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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New Issue of Al Qaeda's Inspire Magazine Aims For Rapid Repositioning

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has released the latest issue of Inspire, and it's a 70-page behemoth devoted to the Middle East uprisings.

LATEST: We've Killed Bin Laden, What Happens Next?

There are two important dimensions to this issue's theme. First, it seeks to refute a wave of media coverage that deemed Al Qaeda irrelevant to the Middle Eastern protests. Second, it seeks to fundamentally reinterpret Al Qaeda's core principles in order to give the global AQ movement a foothold in the evolving political process.


Inspire's writers take strong exception to the idea that secular, nonviolent revolutions have made Al Qaeda obsolete and irrelevant.

In a prominent opening position, we get an introductory piece by Yahya Ibrahim, whose previous claim to fame was the invention of the Ultimate Mowing Machine. Ibrahim argues that the uprisings are opening the door to globalized jihad in Palestine by removing the U.S. allies who previously protected Israel.

The key to making this argument stick is, of course, combining words with action. There is no shortage of AQ rhetoric on Palestine, but neither the network nor the movement have managed to breach Israel's borders in a very effective manner.

Ibrahim's piece makes two more very important points related to the uprisings, which represent a significant shift in AQ rhetoric and even its philosophy. First, he argues that Al Qaeda is entirely in favor of "freedom" in the Middle East, because that gives people the freedom to learn about and understand AQ's goals. In a pointed jab against the West, he writes:
Why would the freedoms being granted to the people be bad for al Qaeda? If freedom is so bad for al Qaeda, how come the West has been practicing a restriction on the freedoms of expression when it comes to the message of the mujahidin? Why does the West ban the spread of books and talks of the al Qaeda leadership and in some countries consider it to be a crime to be in possession of such material? Why did the U.S. request from a site such as YouTube to take off lectures by Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki?

Even more significantly, Ibrahim writes that Al Qaeda is not opposed to regime change through peaceful means. While Ibrahim's status as an Islamic authority figure in the movement is unclear at best, this represents a pretty significant shift away from a long argument that military jihad is the only acceptable means to achieve Al Qaeda's long term political goals.

One of Inspire's predecessors, an English-language newsletter published in Boston during the 1990s, summed up nonviolent political action in the following terms:
[Y]ou find that the first thing mentioned is “He took part in all of the attacks.” It does not say “He gave a hundred speeches” or that “he wrote such and such a book,” or “he had a lot of money.” It says “He took part in all of the attacks.” This is the greatest virtue, excellence, or merit of the friends of the Messenger. The value of someone in Islam is measured by the “number of battles he took part in.”

Today when they write about our dead, what do they say? Do they mention how many attacks they took part in? No. If they are truthful they will write “This famous scientist, this matchless preacher did not shoot one bullet for Allah’s cause in all of his life.”

This echoes a line of thought going all the way back to Abdullah Azzam, the emir of the Arab-Afghan jihad, who famously said, during a lecture in Brooklyn in the 1980s:
Whenever jihad is mentioned in the [Quran], it means the obligation to fight. It does not mean to fight with the pen or to write books or articles in the press, or to fight by holding lectures.

In contrast, Ibrahim makes a very important qualification which, if truly adopted by the broad Al Qaeda movement, could be a game-changer (emphasis below added by me):
Another line that is being pushed by Western leaders is that because the protests in Egypt and Tunisia were peaceful, they proved al Qaeda – which calls for armed struggle – to be wrong. That is another fallacy. Al Qaeda is not against regime changes through protests but it is against the idea that the change should be only through peaceful means to the exclusion of the use of force.

The accuracy of this view is proven by the turn of events in Libya. If the protesters in Libya did not have the flexibility to use force when needed, the uprising would have been crushed.

There is a galaxy of distance between arguing that Al Qaeda believes military jihad is a mandatory sixth pillar of Islam and arguing that Al Qaeda believes that peaceful regime change is appropriate as long as the use of force is permitted under the right circumstances. Yet Ibrahim is planting that seed squarely in the soil of what is arguably Al Qaeda's most important messaging platform.

It will be very interesting indeed to see whether this thread is taken up by other Al Qaeda figures. Although Ibrahim correctly points out that this principle is implied in recent statements by Al Qaeda leadership on the protests, most notably Zawahiri, I don't recall seeing it stated so starkly.

This could be seen a bold effort to fundamentally redefine Al Qaeda as a political movement that sometimes uses violence rather than as a violent movement whose goals are political. But it is certainly possible that this will be read simply as an effort to jump on somebody else's bandwagon. We'll see how that develops.


The cover story in Inspire No. 5 is an article on the protests by Anwar Awlaki. Over the last year, Awlaki's messages in print and in A/V communiques have become increasingly concerned with local events in Yemen and Islamic rulings. Here, he returns to his best form with a piece that is political and accessible.

