By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Kyle Dabruzzi
Middle East Quarterly
The recent deaths of prominent Al-Qaeda terrorists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and Abu Hafs al-Urdani in Daghestan, as well as a host of less publicized kills and captures, have hastened the arrival of a new generation of jihadist leaders. As they learn from their predecessors’ mistakes, these new leaders may become even more lethal.
Five new terrorist leaders have demonstrated their importance: Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys in Somalia, Abu Ayyub al-Masri in Iraq, Matiur Rehman and Faqir Mohammed in Pakistan, and Aris Sumarsono (also known as Zulkarnaen) in Indonesia. Even if these leaders prove short-lived, their decisions already have had a profound effect on the course of the global war on terror.
They may represent disparate communities, but each of these new terrorist leaders employs similar strategies. First, they are more aware of their international image than their predecessors. While they seek to shock and strike fear into their enemies, they also wish to appear reasonable to their constituents and the larger Muslim population. While the Taliban engaged in massacres, and Zarqawi distributed videos showing the beheading of captives, the new leaders minimize overt acts of brutality that could undermine public support. Second, the new jihadists consider management of civil society more than did their predecessors. They do not wish to preside over failed states. The Islamic Courts Union actually raised Somalia’s standard of living modestly. Third, these new leaders have exploited advanced communications technologies to improve their outreach and forge broader alliances. It should not surprise that jihadist movements have grown stronger.
Examination of each of their cases and areas of operation demonstrates how these new jihadist leaders have enacted these new strategies.
Somalia: Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys
On June 5, 2006, the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union (ICU) seized Mogadishu and, over the next several months, consolidated control over the country’s other major cities. However, as they moved on Baidoa, the last bastion of the U.N.-recognized government, Ethiopian forces swept through the country, forcing the ICU from Mogadishu and other major cities. The Ethiopian government remained concerned about the ICU because its predecessor and major component, Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya (AIAI), had sponsored Islamic separatist groups in the Ethiopian border province of Ogaden. Nevertheless, the ICU’s brief success catapulted it into a model for other jihadist groups. Twice, Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for Islamic fighters to flock to Somalia to support the ICU.
Despite their routing, the ICU leadership survived the Ethiopian advance. ICU leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has called for insurgency, and the U.N.’s Monitoring Group on Somalia has warned that “the ICU is fully capable of turning Somalia into what is currently an Iraq-type scenario, replete with roadside and suicide bombers, assassinations, and other forms of terrorist and insurgent-type activities.” Already, there are initial signs that Ahmed’s threat is not empty. In early 2007, ICU militants attacked African Union peacekeeping forces and attempted to assassinate President Abdullahi Yusuf.
The man most likely to lead the insurgency is Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. As a 42-year-old Somali army colonel fighting in the 1977 war against Ethiopia, he won a medal for bravery. He then worked to establish himself as a respected religious figure and also a political leader with considerable clout in Islamic extremist circles. In 1991, Aweys co-founded and led AIAI, which sought to create an Islamic state in the Horn of Africa. Then, starting in 2006, he served as head of the ICU’s consultative council in which capacity he shaped ICU policies, which brought a strict version of Shari‘a (Islamic law) to Somalia but in a manner that was more consistent with economic growth and civil society than previous jihadist attempts at imposing Islamic law.
As the ICU gained power, Aweys pursued the three new jihadist strategies. First, he committed himself to winning over rather than alienating the Somali population. He sought to harness Islam, Somali nationalism, and Somalis’ distaste for the warlords’ rule. The ICU portrayed itself as the only major faction in Somalia that upheld Islamic ideals. “The Somalia people are a homogenous people having the same culture, same language, same religion, same sect also,” Aweys told Newsweek in a rare interview. “The only system they can accept to choose is Islam; no one can force them to take another.” He exploited Somali nationalism by describing the Ethiopian government’s support for the transitional government as meddling in Somali affairs. He positioned the ICU as an alternative to the chaos and corruption of the warlords’ rule. His emphasis on stability and rule-of-law won the sympathy of the Somali business community, which, at the very least, welcomed the ICU’s strict rule as a means to reduce security outlays. Although there are no reliable estimates as to how much the average businessman had to pay for security, the U.N. Monitoring Group’s late 2006 study on Somalia reports that checkpoints established by the warlords cost businesses several million dollars a year. The ICU’s elimination of certain checkpoints that collected extortionate fees also reduced business expenses, in some cases by up to 50 percent of the delivery costs.
