Middle East
Osama's universe
Inside Al Qaeda, Global Network of Terror by Rohan Gunaratna

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

"Look at Osama. Look at his face. He is a good man. He is a kind man. He is a man of God, He cares for poor Muslims."
- A taxi driver in Jakarta, after naming his baby "Osama my hero", October 2001

Sri Lankan intelligence expert Rohan Gunaratna has drawn on his vast experience as a consultant to governments on counter-terrorism and come up with a power-packed and information-filled book on Osama bin Laden's universe and its dreadful consequences for our universe. The author personally conducted several hundred hours of interviews of more than 200 terrorists, including al-Qaeda members, in more than 15 countries, and thoughtfully compressed the data into a book elucidating the threat posed by Islamism's "operational vanguard" and its prospect of "more or less continuous conflict with the West". (p.2)

Brief history of The Base
Until September 11, Osama bin Laden or his coterie never used the term al-Qaeda, although the shadowy organization was in existence since 1989, when the Pakistan-based Maktab-al-Khidmat (MAK) was converted from an Afghan jihad group into an "Islamic rapid reaction force" aiding Muslims anywhere on earth.

Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, MAK's founder and mentor of bin Laden, disfavored expansion into a global terrorist force that would re-establish the Caliphate through worldwide jihad. It is a closely guarded secret that bin Laden sanctioned his teacher's assassination in Peshawar in 1989 due to this fundamental difference. Azzam's murderers belonged to the Egyptian "family", who then went on to occupy the top rungs of al-Qaeda.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ali al-Rashidi and Mohammad Atef, who held key positions within al-Qaeda, were all followers of the Salafi school like bin Laden - a universalist brand of Islamism that shrugged off sectarian divides and believed in pragmatic alliances of jihad forces, be they Shi'ite or Sunni, against the common enemies of America, Russia and Israel. This tendency was to later bear fruit in al-Qaeda-Hezbollah cooperation (dealt at length in Yossef Bodansky's book, Bin Laden. The Man Who Declared War on America). From the early 1990s, bin Laden invited Islamists of varied strands to join al-Qaeda's shura majlis (consultative council), thus laying the foundation for a formidable and gargantuan terrorist network that would challenge the foundations of world power.

However, widening the orbit did not mean dilution of cadre skills, as is the case with other terrorist outfits. Quality of recruits being of paramount importance, al-Qaeda accepted only 3,000 (3 percent) of the mujahideen who trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 1989 and 2001. Al-Qaeda screens out "all but the most committed, most trustworthy and most capable operatives". (p.8) It is this exclusivity which has made it legendary and enviable in the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists around the world, who may or may not be allied with al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda's financial infrastructure was nurtured during bin Laden's stay in Sudan (1991-1996) as the guest of the National Islamic Front's Hassan-al-Turabi. Once the Soviets fled Afghanistan, al-Qaeda fighters expressed restiveness and a desire to find new pastures to fight. The relocation to Sudan was with the hope that holy warriors "could go to work again". In Sudan, bin Laden diversified his businesses by establishing 30 companies, ranging from genetic research labs and civil engineering to construction and road building. From Sudan, al-Qaeda spread like a hydra, using communication signposts of the globalization era like encrypted web sites, satellite telephones, laptops etc. It was also in Sudan that al-Qaeda began investing in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.

The aborted Operation Bojinka (the plan in 1994 to assassinate Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul in Manila and simultaneously crash 11 US airliners over the Pacific) and the failed assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia (1995) caused Sudan to request bin Laden's departure from its soil in 1996. Al-Qaeda's infrastructure in Pakistan was intact since the Afghan war days and the "Sheikh" decided to shift back to the original "land of jihad". Using material and military goodies, bin Laden quickly consolidated his hold on the Taliban leadership in neighboring Afghanistan, especially the amir-ul-momineen (commander of the faithful), Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

While in Pakistan-Afghanistan, bin Laden and Zawahiri engineered a tactical shift from concentrating mainly on puppet Muslim rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to a "second front" against the "King of Satan", America. In 1998, al-Qaeda announced the formation of "a World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders", and released new fatwa ordering the killing of Americans. The link between munafiqeen (hypocrites who pose as "true Muslims") and their sponsors in America became crystal clear when the Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam US embassy bombings (August 7, 1998) were timed to coincide with the arrival of American troops in Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden grew in stature of radical Muslims between 1998 and 2000 by calling for the induction of nuclear weapons into Pakistan's arsenal "to prepare for the jihad", persuading the Taliban to destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan and successfully bombing the USS Cole in Yemen. The last critical "gift" of bin Laden to the Taliban before September 11 was the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the Afghan resistance commander, two days earlier. After striking at the heart of American political and economic assets, the name bin Laden has become associated with heroism "among many Muslim communities, from Pakistan to Indonesia and from Nigeria to Egypt". (p.52) After all, he has achieved what no other force on earth has done since the British in 1812 - attacked mainland America with devastating impact.

