come in.

There is an attempt right now to reverse the narrative of the Uighur jihadists, and the audience is the American public. That push is relatively new and emerged in the US mainstream media only over the past 1-2 years, in parallel with the narrative of the Uighur genocide committed by China. The reason is simple: you can’t have it both ways. Americans can’t feel compassion for the Uighurs and hate China, if they are constantly reminded the uncomfortable facts that the Uighur jihadists were actually together with Bin Laden in Tora Bora, they lived in a village provided by Al Qaeda and trained in weapons and terrorism tactics for Bin Laden. It’s just that their direction was different: mostly against China. They ran away together from the American bombardments of Al Qaeda in Tora Bora. They were sought after by the Americans, the same way the Americans searched for Bin Laden for 10 years. There was bounty on their heads. 22 Uighurs were held in Guantanamo for many years and were released only after a decade. In Guantanamo, Uighurs confessed right away to their activities and their links to Al Qaeda. The ETIM was listed as a terrorist organization by the US government in 2002, after the US government reviewed several organizations proposed for terrorism listing by the Chinese government, and concluded there was evidence only for them, dismissing the other organizations proposed by the Chinese. The US government wasn’t indiscriminately accepting requests by countries to help them with their problematic groups. Just after 9/11, in 2002 the group organized the plot against the US Embassy. The plot was foiled.

When the facts are so damning, the US mainstream media certainly has a problem. These facts show that China was not just making it up, looking for ways to exploit the US counter-terrorism mania of the 2000s when everything was about the war on terror and, in the haste, the US government could have been easily misled. The Uighurs as jihadists presents a very clear challenge to the spin factory of the liberal media right now. The attempt to reverse the narrative of the Uighurs as jihadists over the past 1-2 years takes the nuanced analysis angle to the level of parody. I’ll walk you through some of it.

A recent CNN investigation claims that the Uighurs jihadists held in Guantanamo were mostly economic migrants who left China in a search of a better life and they had nowhere else to go but Bin Laden’s Tora Bora. They have no idea how they found themselves in the Al Qaeda village, they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time. They were not aware of what Bin Laden was doing. Now, years after leaving Guantanamo, they are just men looking for love and family. The CNN story is that the Uighur jihadists were never really terrorists, just “dreamers” with guns. They used weapons only because that was the cultural tradition in the mountains – not as terrorists or something. The terrorist training camps in Tora Bora under the umbrella of Al Qaeda and bin Laden was not actually terrorism training, they were using weapons only casually, not in a determined way. The Uighur jihadists didn’t join Bin Laden as terrorists; it’s just that there was nowhere else to go. When the American bombardments of Tora Bora started, it was very scary for them. They ran around the caves looking for food like refugees. When they were captured by the Americans in Pakistan, they felt “cheated” and tricked. How could they do this to them? That wasn’t nice of the Pakistanis at all. Their dreams were shattered after all the suffering experienced in running away from the Americans bombardments. Actually, going to America and Guantanamo was better than going back to China for them. They were impressed with the level of cultural awareness demonstrated by the Americans in Guantanamo that surprised the Chinese that visited Guantanamo. To you and me, from the point of view of our standards, it could look like the American government was torturing in Guantanamo, but the Uighur jihadists really preferred the American prisons to ordinary life in China, despite “some mistakes” on the part of the Guantanamo management. The narrative is mind-boggling and you wonder how the American public can stomach that at all.

It gets better. At Atlantic story of the same kind claims that the fact that the Uighur jihadists told the US government right away what they were doing, stated their affiliation with Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, and explained their terrorism training activities, meant that they can’t really be terrorists, if they weren’t trying to hide it. If what they themselves confessed was so damning, then they couldn’t have been terrorists, and that had to be excluded from the evidence. It was sad that they were “incriminating” themselves by being so forthcoming. If they confessed to it, that was just a sign that they were honest people and they can’t be terrorists. The Guardian, recently in 2020, also joined The Atlantic line and claimed that if the men incriminated themselves, the interrogations had to be discredited. And anyways, right now it all has to be about the Chinese detainment camps in Xinjiang anyways, so you can’t have actual Uighur jihadists uncomfortably messing up the narrative. The Guardian presses that ETIM is an organization designated as a terrorist organization only by China, skipping that the designation was virtually uniform – the US government, the UN Security Council, the UN report on the status of Al Qaeda and ISIS, the Canadian government, and more. You can really tell that these facts are quite annoying to the liberal media, and it is really messing up their stories.

