Conversation with a Jihadi

BY Herschel Smith
16 years ago

While purveying propaganda, al Qaeda and Taliban spokesmen often unintentionally relinquish information that points to vulnerabilities and infighting within their organization.  An interview with a jihadist is used below, along with a question and answer session by Ayman al-Zawahiri, to supply the broad outlines of two specific vulnerabilities.

Background & Report

In spite of the U.S. objections to negotiations with the Tehrik-i-Taliban, there has been enough British and Canadian support, as well as internal support within Pakistan, that the authorities were persuaded to continue the process.  They want more time.

This week the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. General Dan McNeil said any deal must include stopping fighters from crossing the two countries’ shared border.

“We have gone back and looked at the data we have over a long period of time when there have been other peace deals,” he said.  “And the fact is each time the talks resulted in a peace deal we have an increased level of activity.”

Pakistani officials insist that unlike previous agreements the new peace talks involve elected government representatives – not the military – and those representatives have more credibility with tribal leaders …

Pakistan’s former spy agency chief Asad Durrani says people living near the disputed border known as the Durand line who are sympathetic to the Taliban will not immediately change their behavior because of a peace agreement. 

“If we expect that these people will completely prevent the crossings of the Durand line – that cannot be done, simply impossible,” he said.  “If we think that we can prevent those people who feel motivated to go on the other side and help the Afghan resistance – that again is mission impossible.”

Despite U.S. criticism of the deal and pessimism even among Pakistanis about finding a lasting peace agreement, negotiator Arshad Abdullah says that after more than six years of failed policies, critics should give the new approach time.

“With these agreements hopefully Afghanistan will be better off.  It is a trial.  Basically we want the world community to give us a chance and see how successful we are,” he said.  “It is a matter of three or four months and within six months hopefully we will have an even better situation.”

But is more time going to matter?  Understanding the enemy is crucial in the struggle against the global insurgency.  An Asia Times journalist gives us a glimpse into the nature of the enemy in a recent article, and it behooves us to listen as he describes a conversation with a jihadi.

Seven months ago I visited Bajaur and Mohmandagencies. As my taxi driver headed from Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, he was played some Pashtu music on the car’s CD. Quickly, though, he changed it for jihadi songs.

“The militants have not only brought guns to the tribal areas, they have also brought a culture which has transformed tribal society,” commented a passenger traveling with me.

Syed Saleem Shahzad (with Asia Times) then goes on to describe a more recent meeting with a jihadi in the context of thinking about this “culture which has transformed” society.  He talks with a fighter who converses with him under the psuedonym “S.”

S is the son of a Pakistani military officer and left his home after completing school at the age of 17. Ever since, he has been an active jihadi, and in eight years he has only seen his family once.

He joined al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan before September 11, 2001 – even serving for bin Laden – but soon after that event he went to the South Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan with Arab-Afghans such as Sheikh Ahmad Saeed Khadr and Sheikh Essa.

S said his association with Arab-Afghan militants turned him from an ordinary jihadi into an astute trainer. “In my early 20s, I was training big names of this region, including young Arabs and Uzbeks who were many years older than me,” said S.

S could have earned a monthly stipend to devote himself to being a jihad, but he chose to work as a trader in Pakistani cities to earn extra money. He then returned to the mountain vastness of Afghanistan to join the Taliban’s fight against NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in Afghanistan.

A turning point in S’s life came when, returning from Khost province in Afghanistan where he ran a training camp, he was arrested by Pakistani Frontier Corps.

“I was passed on from one security agency to another, and each time the interrogation methods changed. My pre-9/11 association with bin Laden and Zawahiri and occasional meetings with Zawahiri after 9/11 boosted me as an ‘al-Qaeda associate’ in the eyes of my Pakistani examiners. For one-and-half years I did not see a single ray of sunlight. After thorough interrogations, they concluded that I was just a fighter and a trainer against NATO troops who happened to be a ‘renegade’ son of an army officer,” said S.

“They contacted my father and despite that he had abandoned me a long time ago, when he heard about my situation all his fatherly affection returned and he agreed to become my guarantor that I would not take part in any jihadi activities.

“So I was released in front of Peshawar railway station, blindfolded, and when my blinds were removed there was my old father in front of me. I was standing with my hands and feet chained, and when my guards removed these my father hugged me and wept profusely.

“That was the only brief interaction between me and my family as I once again went into my own world of jihad. It was me and my gun, and I never looked back to see if there was any family, a father or a mother, waiting for me … though I miss them a lot,” S related in a sad, soft voice.

Syed Saleem Shahzad goes on to discuss the location of Bin Laden and other things, but a meaningful exchange occurs late in the interview.

S said he is against the use of suicide attacks. “I do not know the exact status of such attacks in Islamic law, but certainly in my manuals of war it is prohibited. I have argued with all the top commanders that any target can be hit without the use of suicide attacks,” S said.

On strategic matters, S is clear that attacks on Pakistani security forces in the tribal areas can only add up to problems. “I always argued with top ideologues like Sheikh Essa that the more success we get in Afghanistan, the more we will gain support from Pakistan. If NATO remains strong in Afghanistan, it will put pressure on Pakistan. If NATO remains weaker in Afghanistan, it will dare [encourage] Pakistan to support the Taliban, its only real allies in the region,” S said.

