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    South Asia
     Nov 19, 2010

Al-Qaeda ideologue held in Syria

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - The al-Qaeda ideologue responsible for formulating strategy in the South Asia war theater, and who also instigating a rebellion against the Pakistani armed forces among Pakistani tribesmen and jihadi militants in the cities, has been languishing in a Syrian prison for the past several months.

Seventy-year-old Egyptian Abu "Amr" Abd al-Hakim Hassan, popularly known as Sheikh Essa, was arrested in Syria in 2009 and, according to high-profile intelligence sources, is in a poor state of health.

His presence confirms that a sizeable number of al-Qaeda leaders have now moved to the Middle East to turn neighboring Iraq into


their strategic backyard and to ensure that the insurgency there flares up once again.

Essa's presence would normally be sufficient to launch a movement for a revolution in any country, but today he is sick and contained in a dark and small detention center in Damascus, where he was arrested, a senior Pakistani security official told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity.

Islamabad was officially informed about the arrest by Syrian authorities of the most-wanted person in Pakistan who had turned the pro-Pakistani jihadi establishment against the state of Pakistan. Essa had succeeded in giving the slip to the Pakistani security apparatus after a brief arrest and then he moved to Lebanon to prepare new battlegrounds for the al-Qaeda-led revolution in what the Arabs call Balad-e-Sham (Lebanon-Syria and Palestine).

By sending the elderly Essa to the Middle East, rather than a military commander, al-Qaeda revealed once again that the aims of the group are to set ablaze the whole region by instigating a khuruj (revolt-like situation in Arab states) and to turn the region of Syria, Lebanon and Yemen into the strategic backyard of the Iraqi resistance. Recent incidents reflect that al-Qaeda appears to have had some success in this regard.

Iraq, known as The Land of Two Rivers ( the Tigris and Euphrates), responded fiercely to the foreign occupation in 2003. Compared to Afghanistan, where the Taliban's rag-tag militia dispersed in the face of the invasion of 2001, Iraq's tribal-based insurgency was led by the Ba'athist leadership, and al-Qaeda was nowhere in the picture as the two - Ba'athists and al-Qaeda - are sworn enemies.

However, the situation changed when most Ba'ath leaders were rounded up by 2004 and the rest took refuge in Syria, Yemen and Jordan. They tried to keep up the insurgency by remote control, but it never worked.

At the time, al-Qaeda had no roots or strong alliances in Iraq, compared to those in Pakistan. The organization went to Iraq only in 2003, and a leadership void at that time in the insurgency allowed them the space to take charge. By 2006, al-Qaeda was calling the shots and by 2007 it had taken the insurgency to new heights.

There were difficulties, though. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (now killed), a new al-Qaeda affiliate who was a minor commander of a sectarian organization and had never been a member of al-Qaeda, proved incapable of fully commanding the resistance.

The most trained and visionary eyes of the then-commander of US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, were quick to spot this weakness and things started to go badly for al-Qaeda after the Americans opened lines of communication with the tribal insurgency, especially through the Sunni "Awakening Councils" that were sponsored to take on al-Qaeda.

From late 2007 to late 2008, al-Qaeda had become a virtual outcast and no longer relevant on the Iraqi scene; the anti-American resistance had turned into a sectarian battle and there was major in-fighting between the tribal resistance and al-Qaeda.

However, the situation then took a turn for the better for al-Qaeda, which had brought some of its veterans into Iraq and surrounding areas, such as Syria and Lebanon. But in the process it did lose some of its key leaders, such as Hadi al-Iraqi, who was arrested while crossing into Iraq.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri has written about Essa:
He was arrested and tortured in Egypt, which he endured patiently. He graduated from the College of Commerce and then from al-Azhar's College of Theology. His scholarly and scientific efforts are copious. Among the works he produced were the books
in three parts, Jihad in the Path of God: Etiquette and Rules in two parts, and Guiding the Mujahids to the Commission of the Trustworthy Prophet , which is a book explaining the Prophet's (peace and blessings be upon him) commission to listen and obey those in authority.

He emigrated to Afghanistan twice - the first during the jihad against the Russians [in the 1980s], the second time during the time of the Islamic Emirate [the Taliban - 1996-2001]. He was the supervisor of the journal Signposts of Jihad, which was a quarterly scholarly journal that used to be published by the al-Jihad group. He established the Salah al-Din Center for Proselytizing and taught lessons which were not suspended [even] along the frontiers and battlefronts.

When America launched its Crusader invasion on Afghanistan [in 2001], he lined up with the mujahids, educating them, issuing them fatwas [decrees], and adjudicating between them. The sheikh has a website on the Internet that contains his valuable publications and fatwas. We beseech God to bless his righteous work, his health, and his life and to provide for us, for him, and for [all] Muslims constancy upon the truth and a good end.
The one-man army
After the US invasion of Afghanistan, Essa crossed the border to the North Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan. There, with the help of two prominent clerics, Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq Haqqani, he turned the sympathies of the tribal areas, previously loyal to Pakistan, against the military.

However, he did not limit himself to the tribal areas and found allies all over the country. Masood Janjua (detained by the security forces several years ago and still missing) was his first adherent and in a matter of a few years Essa had a huge following in Pakistan.

The most prominent of these were the prayer leaders of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad that became a pro-militant sanctuary. Essa's literature and teachings convinced a sizeable number of Pakistani jihadis of the "heresy" of the Pakistani rulers and persuaded them to press ahead with a fully-fledged revolt.

All high-profile attacks on the Pakistani security forces in Rawalpindi, Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi were the handiwork of his adherents. To reduce the influence of his literature, the security forces established a special cell in a detention center where militants were treated to undo Essa's "brainwashing".

Essa and other al-Qaeda members traveled frequently across the country to convince religious leaders to launch a revolt. On one of these trips in 2008 he was arrested in Faisalabad, but because of his age he convinced security officials that he was an ordinary Arab religious cleric and not the al-Qaeda operator they were looking for; this gave him the breathing space to escape and go to Lebanon and then on to Syria.

Just as he had been when he arrived in North Waziristan, he was alone, but he wasted no time in in approaching Islamic networks and trying to get them to rebel against the Ba'athist rulers. Then came his arrest last year.

Al-Qaeda sending Essa to the Middle East reflects how the group had seriously pondered its failures in Iraq and neighboring countries - mainly as a result of the serious disorientation of local leaders fighting under al-Qaeda's flag.

Zawahiri wrote several dispatches to these "franchises" in Iraq expressing his dismay over their lack of vision and understanding of how an al-Qaeda resistance should operate. Hence, the need to send out ideologues like Essa, and there are many others like him.

This is one reason the situation in Iraq has flared up in the past months. And if, as expected, the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon implicates Hezbollah in the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in 2005, tensions will certainly mount in Lebanon, and by implication in Syria and Iran.

Al-Qaeda, with a new force of ideologues in the region, will exploit the situation, much as Essa did in Pakistan.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and author of upcoming book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban 9/11 and Beyond published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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