Organization and ideology
Al-Qaeda is organized on the principles of decentralization and slippery fungibility. "Under severe pressure, it is likely to mutate and disperse into less accessible parts." (p.55) Constituent groups of al-Qaeda operate as a loose coalition, each with its own command, control and communication structures. It is a fluid, dynamic and goal-oriented (rather than rule-oriented) body, whose most potent weapon is the 055 Brigade, a guerrilla group of 2,000 battle-hardened fighters, comprising Arabs, Central, South and Southeast Asians.

Training camps accept non-al Qaeda jihadis as well and run cadets through practical and theoretical training far more rigorous than those of a normal military academy. The 7,000-page textbook, Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad, instructs trainees on urban, mountain, desert and jungle warfare, surveillance, counter-surveillance, forging of identity documents, and conducting maritime or vehicle-borne suicide attacks. Religious indoctrination is considered more important than combat preparedness and bin Laden himself addresses elite students on how "bitter situations came about as a result of children's love for the world, their loathing of death, and their abandonment of jihad". (p.74)

Al-Qaeda's finance and business committee - comprising professional bankers, accountants and traders - runs the group's funds across four continents. Wealthy Arab benefactors in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the mainstays, while an extensive web of cover businesses from diamond-trading, import-export, manufacturing, transport and Islamic charities and "humanitarian" NGOs (such as the International Islamic Relief Organization) provide the second rung of monetary support. In Europe, al-Qaeda's Algerian agents raise approximately $1 million a month through credit card fraud and collaboration with organized crime racquets.

Gunaratna credits al-Qaeda for perfecting the art of "agent-handling", that is, infiltrating political and security establishments of many countries. "Several Egyptian, Pakistani and Central Asian police officers and military personnel have served in the ranks of al-Qaeda." (p.76) Utmost precautions are taken to reduce the risk of detection of attack plans and arrangements, as is visible in setting up of small "urban training camps" all over Europe and North America in private safe houses, now that the public camps in Afghanistan-Pakistan have been bombed. Cellular networks that deny knowledge of other cells or are simply kept ignorant of operatives on different missions, even within the same town or city, enable high resistance to intelligence service penetration. "Martyrdom operations" are so chosen that few fidayeen have past terrorist records, thereby diminishing the chances of arrest.

Ideological brainwashing and radicalization of Muslim communities is a very crucial component of al-Qaeda tactics. It can "draw on the support of some six-seven million radical Muslims worldwide, of which 120,000 are willing to take up arms". (p.95). Non-ejection of US troops from Muslim lands is equated with "sin", and the same abhorrent sin will be invoked to fresh cadres now regarding US troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "No group has invested so much time and effort as al-Qaeda in programming its fighters for death." (p.91)

Global outreach
Al-Qaeda is easily the world's biggest multinational corporation, with branches in nearly 100 countries and countless billions of dollars in annual turnover. In North America, Sheikh Kabbani of the Islamic Council admitted, "Islamists took over 80 percent of the mosques in the United States ... the ideology of extremism has been spread mostly to the youth and the new generation." (p.103) In fact, bin Laden entrusted the September 11 attacks to Hamburg and Kuala Lumpur cells due to the knowledge that the FBI was tracking radical American Muslims.

In Europe, most operatives are immigrant Muslims, mainly Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians. London, with the infamous Finsbury Park Mosque, was "al-Qaeda's spiritual hub in the Western world". (p.116) Indian intelligence revealed recently that a suicide team of al-Qaeda had planned ramming planes into the British House of Parliament on the same day as the Pentagon and World Trade Center were smashed. The interrogation of Sheikh Omar, Daniel Pearl's Pakistani assassin, has revealed that al-Qaeda's British-based operatives also had a hand in the suicide attacks on the Jammu Kashmir Legislature (October 2001), the parliament of India (December 2001) and the US Information Center in Kolkata (January 2002).

France is a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda due to its support of "un-Islamic" dictators in the Maghreb. The Algerian Groupe Salafiste and GIA conduct most of al-Qaeda's propaganda and terrorist campaigns in France. The Netherlands is a favorite banking and investment destination of al-Qaeda. Islamists have also taken over mosques for Muslim immigrants - so much so that, "in addition to Dutch citizens of Arab origin, there are several native Dutch converts to Islam openly willing to sacrifice their lives for Allah and go to Afghanistan". (p.126) Similarly, Italian and German authorities believe that al-Qaeda recruited heavily from mosques and madrassas (religious schools). In the Balkans, up to 4,000 foreign mujahideen fought against the Serbs and Croats, with the ferocity of killings by the "guest militants" shocking Bosnian Muslims. In the Caucasus, around 1,500 Afghan veterans entered Azerbaijan to fight Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and once fighting ceased there in 1994, they swiftly moved on to Chechnya-Daghestan (Shamil Basayev was a bin Laden associate).

