The Next Osama
On the eighth anniversary of 9/11, it's time to finally confront al Qaeda's scary move toward modernization -- and the charismatic sheikh who is leading the way.
Eight years after the September 11 attacks — years that have seen many precious lives lost and an overwhelming expenditure of effort and money — the battle against al Qaeda still continues, and it is still not clear whether America is winning or not. As I give talks on this topic to everyone from undergraduate students to counterterrorism practitioners to community groups, I am invariably asked whether there is a winner in the war on terrorism. Questioners are almost always dissatisfied with my answer: "It depends."
But this is the only answer I can give, because the terms of the question are out of date. If you’re asking whether the United States has defeated al Qaeda, you also have to ask: Which al Qaeda are we talking about? The senior leaders operating somewhere in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan? The al Qaeda franchises around the world, most notably in Iraq, Algeria, and Yemen? Or the global ideological following, sparked by al Qaeda, calling itself al Qaeda, but not technically affiliated with al Qaeda? If you ask about winning, you have to also ask whether winning means killing the organization or just handicapping it. Does it refer to destroying al Qaeda’s military capabilities, or to mitigating al Qaeda’s ability to win hearts and minds around the world?
As these questions suggest, over the last eight years al Qaeda has undergone a metamorphosis. It has transformed from a global terrorist group into a global terrorist movement, one with its own founding fathers, well-codified doctrine, substantial and accessible corpus of literature, and deep bench of young, bright, and ambitious commanders. Attacks still matter to them, but in an era of increased counterterrorism pressure, al Qaeda is beginning to realize that it is a lot more effective at being a movement, an ideology, even a worldview. It is starting to see that terrorism is only one of many tools in its arsenal and that changing minds matters more than changing policies.
In other words, the al Qaeda that we are fighting in 2009 is not the same al Qaeda that we went to war with in 2001. Unfortunately, however, our own mindset has remained mostly unchanged.
Much of al Qaeda’s evolution over the last eight years is embodied in one man, Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi, director of al Qaeda’s jurisprudence committee and a likely successor to Osama bin Laden. Young, media-savvy, ideologically extreme, and masterful at justifying savage acts of terrorism with esoteric religious arguments, Abu Yahya offers the global al Qaeda movement everything that its old guard cannot.
Details about Abu Yahya’s life are sparse, but a basic timeline can be pieced together from al Qaeda’s published interviews with him as well as the published insights offered by his current and former colleagues. Growing up in Libya, Abu Yahya (whose real name is Muhammad Hasan Qaid but who is also known as Yunus al-Sahrawi) was a bright and affable young man. For at least a period of time, he attended Sebha University in Libya, majoring in chemistry. At some point during the late 1980s or in 1990, Abu Yahya left his home country and traveled to Afghanistan, where he settled in Logar province. During that time, he joined the nascent Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a faction of Libyans who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan and were hellbent on violently overthrowing Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. Abu Yahya’s older brother was a senior LIFG leader.
Abu Yahya must have shown promise because, around March 1992, LIFG’s leadership dispatched him to Mauritania, where he was instructed to pursue advanced religious studies under some of the country’s most prominent clerics. After several years of intensive religious study, Abu Yahya returned to Afghanistan, likely around mid-1996, where he saw combat near the eastern city of Jalalabad and became a well-known religious voice within the LIFG organization. At some point between 2001 and 2002, he took up a position in Karachi, Pakistan, as a webmaster for the Taliban’s Al-Imarah al-Islamiyah Web site, a job that offered him important insights into the power of new media for reaching out to young people.
He was arrested by Pakistani intelligence on May 28, 2002, and was eventually transferred to Bagram prison in Afghanistan, where he passed time by intimately studying his American captors as they aimlessly surfed the Internet or complained to him about their dysfunctional childhoods. In a June 2006 interview with al Qaeda’s media outlet, As-Sahab, he said that he found American soldiers to be "cowardly," "lost and alienated," and a "mix of doctrinal, behavioral, moral, and ideological deviation." He also used the time to learn the security protocols of the prison.
On July 10, 2005, Abu Yahya and three of his fellow detainees stuffed their beds with sheets and changed out of their bright orange prison outfits into less conspicuous blue prison garb that they had hidden in their cells. The group picked the lock of their cell door and then escaped, at one point walking through the Bagram base posing as U.S. soldiers carrying furniture. Shimmying under the perimeter’s concertina-wire barrier, they then journeyed for days through the Afghan countryside until finally making contact with the Taliban.
Almost immediately, Abu Yahya hit the media circuit, using his dramatic escape as a means to gain fame and infamy. His releases have included countless feature-length videos, multiple extended monographs, numerous articles, and even a published photo shoot. In many ways, al Qaeda "rolled out" Abu Yahya as a marketing firm might do a new product. And he has been welcomed with open arms by the global terrorist movement.
Whether he’s shown traipsing through valleys, target shooting with his buddies, reciting poetry on a mountaintop, or breaking bread with his students, Abu Yahya seems to have made al Qaeda "cool" for a younger generation. His formal religious training has allowed him to credibly and aggressively defend al Qaeda’s attacks and assail his enemies in a way that bin Laden and his deputy, the former medical doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, don’t always have the theological background to do.
There is no doubt that when bin Laden and Zawahiri die or are captured, al Qaeda’s global movement will look to Abu Yahya to seize the reins. He has become the obvious heir apparent. But with Abu Yahya at its helm, al Qaeda is certain to become a far more frightening enemy.
Al Qaeda’s primarily Egyptian senior leadership founded and built the group on principles of elitism and secrecy. The leaders saw themselves as the vanguard, the tip of Islam’s last and only spear. Their doctrine was restrictive and exclusionary. Their bureaucratic structure was stifling and micromanaging. They saw themselves as terrorists’ terrorists, and acted the part.
A lifelong student with an easy smile and a gift for gab, Abu Yahya sees the world quite differently. For him, al Qaeda’s fight is not just about unseating Arab governments or pushing U.S. troops out of the Middle East. In this paradigm, al Qaeda is first and foremost an intellectual and religio-ideological insurgency — not just a terrorist group. Its goal is to capture the imagination of Muslims worldwide. Abu Yahya is not just trying to make Muslims love al Qaeda (like bin Laden tries to do) or make the "Zionist Crusaders" fear al Qaeda (like Zawahiri does). Abu Yahya’s goal is nothing short of remaking Islam from the inside out, and he does so in a candid, compelling, and inherently populist fashion. In other words, what we know about how al Qaeda does business is about to completely change.
Despite the qualitatively different threat that Abu Yahya poses, however, he remains a virtual unknown outside a small circle of counterterrorism professionals in the United States. Of those who do know him, most view him as just another target. Abu Yahya’s obscurity to senior policymakers — and the similar obscurity of al Qaeda’s other young guns who are modeling themselves after Abu Yahya — is more than an oversight. It reflects a continued and pervasive ignorance across the U.S. government about the kind of war in which the United States is engaged. This is a fight in which ideas have become the new center of gravity.
If America is serious about defeating al Qaeda, U.S. government agencies will need to expand and prioritize the translation and study of strategic and ideological communiqués, which often hold the most insightful nuggets about al Qaeda’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Government agencies have not been pushed to think "great thoughts," in large part because they lack the staffs and the budgets, and due to the operational necessities of their missions. This is precisely why the Barack Obama administration would be well-advised to invest serious time and money into expanding current efforts. We must combat Abu Yahya’s al Qaeda today before it takes us by surprise tomorrow.