I met Abu Talha last summer in Majdel Anjar, a village in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. The meeting wasn’t easy: a few days earlier, Lebanese security forces had discovered an al-Qaida cell in nearby Bar Elias and arrested a number of returnees from Iraq.
Abu Talha said: “I agreed to meet you because we want our ideas to reach your readers.” He explained how, after the US invasion of Iraq, he had responded to the call of the Islamist leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to join the Iraqi resistance. He had not been among the first group from the village to go to Iraq. It took six months before he received the message that he could join a group on their way to Baghdad. “They needed to check my identity and resolve because of the complex logistics of the trip,” he explained.
Abu Talha joined a group of four, all pretending to be businessmen, and travelled to Qamishli in Syria, near the border, where someone took $300 from each of them to take them to Baghdad. But Syrian security forces surrounded the border village before they could cross, forcing them to escape into the desert. After several days of wandering they reached Baghdad but it was too late to meet their contact there. They wandered for a few more days and finally met Abu Anas al-Shami, an aid to Zarqawi (both were later killed in the fighting).
Abu Talha waited for a month in apartments in Baghdad and then Falluja, with several other volunteers from various Arab countries. They were all waiting their turn for a suicide mission, but there were too many candidates and the logistics were complicated. After a month in Iraq, Abu Talha was sent home. However, he promised to spread the word and send money to the network. During our conversation, he frequently mentioned Zarqawi, and called him “noble and courageous. Since his martyrdom, no one has been able to replace him, or his leadership”. When I asked him about his ties with al-Qaida, he replied: “al-Qaida is more of an idea than an organization.”
Months before the US invasion, volunteers from a number of Arab countries went to Iraq to defend Saddam Hussein’s regime. Its rapid collapse left them demoralized and lacking any sense of purpose, and those who succeeded in returning to their countries of origin were often physically and psychologically broken.
They were replaced by a second wave of volunteers who went to Iraq, not to defend Saddam but to fight the US forces there. They were Islamists inspired by jihadist and pro-takfir (excommunication) ideologies and by the generation of “Afghan Arabs” who preceded them in the fight against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Unlike the earlier Afghan Arabs, who had support and encouragement from various Arab states and from the US administration, the returnees from Iraq have complex relations with different governments: some encourage them, then repress them later; most look on them with apprehension. All use them.
In the 1980s, the Afghan Arabs had semi-official offices in a number of Gulf countries. Volunteers flying to Pakistan to join the mujahideen bases were received and given reduced fares. The new generation of jihadists get no such privileges. Thousands of them have been captured by the Syrian or Jordanian authorities and sent back to their countries of origin, where they are arrested and imprisoned: there have been more than 900 such cases in Tunisia and 400 in Algeria. Some sources put the numbers of returnees at more than 2,000 from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Tunisia, and more than 1,000 from Jordan. (A high-level Saudi chief was quoted in 2005 as saying: “The number of Saudis who went to fight in Iraq was between 2,000 and 3,000; most of those fighters went there either through Syria and joined the group of Abu Musib al-Zarqawi, or through the northern border of Iran and most of those joined the Army of Ansar al-Sunna”. )
These figures are high in comparison with the Afghan Arabs: though 10-15,000 Arab volunteers are thought to have fought in Afghanistan, most did so in the late 1980s when the fate of the war was already decided.
Thanks to these volunteers, the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) has become the al-Qaida branch in the Maghreb. The group had reached a low several years ago, and started recruiting as if for jihad in Iraq, and then used the new recruits for operations inside Algeria .
Until the invasion of Iraq, the jihadist movement had been peripheral to the core values, causes and struggles of the Arab world. It was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, forged in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and it went on to fight in Bosnia and Tajikistan in the early 1990s, and in Chechnya, with the arrival of 12 jihadists led by the Chechen rebel commander Khattab in early 1995. Yet for the Arab-Muslim world, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya remain marginal, both geographically and symbolically.
The debate about the jihadists’ non-involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the central struggle of the Arab-Muslim world) dates back to Afghanistan, and is still relevant today.