Analysis & Commentary

Two very remarkable vulnerabilities have been accidentally divulged in this last exchange.  It is obvious that S is religiously motivated.  Not only does he say so, but the hold and sway this has over him is enough to break with a weeping father to go back to his commanders.  Its power is complete with this jihadist.

This same religious commitment is also causing a problem within the movement.  Note what S says about the tactics of suicide attacks.  “I do not know the exact status of such attacks in Islamic law, but certainly in my manuals of war it is prohibited. I have argued with all the top commanders that any target can be hit without the use of suicide attacks.”

There may be a couple of reasons for the difficulty, one of which is the certain death of the jihadist.  But the most significant objection doubtless has to do with death of noncombatant Muslims due to these attacks.  They would like to believe that the suicide bomb is the Taliban equivalent of the JDAM targeted with GPS.  Innocents are spared, or so the claim goes.  Baitullah Mehsud recently had his own press conference in which he says that suicide attacks are “our most destructive weapon … out atom bomb,” but better than the enemy’s atom bomb because our bomb targets only the enemy while the enemy’s kills innocents.

But this isn’t true, and there is work ongoing within their ranks to backfit a justification for their tactics.  The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has an interesting analysis of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s recent Q&A session, and suicide tactics play a prominent role, having been brought up in the questions posed to Zawahiri.  The problem is also summarized in the most recent issue of the CTC Sentinel.

In the course of defending al-Qa`ida against charges of unjustly killing innocent Muslims during his April 2, 2008 “open interview,” Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri reintroduced Hukm al-Tatarrus (the law on using human shields) into the debate.1 A relatively unfamiliar term to non-Muslims and Muslims alike, al-Tatarrus refers to God’s sanctioning of Muslim armies that are forced to kill other Muslims who are being used as human shields by an enemy during a time of war.2 Al-Tatarrus is a religiously legitimate, albeit obscure, Islamic concept that al-Qa`ida ideologues have been increasingly using in order to exculpate themselves from charges of apostasy. The method in which al-Qa`ida is promoting al-Tatarrus, however, seeks to facilitate the sacrifice of Muslim lives in contravention of 14 centuries of religious teachings.

Al Qaeda has turned to Abu Yahya for scholarly analysis, but his scholarship is nothing short of revolutionary, and he turns out not to be much of a scholar after all.

While the Qur’anic and hadith restrictions on killing innocent Muslims were appropriate during the early days of Islam, he suggests, they should have no bearing on warfare today because modern warfare is qualitatively different. Whereas early Islamic thinkers had to consider the implications of using a catapult against an enemy fortress in which Muslims were residing, or conducting night raids against an enemy household in which Muslims were likely present, the nature of contemporary warfare is one where the enemy uses “raids, clashes and ambushes, and they hardly ever stop chasing the mujahidin everywhere and all the time, imprisoning them, their families and their supporters.” What it means to be “directly engaged in combat,” Abu Yahyaargues, has changed. By positing that Islam is in a state of constant and universal warfare, he implicitly lowers the threshold for proving that one’s killing of innocent Muslims is just.

In short, the nature of today’s all-encompassing warfare means that the jihadist movement must find a “new perception of different ways of modern shielding which were probably not provided for by the scholars of Islam who knew only of the weapons used during their era.” In these few sentences, Abu Yahya attempts to wipe the slate clean of the most sacred and defining texts with regard to the issue of killing human shields.

They are obviously struggling with the justification for what Baitullah Mehsud calls his “most destructive weapon.”  The brutality of al Qaeda in the Anbar province helped to turn the population against them.  A well aimed information campaign outlining the noncombatant casualties and suffering resulting from suicide attacks is appropriate and would possibly be effective in weakening the enemy’s tactical position.  In Anbar the U.S. had to prove themselves to be the stronger horse (to use a phrase made popular by Bin Laden).  There is no magic, and the necessary context for a rejection of jihad is its battlespace defeat.  But the battlespace defeat might be assisted by a good information campaign targeting this vulnerability.

The second important thing we learn from the interview of S is that the campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan is, in the words of The Captain’s Journal, inextricably tied.  “If NATO remains strong in Afghanistan, it will put pressure on Pakistan. If NATO remains weaker in Afghanistan, it will dare [encourage] Pakistan to support the Taliban, its only real allies in the region,” S said.

The corollary to the the tribal region of Pakistan being a safe haven for the Taliban is that strong action in Afghanistan will affect Pakistan.  It is one campaign, a fight against a transnational insurgency, and seeing the campaign through the lens of borders and nation-states is wrongheaded.  The surest way to put pressure on the tribal region within Pakistan is to continue the chase in Afghanistan.  There is no replacement for kinetic operations to kill or capture the enemy.  We know this not only because it is common sense, but also because the enemy has told us so.

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You are currently reading "Conversation with a Jihadi", entry #1118 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,al Qaeda,Featured,Jihadists,Pakistan,Taliban and was published June 1st, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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