Monday, December 7, 2009

Leah Farrall : Hotline to the jihad

AN AUSTRALIAN analyst and Taliban militant are engaged in a breakthrough dialogue.

In September, I rather cheekily requested a dialogue with a prominent Islamic militant. Egyptian-born Abu Walid al-Masri is a legendary figure in mujaheddin circles.

A 30-year veteran of jihad, he was known during the Soviet-Afghan war for his prowess as a military strategist. Years later, he became the first foreigner to swear allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

He counts among his old friends Osama bin Laden and the senior leadership of al-Qa'ida, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as well as Taliban-linked military commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Abu Walid is also a prolific author. He began writing in 1978 after leaving southern Lebanon, where he fought against Israeli forces. When he joined the Afghan jihad in 1979, he reported on the conflict for several publications. He became committed to the idea of establishing an Islamic state in Afghanistan.

He has also written 12 books that give a candid history of foreign fighters in Afghanistan. They have generated controversy because of his criticism of al-Qa'ida, who he believes caused the downfall of the Taliban.

When the Taliban regime fell after the 2001 US invasion, Abu Walid fled to Iran, where was he detained and put under house arrest. Unable to return to fight in Afghanistan, Abu Walid is instead conducting jihad using his pen.

Recently he provided strategic advice to the Taliban in their insurgency against coalition forces, suggesting they take foreign hostages to use as bargaining chips to secure the release of prisoners held by the US and to assist in forcing its withdrawal from the country. He has also returned to writing for its magazine.

When I asked to talk to him, I hoped he might share his views on the history of foreign fighters in Afghanistan and explain the nature of al-Qa'ida's relationship with the Taliban, as well as his relationship with these two groups. Asking him was a long shot.

Especially since he was aware I am a former counter-terrorism analyst turned academic who specialises in al-Qa'ida. To my amazement, he agreed. For the past two months we have engaged in a dialogue, much of which has played out publicly via our respective blogs.

He recently told me he "never thought for a second this might happen one day". Neither did I. But getting to this point was not easy. In the war on terror it has become commonplace to dehumanise our adversaries and disregard their grievances. A fear of moral contagion means talking to militants legitimises their cause. Understanding what drives them has taken second place to eradicating them, even in the academic world.

Our dialogue started with this baggage. Abu Walid was, for good reason, distrustful of my motives. He believed I was seeking information to allow me "to better understand and target my enemy". After I explained it was for my PhD on al-Qa'ida and that I was trying to cut through pervasive myths about the group, he agreed to answer my questions.

In the process, we have discovered we agree on some things: most notably that al-Qa'ida has done its dash in the Islamic world. Abu Walid believes al-Qa'ida's actions have caused more harm than good. The terrorism war, he tells me, has proven "to be far from the mood of the Muslim people and the result has been popular hatred towards it".

He laments that "jihad has become synonymous with the explosive belt and the car bomb . . . and this is a real disaster because war is not indiscriminate killing".

According to Abu Walid, the dominant mood within the jihadist milieu is that "guns and bombs are the only approved means for change". He questions this, asking "who said that carrying the weapon is the only choice and is inevitable?" And he says al-Qa'ida's reliance on suicide attacks leads observers to think it has "a surplus of fighters' lives and would like to get rid of them".

When I ask him about al-Qa'ida's objectives, he tells me it lacks strategic vision and instead relies on "shiny slogans" around which to rally its troops. He also thinks it is an authoritarian organisation, telling me bin Laden runs al-Qa'ida with "absolute individual leadership". This makes it "the first private sector jihad organisation in Muslim history".

He is concerned the "extremely negative" outcome of this experience "may be replicated in the future" with other groups and draws an analogy of jihadi groups operating in the future in a similar way to Western mercenary organisations. Such criticism of al-Qa'ida is virtually unheard of among jihadists. Especially from someone who still considers its leaders his friends, has not been excommunicated by them and continues to write for Taliban's publications.

Abu Walid has also railed against allegations he has been a member of al-Qa'ida and that his criticism of the organisation represents a split in the movement.