Abdullah Azzam, the “father” of the Afghan Arabs, was Palestinian and was often asked why he had sought jihad in Afghanistan rather than in Palestine. Abdullah Anas (real name Boudjema Bounoua), his companion and son-in-law, told me: “He said that although Palestine was his country, Arab regimes and the leftist movements had not allowed us to fight for its liberation. We didn’t have the choice between jihad for Palestine or Afghanistan. When young people seeking jihad had the chance to go to Bosnia, they went. When there was a chance to go to Chechnya, they went to Chechnya. It was not the result of any strategic decision, but rather an opportunity created by circumstances.”
The question of Palestine was also a source of conflict between Zarqawi and his mentor Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. After both received a royal pardon and were released from a Jordanian prison in 1999, Zarqawi left for Afghanistan – and later Iraq – while Maqdisi, a Palestinian from Nablus, thought the jihadist struggle should focus on the central question: liberating Palestine.
Two points are key to understanding jihadist culture. Travelling to a foreign land for jihad is often described as a migration or hijra in Arabic. The same term is used for the flight of Mohammad and his companions from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD, which is central to Islam and marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. For jihadists, to go to Afghanistan or Iraq is a mystical experience comparable to the journey of the Prophet and his companions. Many jihadist militants, such as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, Zarqawi’s alleged successor in Iraq, take the nom de guerre muhajer, which means “migrant”.
The second powerful myth is that of the destruction of an empire by a handful of lightly armed youths – made possible only by a mystical dimension. Many Afghan Arabs believe that their struggle in Afghanistan caused not just the withdrawal of the Soviet army but the fall of the Communist empire itself. There is now a strong myth surrounding Zarqawi and 30 of his initial followers, and how they “defeated” the Americans in Iraq.
Zarqawi’s group emerged from the periphery to become the dominant jihadist movement. Unlike other groups, such as al-Qaida, which was mainly composed of Saudis, Yemenis or Egyptians, Zarqawi’s supporters were mainly Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians. When Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan for the second time, he established his camp near Herat in the west, away from the traditional jihadist bases near Jalalabad and Kandahar. Although he worked with Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi saw his own group, Monotheism and Holy War (al-Tawheed wal-Jihad), as independent from al-Qaida: his aim was to prepare his network to return to Jordan.
For this purpose, he prepared safe houses and contacts in Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, where he moved before the US invasion of Iraq. Zarqawi moved the holy war from the Islamic hinterlands to one of the religion’s most prestigious territories: Mesopotamia, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) and the crowning glory of Islamic civilisation.
The relationship between Zarqawi’s group and al-Qaida was complex. They differed on a number of issues: Zarqawi criticised al-Qaida’s soft stance on a number of Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, and refused to fight alongside the Taliban in the Afghan civil war in the 1990s. In Iraq, he declared war on the Shia (though not on supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr): the assassination of the Shia religious leader Sayed Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim was a suicide bombing carried out by Yassin Jarad, the father of Zarqawi’s second wife. Al-Qaida denied responsibility for the killing. Zarqawi presented himself as the leader of the resistance against US occupation. But by October 2004 he is thought to have pledged allegiance (baya’a) to Bin Laden.
The new generation of jihadists are ideologically more radical than the Afghan Arabs or al-Qaida. Their military experiences have been more brutal and are reflected in more violent worldviews. When Zarqawi arrived in Iraq in 2002, he had no more than a handful of loyalists. After the US invasion, hundreds of volunteers poured into Iraq from Arab and Muslim countries to fight the US occupation of a Muslim land.
The “Zarqawi generation” are creating a new schism within the jihadist movement. Hungry for military action, their vision is centred on violence. Their activities are creating new sources of instability, for example in Yemen.
Yemen has long provided a safe haven for jihadists. And there were some 3,000 Yemenis among the Afghan Arabs. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the Yemeni authorities accepted returning Yemenis, but also jihadists from other countries. North and south Yemen united in 1990, but contradictions between the regime of Ali Abdallah Saleh and his southern Socialist partners were clear. During the 1994 civil war that followed, Afghan Arabs played a leading role in suppressing southern moves towards secession.