The CNN rather gullible narrative ends with a criticism of Canada, which is also repeated by The Guardian: Canada won’t let in three Uighur jihadists, former Guantanamo detainees. The liberal media narrative wants you to see them simply as men looking to be reunited with their families, but the Canadian government hypocritically stands in the way of love. Hypocritically – because, as CNN states, Canada is against the Chinese crackdown and detainment of people in Xinjiang but won’t let in Uighur jihadists, former Guantanamo detainees. That, in fact, is the most rational approach to the issue a government can have.

The Guardian pushed the same story with the title “It breaks my heart”, also blaming Canada for not letting them in, after their families moved to Canada.

The Atlantic article pushed the same narrative, claiming that the Chinese government somehow tricked and deceived the American government that these Al-Qaeda affiliated, Tora Bora residing, Guantanamo-held terrorists were terrorists. This was only Chinese propaganda by an authoritarian regime. The article admits that the Chinese experienced over 200 terrorist attacks by that group, but here the nuanced analysis kicks in. These events were separate and isolated, instead of arising from one place of coordination, so this wide-spread terrorism wave can’t be terrorism. That pattern is exactly what terrorism of this kind looks like, in fact: loose, ideologically-driven networks without a direct chain of command. You don’t need one place of coordination to prove that terrorists are terrorists. The article also submits that a lot of terrorist attacks that China experienced were actually falsely branded as terrorism, citing small-scale incidents and attacks that would right away fall under the mainstream terrorism narrative, if the same happened in Western Europe. The Atlantic narrative also pushes the argument that terrorism is used only as an excuse by the Chinese, that’s not the real reason why they are after these networks, as if it could get more serious than that. And most importantly for the American audience, the Atlantic analysis claims that the Uighur jihadists were never anti-American “enemy combatants”, even though the author cites an article by the Council on Foreign Relations that mentions the foiled terrorist plot on the American Embassy in 2002, which was a central event for the US government. But that doesn’t count because it didn’t happen, the plot was foiled. The group was rather local, The Atlantic argues now, and was not a part of the international jihad. They were, however. ETIM’s objective was the creation of a fundamentalist Muslim state called “East Turkistan”, which was supposed to cover many countries in the region – something like ISIS’s idea for a caliphate, but for the Turk ethnicity across the region. In terms of operations, Uighur operations definitely had an international reach – whether across countries in the region, by threatening the international Olympic Games, and even as a terrorist attack on a tourist resort going as far as Thailand.

So, these are the narratives that various liberal corners are trying to push: the version of the warm, fuzzy, innocent terrorists who were just misunderstood. If there is one area where US mainstream media can’t sell their narratives about “demonizing”, “scapegoating” and “dog whistling” to the American public, that’s with Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. But they will still try. Reading these articles, you have to wonder: what’s the agenda there.

After their release from Guantanamo, Uighur jihadists were dispatched to Albania, Switzerland and Slovakia and some Latin American countries. The question is whether the American government has leverage over these former Guantanamo detainees, and whether they will join the terrorist networks operating against China. We don’t know what the terms of release of these jihadists were and whether they are not sleeping cells that could be unleashed upon China at some point. The radicalization of Xinjiang by the US government with the aim to create trouble for the Chinese government is one of the reasons the US government invaded Afghanistan, as I argued previously.

You have to love the way the US government interprets US support for terrorism around the world: we are not funding and supporting terrorism, we are just creating strategic groups to fight authoritarian regimes. In the 1980s, the US government created and funded the mujahidin, right there, in the same region. Then they pushed ISIS on the world as the good terrorists in Syria, only to have to fight them later, and God knows how many more terrorist groups that we have no idea about.

The fact that over the last 1-2 years the big US mainstream media spends resources on stories to basically white-wash clear-cut terrorists should signal something. These stories appear only now, almost 10 years after most of the Uighur jihadists were released from Guantanamo. These stories about the innocence of Guantanamo detainees scapegoated by the bad Chinese government didn’t appear right away. You’d think that the time for these stories would have been around the time when the Uighur jihadists got released from Guantanamo, not now.  

The white-washing efforts by the US mainstream media who have to somehow explain the inconvenient past, show a sad fact about American public discourse right now: you can be vilified as a monster for saying things to women, while US mainstream media will break their backs to explain why actual terrorists are not that bad after all, and are really the victims here. They were not really terrorists, they just became victims of their terrorist activities. Watch this white-washing space. It will become even more pronounced, as we move forward into more hardened narratives of the Cold War against China.

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Terrorism

Islamic State Khorasan’s Threat and the Taliban

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As the Islamic State loses territory, it has increasingly turned to Afghanistan as a base for its global caliphate. Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) is the Islamic State’s Central Asian province and remains active in the region since 2015. Khorasan region historically encompasses parts of modern-day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. IS-K mainly consists of some members of TTP, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud- Dawa, Lashkar-e-Islam, Haqqani Network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Afghan Taliban.

