As the arc of chaos grows from Afghanistan to Somalia by way of the Middle East, the region’s states are growing weaker and their armed groups gaining in power. But in this battle for competing visions between the US and al-Qaida, the Sunni resistance is now opposing al-Qaida in Iraq, as are the Taliban in Afghanistan.
There is a widening split between armed Islamists, as two recent incidents show. In March the local Taliban in the Pakistani tribal zone of South Waziristan killed foreign fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Almost simultaneously, infighting broke out between the Islamic Army in Iraq and the local branch of al-Qaida. The confrontation between the two strategies -- and two different ideologies -- of the Islamist struggle is getting more violent.
Many of the foreign volunteers who have flooded into Pakistan and Iraq since 2003 are Takfirists*, who regard “bad Muslims” as the real enemy. Indigenous Islamic resistance groups have reacted uncomfortably to the growth of this near-heresy within al-Qaida which, by waging war against Muslim governments, has brought chaos to the populations it claims to defend.
Between 2003 and 2006, across the war zone that is the two Waziristans, Afghanistan and Iraq, the complexity of the situation reinforced al-Qaida’s doctrinaire thinking and reduced indigenous groups to silence. The consequence of Takfirist influence was the emergence in the two Waziristans of a self-styled Islamic state that challenged the Pakistan government within its own boundaries and fuelled the spread of armed conflict to major cities. The aim was to provoke armed insurrection against the pro-western military regime.
The fierce response of the Pakistani army led to the deaths of hundreds of non-combatants, including women and children, and fuelled the anger of Takfirist ideologues. But many Taliban leaders privately felt that the Takfirists had lost touch with reality and were distorting the sharply focused anti-western strategy developed during the 1990s by Osama bin Laden. The war of national resistance against foreign occupying forces had been transformed into one aimed at Pakistan’s military establishment.
On the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leading Takfirist, arrived from Waziristan to emerge as the frontline resistance leader. He publicly pledged allegiance to bin Laden and became the rallying point for the foreign militants who coalesced into the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida. The situation in Iraq soon came to resemble that in the two Waziristans and Afghanistan.
Resistance was slow
Resistance in post-Saddam Iraq was slow to mobilise. The realignment of the tribes, fragmented religious groups, former Ba’athist party elements and officers from the defunct republican guard into combat units took several months. Meanwhile, foreign fighters who had streamed into Iraq from the Muslim world to gather beneath the black banners of al-Qaida formed a coordinating majlis al-shura (council). They proved more effective than the leadership of the internal Iraqi resistance, who were left with little scope to express their reservations about the arrivals’ Takfirist ideology. It was left to individual elements within the indigenous groups to deplore the excesses of al-Qaida, which had begun to concentrate on diverting the struggle against occupying forces towards attacks on Shia religious centres.
When, in 2006, al-Qaida announced the formation of an ideologically pure Islamic emirate, the strategy of the indigenous resistance groups became subservient to al-Qaida’s Takfirist ideology and divisive global agenda. A war against foreign occupation had turned into a nightmare of sectarian strife. The seeds had been sown for an eventual break between the international combatants and the indigenous resistance.
Understanding this split requires an examination of the specific circumstances that led to the ideological transformation of al-Qaida during and after the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Arabs who poured in to join the Afghan resistance fell into two camps, Yemeni and Egyptian. The zealots who went to Afghanistan, inspired by their local clerics, were mostly in the Yemeni camp. In breaks from fighting they spent their days drilling and cooking their food, before going straight to sleep after the isha (last prayer of the day). As the Afghan jihad tailed off, they went home or melted into the population in Afghanistan or Pakistan, where many married. In al-Qaida circles, they were called dravesh, easy-going.
In the Egyptian camp were the politically minded and ideologically motivated. Though most belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, they opposed its commitment to elections and the democratic process. The Afghan jihad cohered these like-minded, often educated, individuals, many of them doctors and engineers or former soldiers associated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad under Ayman al-Zawahiri, now Bin Laden’s deputy. This group had been responsible for the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981, after he signed a peace deal with Israel at Camp David. All agreed that the United States and its puppet governments in the Middle East were responsible for the decline of the Arab world.
Cultivate the best brains
After the isha the Egyptian camp would discuss contemporary issues. Their leaders reiterated the message that members should invest their resources in the armies of their countries, and cultivate the best brains.