Second, Aweys ensured that the ICU minded its international image. It sought to diminish initial comparisons with the Taliban through restraint. Upon taking Kabul, the Taliban ransacked a U.N. compound, captured the former Afghan president sheltering inside, emasculated and hanged him. Widespread massacres marked the Taliban conquest of Mazar-i Sharif. In conquest, the ICU kept its subjugation relatively bloodless. As the ICU captured strategic Somali cities, there would often be little if any bloodshed. They often allowed the warlords who had earlier controlled the cities to escape.
Finally, the ICU worked to establish a broad-based jihadist coalition. A military intelligence source has confirmed a 2002 nongovernmental Partners International Foundation report that found sixteen operational terrorist training camps in Somalia. In 2006, the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia reported, “Foreign volunteers (fighters) have also been arriving in considerable numbers to give added military strength to the ICU … Importantly, foreign volunteers also provide training in guerrilla warfare and special topics or techniques.” One senior ICU leader, Sheikh Hassan “Turki” Abdullah Hersi, openly admitted foreign involvement in Somalia during a speech to supporters after the seizure of Kismayo. “Brothers in Islam,” he said, “We came from Mogadishu, and we have thousands of fighters, some are Somalis and others are from the Muslim world.”
Iraq: Abu Ayyub al-Masri
Abu Ayyub al-Masri is another trendsetter. When U.S. forces killed Zarqawi on June 7, 2006, some officials and analysts said Al-Qaeda in Iraq was in trouble. Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie, for example, said, “Al-Qaeda is on the run now in Iraq, and this is the beginning of the end of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Al-Masri proved such statements hollow. He is a more effective leader than Zarqawi. Under Al-Masri’s leadership, Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been able to repair its damaged reputation and has formed a broader alliance with other Iraqi jihadists.
Al-Masri was born in Egypt around 1967. Under the tutelage of Zawahiri, he joined Al-Jihad al-Islami al-Misri (Egyptian Islamic Jihad) in 1982. After the Egyptian government began a crackdown that lasted through much of the 1980s, he took refuge in Sudan and, in 1995, moved to Pakistan.
When Al-Qaeda incorporated Zawahiri’s group in mid-2001, Al-Masri traveled to Afghanistan and trained at the bin Laden-sponsored Al-Faruq training camp. He met Zarqawi there in 2001 and also became an expert at assembling bombs. Al-Masri traveled to Iraq in 2002, before liberation, and helped establish the Baghdad area’s first Al-Qaeda cell. After the U.S. invasion, Al-Masri provided logistical support to Al-Qaeda in Iraq and helped Zarqawi run the pipeline of foreign fighters.
Al-Masri’s effectiveness is highlighted by comparison to his predecessor. It is true that Zarqawi captured the imagination of many people throughout the Middle East, but he was also a ruthless killer. His videotapes showed the beheadings not only of Westerners but also of Iraqis. Such brutality turned many Iraqis against the group and opened a rift between Zarqawi’s foreign fighters and Iraqi insurgents. This fact was not lost on Al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Zawahiri sent Zarqawi a letter in July 2005 that urged him to curtail his brutal tactics:
Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable—also—are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular by the favor and blessing of God … We would spare the people from the effect of questions about the usefulness of our actions in the hearts and minds of the general opinion that is essentially sympathetic to us.
Zawahiri’s objection to Zarqawi’s actions was more strategic than moral. He implored Zarqawi simply to shoot his captives.
Al-Masri has taken Al-Qaeda in Iraq in a different direction. On one hand, he has worked to build a coalition of insurgent groups and has sought to incorporate Iraqi tribes under his banner. In essence, he is trying to “Iraqify” Al-Qaeda. On the other hand, he has reached out to a broader range of jihadist groups. In an audiotape released just after the November 7, 2006 U.S. elections, he urged a more united front to destabilize the Iraqi government:
O you the commanders of Al-Ansar and Al-Mujahidin army, and the rest of the faithful ones. Our yearning for you has increased, and we are longing for your amity. Your brothers pray to God to protect you … We are not better than you so that we come forward while you step back. You have started jihad before us, you are more disinterest[ed] in leadership than us, and your soldiers are more obedient. We consider you to be more faithful to God in your religion.
While Zarqawi would label as enemies all Muslims who did not support his mission, Al-Masri urges other jihadists to “take care of our Sunni kinsfolk” and to “leniently call for the good and preach against evil especially since the infidel Baath Party had confused the people vis-à-vis their religion.”
Al-Masri’s strategy is designed to accomplish two of the new generation of jihadists’ objectives. While U.S. forces prevent al-Masri from controlling territory and therefore running mechanisms of state, he now avoids alienating Iraqi civil society while creating a larger jihadist front.
