Sunday, April 27, 2008


A new collection of writings by al-Qaida's leading lights (reviewed here) offers a little more evidence for something I've long thought was true:

[Abdallah Azzam] also used fantasy to intensify his own aura and make the jihadist movement attractive. On his worldwide money-raising tours, he would often thrill young would-be jihadists with miracle tales of angels seen riding into battle on horseback, bombs intercepted by birds that formed canopies to protect Muslim warriors and individual soldiers who with divine assistance defeated entire Soviet battalions.

Azzam promised that jihadists would eventually defeat Islam's enemies around the world -- the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Somalia, Eritrea, Spain, etc. Before that, however, they would liberate Palestine. His emphasis annoyed the faction led by [Ayman al-]Zawahiri, who wanted to go home to Egypt and fight the secular government that had tortured him into betraying a friend and mentor who was later killed.

Azzam and his two sons died in November, 1989, when someone detonated 20 kg of TNT beneath the car taking them to services at a mosque in Peshawar. The suspects included Pakistani police, the CIA and Mossad. But Azzam's son-in-law accused Zawahiri's people.

Historically, the most effective tactic for fighting organized enemies in the Arab Islamic world has been not to attack them, but to let them cut each other's throats in fits of jealousy or vengeance, which are emotions easily stoked from a safe distance.

A wise American dictator could have accomplished this policy after 9/11. It would have been a fascinating alternate future to visit. As it was, however, an aroused and enraged people over here (I certainly include myself in that description) would not have settled for what would look on the surface like submission to the insult of the attacks.

This would hardly have been a pacifist's policy, however. It would have been far more ruthless than the current samblind bid to foist freedom on Afghanistan and Iraq. It simply would have required a different America than the one that exists. Since the start of the Cold War we usually have had to tolerate a feckless CIA, which has been a great threat to the republic. It would have taken an efficient CIA, which would have been a mortal threat to the republic.

Another thing that seems to emerge from the review is the degree to which al Qaida and its followers already do live in an alternate reality, in which the Angel of Mons is not a miracle but part of the everyday fabric. The Internet represents the potential de-professionalization of everything, and those who live exclusively and thoughtlessly in it wander among the ruins of a carefully evolved, centuries-old Western epistemic.

Those who believe descriptions of reality should serve ideologies will have no problem in using forgeries to undercut their enemies. Paul warned against spurious apostolic letters. Evidently the Islamist Internet has the same challenge.

Al Qaeda in Its Own Words has a fascinating subtext: the struggle of scholars to identify accurate documents. Like academics studying the writings of antiquity, analysts of al-Qaeda material must bring a severe critical intelligence to silted-up errors, lies and editorial interpolations.

Keppel says that scholars who venture into the jungle of online Islamist propaganda (there are now thousands of al-Qaeda sites) can never be absolutely certain that a text should be attributed to a given author. Nor can they say for sure that the text, even if originally authentic, hasn't been polluted with unauthorized insertions. Jihadists are not above distributing bogus letters to embarrass rivals.