First Published: 2006-03-03

Total war: Inside the new Al-Qaeda

Last week’s desecration of a Shi’ite shrine moved Iraq towards civil war. Abdel Bari Atwan, who has had unique access to Osama Bin Laden, explains why Al-Qaeda wants to divide Islam.


Middle East Online

Osama Bin Laden, who had been sitting cross-legged on a carpet, placed his Kalashnikov rifle on the ground and got up. He came towards me with a warm smile that turned into barely repressed laughter as he took in the way I was dressed.

I had been kitted out in baggy trousers, a long shirt and a turban for my clandestine journey to his hideout in southern Afghanistan. The turban in particular made me feel self-conscious, as I had never worn such a thing in my life.

I spent three days with Bin Laden in Tora Bora, the only western-based journalist to spend such a significant amount of time with him, before or since. I talked at length to him, slept next to him in his cave and shared his modest food.

Listening to him during that visit 10 years ago I realised he was no ordinary figure, but it didn’t occur to me for one moment that this polite, soft-spoken, smiling and apparently gentle person would become the world’s most dangerous man, terrorising western capitals, inflicting hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of damage on the United States, threatening its economic stability and embroiling it in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As I had been eating so badly since coming to Afghanistan I was looking forward to our first meal. I’d imagined we would feast on roast deer or goat. When I saw what was available at the Eagle’s Nest, as his base was called, I thought chicken was perhaps a more likely dish.

It was still a great surprise to discover that dinner on the first night consisted of Arab-style potato chips soaking in cottonseed oil; a plate of fried eggs; salty cheese of a variety long extinct even in the villages of upper Egypt; and a bread bun that must have been kneaded with sand, as my teeth screeched and ground whenever I chewed it.

After a few bites I pretended that I did not usually eat dinner for health reasons.

Another meal featured Bin Laden’s favourite, bread with yogurt and rice, served with potatoes cooked in tomato sauce. Animal fat floated on the surface, and I could hardly force it down my throat. Afterwards I was sick under a pine tree outside the cave. I was puzzled by Bin Laden’s chosen path. What motivates this man, from a well-known and honourable family in possession of billions, to lead such a comfortless life in these inhospitable and dangerous mountains, awaiting attack, capture or death at any moment, hunted by so many regimes?

We spoke about his wealth, and while he avoided saying exactly how much he was worth he acknowledged he still managed an extensive investment portfolio through a complex network of secret contacts. But this wealth, he said, was for the umma (the global Islamic community).

“It is the duty of the umma as a whole to commit its wealth to the struggle,” he said. “The umma is connected like an electric current.” (Surprising imagery for a man who would wish to take us back 1,500 years.) I discovered that, in contrast with the primitive accommodation, the base was well equipped with computers and up-to-the-minute communications equipment. Bin Laden had access to the internet, which was not then ubiquitous as it is now, and said: “These days the world is becoming like a small village.”

This modernity was quite at odds with the austerity recommended by the more extreme forms of Islamic fundamentalism and in particular that of his hosts, the Taliban. One of his aides laughed and said the base was “a republic within a republic”.

The next day Bin Laden took me on a guided tour, sporting the Kalashnikov so dear to him. (He told me it had belonged to a Soviet general killed in one of the Afghan jihad battles.) We walked through the trees and he explained that he loved mountains. “I would rather die than live in a European state,” he declared.

He told me about past Al-Qaeda attacks on the Americans — including the 1993 ambush on American troops in Mogadishu, which he said had been wrongly blamed on the Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid.

More attacks were in the planning stages, he said, and he emphasised that these “operations” took a long time to prepare. He hinted at a strike at the Americans on their home territory, but I confess I did not register the enormity of what he implied when he came out with an unforgettable statement: “We hope to reach ignition point in the not-too-distant future.”

Bin Laden also explained his long-term anti-American strategy. He told me he knew he would never be able to defeat America on its own soil using conventional weapons. He had another plan, one that would take years to reach fruition.

“We want to bring the Americans to fight us on Muslim land,” he said as we walked through the woods in the high mountains at Tora Bora. “If we can fight them on our own territory we will beat them, because the battle will be on our terms in a land they neither know nor understand.”