Pakistan: Matiur Rehman
Pakistan is central to Al-Qaeda’s war against the West. Al-Qaeda and its allies largely relocated to Pakistan after the 2001 U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan. This has caused changes in the Al-Qaeda organization. The group’s foot soldiers previously were predominantly Arab; today, they are largely Pakistani. Al-Qaeda has made strategic gains in Pakistan, most notably the September 5, 2006 Waziristan accord, in which the Pakistani government essentially ceded the Waziristan region of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. This safe-haven is problematic for U.S. national security. As the 9-11 Commission reported, one of the key elements in planning a catastrophic terrorist attack is a sanctuary that provides “time, space, and ability to perform competent planning and staff work.”
No one has benefited from this accord more than Metiur Rehman, a Punjabi from Pakistan born around 1976. While Rehman may be unknown in the West to all but professional terrorism and intelligence analysts, he may be the man most likely to plan the next attack on the United States.
Analysts believe that Rehman became an expert in explosives in the mid-1990s. Soon after he became an instructor in Al-Qaeda’s camps, focusing his efforts on recruits visiting from the West. He became deputy to Amjand Farooqi, leader of Harakut ul Ansar, one of the most violent Kashmiri terrorist groups. Both are suspected in the kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. After Pakistani police killed Farooqi in 2004, Rehman remained in sole possession of the database of all Pakistanis trained in Al-Qaeda camps.
Rehman is, today, the chief liaison between Al-Qaeda and Pakistan’s jihadists. He is linked to many of the assassination attempts against Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf between 2003 and 2006 and is also a suspect in the plot to bomb several airliners over the Atlantic in August 2006. Unlike Aweys and Masri, he focuses more on terrorist operations than in organizing a broad-based movement. Still, he is willing to exploit local civil society to his goals, a task made easier by the shift in Pakistani public opinion against President Pervez Musharraf and the United States.
Pakistan: Faqir Mohammed
The Waziristan accord has also indirectly strengthened Faqir Mohammad. Born around 1970 in Chopatra, a village in the Bajaur province about 20 kilometers from the Afghan-Pakistan border, he studied religion until age twenty under the prominent Salafi imam Maulana Abdus Salam and, later, at the Darul-Uloom Pamjpeer, a local madrasa (Islamic school). His Salafi education allowed him to embrace the Afghan Arabs, jihadists from the Persian Gulf states who flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. Faqir Mohammed became a jihadist in 1993 under the tutelage of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, an active leader in Jamat-e-Islami, a Pakistani Islamic movement allegedly linked to terrorist groups. Thereafter, Mohammed fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban.
Faqir Mohammed continued to fight in Afghanistan even after the Taliban’s fall, but he also established a base in Pakistan. A strategic marriage allowed Mohammed to establish himself in the Mamoond tribe in the North West Frontier Province’s Bajaur district. This has enabled him to provide Al-Qaeda with a local safe-haven. In January 2005, the Central Intelligence Agency fingered his house in Bajaur as Al-Qaeda’s winter headquarters. On October 30, 2006, U.S. forces staged an air strike on a madrasa in a Bajaur tribal village that also allegedly served as an Al-Qaeda training camp. Faqir Mohammed felt so confident, however, that he gave an interview near the scene of the destroyed school and, later, attended and even spoke at the funeral for the eighty people who died in the attack.
Mohammed’s role is important. He controls a strategic area, from which his forces stage cross-border raids on NATO forces in Afghanistan. The new jihadist leaders increasingly focus on establishing pure Islamic “emirates” to serve as stepping stones toward a greater caliphate, which they desire. Figures such as Faqir Mohammed are central to this strategy because they provide a link between Al-Qaeda and local tribes. They can mitigate ethnic tensions which otherwise might undercut Al-Qaeda’s effectiveness.
Also consistent with the new jihadist strategy, Mohammed has not sought to overturn the tribes’ civil society in Pakistan. Instead, he works within the existing tribal structure, trying to carve out a place for Al-Qaeda within it. This approach is more likely to engender long-term success than past jihadist efforts to completely remake the societies in which they operated.
Indonesia: Aris Sumarsono
Another new generation jihadist leader focuses upon Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Aris Sumarsono, also known as Zulkarnaen, was born in 1963 in central Java, Indonesia. He became Jemaah Islamiya’s chief of military operations in February 2004 after the arrest of his predecessor and now sits on Al-Qaeda’s main decision-making council. He is well-connected with access to thousands of potential operatives and cultivates an image of humility, innocence, and self-restraint that many Southeast Asian Muslims find appealing.
