Saturday, May 05, 2007

Book Review: The 'Secret' History of al-Qa'ida

I've decided to occasionally publish book reviews that I've written for various journals/publications on "Occident." This serves as the inaugural such post.


The Secret History of al-Qa‘ida. By Abdel Bari Atwan. London: Saqi, 2006. Pp.256. ISBN 0863567606 (HB).

Originally Published in: The Muslim World Book Review (Volume 27, Issue 3; Spring 2007)

Even after being driven from its open bases in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in late 2001, al-Qa‘ida has remained a potent force in global affairs. The organization headed nominally by exiled Saudi Osama bin Laden and beholden to the ideological outlook of Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri saw its stock rise after the U.S. and British-led March 2003 toppling of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein with the rise of an ultra-violent, loosely-connected branch headed by the Jordanian Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi until his death in a June 2006 U.S. air strike. Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor in chief of the influential London-based Arabic language daily al-Quds al-Arabi, joins the ranks of fellow journalists Jason Burke and Peter Bergen in filling in the gaps for Western readers that no serious, book-length scholarly study has addressed.

Atwan, who in 1996 met and interviewed bin Laden and several top al-Qa‘ida leaders including then-military chief Muhammad ‘Atef (killed in 2001), is uniquely placed to offer an glimpse into not only the original organization’s militant and terrorist activities but also its sophisticated multimedia PR and propaganda campaign. His newspaper was long al-Qa‘ida’s primary outlet for releasing its statements and communiqués including the 1998 fatwa signed by bin Laden, al-Zawahri, and several radical Pakistani Sunni religious leaders declaring a global war against “crusaders and Jews.” Although some of his observations, such as the high level of education of many of the organization’s members and supporters, Atwan provides new, valuable analysis of al-Qa‘ida’s media saavy and the strategy and inner workings of its ultra-violent offshoots in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

As any al-Qa‘ida observer already knows the organization’s operatives make careful use of the Internet to post statements, videos, military instruction manuals, and ideological treatises. Dubbed the “cyber jihad” by some al-Qa‘ida members, this utilization of technology has greatly enhanced the organization’s capabilities to attract new members and deliver political points to foreign, primarily Western European and U.S. audiences. Atwan provides perhaps the most sophisticated, detailed overview of al-Qa‘ida uses the Internet while evading law enforcement and engaging in cyber warfare with its rivals, including independent Western hackers.

The chapters on al-Qa‘ida’s loosely-connected branches in Saudi Arabia and Iraq provide background information and operational details the reader would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Atwan is particularly adept at mapping out the brief but bloody history of al-Qa‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq), formerly Tawhid wa al-Jihad. Moving beyond the sound bytes about al-Zarqawi, Atwan pieces together how this former Jordanian common street criminal became the most wanted and feared radical Islamist militant leader in the world whose head carried a price equal to bin Laden’s.

There are a few factual errors in Atwan’s account, such as the labeling of ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, as a “grand ayatollah” (pgs. 200, 217, 218) when in fact he is a mid-level Shi‘i ‘alim (hujjat al-Islam). Atwan also occasionally makes generalized statements including describing the collapse of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 to the Mongol armies of Hulagu Khan “unthinkable,” (pg. 71) which considering the steadily declining fortunes of ‘Abbasid power since the early tenth century is an exaggeration at best. Medieval Hanbali jurist Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah is described as a “Salafi” (pg. 71) when in fact using such a term is anachronistic since that movement did not arise until the modern period, first in the reformist thought of Egyptian Muhammad Abduh before the moniker was seized by more puritanical elements within the Arabian Peninsula.

The book also suffers from a serious dearth in citations, a common problem in many journalistic accounts. These mild reservations aside, Atwan has produced one of the most up-to-date, thorough accounts of al-Qa‘ida, its strategy, and its offshoots and for this he should be commended.

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