With the assassination in early June of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, hawkish westerners predicted that the organisation would crumble. But in the years since 9/11, despite America and its allies focusing untold resources on discovering what al-Qaeda is and how to track it down, there has been a failure of military strategy and a failure to penetrate the thinking and tactics of this different kind of enemy.
This is due largely to the organisational skills of Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, who have made it difficult for even their senior comrades in al-Qaeda to know where they are. Subordinates receive orders by e-mail, or through messengers who prove their veracity by reminding the commander of a detail of his last meeting with the al-Qaeda boss. “Bin Laden has a very sharp memory,” one source said. “He might send a messenger who will tell the commander, ‘The last time you met him, three years ago, he was wearing such-and-such a watch.'”
His presence in the mountainous, tribal areas of Waziristan, in Pakistan, is no secret to those in the know – when I was driving from the remote town of Wana to North Waziristan, I looked up and saw “Osama Bin Laden” written in white stones in Arabic script on a high mountain slope, a primitive version of the Hollywood sign in California. When Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who has interviewed Bin Laden three times, took his family for lunch one day to a restaurant in Peshawar, he spotted two of Bin Laden’s bodyguards. Mir pretended not to recognise them, as he thought it might make them feel uncomfortable about their security. They had no such fears. As he carried on chatting with his wife and children, the two well-built men approached him and said: “Nowadays you are ignoring us.” He was surprised at their boldness, given that every security force in the world is chasing their leader.
The Americans have focused billions of dollars’ worth of surveillance equipment on the area, but it is hard to see how it will penetrate Bin Laden’s inner circle. According to those who know him, he long ago stopped using any mobile or satellite phones himself. He moves from one place to another on foot, or uses horses and donkeys, taking breaks in the network of mountain caves he has rebuilt over the years in the many provinces he has frequented in the region. Al-Qaeda members have become skilled in using new technologies to avoid detection by the various intelligence agencies. His trusted operatives will write their messages and then go to any of the towns and villages close by to use anonymous internet shops to send them. There, they will open an account, send an e-mail or filmed statement or message, and then close the account so that they cannot be traced.
The traffic in terrorism from Bin Laden’s hideout is two-way. The recent change in tactics of the Taliban in Afghanistan – they have started using Iraqi-style sophisticated roadside bombs, “IEDs” (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombers – comes directly from a request by Mullah Omar to Bin Laden for such expertise. Before the death of Zarqawi, Bin Laden agreed to despatch Taliban operatives to Iraq for training with al-Qaeda fighters. Two groups of fighters arrested on the Iran-Afghanistan border this year described an extraordinary round trip through Iran to Iraq, spending months gaining first-hand experience fighting American and British forces, and then travelling back through Iran to their own battlefields.
The increase this year in the number of suicide attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan makes it clear that other groups have succeeded in making the arduous journey. It is also clear from recent fighting that al-Qaeda does not lack weapons. The group routinely shells the Pakistani army from the caves and the mountains it controls along the 2,500km-long border with Afghanistan. This shows that the group is not just walking around with Kalashnikovs, but has heavy weapons, the means to transport them and limitless supplies of ammunition.
And for al-Qaeda’s opponents, there is little good news. The relief that senior US commanders and officials enjoyed following the confirmation of Zarqawi’s death in Iraq did not last long. Questions arose almost immediately about the identity of the new leader announced by al-Qaeda, whom it named as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir – clearly a nom de guerre, as “al-Muhajir” means “the immigrant”.
US and Iraqi officials describe him as an Egyptian citizen, but well-connected Islamic sources have denied such claims. Just recently, Egyptian security officials said that the photo the Americans circulated as depicting Zarqawi’s successor was actually a likeness of a man who had served seven years in Egyptian prison. These Islamic sources state that the new leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq is an Islamist fighter of Iraqi origin named Abdullah Rashid al-Baghdadi, who was appoin ted head of sharia law for the Iraqi al-Qaeda after US F-16 jets killed Abu Anas al-Shami in Fallujah in 2004. They say Abu Hamza adopted the name al-Muhajir not, as the Americans claim, because he is a non-Iraqi, but because this was the name used by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad and it gives a wider religious dimension to the struggle of his organisation.
This basic failure of understanding by the west is not just a detail. It is being paid for in blood, not just by coalition forces but, even more painfully, by Muslim civilians who live in the theatre of a war they did not create.
Zaki Chehab works for al-Hayat newspaper and for Lebanese broadcasting, and is the author of “Iraq Ablaze” (I B Tauris)