Al-Qaida had emerged from another organisation, Maktab al-Khidamat, the services bureau that Abdallah Azzam set up in the early 1980s to support Afghan resistance. Azzam was assassinated in 1989; he was succeeded by Bin Laden, one of his leading disciples, who transformed the organisation into al-Qaida.
During a recent interview in Amman, Azzam’s son Hudayfa, who has spent almost 20 years among Arab militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me: “Most Yemeni fighters, simple minded warriors whose only ambition was martyrdom, left Afghanistan after the fall of the Communist government. The Egyptians stayed because they had other ambitions as yet unfulfilled. When Osama bin Laden joined them, after he left Sudan in 1996, they focused on shifting his basic thinking from opposition to American hegemony in the Middle East towards a Takfirist perspective.
“When I met Osama bin Laden in 1997 in Islamabad, he was flanked by three members of the Egyptian camp: the Somali Abu Obaida, and the Egyptians Abu Haf and Saiful Adil. I realised how successfully they had instilled their extremist ideas into him. When my father asked him to go to Afghanistan in 1985, he had replied that he would only do so if King Fahd personally granted permission. At that time Osama still referred to Fahd as wali al-amr (supreme authority). After 9/11, when he denounced the rulers of Saudi Arabia, I could see how much the Egyptian camp had influenced him.”
A hurried departure
By the beginning of 2006 more than 40,000 trained fighters of Arab, Chechen and Uzbek origin joined Waziristanis and other militants from Pakistan’s cities congregating in North and South Waziristan. This created a dilemma for the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, because the Takfirists persuaded most of the militants to fight Pakistani armed forces in the tribal belt rather than NATO coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Tahir Yuldash, a prominent Uzbek militant and Takfirist ideologue based in South Waziristan, issued a fatwa supporting this strategic priority. Two Taliban leaders in North Waziristan, Maulanas Abdul Khaliq and Sadiq Noor, issued similar statements. The declaration of Islamic states in North and South Waziristan exacerbated the conflict between the Pakistani military establishment and the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida.
New hostilities seemed inevitable. The Taliban leadership in Afghanistan realised that such a conflict would delay the major offensive against NATO troops that it had been preparing for the spring of 2006. Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s supreme guide in hiding, sent Mullah Dadullah (an astute commander in southwest Afghanistan, killed this May) to persuade the Pakistani Taliban and the al-Qaida factions to focus on the offensive rather than dissipate their energies. This led to the September 2006 peace accord between the Taliban in the tribal zones and the Pakistani security forces. This called for the expulsion of foreign fighters and allowed the Pakistani establishment to make inroads into the Taliban command structure in the Waziristans. The Pakistani Taliban leadership received significant quantities of weapons and money, and were invited to Islamabad to win hearts and minds.
The peace accord was the result of the Taliban leadership’s realisation that, after five years working with al-Qaida, resistance in Afghanistan, although stronger, had reached an impasse. The 2006 offensive was a classic example of guerrilla warfare with the help of indigenous support, using improvised explosive devices and urban warfare learned in Iraq. But despite major casualties among coalition troops (150 killed in 2006), the Taliban were unable to achieve important strategic objectives, such as the capture of Kandahar or the encirclement of Kabul.
Taliban commanders acknowledged that they could not fight a sustained battle against state resources. They believed they could mobilise the masses, but this would likely bring bombing and missile strikes killing Taliban sympathisers. Their answer was to find their own state resources, and they looked toward their former patron, Pakistan; hence the September 2006 accord.
Taliban commanders in Waziristan and Afghanistan were comfortable with the new peace deal. They played down the expulsion of foreign fighters, believing these would flock to join the resistance in Afghanistan. They were not unhappy to be free of al-Qaida and elements developing a global strategy that diverted energies from the struggle against NATO forces.
But the accord was unacceptable to the global warriors of al-Qaida, who had dreamed of the emergence of a regional conflict waged on several fronts from their newly won bases in Waziristan. The prospect of small, sporadic battles in Afghanistan was no consolation for the shattered dreams of a victory against the non-practising Muslim establishment of the Pakistani state. And al-Qaida hoped to benefit from new developments.