Yemen is also the ancestral home of the Bin Laden family.and after 9/11 Yemen came under heavy pressure amid US suspicions that the country was a logistical base for militants. According to a specialist in jihadist networks based in the Yemeni capital Sana’a: “There has been no al-Qaida operation without a link to Yemen: it is always either a source of arms or money, or one of the perpetrators is a Yemeni, or one of the operatives has passed through it.” Fearing a US attack on Yemen, Saleh flew to Washington and agreed to cooperate with the US war on terror. However, Yemeni policy towards jihadist movements was multi-layered: while dozens of jihadists were arrested after 9/11, including the Egyptian jihad theoretician Sayed Imam al-Sharif (better known as Doctor Fadl), others remained at large.
The Yemeni authorities also launched a project to establish dialogue with imprisoned jihadists, led by Judge Hamoud al-Hitar, now minister of religious affairs. “The dialogue project is one of the cornerstones of official Yemeni policies to fight terrorism”, he told me. “We found that every terrorist movement has an ideological basis, and that ideas can only be countered by an opposing idea. The use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq has failed to bring peace and stability to those regions. Al-Qaida is based on two ideas: takfir of Arab regimes and ejecting foreign armies. In our dialogue we show that the Yemeni government is legitimate. We also show that differences in religion or religious practices cannot justify war.”
The dialogue project was designed to correct these misconceptions based on religious references. Al-Hitar said the project ended in 2005 as a result of pressure from within the Yemeni government, which wanted to use other means to fight “terrorism”. He added that the project had been for Afghan Arabs but not for returnees from Iraq.
There has been much criticism of Yemen’s “counter-terrorism” policies, mainly from the United States. The US authorities were furious when Jamal Badawi, thought to be one of the masterminds behind the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, was released from prison in October 2007. He has since been returned to prison, but the US is pressing for his extradition. Another source of contention is the escape of 23 al-Qaida suspects from a high-security prison in February 2006, possibly with the help of prison guards. Among them was Nasser al-Wahayshi, thought to be the new amir (leader) of al-Qaida in Yemen.
One of the main sources of conflict with the US is Sheikh Abd el-Majeed al-Zindani, a theologian who is said to have influenced Bin Laden during the jihad in Afghanistan. Zindani is the head of Al-Iman Islamic University in Sana’a, and an influential leader of the opposition al-Islah Party, but has close ties with the Yemeni authorities. He is wanted by the US authorities, and is on the UN Security Council’s Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee list. Yet Zindani enjoys broad support among tribal alliances in the north, Salafists and the Yemeni authorities.
Following an attack on tourists in Yemen in July 2007, Nasser al-Bahri (nom de guerre Abu Jandal), one of Bin Laden’s former bodyguards, talked about “a new generation” disconnected from the original organization: “This is not Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s strategy… The new generation is not the generation of Bin Laden, it is the generation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which is different from al-Qaida, although the word al-Qaida is used by some groups. It is the Iraq generation; they are young people who went there for jihad. They are inexperienced, misguided and wrongly mobilized. They think that the old generation has become unable to confront, and are cowards and agents or are spying on them”.
This idea is shared by Said al-Jamhi, a political scientist and author of a book on al-Qaida. “The government is focusing on groups with links to al-Qaida, and is not paying attention to the new generation,” he told me.
A series of mortar attacks aimed at western targets in Sana’a since mid 2007 is believed to be the work of a younger generation of jihadists, calling themselves Kataib al-Jund al-Yaman. They are pressing the Yemeni authorities to release Islamist militants from prison, end their security cooperation with the West, and grant free movement to anyone who wants to seek jihad abroad – in Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia. This new generation is inspired by Zarqawi rather than al-Qaida. Their activities could endanger the existing informal pact between the Yemeni authorities and al-Qaida activists, which amounts to an agreement not to carry out attacks on Yemeni soil in return for permission to provide logistical support for jihad elsewhere.
The Yemeni government needs the support of the jihadist movement in response to the growing disquiet in the south of the country, where some would like to see a return to the independence they enjoyed before unification in 1990. The government also needs its support to counter a rebellion by Zaidi tribal groups in the north of the country, which began in 2004.
What is sure is that, for as long as political vacuums and insecurity continue in Yemen, Lebanon and beyond, young jihadists will find new leaders, new inspirations and new forms of organization.
This article appears in the December edition of the excellent monthly, Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features several articles from LMD every month.