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In 2003, as U.S. warships passed through the Suez Canal on the way to Iraq, I stumbled across a group of young Arabs eager to defend Iraq from the “coalition of the willing”. The meeting was almost an accident. In 2003, the idealistic – and I assumed suicidal – young Egyptians had approached me outside the Iraqi embassy in Cairo thinking that, like them, I was trying to find out how to get to Iraq. In the first confused minutes of our meeting, the door of the embassy opened and the group surged through it, taking me with them. Inside, we all listened to the Iraqi official sitting in front of a bank of television screens tell us that we could not fly direct to Baghdad. Our best option was to get to Syria and travel overland.
Last week, in a run-down café, I found the men the war had produced. I met two returning Jihadis (the men's name for themselves) in Sidon in southern Lebanon. The only similar aspects of the two meetings five years apart were the grime of the plastic-tabled café we met in, and the role of Syria as a thoroughfare.
If I was pushed, I might admit a third similarity: my own inept good fortune. I hadn’t been looking for returning Jihadis. I had been looking for al-Qaeda’s chemical weapons. Or more specifically, information on the conditions under which the organisation might chose to unleash chemical weapons on the population of a Western city.
Some background information is in order:
In the book The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind’s CIA sources say an al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Saudi Arabia was in the process of preparing an attack using hydrogen cyanide gas on the New York subway in 2003. For some unknown reason, says Suskind, when Ayman al-Zawahiri was approached to give the final go ahead for the plan, he refused. According to Suskind, U.S. authorities had been frantically following the development of the plot – with President Bush receiving regular updates – and were completely baffled by Zawahiri’s decision.
“The question is why would Zawahiri have called them off? What does it indicate about al-Qaeda’s strategy?” Dick Cheney was reported to have asked in a CIA briefing in the Oval Office.
Cheney thought the possible explanations were either that Al-Qaeda backed off because of the U.S. pressure it was under, or because the organisation’s leaders thought the plan -- which would have resulted in as many casualties as 9/11 -- wasn’t considered devastating enough. I thought there could be another reason. I had been in the Middle East from the summer of 2000 (when the latest Palestinian Intifadah began), seen the reaction to the 9/11 attacks and also seen the response to the invasion of Iraq. Before I returned to London in 2006, I witnessed ordinary Arabs react with denial and then revulsion to al-Qaeda in Iraq’s beheading of hostages and the bombing of Shia mosques and neighborhoods. In July 2005, Zawahiri sent the organisation’s Iraq commander, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a letter counseling against gruesome public killings of hostages and attacks on Shia. Some with far more knowledge of intelligence matters than I have suggested the letter was a forgery. However, it made logical sense to me that al-Qaeda’s senior strategists had grasped the reality that Zarqawi’s bloodlust was offsetting the legitimate grievances felt by millions of Muslims across the world and beginning to alienate their target audience. The brutal (and brutalized) former criminal Zarqawi was diplomatically reigned in, but not before he decided to launch a spectacular attack on Amman, which resulted in 59 deaths and 115 injuries – the vast majority of whom were fellow Arab Muslims.
After coming back to London in 2006, I spent more than a year with British extremists – the vast majority of whom didn’t believe in attacks on British soil but viewed Zarqawi and his group as heroes. But, such attacks strained even their support. Of course, they felt that outwardly criticizing the glorious “mujahids” in Iraq was disloyal. So they relied on conspiracy theories to explain events that didn’t match their own narrative; al-Qaeda would never stoop to such actions, the Americans or British secret services must be behind them.
Practically all journalistic reporting on al-Qaeda assumes the group lives to kill non-Muslims -- full stop. This idea helps justify policies built around the ideology of “we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here”. Consequently, little thought is given to attempting to decipher the motivations of the group’s core or its many affiliates and supporters. And while it is true that the group doesn’t have an immediate constituency, it does have to modulate its actions keeping in mind the views of the disparate and widespread Sunni Muslim world. There are some things it must feel its international, cross class and background target audience will not swallow. The idea that al-Qaeda might have some red lines led me to Haider.
Through contacts spread across the Arab world, the meeting was arranged. I would meet with someone in Lebanon who knew a man connected to the 2003 New York plot. That was all I knew until I arrived in Beirut. As I was referred from contact to contact, it became clear the man I was meeting was returning from fighting in Iraq. We would meet in Sidon, where he was stopping off in Ain al-Helweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon with around 70,000 residents.
