Atwan, Abdel Bari. The Secret History of al-Qaeda.
DOES OSAMA BIN LADEN MATTER anymore? Is al-Qaeda's central leadership still relevant? Is al-Qaeda going to dissipate as a result of recent internal criticisms and feuds? One commentator who is of the opinion that al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden's (OBL) influence remains steadfast and is actually much greater than others acknowledge is Abdel Bail Atwan. Atwan posits that OBL and his organization remain dangerous and unpredictable and contrary to conventional wisdom he still commands a significant following.
Atwan is among the minority analysts and commentators since many counterterrorism experts have now surmised that al-Qaeda no longer poses an existential threat to the West. They point to opinion polls in the Muslim world suggesting that Osama Bin Laden's (OBL) popularity has faded and that many within the jihadi movement have denounced him, or at the minimum, distanced themselves from OBL, his goals and violent tactics. As further evidence they list that al-Qaeda has not demonstrated the ability to plan large-scale operations with its funding streams having been largely curtailed. Lacking a tangible homeland and with almost no territory to operate from, al-Qaeda leaders have been seemingly thrown on the defensive. At best OBL is still a source of inspiration for many 'leaderless jihadis' since recent developments have shown that he lacks an ideology with mass appeal. In response to these recent defections and developments, there have been attempts by the al-Qaeda leadership to portray the dissidents as victims of torture and forceful conversions brought about by coercive methods employed by Arab and Western intelligence agencies seeking to create divisions and uncertainty among OBL's "holy warriors."
Abdel Bari Atwan, the author of this monograph, is an accomplished Palestinian journalist and the editor of the London based Arab Language newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi. Besides being one of the few to receive press releases straight from al-Qaeda, Atwan has had unique access to key players in the organization, not least OBL himself whom he met in person in 1996 for 3 days in his Torn Born hideout.
The title of Atwan's book The Secret History of al-Qaeda comes across as mysterious and intriguing but strictly speaking much of the biographical information on OBL, background factors in the emergence of al-Qaeda central, and tactics of suicide bombings the author discusses have been dealt with by others elsewhere. If by his title, Atwan is actually implying to mean that his book will offer a different perspective of al-Qaeda than commonly portrayed in the mainstream western media, he has a point.
Though Atwan has had no personal contact with OBL since 1996, he has kept track of changes in Obama via his video and audio-tape statements. Despite being on the run, for example, Atwan surmises that OBL maintains a certain calm; in a way, he seems to have matured, and appears more restrained, subtle and analytical in his communications.
What distinguishes this newly-expanded edition from its precursor is that the author has updated information and statistics in almost every chapter. He has also added two completely new chapters on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as well as the European continent which Atwan considers as major new developments in the globalization of al-Qaeda. The significance of this latest offshoot is only now being fully comprehended in the western media as Algerian militants (Armed Islamic Group-GIA) have morphed into AQIM, thus reinvigorating OBL and his organization. On the European front, Atwan sets his sights on the assassination of the Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, the significance of the Danish cartoon controversy and the specifics of the London bombings, while providing his readers with a detailed account of the various stages or phases of radicalization that prompted three British Muslim bombers to act out in 2005, killing close to 60 innocent civilians.
A major theme in the book is the vast reservoir of popular support that al-Qaeda enjoys in the Middle East as well as the Islamic world as a whole. Atwan makes special note of al-Qaeda's popularity in OBL's own country of citizenship, Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden's base of support is built on the premise that he has been willing and courageous enough to have stood up to the Saudi regime (on the questions of the 1991 setting up of American military bases in the Kingdom). What has further strengthened OBL's mystique is his continued success in evading capture which, as Atwan sees it, represents quite a victory against the might of western security networks. Bin Laden has put his natural intelligence to full use in evading surveillance, and has avoided the pitfalls of the second ranks of al-Qaeda that have usually been captured as a result of using the internet or satellite phones or other technical mistakes of the kind. Nevertheless, OBL is able, periodically, to release video and audio statements which testify to the highest level of organizational secrecy.
Atwan further comments that, despite media suggestions that OBL has become a pariah among jihadists, his continued liberty testifies to careful and strategic alliances (with the Taliban, for example) and enduring allegiance from his followers and the Pakistani tribes' people where he likely is hiding with since none have betrayed him (unlike Saddam Hussein whose whereabouts were betrayed by an associate).