We are witnessing part of that plan now, in the battlefields of Iraq, which has become a breeding ground for the most ruthless and militant Al-Qaeda fighters we have seen. In the process we are discovering the new face of Al-Qaeda, as a movement involved in bloody sectarian strife against fellow Muslims.

Paradoxically, the strike on American home territory in September 2001 was a setback to Bin Laden’s long-term plan. Al-Qaeda lost support among more moderate Muslims, who sympathised with the victims. It lost its safe haven and training camps in Afghanistan. And, crucially, there was dissent within the movement itself.

Some inner-circle Al-Qaeda members left as a result of what they considered to be a catastrophic decision, according to Abu Qatada, a radical cleric believed to be Al-Qaeda’s spiritual leader in Europe. (He is currently fighting a deportation order in Britain.) They predicted the US would respond with unparalleled ferocity.

Abu Qatada told me that the September 11 attacks were also opposed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who in 2001 was still a relatively obscure Jordanian associate of Al-Qaeda. Zarqawi was soon to shoot into the limelight as the central figure in this story. For, two years on, the arrival of 150,000 US troops in Iraq in March 2003 created exactly the turning point in Al-Qaeda’s history that Bin Laden had dreamt of.

Iraq is in many ways a better base for Al-Qaeda than Afghanistan. It provides an Arabic-speaking environment and culture. Geographically it is the heart of the region. In Islamic terms it is as important as Saudi Arabia and Palestine.

Furthermore, Al-Qaeda’s supporters in Iraq are the minority Sunni Arabs who have been marginalised by the aftermath of the occupation, isolated from the state institutions in a rather humiliating manner, and are eager for revenge and the resumption of power.

With chilling beheadings, Zarqawi rapidly emerged as the most ferocious insurgent chieftain — though he only became the official leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq after a long wrangle with Bin Laden over attacks on the Shi’ite majority.

Militarily, Al-Qaeda has since been increasingly hardline and ruthless in Iraq, demonstrating indifference to “collateral damage”. Zarqawi has long been waging an anti-Shi’ite campaign with the express intention of fomenting the sectarian strife we are now witnessing.

Last Wednesday’s bombing of the Shi’ite golden mosque at Samarra was in all probability the work of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Shi’ite majority have most to gain from maintaining stability, but by bombing their most sacred shrine Zarqawi has finally unleashed the threat of civil war. Previous attacks had failed to provoke the retaliatory Shi’ite violence that has claimed more than 130 — mostly Sunni — lives since the mosque attack.

Zarqawi’s rationale is threefold.

First, civil war will prevent the Sunni minority from joining the current political process. He has denounced democracy as heretical on the grounds that it makes man obedient to man instead of Allah.

Second, civil war will unseat the “heretic” Shi’ite leaders, render the country ungovernable and ensure the failure of the US project.

Third, Zarqawi is mindful of the huge reserves of Sunni military support in neighbouring countries — both on a national level and among the individual mujaheddin pouring into Iraq to aid their beleaguered brethren struggling against the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.

Civil war in Iraq could rapidly spread through the region. Many Sunni leaders are already unnerved by the growing influence of Iran in Iraqi internal affairs, and sectarian tensions have been brewing in several countries including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

Zarqawi’s language towards the Shi’ites is vitriolic. In a letter to Bin Laden dated June 15 2004 he describes them as “the lurking serpent”, claiming that “they can inflict more damage on the umma than the Americans”.

He elaborates: “These are people who have added to their heresy and atheism with political cunning and a burning zeal to seize upon the crisis of governance and the balance of power in the state . . . whose new lines they are trying to establish through their political organisations in collaboration with their secret allies, the Americans . . . they have been a sect of treachery and betrayal through all history and all ages.”

Initially Bin Laden was opposed to attacks on Shi’ites and urged Zarqawi to avoid civilian deaths. Zarqawi baldly states in his letter that if Bin Laden will not endorse an anti-Shi’ite campaign, he will not join Al-Qaeda.

Bin Laden apparently changed his mind. Any doubts he might have had about the legitimacy of targeting Shi’ite Muslims or the collateral deaths of Iraqi citizens have since been swept away in the relentless flood of bloody attacks unleashed by his latest ally.