I took a bus from Beirut and arrived less than an hour later. Outside the small bus station, a man found me and led me through nearby streets filled with semi-derelict shop fronts selling bad women’s fashion until we reached a small café. The man in his early 40s who had led me on a fast 20-minute hike through town frisked me outside the entrance. I had promised not to bring any recording equipment and had been advised to leave my British passport in Beirut – just in case. At the far end, wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh loosely around his face, sat Haider. At least that’s the name he used as we shook hands when he rose to greet me before we sat together at the table. The man who had accompanied me sat with us and used the longest sentence he had spoken in my presence to ask what I wanted to drink. When I answered, he ordered us all -- in Lebanese-accented Arabic -- a round of tea.
I remember mentioning in my report on meeting the prospective fighters in 2003 that they looked more like computer technicians than warriors. They had little fixed ideological underpinnings past defending Arab honor, lives and property from an invading army that they believed was bent on pillage. I wondered at the time if one called Hisham would discuss the hotness of female Arab popstars on the frontlines as he had with me in Cairo. I couldn’t imagine him working a rifle. Haider, on the otherhand, I was sure knew how to work a rife – and probably much more. Men like Hisham, I imagine, either died in Iraq or have returned with Haider’s air of capable confidence.
When Haider decided he wanted to fight, he found that a chemistry teacher was able to help him get to Iraq. The teacher had been arrested in 2003 and it was known his sympathies lay with al-Qaeda. The teacher had told Haider he had been part of the 2003 plan to release poison gas on the New York subway.
“He told me Sheikh Zawahiri had said using poison gasses was too much. It transgressed the present boundaries of actions that were permissible to us,” he said speaking in the standard Arabic of transnational Arab mass-communication.
“The Sheikh had told the others that a gas attack would be difficult to justify before God and the Muslim public,” he added.
In the West, the September 11 attacks are seen as unprovoked. But to the vast majority of the Muslim world – regardless whether they see them as justified or not – the attacks were al-Qaeda’s response to Western policy.
In a speech broadcast in October 2004, Osama bin Laden said; “And as I was looking at those towers that were destroyed in Lebanon, it occurred to me that we have to punish the transgressor with the same”.
The situation bin Laden was referring to occurred during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He says America allowed Israel to invade and provided it with assistance.
“We had to destroy the towers in America so that they taste what we tasted, and they stop killing our women and children,” he went on in the same message.
Haider explained that as he understood it, al-Qaeda’s leadership had decided that an attack using chemical weapons could only be justified as a response to specific actions on the part of the United States.
“If the Americans carpet bomb a Muslim city – like Kandahar - or use tactical nuclear weapons against Muslims on the field of battle, then it will become permissible for us to respond in kind,” he said.
“We are able to do it, but we choose not to,” he added.
Suskind in his book mentions the mubtakkar (“invention” in Arabic) – a device developed by al-Qaeda to carry out poison gas attacks.
This is how his CIA sources describe it: “It is a fearful thing, and quite real…the mubtakkar is a delivery system for a widely available combination of chemicals – sodium cyanide, which is used as rat poison and metal cleanser, and hydrogen, which is everywhere. The combination of the two creates hydrogen cyanide, a colourless, highly volatile liquid that is soluble and stable in water. It has a faint odour, like peach kernels or bitter almonds. When it is turned into gas and inhaled, it is lethal. For years, figuring out how to deliver this combination of chemicals as a gas has been coming of a holy grail for terrorists.”
“There has not been a single time it has been used because at the moment its use is banned,” said Haider. “The Americans themselves have said it’s a nightmare, but it’s a nightmare the Americans would bring on themselves.”
I suggested that many people would think it more likely that al-Qaeda decided not to use chemical weapons against the United States because it was worried about the force of the response but Haider responded; “No, not at all. What else can they do? Apart from using nuclear weapons we are facing their most powerful response already.”
Although Haider brushed off the idea that America scared al-Qaeda in any way, his answer betrays an internal logic that acknowledges the potential for escalating the conflict but decides to avoid it. It shows that al-Qaeda operates on an arithmetic of response.