Awlaki far exceeds Ayman Zawahiri's recent messages about the protests by keeping his comments short and to the point. Awlaki argues that the uprisings have fundamentally changed the outlook of the Muslim Ummah by proving that the totalitarian regimes of the Middle East can be defied.

He then launches into an extended attack on CNN's Peter Bergen, who argued that the uprisings were bad news for Al Qaeda, with an amusingly discordant jab at Fareed Zakaria, whom Awlaki inexplicably characterizes as a "neoconservative."

Awlaki argues that Bergen is thinking too much in the short-term and that the uprisings will benefit Al Qaeda over time. Mubarak, he says, did not defeat the jihad movement in Egypt. Rather, by driving it out of Egypt, he spread it all over the world, where it is now thriving and from whence it will return.
Peter Bergen believes that al Qaeda is viewing the events with glee and despair. Glee yes, but not despair. The mujahidin around the world are going through a moment of elation and I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge of mujahidin activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco? Is the West aware of what is happening or are they asleep with drapes covering their eyes?

Notably, Awlaki does not advance the "peaceful change" argument made by Ibrahim, but instead takes the approach that the fall of American allies in the region cannot help but be good for Al Qaeda.
America, since 9-11, has been focused on the fight with the mujahidin in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and now Yemen. It has devoted its resources and intelligence for the “fight on terror”. But with what is happening now in the Arab world, America would no doubt have to divert some of its attention to the unexpected avalanche that is burying its dear friends. America has depended on these men for the dirty work of protecting the American imperial interests. They acted as point men that saved America the effort of doing it themselves but now with their fall, America would have to divert huge amounts of effort and money to cultivate a new breed of collaborators. This would force America, which is already an exhausted empire, to spread itself thin, which in turn would be a great benefit for the mujahidin. Even without this wave of change in the Muslim world, the jihad movement was on the rise. With the new developments in the area, one can only expect that the great doors of opportunity would open up for the mujahidin all over the world.

Although Awlaki did not seem to embrace the kinder, gentler Al Qaeda in the main piece of the protests, there are some interesting comments in the "Inspire Responses" section where readers can write in with questions. The column is not attributed to Awlaki but it ends with an invitation for readers to send Awlaki questions, and the style of the writing matches the Yemeni-American's voice.

The main letter to Awlaki challenges is a multi-part question challenging the methods and beliefs of Al Qaeda generally and Inspire specifically. The early parts of the question challenge a number of points in AQ propaganda before getting to the red meat:
In terms of your personal ideology, how do you account for the fact that your legitimacy within the Islamic community is not only called into question but nearly non-existent. Most Muslims condemn the actions that you commit, Alĥamdulillâh. I understand your takfîri ideology but what gives you the right to judge the rest, even Muslims? It seems to me that you enjoy the power of playing God and determining who is good and evil. Nowhere in the Koran does it give authority to man to judge and determine the life of a man.

I cannot overstate how awesomely great this question is in this context. Back before 9/11, Awlaki gave a khutba at his mosque in San Diego on this exact subject and the questioner has almost certainly listened to at least part of that lecture.

Takfir means excommunication, and in this context it refers to the Al Qaeda practice of declaring that its Muslim enemies are not Muslims, have become apostates and are therefore legitimate targets for murder.

In San Diego, Awlaki argued against the practice of takfir, saying:
[If] you tell your brother that he is [an apostate], if he is not, it will come back on you. [ . . . ] We do not know what is in the hearts of people. [If we think] this man is saying with his tongue what he doesn’t mean in his heart, [the hadith] tells us we are not ordered to open up and seek what is in the hearts of people. He is not ordered clearly [ . . . ] I am not told by Allah to seek what’s in the hearts of people. Meaning that we call people to Islam, but we are not judges over them. We do not judge the people. We leave the judgment to Allah, [glory to him].

The questioner is clearly trying to catch Awlaki in a contradiction, and to some extent, he is successful. The Awlaki of 2011 squirms in his response, first suggesting that his correspondent google takfir for more guidance, then writing:
We don’t just assume someone is an apostate without clear evidence. The other thing is who can implement the ruling once one is determined to be an apostate. In today’s world, there is no Caliph nor Islamic Caliphate to properly pass the judgment. So within that we find a whole other topic in fiqh concerning the implementation of [mandatory Islamic capital punishment] without a state. In brief, if the individual has apostatized publicly, and his apostasy is clear, then this person’s blood and wealth is not protected from the Muslims due to the hadith narrated by al-Bukhari, “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.”

Our ideology is not takfîri; the non-Muslims as well as their puppet governments made that up to make the people condemn us. [...] We are openly against extremism in takfîr and seek a balance.

Awlaki is sensitive to his dilemma here. His choice is either to renounce his previous statements and risk being called a hypocrite (a serious slam in his world) or to alienate some of his core supporters in the jihadist movement. So his response is an artful dodge, but it's still a dodge, and no one who is familiar with his earlier arguments on takfir is likely to see it otherwise.

For the full issue of Inspire, check out Jihadology.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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