He does not deny his old friendship and activities with them but says he "was never a day within the al-Qa'ida organisation to break away from it". And he also acknowledges his advice and criticism of al-Qa'ida and other groups causes controversy and "makes the sound of loud bombs".

In his most recent letter to me, where he responded to an article I wrote for The Australian on al-Qa'ida's Afghanistan strategy, he dropped the loudest bomb of all. He tells me the Taliban will no longer welcome al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan. Their return would make matters more complicated for the Taliban because "the majority of the population is against al-Qa'ida".

According to Abu Walid, the differences between al-Qa'ida and the Taliban are greater now than they were before the war. Not only is al-Qa'ida unwelcome in Afghanistan but so are other salafist groups who previously operated in the country.

He believes that disassociation is required. He tells me "if the link between the Taliban and al-Qa'ida is not broken the results will be bad for the Taliban and Afghanistan". And he thinks that the Taliban should also move away from the salafist movement so it can be liberated "from all of the restrictions that hinder its political options".

Last week, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke reiterated that the US would be willing to negotiate with the Taliban if it renounces al-Qa'ida. The Taliban is unlikely to renounce al-Qa'ida, but Abu Walid's letter indicates that it may disassociate.

How much this counts for in the Afghan end game, and whether the Taliban will do so, remains to be seen. And, of course, this is not Mullah Omar's view, but Abu Walid's.

However, he is a regular writer for their magazine, and a longstanding supporter and close friend of the Taliban. If anyone has their ear to what the Taliban leadership is thinking, and how it sees events, it is Abu Walid.

When I ask Abu Walid about negotiating with the Taliban, he replies with a quote by former US secretary of state George Shultz who said negotiations "are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table".

The Taliban is all too aware of this. Omar's statement last week addressed the issue and rejected coming to the negotiation table.

He said the "invading Americans want mujaheddin to surrender under the pretext of the negotiation. This is something impossible".

Abu Walid says the US is now trying to spread the shadow of power across Afghanistan, but that it has already "lost its lead and lacks the will and capacity to win the war".

It is an issue US President Barack Obama faces as he announces his decision on troop deployment in Afghanistan. A key element of his strategy will likely be the projection of enough power to force the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Abu Walid's letter highlights another issue for moving any negotiation forward. He says that there is no neutral ground upon which to negotiate and no neutral mediator available. This option, he tells me, disappeared when George W. Bush announced to the world, "you are either with us or against us".

While the US-led coalition is examining options to negotiate an outcome to the war, he says the Taliban's senior leadership trusts no one beyond its borders, not even the states who formerly recognised it: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. This may explain the Taliban's recent statements where it portrayed itself as willing to establish friendly and responsible relations with its neighbours and other countries. These statements also mark a discrete but important move away from al-Qa'ida and militant salafist ideologies.

The Taliban may not renounce al-Qa'ida. It may not even disassociate from it. Nonetheless, Abu Walid's letter is important, because although it does not appear to be sanctioned, it provides important insight into and explanation of the dynamics of the al-Qa'ida-Taliban relationship.

As for our dialogue, neither of us is naive enough to believe a damascene conversion is around the corner. Abu Walid tells me he thinks he will "continue to fight until the end". This end, he explains, "is that they leave us alone to our own affairs . . . to leave us free to decide what is in the interest of our people".

But a key point is that he sees, and wants, an end in Afghanistan and so, too, does the Taliban. This end may not suit al-Qa'ida, who the Taliban appear to no longer welcome.

Abu Walid's fight also involves dialogue. He wants to keep talking and says he hopes our dialogue will be "the first step in a journey of a thousand miles" and a "step towards a common understanding". So do I.

It's better to talk to him and others like him.

They are willing to engage in dialogue about their grievances and listen to the view from the other side, unlike al-Qa'ida who talks only in the language of bombs and bloodshed.

Leah Farrall is a former senior counter-terrorism intelligence analyst with the Australian Federal Police.


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