A British court jailed Dhiren Barot, a British-born al-Qaeda operative, in November 2006 for conspiracy to murder. Reports at the time said Barot had planned to use radioactive material to create a “dirty bomb”. Haider said that as far as he knew any plot using radioactive material would not be planned by anyone with close knowledge of al-Qaeda’s operating procedures and would not be condoned by the group if it was carried out by sympathisers.
He also went on to add that al-Qaeda had not pursued a biological programme. The group had decided the threat of attacks using Anthrax would only provide a business opportunity for companies making antidotes. Biological attacks had also been discarded after experiments with botulism.
“It takes 10 days to prepare and can only be used in a window lasting a few hours. It’s not practical.”
After answering the questions I had initially raised, Haider was ready to depart. But courtesy dictated that we finish our cups of tea. I used the extra minutes to shore up for myself Haider’s bona fides: how did he come by the knowledge he had passed on to me?
A little reluctantly, Haider said that he was something of a boffin himself. He was 24 years old and from Khamis Mushayt, a town in southern Saudi Arabia near the border with Yemen. He decided to fight in Iraq after becoming angered by his own government’s apparent inability to influence American policy and its silence in the face of torture and mistreatment by the Americans. He had grown up hearing from the state media that Saudi Arabia’s relationship with America gave it much influence over the superpower. Iraq, had shown to him and many others, he said, that in reality their government had “surrendered” to preserve the ruling family’s grip on power. Hisham, five years earlier, had also decided to fight in Iraq after he lost faith in his government’s pronouncements of influence over America. His illusion had been shattered by the images of American warships passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal beamed live into his home by the al-Jazeera news channel.
The teacher on the Yemeni border had trained Haider to turn his interest in science into an asset for the mujahideen fighting against foreign occupation of Muslim lands. He had been in Iraq for 15 months -- mainly based in the northern town of Mosul -- helping to develop and build the IEDs that have claimed the lives of hundreds of US and British soldiers.
When Haider first entered Iraq through Syria, there had been about 2,000 foreign fighters like himself inside the country. Now they were leaving and only about 150 remained. Most of the foreign fighters inside Iraq had always been Saudis and Yemenis, a few other nationalities, such as Turks were also present, he said. The Saudis and Turks were mainly going to Afghanistan and the Yemenis to Yemen or Somalia, where al-Qaeda was keen to establish a presence.
Why were they leaving, I asked?
The U.S. tactic to turn Sunnis in Iraq against al-Qaeda – the so-called Awakening Councils – “had made it difficult to move non-Iraqis around. These councils are really having an effect on movement.”
“We couldn’t trust anyone anymore.”
So, did the U.S. tactic work?
“No!” said Haider. “There are enough Iraqis now to carry on the fight inside Iraq. Our strategy was always to keep the Americans in Iraq, not to make them leave. It’s a tactical shift. The brothers inside Iraq are going to turn to clandestine operations. It will become more about assassinations than attacks on soldiers and fighters.”
When I suggested that it was difficult to imagine that fighting your former allies is anything than a problem, Haider conceded:
“The Americans were using the Awakening Councils like a ladder to leave Iraq. We will not let this happen…. Yes, we are fighting our former allies, but we can’t let them flourish.”
Inadvertently Haider showed that al-Qaeda operates on logic that is more familiar than politicians have acknowledged in the past. It considers the effects of its action on its supporters and even its opponents. It even tries to spin crises into triumphs, like the forces battling it.
The temptation is to think of al-Qaeda and the people who sympathise with it as the products of a completely alien thought pattern, and therefore immune to any sort of logical exchange. Perhaps the group uses suicide bombings partly to reinforce that view. If it does, it works. A British soldier once earnestly told me that Muslims have an “extra child”.
“They have a spare one that can be sacrificed for the Jihadding,” he said, either unaware or unbothered that he was actually talking to a Muslim.
Western governments might see advantage in this because it absolves them of the charge that policy in anyway contributes to terrorism. It’s much easier to blame an “errant ideology” or “twisted understanding of Islam” because that suggests that the main impetus for a solution has to come from elsewhere. But that same outlook condemns everyone else to sitting on the sidelines. By thinking that they just can’t hope to understand the motivations of Hisham and Haider, or Zawahiri and bin Laden, their opponents leave themselves operating under their rules.