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Al-Qaeda's unfinished work
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Prior to September 11, al-Qaeda was widely viewed in intelligence circles as a group of mercenaries or mafia, not as a sophisticated organization capable of orchestrating such large attacks as those on the United States.

Yet even with the new awareness of al-Qaeda's capabilities, its true nature - and intentions - remain much of a mystery. Intensive investigations carried out by Asia Times Online over many months, including discussions with people ranging from intelligence officials to sources directly or indirectly related to al-Qaeda, reveal that neither Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan nor any other place but the United States is the single obsession of al-Qaeda. And in this regard, al-Qaeda has big plans.

Enter Osama bin Laden
At six feet three inches tall, rich and like a member of the royal family, Osama bin Laden was taken as an "angry young man" 14 years ago in his native Saudi Arabia when he spoke out against the kingdom for allowing Western forces to use its territory after the first Gulf War. His family - influential in business and highly respected - was persuaded to convince him to appear personally before King Fahd for a royal pardon. Many important members of the royal family, including Prince Turki and Prince Abdullah, tried hard to settle the dispute, to no avail.

That was the beginning of the misconception about bin Laden and his team. US intelligence agencies reported him as a Saudi dissident who had bravely fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s and who was now prepared to create a political nuisance in Saudi Arabia.

However, the al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Africa in 1998 jolted the US's perception, and Washington came to the realization that a new terror ring had emerged which was after US interests. September 11 confirmed this, in no uncertain manner.

Yet US decision-makers were still very much in the dark over al-Qaeda's thinking, despite millions of dollars being spent, countless hours consumed and counter-terrorism networks formed across the world.

Al-Qaeda's evolution
The seeds to al-Qaeda's thinking were planted during the decade-long jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Arabs who poured into the country to join hands with the Afghan resistance fell into two broad camps - Yemeni and Egyptian.

The religious zealots who went to Afghanistan after being inspired by their local clerics fell into the Yemeni camp. They exercised hard, doing military drills all day long between fighting, cooked their own food and then slept straight after isha (the last prayers of the day). As the Afghan jihad tailed off toward the end of the late 1980s, these jihadis returned to their countries. Those who did not want to go home melted into the Afghan population or went to Pakistan, where many married. In al-Qaeda circles, they were termed dravesh - easy-going.

The Egyptian camp comprised those who were extremely politically minded and ideologically motivated. Though most belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, they were discontented with the organization for its insistence on changing societies through elections and democratic processes. The Afghan jihad served as a powerful glue for these like-minded people, many of them educated, including doctors, engineers etc. Many, though, were former personnel of the Egyptian army associated with the underground Egyptian movement Jamaatul Jihad of Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri (now bin Laden's deputy) . This group was responsible for the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981 after he signed a peace deal with Israel at Camp David. All, though, agreed on a single point: the reason for Arab "doom" was the US and its puppet governments in the Middle East.

This Egyptian camp was in the hands of bin Laden and Zawahiri. After isha they would discuss contemporary issues in the Arab world. One of the messages that the leaders drummed home was that members should invest their resources on the armies of their countries, and ideologically cultivate the best brains.

In the mid-1990s, when then Afghan president Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani and his powerful minister of defense, Ahmed Shah Masoud, allowed bin Laden to move from Sudan to Afghanistan, the Egyptian camp drew many strategic community members from across the world to Afghanistan, where they headed maaskars (training camps) to teach strategies for their future fight.

By the time the Taliban had emerged as a force in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, the Egyptian camp had settled on its strategies, the most important being:
  • To speak out against corrupt and despotic Muslim governments and make them targets, as this would destroy their image in the eyes of the common people, who interrelate state, rulers and nation.
  • Focus on the US role, which is to support Israel and tyrant Middle Eastern countries, and make everyone understand this.

    The 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, were the start of al-Qaeda's - as it was now known - offensive against US interests. In retaliation, though, the US launched cruise missiles on Kandahar and Khost in Afghanistan. Consequent to this, al-Qaeda formed a special task force to plan for the September 11 attacks.

    It took three years for the plan to reach fruition, but discussions continued after September 11 among members of the Egyptian camp - who were now senior members of al-Qaeda - over broader plans to bring the world's superpower to its knees.

    Before October 7, 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for September 11, most of al-Qaeda's top minds had already left the country. Their mission involved several targets:
  • To ideologically cultivate new faces from strategic communities, such as among armed forces and intelligence circles.
  • Get these new recruits to establish cells.
  • Each cell would be assigned to raise its own resources to chalk out a plan. However, only one of them would implement a plan, the others would serve as decoys to "misdirect" intelligence agencies.

    Muslim regimes targeted
    After September 11, Muslim governments were more active against al-Qaeda, and in Pakistan alone more than 400 of its members were arrested. The same happened in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Tunis and in Saudi Arabia. Yet al-Qaeda did not utter a word against Muslim governments until the US gave clear signals that it would attack Iraq.

    The collaboration of Muslim governments with the US against Iraq was the ideal time to stir the resentment of the masses against their regimes by exploiting the US's strategic alliance with Muslim countries.

    Soon after the US invasion of Afghanistan, bin Laden released his first tape in which he spoke against the Saudi government. "You are a US stooge and your fathers were stooges of Britain. You help the US in attacking a Muslim country and your fathers rebelled against the caliph to facilitate British rule in the Middle East."

    In the next few months, Zawahiri spoke for the first time against President General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and asked the people of that country to topple "the closest Muslim ally to the US in the world". Immediately after, pro-al-Qaeda groups were encouraged to carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

    There was no reason for al-Qaeda to get involved in Iraq. The strategy they had evolved over more than a decade never suggested that they take on their enemy on the battlefield. Its only aim is to keep the enemy engaged and work toward organizing a Muslim backlash so that when its new strike on the US comes it will not go in isolation, and will change the world on a much broader scale than September 11: al-Qaeda will conveniently fade into the background and let the angry Muslim masses decide the course of the world.

    Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

    (Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

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