IS-K has received support from the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria. Like the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria, IS-K seeks to establish a caliphate beginning in South and Central Asia, governed by sharia law. IS-K disregards international borders and envisions its territory transcending nation-states like Pakistan and Afghanistan. IS-K aims at delegitimizing existing states, degrading trust in democracy, exploiting sectarianism.

IS-K’s relations with the Afghan Taliban are tense due to sectarian and some policy differences. The Taliban follows the Hanfi school of Sunni Islam. While IS-K has derived its teachings from Wahabi or Salfi school of Islam. IS-K propounds the agenda of borderless jihad to establish one political power. IS-K directs the fighters to “have no mercy or compassion” against the Taliban for refusing to “join the caliphate”. The Taliban agenda has been limited to Afghanistan. In 2015, a video by IS-K had denounced the Taliban for having an amir. Both emerged from the same madrassas. Five of the six IS-K leaders were Pakistani. Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadem, a Taliban defector, also pledged allegiance to the ISIL in 2015. Shahab al Muhajir as IS-K new emir following the capture of his predecessor Aslam Farooqi. He was once a mid-level commander in the Haqqani Network. 

IS-K condemned the Taliban’s peace negotiations with the United States in its March 2020 newsletter Al Naba, stating that the Taliban and the crusaders are allies. In 2021, IS-K vowed to retaliate against the Taliban for their peace deal with the United States. IS-K blames Taliban as nationalists with parochial interests in Afghanistan.

In an open letter to IS leader Abu Bakar al Baghdadi the Taliban warned they would be compelled to “defend our achievements”. IS-K has been exploiting the internal power struggle within the Taliban.  In 2015, then Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour urged IS-K fighters to coalesce “under one banner”, alongside the Taliban. Leaders in the Taliban’s Quetta Shura authorized additional offensives and deployed elite Red Unit to fight IS-K. In Jowzjan province, IS-K surrendered to the Taliban.

The IS-K has launched multiple attacks since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan particularly at Kabul airport. According to the report, the group has strengthened its position in and around Kabul, where it conducts most of its attacks, targeting minorities, activists, government employees and personnel of Afghan security forces. Taliban has taken districts from IS-K in the past and reportedly killed Omar Khorasani, Farooq Bengalzai and Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil—the former leaders of ISKP. The Taliban had also closed more than three dozen Salafist mosques across 16 different provinces.

Zabiullah Mujahid said, “IS-K has no physical presence here, but it is possible some people who may be our own Afghan have adopted Daesh ideology, which is a phenomenon that is neither popular nor is supported by Afghan”.

Taliban has also international support in dealing with IS-K. The Iranian military has also collaborated with the Taliban to secure Iran’s land border with Afghanistan and deny IS-K fighters’ freedom of movement. The Taliban leaders have already opened dialogue with several regional countries, assuming that they would not allow IS-K to gain a foothold in Afghanistan and threaten their stability. States such as Iran, China, and Russia are reviewing their engagement with the Taliban. The chief of US Central Command Gen. Frank Mckenzie also admitted that the US is also providing very limited support to the Taliban to counter the IS-K.

IS-K is an external and weak terrorist outfit, which cannot manage massive inclusion. The IS-K is a potential terrorist threat, but not beyond being controlled. In the present day, however, there is little incentives for groups like the TTP to align with severely weakened IS-K at the expense of the Taliban. The TTP in fact put out a detailed statement saying that they are against ISKP in July 2020. The TTP and the Afghan Taliban both have deep connections with Al Qaeda, which has a deep rivalry with IS. There are few chances that the TTP will join hands with IS-K as it is an ally of Al Qaeda with allegiance to Mullah Haibatulllah, the Taliban supreme leader. There are more chances that East Turkistan Movement ETIM, a long-standing battlefield ally of the Taliban, will manage the Uyghur jihadist network in Afghanistan.

International pressure is also mounting on Taliban to take action against IS-K. According to the Morgan, if Taliban is not able to gain the international recognition it needs to be able to run the country. It will also hinder Taliban access to the global financial institutions, rendering the Taliban incapable of paying for the imports that feed the country. In peace deal, it was with the assurance that the Taliban would severe ties with other armed groups. However, Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen refused to become the part of US-led efforts to counter IS-k.

UN report estimates that there are 1500 to 2200 personnel of IS-K in Afghanistan. Moreover, IS-K has less influence in the militant ecosystem of Afghanistan. So, it is likely less chances that IS-K becomes the threat to the regional stability. Taliban has muscle to effectively eliminate the IS-K threat from Afghanistan.

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