The secret blogger who explains al Qaeda's new strategy.
- By Daveed Gartenstein-RossDaveed Gartenstein-Ross is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and lecturer in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is author of several books and monographs, most recently Bin Laden's Legacy.
In April 2011, a post appeared on the leading jihadist web forum Shumukh al-Islam authored by a little known writer called Abu Asma al-Kubi. The post itself was unimpressive. It argued that European support had been critical in keeping the United States in Afghanistan, and thus "individual jihad" targeting Europe could cause America’s complete collapse "before the end of this year." The BBC’s web monitoring service rightly described the post as "a poorly written and incoherent analysis of current events."
Yet even at the time, the jihadist sympathizers who ran the web forum treated the post with a sense of importance out of step with its meager intellectual heft. Shumukh al-Islam promoted it heavily, placing a banner advertising the article on its main page. This was the second time that the forum had given such a prominent place to one of Kubi’s posts — the previous time, it was for an October 2010 post contending that then-ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus was preparing to negotiate a ceasefire with al Qaeda. The author’s adopted name — al-Kubi, or "the Cuban" — suggested that he spent time at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, a hint that the man behind these posts may have been someone of significance.
Kubi would continue to post online for another couple of years, anonymously producing over a dozen long posts for a variety of jihadist sites. And when his identity was revealed, he turned out to be more influential than Western analysts could ever have imagined: He was Said al-Shihri, the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It was only after AQAP admitted in July 2013 that Shihri had been killed in a drone strike that forum members went public with his identity.
At a time when the risk of a major terrorist attack by AQAP has succeeded in disrupting U.S. diplomatic work in roughly 20 countries, from Mauritania to Afghanistan, Shihri’s writings provide a unique glimpse into the thinking of the organization’s leadership. And with AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi’s recent promotion to deputy manager of the global organization, they may even provide readers with hints of the direction that the entire terror organization will take.
Shihri’s writings reveal a thinker who preferred a strong, centralized jihadist organization that nonetheless left ample room for individual initiative in carrying out attacks. At a time when some analysts still question whether al Qaeda is capable of strategic thought, he offered a phased plan for expanding jihadist power in the post-Arab Spring world. Yet despite his emphasis on strategy, Shihri’s paranoia about Shiites — who were seemingly an even greater target for his animosity than the United States — distinguished him even from other jihadist writers. Given the renewed Sunni-Shiite sectarian animus over the Syria war, Shihri’s writings may even have been ahead of the curve with regard to jihadist thought. If such views are held by Wuhayshi, al Qaeda may be poised to repeat some of the brutal errors it made in the past.
A jihad of one
Shihri’s April 2011 post to Shumukh al-Islam claimed that "individual jihad" — attacks by individuals not guided by al Qaeda’s central leadership — in Europe could cause the collapse of the United States. It was a theme he would harp on repeatedly. Several scholars have also addressed this issue, with some — such as Marc Sageman in his 2008 book Leaderless Jihad — suggesting that such informal networks could eclipse the importance of al Qaeda itself.
Shihri, however, saw no contradiction between individual jihad and al Qaeda’s central hierarchy. In a February 2012 post, he described individual jihad as "very important," especially against the United States, which he viewed as a paper tiger. He thought it shameful that the United States had killed al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and Anwar al-Awlaki without provoking even small retaliatory attacks, such as setting fire to forests or cars. Shihri stated that individual jihad could "harm, deter, and distract the enemy," pointing specifically to the economic consequences of forcing the United States to spend "billions to secure its inside."
Shihri’s posts seem to differ with opinions that argue that either individual or regionalized jihad has eclipsed al Qaeda’s organizational structure as the driving force in terrorism today. He sees no contradiction between the existence of many different al Qaeda branches and a central jihadist structure. As he writes, God blessed the movement with "many jihadist organizations under one emirate."
A jihadist need not wait to coordinate with the larger group, Shihri counseled. Rather, he should take his own initiative in gathering information "and whatever he can find … to benefit jihad." That information should be passed along to the nearest leadership outpost, and "if there is an outpost in his country, he joins it or proposes to it the work that he can do."
In other words, Shihri formulates a largely centralized model, but one that incentivizes, encourages, and sets the direction for individual actions. This is consistent with the messaging and propaganda of AQAP, whose online English-language magazine Inspire consistently encourages readers to undertake individual jihad.
Al Qaeda and the Arab Spring
Lost in the often tired debate over whether the uprisings across the Arab world over the past few years damaged al Qaeda is the manner in which these revolutionary events have changed it. Shihri propounded a clear vision for how jihadists should respond to the changes gripping the Arab world.
Salafist movements have struggled with how they should relate to the region’s new democratic systems, with some arguing that electoral politics, even if problematic, can be beneficial in helping to usher in sharia (Islamic law). Shihri delivered a sharp rebuttal to this view, arguing that Salafists erred by forgoing violence, which in fact was necessary to establish legitimate religious rule.
Shihri explained that a crucial step in establishing sharia was "fighting the invading enemies, be they pure infidels or apostate agents, and driving them out of the Muslim territories." Only once they had fought could they move on to the second stage – reestablishing sharia as the "source of judgment in all Islamic countries."
In Shihri’s view, the efforts of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to establish a religious polity through political participation was a fool’s errand. While most Westerners think elections confer legitimacy while violence does not, Shihri argued the opposite — that imposing a religious regime by violence is the only legitimate alternative, while elections would create illegitimate authority.
While Shihri saw no hope in the political openings of the Arab uprisings, he immediately recognized that the regional upheaval would give jihadists an unprecedented opportunity to spread their ideas in society. The al Qaeda leader believed that one important stage of the new period was undertaking dawa, or missionary activity. While the old regimes in places like Egypt and Tunisia used to suppress such efforts, a number of jihadist figures who weighed in on the matter — including al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri — correctly predicted that the new regimes’ tolerance for once-prohibited ideas would offer jihadists a chance to expand their base of support.
Shihri’s stance toward Shiites is clear, uncompromising, and chilling. "Kill them wherever they are," he wrote in November 2011, "because they are disbelievers and are forbidden to enter the entire Arabian Peninsula."
Shihri consistently referred to Shiites by the pejorative term al-rawafid ("rejectionists"). He described Iran and Shiites in general as "the chief enemy of Sunnis today," and seemed to view them as a greater foe than even the United States or Israel. Not only did the al Qaeda commander foresee the Huthis — a Shiite movement in Yemen that AQAP has sporadically attacked — capturing the capital of Sanaa, he also thought Shiites would seize control of the oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, thus coming to dominate traditional areas of Sunni power.
With Wuhayshi’s ascension in al Qaeda’s ranks, understanding his strategic thinking is important — and his former deputy’s writing provides a good starting point. If Wuhayshi shares Shihri’s views of Shiites, for example, al Qaeda might escalate some of its notorious sectarian attacks. It is also entirely possible that Wuhayshi’s promotion will allow al Qaeda’s core leadership to provide more frequent guidance to affiliates: After all, Yemen occupies a more central position than Pakistan, and in the past jihadists in Yemen have served as a conduit for communications between the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and North Africa.
Interpreting al Qaeda and its affiliates can be extremely difficult for Western analysts — the organization remains so shadowy that we risk inferring broad trends from mere fragments of information. But as observers attempt to gain better perspective on Wuhayshi, they would do well to look at the online writings of "the Cuban" — whose work, although it started so incoherent, eventually came to map a body of thought from which we might learn.