Libyan groups, Jamaa al-Muqatila led by Sheikh Abu Lais al-Libbi, and Ibn al-Malik’s Jabha al-Birra; the Jeish al-Mahdi, founded by the Egyptian leader Abdul Rahman Canady and now led by Abu Eza; an Egyptian splinter group from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad; Takfirists led by Sheikh Essa; and Tahir Yuldash’s Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. According to Pakistan intelligence, al-Qaida managed to reactivate some sources of funding, particularly from the United Arab EmiratesAlready , interrupted after 9/11. groups of foreign fighters had joined forces under the banner of Ayman al-Zawahiri. These included two
The al-Qaida leadership were threatened by the peace deal between Pakistan and the Taliban and feared that the latter would soon fall prey to the machinations of the Pakistani intelligence agencies. Al-Qaida sought to sabotage the peace accord by exploiting differences between the signatories.
An opportunity came this January, when Pakistani planes bombed an active training camp in South Waziristan, killing several foreign fighters. Baitullah Mehsud, one of the few Taliban leaders in South Waziristan, renounced the peace deal on the grounds that Pakistan had violated it. Tahir Yuldash lent his support by dispatching more than a dozen squads of suicide bombers to terrorise cities, causing heavy civilian casualties. The Pakistani establishment had other concerns: a serious internal crisis after President Musharraf’s decision to fire the president of the supreme court, Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhry; and an escalating conflict with the Lal Masjid seminaries in Islamabad, which had announced Taliban style Islamisation in the capital.
The accord survived because it suited both parties. It allowed the Pakistani establishment a breathing-space to construct a strategy to counter al-Qaida’s grip on the tribal belt. And the Taliban were weary of al-Qaida’s one-sided global strategy, which only weakened Afghan resistance.
One episode demonstrated the tensions. Haji Nazir, a little-known Taliban commander, supplied with money and weapons by the Pakistani security agencies, had established himself as the strong man of South Waziristan. He offered the foreigners a simple choice: Agree to disarm, or go to reinforce the current offensive against NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The foreigners’ predictable refusal escalated into a serious conflict which left 141 dead, mostly from Central Asia. There were similar incidents in North Waziristan. The legendary commander of anti-Soviet Afghan resistance during the 1980s, Jalaluddin Haqqani, sent his son Sirajuddin to bring in Mullah Dadullah and Noor Muhammad Saqib (chief justice under the Taliban regime) to mediate.
Taliban commanders in Pakistan were persuaded to allow foreign militants a safe exit to wherever they chose to go. Many decided that Iraq, rather than Afghanistan, where the Taliban seemed reluctant to welcome them, was the new promised land. There they met up with leading al-Qaida personalities such as Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, who had left Waziristan a few months earlier and who is now under arrest in Guantánamo Bay.
The promised land
Al-Qaida’s migration from the two Waziristans to Iraq began after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and was accelerated by its increasing ideological and strategic differences with the Taliban.
Dr Muhammad Bashar al-Faithi, a leading member of the Muslim Scholars’ Association, a component of Iraqi resistance to the United States, told me: “After US forces installed Paul Bremer as administrator, he disbanded Iraq’s security forces. We formed a delegation and cautioned him as to the wisdom of Iraq’s borders being left open on all sides. At the least a border security force should have been retained. Bremer disagreed and dismissed all Iraqi security forces as Saddamists. The Iraqis were left standing by as all sorts of unscrupulous elements and terrorists, from Iran and al-Qaida, gathered in Iraq in pursuit of their agendas. Today I believe it was Bremer’s deliberate policy to draw al-Qaida militants into Iraq, where it is far more easy to kill or capture them than in Waziristan or Afghanistan."
Al-Qaida has increased efforts to assume the leadership of the Iraqi resistance and persuade it to adhere to its own global vision. But the indigenous leaders of the resistance, following their own nationalist agenda, are worried and keen to be rid of foreign fighters. Recently fresh evidence of disunity has appeared in the Arab media. Al-Jazeera reported in April that Ibrahim al-Shammari, a spokesman for the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), announced that his group had decided to part ways with al-Qaida. Their goals were so dissimilar that in some circumstances the IAI might be more willing to deal with the United States.
At a news conference in Washington in April, General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, discussed the Sunni backlash against al-Qaida: “Sunni insurgents and the so-called Sunni resistance are still forces that must be reckoned with, as well. However we are seeing some others joining Sunni Arab tribes in turning against al-Qaida Iraq and helping transform Anbar province and other areas from being assessed as lost as little as six months ago to being relatively heartening. We will continue to engage with Sunni tribal sheikhs and former insurgent leaders to [ensure] that their fighters join legitimate Iraqi security force elements to become part of the fight against extremists."