As a young man, he reportedly studied at an Islamic boarding school, Al-Mumkin, founded by Abdullah Sungkar. Sungkar, along with Abu Bakar Bashir, founded Jemaah Islamiya, an Islamic terrorist group that seeks establishment of an Islamic state across southeast Asia. In the late 1980s, Sungkar sent a group of his best students, including Zulkarnaen, to Afghanistan to train with Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Saudi-financed Afghan mujahideen leader. Zulkarnaen became a protégé of Muhammad Sauwki al-Istambuli, an Egyptian terrorist leader. Zulkarnaen stayed in Afghanistan for a decade, developed an expertise in sabotage, and trained other Jemaah Islamiya members.
Sydney Jones, an expert on Jemaah Islamiya and director of the Jakarta branch of the International Crisis Group, said that while in Afghanistan, Zulkarnaen was likely drawn to the writings of jihadist ideologue Abdullah Azzam, whose teachings focused on fighting against foreign powers’ encroachment into Muslim lands.
Zulkarnaen continued his Jemaah Islamiya training and recruitment efforts after he returned to southeast Asia in the 1990s. He helped establish training camps in areas of the Philippines controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front similar to those that existed under the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was in one such Philippines camp that Mohammed Sidique Khan, a participant in the July 7, 2005 London transportation system attacks, learned bomb-making.
Zulkarnaen is suspected in several major terrorist attacks. He allegedly helped prepare the explosive used in the 2002 Bali disco bombing which killed 202 people, including eighty-eight Australians, and is also a suspect in the August 5, 2003 car bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. Today, analysts consider him to be Indonesia’s most dangerous terrorist.
Beneath Zulkarnaen’s quiet demeanor is a devotee to violent international jihad. Like Rehman, Zulkarnaen’s connections make him a formidable opponent.
The upcoming generation of terrorist leaders is not amateur. They all have formal military training. They no longer accept the idea that brutality is romantic but rather seek to strike a balance between effectiveness and piety. They no longer assume that Muslims will flock to a strict Shari‘a state and, consequently, also tap into nationalist sentiments, even while striving toward a goal that would mean an end to the nation-state. Nevertheless, despite their strategic embrace of national identity, the new jihadist leaders recognize the importance of transnational links and alliances.
The strategic characteristics of these new jihadist leaders fit well with the direction that Al-Qaeda’s central leadership is taking. Local Al-Qaeda leaders and affiliated groups have managed to maintain semiautonomous control over their individual organizations while still reporting to the terrorist group’s central leadership. As a senior military intelligence officer put it:
We’re seeing much more of a subsidiarization of terrorist groups, which has now become much more pronounced. Call it Al-Qaeda federalism. You have strong local leaders, but they are all held accountable to a strong central leadership. This creates a hydra-like effect. If you look at these nodes being established, they are all able to survive absent this central leadership. This is a big risk for the central leadership because they could break off. However, these groups remain wedded to the central leadership, and it thus creates a strong network.
Meanwhile, the central Al-Qaeda organization can sense that some of its long-term goals may be within reach for the first time. Al-Qaeda has long sought to reestablish the caliphate. Now, the terrorist group’s growing regional strength makes the caliphate seem like a more reasonable goal, as the Islamic emirates that are currently taking shape may form the basis of an eventual caliphate.
As a new generation of jihadist leaders shifts tactics in pursuit of a long-term vision, U.S. and Western officials counter the threat with disjointed, short-term strategies. The assumptions long held by Western counterterrorism officials about expansionist terrorist groups may no longer be true. With jihadists devoting greater attention to image, to managing civil society, and to broadening their outreach, states that fall to the jihadists may no longer fail. To the contrary, in Somalia, living standards increased when the Islamic Courts Union briefly restored public security.
In order to counter al-Qaeda’s new generation, Western officials should concentrate on twin goals. First, they should prevent terrorist safe havens from arising in the first place—a goal that was endorsed by the 9-11 Commission. And, second, they need to prove that U.S. allies and their aid organizations are as adept at building a stable civil society as the jihadists. A large number of Somali citizens looked favorably upon the ICU when it gained power because it provided an alternative to the chaos that had prevailed before. Yet after supporting a military intervention to topple the ICU, Washington has failed to provide the aid needed to allow Somalia’s transitional federal government to thrive.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of My Year Inside Radical Islam (Tarcher/Penguin 2007). Kyle Dabruzzi is a terrorism analyst for The Gartenstein-Ross Group. They thank Aaron Garza for his assistance.