Egypt is literally the cradle of al-Qaeda, and bin Laden has carefully nurtured both Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group, bridging the gap between fighting factions and putting up a united front against the government in Cairo. A "high percentage of radicalized Egyptian intellectuals, professionals and military wish to see an Islamic regime in power", forming the eyes and ears of al-Qaeda in a tightly monitored society. Many of the Egyptian and North African terrorist actions were launched from Yemen, whose long-standing Islamic uprising against communism was bin Laden's favorite cause since childhood. Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, is a virtual police state and disallows Islamist activities. But such is the aura of bin Laden here that al-Qaeda raises most of its funding from wealthy patrons, with some "pious" individuals donating $1.6 million a day to "Islamic causes".

Iran, Syria and Lebanon play important subsidiary roles for al-Qaeda due to the Hezbollah connection. Imad Mughniyeh helped al-Qaeda develop agent-handling and bombing big urban buildings. In Israel and the occupied territories, al-Qaeda has a wellspring of associates in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the fact that bin Laden is viewed as the successor of Abdullah Azzam adds to his legitimacy.

Islamists see Africa and its 200 million Muslim inhabitants as al-Qaeda's "newest theater". Bin Laden's followers strongly believe that the Horn of Africa is "facing a furious Christian onslaught". (p.152) Al-ittihad-al-Islamiya, an al-Qaeda outfit, claims responsibility for the Mogadishu ambush of 1993 which "drove the crusaders out". In Sudan, although al-Turabi has been imprisoned and President Bashir is dishing out leads on al-Qaeda to the US, "the threat posed by Islamists has not diminished and is likely to resurface". (p.157) Ninety percent of the Islamic NGOs in Uganda were either established or operated by Arabs with al-Qaeda leanings.

Eastwards, in Tajikistan, bin Laden supported the Islamist struggle to topple the Russian-backed communist government, a conflict spilling into a full-scale civil war after 1991. Uzbek Islamist, Juma Namangani, is said to be an avid bin Laden follower and his IMU rebels have received training in al-Qaeda facilities. Until October 2001, al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan also prepared Uighurs to fight the Chinese government in Sinkiang.

In the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf Group's organization, ideology and target-selection are deeply influenced by al-Qaeda. Through the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), bin Laden's battalions have penetrated domestic and international Islamic entities based in Southeast Asia. Jemaah Islamiyah is al-Qaeda's "Asian arm", aiming to establish "an Islamic republic unifying Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, southern Thailand and Mindanao". (p.192)

The Indian subcontinent is fertile ground for al-Qaeda "sleeper" and active agents. Pakistan is "the single most important refuge other than Afghanistan, before and after 9/11". (p.205) Al-Qaeda members are present in all major Pakistani jihad outfits fighting India in Kashmir, that is Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Jaish-i-Muhammad, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-i-Toiba. Al-Qaeda influenced a change in their strategy by "encouraging and assisting them to strike at the heart of India-New Delhi and the major cities rather than in the periphery of Jammu and Kashmir". (p.206)

Gunaratna speculates that the reason that Pakistan did not extradite Sheikh Omar to America, unlike previous terrorists like Ramzi Yousef, is "because of the complicity of the Pakistani state in his training" in HuM camps. The author also quotes from an al-Qaeda manual at a HuM camp: "We saw Russia disintegrate. Now we will see India fall apart. In the flames of jihad we will see America ablaze." (p.215) The Bangladesh-based Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islam is also reported to be benefiting from a 25-member al-Qaeda team imparting sophisticated armed training since June 2001.

Gunaratna's solutions to counter the "self-reproducing" al-Qaeda are threefold, surprisingly stressing the non-military over the military. In the short run, instead of aerial bombardment that generates negative reactions, "invisible black operations such as assassination of terrorist leaders should be given priority". (p.235) If the US unilaterally attacks Iraq, which has no established connection with bin Laden, "the victor will be al-Qaeda". In the medium term, Islamism should be prevented from moving from the margins to the center in Muslim societies and polities. The battle for the future, to recall M J Akbar's phrase, will be fought "in the mind". In the long term, schools and community centers disseminating modern education and humane non-sectarian values have to be promoted in place of madrassas. Resolution of outstanding disputes like Palestine and Kashmir will also take the wind out of bin Laden's habit of adding new "causes" to his diabolical mission.

Gunaratna has made a valuable intelligence-redolent intervention into the burgeoning market of bin Laden literature. Policy makers and private citizens would be well advised to read Inside Al Qaeda for their own good.

Inside Al Qaeda, Global Network of Terror by Rohan Gunaratna, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002. ISBN: 0-231-12692-1. Price: US$22.95, 272 pages.

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Oct 12, 2002




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