Dr al-Faithi said: “All foreign elements that became part of irregular militias are a curse for the Iraqi resistance. They desperately want to control Iraq for the advancement of their specific agendas. Al-Qaida has been infiltrated by many intelligence outfits, besides being subject to religious deviations like Takfirism. In the end it is the Iraqis who are being made to pay the price. The same is true of the Iranian intelligence-backed Shiite militias: They too want to dominate southern Iraq and have so far killed as many as 30 tribal Shiite sheikhs from the southern marshlands. These sheikhs want to support the resistance against foreign occupation forces, but the activities of the Iranian-backed militias prevent them from doing this.”
Al-Faithi believes that indigenous resistance groups carry out most major operations in Iraq, but since they are slow to claim responsibility, the world media often attribute these operations to al-Qaida. “Even James Baker admits that al-Qaida is only a small component of the Iraqi resistance. After the invasion, we were desperate to prompt the people to resist the US occupation. We welcomed the first wave of al-Qaida fighters, but now we are paying the price; everything they are doing now has badly damaged the resistance movement.”
The Iraqi resistance, the Taliban and any other group that initially accepted al-Qaida within its ranks, have suffered. But parting ways with al-Qaida may prove profitable: The United States has almost agreed to strike separate deals with Iraqi resistance groups, which may be rewarded with power-sharing deals with the Iraqi government. On the eastern front, the death of Mullah Dadullah, who had almost managed to secure the backing of the Pakistani establishment, has created uncertainty. The government wants to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Taliban moderates. But for this to work, Arab militants must continue to leave. Takfirism must advance into other Muslim states -- that will turn it out one day.
* Author’s sidebar on Takfirism:
Takfirism is a centuries-old belief that suddenly revived among Islamic militants in Egypt after the Israeli victory in 1967. It claims that the Muslim ummah (the community of believers) has been weakened by deviation in the practice of Islam. Takfirism classifies all non-practising Muslims as kafirs (infidels) and calls upon its adherents to abandon existing Muslim societies, settle in isolated communities and fight all Muslim infidels.
Small isolated groups of Takfirist militants survived throughout the Arab world in the 1970s. They regrouped alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, during the war of resistance against Soviet forces. The Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Uzbek leader Tahir Yuldash and Sheikh Essa, who were later the top leadership of al-Qaida, were among the fiercest proponents of Takfirism in these years. After the US invasion it flourished in Iraq, where the al-Qaida leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, killed in June 2006, was a leading exponent.
After 2003, Takfirism gained support among al-Qaida’s middle leadership and the rank and file. These ideologues were no longer defined by their hatred of the US military machine. Takfirism encompassed the belief that infidels within Muslim societies gave strength to the enemy and were a danger to be eliminated. Leaders of infidel Muslim societies were prime candidates for elimination before those who had been led astray from Islam could be brought back into the fold. The Takfirists were enemies of all non-practising Muslims. The difficult, isolated terrain of North and South Waziristan was their new sanctuary.
They were different from the ideologues of al-Qaida in the 1990s, who had concentrated upon driving out western occupying forces from Muslim territories. The Takfirists focused on the enemy within. The lesson they learned after 9/11 was simple: They had been ransomed for US dollars and bombed by both western and Pakistani infidels. Henceforth, they would make no distinction between Muslims and Christians or between presidents Musharraf and Bush. The elimination of the enemy within was a necessary preliminary to any showdown with outsiders. Repeated assassination attempts against Musharraf during the past four years must be viewed within this context.
This dual sensibility afflicts all Takfirist militants, whether in al-Qaida or its allied groups. They must continue their war against western armies, but meanwhile will lay down the basis for a conformist Islamic state to keep dissenting brethren in line. As well as raising the standard of rebellion against Muslim states, they have attacked moderate pro-Islamic reformists inside resistance groups based in the Waziristans. Takfirists abhor Shiism, which they regard as an unacceptable deviation from Islam. Sectarian warfare has assumed a partnership with jihad, over which it often takes precedence. Takfirism is messianic -- the sole leadership of Muslims against apostates and the infidel West.
[Translated by Donald Hounam]
Syed Saleem Shahzad is the Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online (Hong Kong).
© 2007 Le Monde diplomatique