How did Zarqawi become such a powerful and pivotal figure? He is a former street thug from a ghetto in the Jordanian city of Zarqa, 15 miles northeast of Amman. He was nicknamed “the Green Man” because of his tattoos. His real name is Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayilah — “Zarqawi” simply means “the one from Zarqa”.

The turnaround in his character seems to have happened towards the end of the 1980s, when he developed an interest in radical Islam — perhaps through contact with Palestinian refugees living near his home — and set off for the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.

There he fell under the spell of a Palestinian religious scholar known as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Back in Jordan following the Afghan wars, both men were jailed after Jordanian police found them in possession of weapons.

Zarqawi became a prison Islamist leader, meting out violent punishments to anyone who dared disobey him. He gathered a following of hundreds of the most hardened criminals in Jordan.

Many sources testify to Zarqawi’s physical and mental resilience. He lost all his toenails under torture and endured 8½ months of solitary confinement.

Released under an amnesty in 1999, he resurfaced in Afghanistan, where he led his own movement, separate from Al-Qaeda. He fled with his men in late 2001 to avoid the American reprisals for September 11.

To understand what happened next, and to see how this obscure figure has emerged to such prominence, we have to look at the strange world of pre-invasion Iraq.

In enclaves in the Kurdish north, close to the Turkish and Iranian borders and beyond Saddam Hussein’s jurisdiction, several Sunni organisations opposed to Saddam’s secular regime had set up base. Jordanian contacts in one of these, Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), smoothed the way for Zarqawi to establish his own camp.

Ansar al-Islam is an important footnote to the invasion of Iraq. Much has been made of a possible connection between it and Al-Qaeda in the course of US intelligence efforts to link Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden.

I met its leader, Mullah Krekar, in Oslo last year and he vigorously denied Al-Qaeda had helped it in any way. He said he had personally asked Bin Laden for financial help and had been turned down. (It must be added that many sources dispute this was their last meeting.)

Like Zarqawi, many Arabs fleeing American retaliation in Afghanistan after 9/11 found refuge with Ansar al-Islam. But then came an unexpected development. According to Dr Muhammad al-Masari, a Saudi specialist on Al-Qaeda’s ideology, Saddam established contact with the “Afghan Arabs” as early as 2001, believing he would be targeted by the US once the Taliban was routed.

In this version, disputed by other commentators, Saddam funded Al-Qaeda operatives to move into Iraq with the proviso that they would not undermine his regime. Sources close to the Ba’ath regime have told me that Saddam also used to send messengers to buy small plots of land from farmers in Sunni areas. In the middle of the night soldiers would bury arms and money caches for later use by the resistance.

According to Masari, Saddam saw that Islam would be key to a cohesive resistance in the event of invasion. Iraqi army commanders were ordered to become practising Muslims and to adopt the language and spirit of the jihadis.

On arrival in Iraq, Al-Qaeda operatives were put in touch with these commanders, who later facilitated the distribution of arms and money from Saddam’s caches.

Most commentators agree that Al-Qaeda was present in Iraq before the US invasion. The question is for how long and to what extent. What is known is that Zarqawi took a direct role in Al-Qaeda’s infiltration. In March 2003 — it is not clear whether this was before or after the invasion began — he met Al-Qaeda’s military strategist, an Egyptian called Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi, and agreed to assist Al-Qaeda operatives entering Iraq.

Makkawi is a shadowy figure. Little is known about him except that he used to be a war strategies expert in the Egyptian army. His greater strategy for Al-Qaeda, revealed on a jihadist website, is to “expand the (Iraqi) conflict throughout the region and engage the US in a long war of attrition . . . create a jihad Triangle of Horror starting in Aghanistan, running through Iran and southern Iraq then via southern Turkey and south Lebanon to Syria”.

With his new role as Al-Qaeda facilitator Zarqawi rapidly gained importance. Newly arrived Arab recruits were dependent on him for contacts and local knowledge, and — as the anti-American insurgency developed after the invasion — he provided the intelligence for co-ordinated attacks that were instantly more effective than random independent operations. As a result he effectively became the emir of the foreign jihadis in Iraq.