It is OBL's humble, pious, and self-depreciating style that has kept his followers engaged and loyal to him and his cause. However, as Atwan points out, the reasons behind "such austerities are as strategic as they are ascetic. Bin Laden often talked about military organizations that fail because of the extravagance of leadership and the inability of their soldiers to endure hardship," (60). Atwan opines that bin Laden has transformed himself from a military leader into an ideological and spiritual one, with the day-to-day logistics of his organization taken care of by other personnel.
Among other things, in the book, Atwan provides a detailed biographical account of OBL's past life, including the religious influences Muhammad Qutb and Abdullah Azzam have had on his ideology. There were those who aided "his resolve to turn to extreme violence" (50). Ayman al-Zawahiri's formative ideological influence on OBL is also documented (and would result in him becoming one of OBL's closest aids, teacher, and even mentor). Another individual that stands out in the ranks of al-Qaeda is the now deceased Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Atwan devotes quite a bit of space analyzing Zarqawi and presenting him as an individual who seemingly parallels OBL in many respects. Interestingly enough, Zarqawi created and managed a training site inside Afghanistan, coincidentally at around the same time as Bin Laden was organizing his group prior to 2001. Overall, Atwan presents insightful human portrays of key players in the al-Qaeda organization and describes them as intelligent, rational albeit misguided human beings with some legitimate grievances who are truly convinced of the righteousness of their deeds.
The most intriguing aspect that Atwan covers in his book is the technological innovation al-Qaeda has achieved over time. While it might not be surprising to most observers that al-Qaeda has been able to successfully recruit or proselytize, train and raise funds via the use of the internet, Atwan highlights some of the technical procedures involved in this process. Cyberspace has provided an accessible medium for al-Qaeda to get its message across unhindered by the editorial policies of traditional media outlets. With "cyberjihad," individual cells and groups are able to organize themselves and plan their own attacks without making more formal and risky communications with al-Qaeda leaders. Atwan points out the importance of two key aspects that allow the use of information technology to function on behalf of al-Qaeda, namely cryptography and secrecy. Al-Qaeda has become a significant player in world politics largely thanks to its sophisticated media strategy.
While this book no doubt is a valuable contribution to the ever burgeoning literature on OBL and al-Qaeda, it does have some limitations: While Atwan covers a wide spectrum of geographic areas in which al-Qaeda has some presence; he does not touch on the heavily publicized reconstitution of al-Qaeda central in Waziristan, the mountainous tribal region along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Also he does not address the intra-jihadi debates that might have caused a rift in the seemingly unified violent revolutionary Salafi movement. In the recent past there have been several critics from within the Salafi spectrum, with the necessary credential, that have come to the forefront and broken ties with OBL. Atwan could have parsed out the different strands and ideological disputes that have been waged between the various al-Qaeda related groups.
In his chapter dealing with al-Qaeda in Iraq, for example, there is no mention of the recent (2007) U.S. troop surge as counterinsurgency strategy put in place by the Bush administration and advanced by General Peatreaus and how this has affected al-Qaeda's staying power and tenacity in Iraq. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, violence has since dropped significantly in key parts of Iraq, but the improvement is based on a shaky foundation provided by the now slowing troop surge, a ceasefire with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a U.S. led effort to recruit former insurgents for policing--but by no means via a sustained reform package needed for a lasting peace.
All in all, this book provides a concise yet comprehensive coverage of al Qaeda and its key leader, OBL. Atwan captures the readers' attention with simple language, lucid imagery, and telling metaphors. One revealing detail Atwan talks about is how he was not permitted to tape record any of the interviews and conversations he had with OBL, arguing that this was due to the fact that "Sheikh" was "not perfectly versed in Islam," fearing that any grammatical errors or theological mistakes might be used against him (31). For the most part his story-telling style creates for the reader the feeling of being immersed in a thrilling novel rather than a dry academic text. Atwan's very readable style thus makes for an excellent teaching resource for students who have very little background knowledge on the topic of terrorism and al-Qaeda.
Kristian P. Alexander is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
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|Author:||Alexander, Kristian P.|
|Publication:||Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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