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Hit & Missed

A new book on Al-Qaeda by Barack Obama’s advisor tells us that Osama bin Laden’s boys are down but not out, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

books Updated: Sep 30, 2008 17:16 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

A bookshelf or two can be filled with writings on Al-Qaeda. A book or two should be written on how that literature has metamorphosed. One could start with the first crude biography of Osama bin Laden by Youssef Boudansky and Age of Sacred Terror, the first account of US policy towards Al-Qaeda; move onto what have reigned for years as the standard works on the terror network by Jason Burke and Peter Bergen; and then pick through the specialist works like Marc Sagemen’s terror psychoprofiles and Brynjar Lia’s exhaustive biography of the jihadist Abu Mus’ab al Suri.

One reason the discourse keeps moving is that Al-Qaeda keeps generating ever more data about itself: Its media arms produces a new video or audiotape every 72 hours. More importantly, Al-Qaeda keeps metamorphosing. Just after 9/11 it was seen as a Saudi-Egyptian entity. Then Iraq became its primary theatre.

Today, as Bruce Riedel argues in his slim but provocative book, Al-Qaeda has returned to the site of its genesis: the badlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book serves as a quick recap of the Al-Qaeda story to date, but Riedel takes the terror tale forward on a number of fronts. One conclusion he forcefully makes is “that Pakistan is the country most critical to the development and survival of Al-Qaeda.”

No country is more important for the United States to work with to defeat Al-Qaeda, “yet none is a more difficult partner in this venture.” Another conclusion, likely to be more controversial, is that Israel is central to bin Laden’s ideology and Al-Qaeda’s existence. Most others, including Yasser Arafat who accused bin Laden of using Palestine as an ‘alibi’ for his terrorism, have argued that Bin Laden only cited Israel for propaganda purposes.

One of Riedel’s accomplishments, as he retells Al-Qaeda’s rise, is to bring out how terrorist events in India are more closely connected to bin Laden’s global jihad than is realised. He uses the words of Al-Qaeda’s own leaders to show how they tended to combine the US, Israel and India into a trinity of hatred. He reminds us how close the young bin Laden was to the Inter-Services Intelligence — to the point he provided $200,000 to the founding of Lashkar-e-Toiba. Riedel hypothesises that the attack on the Indian Parliament was designed to trigger a crisis that would force Pakistan to move its army away from the Afghan border — and allow Al-Qaeda to escape being caught between US and Pakistani forces. He argues that the IC814 hijack was part of a larger global Al-Qaeda terrorist wave that was largely thwarted. Four Al-Qaeda leaders are profiled — Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden, Mullah Omar and Abu al-Zarqawi — to highlight different facets of the network.

Zawahiri is the movement’s ideologue, propounder of, among other things, the jihadist belief that India, in concert with the US and Israel, seeks to subjugate Pakistan and Bangladesh. Three reasons are given for the resurrection of Mullah Omar’s Taliban: the failure to militarily destroy the Taliban in 2001, the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and “take their eyes off the Afghan ball,” and the existence of “a safe haven and help” in Pakistan.

Riedel shies from saying that the Islamabad establishment are supporters of the Taliban. But he says it “is very clear” that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda apparatus that operates in Pakistan “does so with very close connections to the Pakistani terrorist groups that the ISI helped create in the 1990s.”

Along the way, Riedel dismisses claims that bin Laden spent dissolute days in Beirut or that Zarqawi’s Tawid wal Jihad group was a violent rival to al-Qaeda. The book ends with speculation as to what is Al-Qaeda’s present strategy and what the US should be doing to defeat it. Riedel believes one reason Al-Qaeda is less focussed on attacking the US is its preference for fighting the US in “bleeding wars” like Iraq.

The network has also given the creation of safe havens in Pakistan-Afghanistan a higher priority. He believes that two non-military components of a future US strategy against Al-Qaeda must be to push for the resolution of the Palestinian and Kashmiri disputes. Reversing Pakistani policy in Afghanistan is “a derivative of the underlying Pakistani concern about India.” Address these concerns and the policy will change.

He argues that, “In the new era of a US-Indian strategic partnership, Washington should be more prepared to press New Delhi to be more flexible on Kashmir.” While he argues the territorial status quo should be the basis of such a solution, Riedel’s conflation of Kashmir with the war against Al-Qaeda needs to be taken note of — he happens to be a senior advisor on South Asia for a certain Barack Obama.