I believe that his aim was to drag the Shi’ites into a civil war. His choice of provocative targets bears this out: he was almost certainly behind the massacre of 185 Shi’ite pilgrims who were killed in Karbala and Baghdad in March 2004.

Zarqawi was in negotiations with the Al-Qaeda leadership for nearly a year before they finally announced an alliance and created “Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers” (Iraq) in 2004. Already established as a formidable leader, he waited to negotiate from a position of strength over his insistence on an anti-Shi’ite campaign.

Perhaps he would have preferred to usurp Bin Laden as leader of Al-Qaeda, but he had the strategic sense to realise this was not going to be possible and therefore decided to submit. He needed Bin Laden’s blessing and the Al-Qaeda name to bring him thousands of new recruits from all over the world (not just from Arab countries).

Al-Qaeda needed him, too. At the time of the new alliance its fortunes were lagging. The attacks on Afghanistan and increased security measures the world over had seen its numbers dwindle; its 2003 attacks in Saudi Arabia had hit its popularity in the kingdom.

A new presence in Iraq, especially with such a high-profile, magnetic (if terrifying) leader as Zarqawi, promised a new lease on life. The Al-Qaeda leadership was not to be disappointed.

Zarqawi’s agenda was to prove even more radical than that of the Al-Qaeda leadership; in May 2005, firmly under the Al-Qaeda banner, Zarqawi declared that “collateral killing” of Muslims was justified under “overriding necessity”. He brought a new level of psychological terror to operations with his ferocious reputation.

In July last year his old spiritual mentor, Maqdisi — still in jail in Jordan — questioned Zarqawi’s attacks on civilians, especially women and children, and his targeting of Shi’ites. Zarqawi responded with an internet posting asserting that “al-Maqdisi is being lured into the path of Satan”.

What of the future? Bin Laden remains unchallenged as Al-Qaeda’s spiritual leader, but his fugitive status has created a vacancy for an overall military commander. This will almost certainly be filled by Zarqawi: a recent communiqué from Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers referred to him as the “most likely emir of the organisation in the Middle East and North Africa”.

Here I would like to introduce just one more name. When I first walked alone into Bin Laden’s dimly lit cave 10 years ago, a man was there to meet me; I was astonished to recognise him as a red-bearded Syrian writer I knew quite well from London, Omar Abdel Hakim, also known as Abu Musab al-Suri, a specialist on jihad and Islam.

We spoke for a few moments and I learnt that he had left Spain, where he had both citizenship and a wife, to join Al-Qaeda. Later he was to join the Taliban, and became its leader Mullah Omar’s media adviser. “Come,” he said, leading the way into another cave. “The sheikh is waiting for you.”

I heard from him again in 1998 when he gave me a detailed account by telephone of an angry confrontation between Mullah Omar and a Saudi delegation, which asked the Taliban leader to cede Bin Laden to the United States because he was a terrorist.

The visitors, led by Prince Turki of Saudi intelligence, flew to Kandahar in a private jet. They were heatedly ordered to leave by Omar, who was enraged by their request that a Muslim government would seek to deliver a fellow Muslim to an “infidel state”.

Suri was one of the key figures who, like Zarqawi, opposed the 9/ll attacks. They have since become close collaborators. The Syrian is said to be an Al-Qaeda recruiter.

Zarqawi has maintained connections in Europe for many years, and these are nurtured by Suri, who is believed to control several Al-Qaeda groups in the West. Both men are suspected of involvement in the attacks on Madrid and London claimed by “Al-Qaeda in Europe”.

The new generation of Al-Qaeda leaders is in place – with Zarqawi and the Suri among them – and the organisation has become even more hardline as a result. The new ruthlessness about relentless violence directed at a wide range of targets in Iraq is clearly designed to shock and terrorise their enemies. But Iraq has now become a platform from which to launch international operations.

Al-Qaeda is not only attempting to destabilise the western world, but the whole of the stagnated Middle East.

© Abdel Bari Atwan 2006 Extracted from The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida by Abdel Bari Atwan published by Saqi Books at £16.99. (

The author, who has lived in London for 30 years, is editor in chief of the daily newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi


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