Pakistan’s GEO News TV correspondent Najeeb Ahmed interviewed al-Qaeda’s operations commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu-al-Yazid (a.k.a. Shaykh Sa’id), at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan on July 21. Abu-Yazid’s performance was a strongly confident one, notable for its contrast with the grim presentation he made in March regarding the status of the Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan (Al-Sahab Media Production Organization, March 6). Abu-Yazid, a native of Egypt, once again emphasized al-Qaeda’s lessons-learned capability—this in regard to excessive Muslim casualties in attacks by al-Qaeda and its allies—and described the increasingly positive situation the mujahideen face in Afghanistan. Other media reporting shows Abu-al-Yazid’s optimism is understandable: Both the growing numbers of non-Afghan Muslim fighters entering Afghanistan and the July 25-26 terrorist strikes in India—which will increase Pakistan-India tensions—contribute to the insurgency’s brightening prospects.
A Grim Outlook in March
Abu-al-Yazid’s speech last March amounted to a warning to the mujahideen and their supporters. Al-Yazid then claimed that Muslims had yet to fully awake from the long slumber that has made them a people grown “distant from the religion [with] which God has blessed [them].” As a result, he said, “fools among the Muslims” still valued nationalism over faith, obeyed apostate rulers who have abandoned Islam, and followed the guidance of clerics who are the “Sultan’s scholars” or who have recanted pro-jihad views.
In March, Abu-al-Yazid was particularly strident in questioning the manliness of Muslim men because not enough of them were coming to fight in Afghanistan: “Today, the jihad arena is missing its men and calling upon its heroes,” he said in a manner suggesting weakness in the insurgency.
“Don’t God and Islam have a right to be defended by the young and the old? Say to those who have dignity, wherever they are: you will despair if you do not respond. The infidel people have come here to fight you for the sake of their false religion and they are killed and wounded for the sake of Hell… We direct a special call to the specialized people like doctors and electronic engineers, due to their urgent need by the mujahideen. The battle needs a combination of experiences and efforts. We call on the fathers and mothers not to become a barrier between their children and paradise and to present their children for the sake of God. Our religion is more precious than ourselves, and encouraging children [to fight] and sacrificing them for the sake of God is a clear sign of piety and righteousness” (Al-Sahab Media Production Organization, March 6).
July’s Days of Optimism
The Abu-al-Yazid interviewed by Najeeb Ahmed on July 21 is a man much changed from March. Instead of issuing a statement via al-Qaeda’s media arm, al-Sahab, al-Yazid and al-Qaeda were confident enough of their security to bring Ahmed to a personal interview in Afghanistan near “the Khowst area” of southeast Afghanistan. There, Ahmed was greeted not just by al-Yazid and his bodyguards, but also by “dozens of his Arab colleagues.” Al-Qaeda clearly intended the interview to show Muslims that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are operating fairly freely in southeastern Afghanistan (GEO News TV, July 22, The News [Islamabad], July 23; see Terrorism Focus, July 23).
In talking to Ahmed, Abu-al-Yazid was intent on emphasizing that al-Qaeda remains a force to be reckoned with. He denounced as “a mere lie and allegation” the claims by “people in Pakistan” (as Ahmed described them) that al-Qaeda is an agent of U.S. policy. Bin Laden, Abu Ubaydah al-Banshiri, and Abu Hafs al-Masri built al-Qaeda, al-Yazid said, “with the purpose of establishing a global center for the mujahideen who had converged on Afghanistan [to fight the Soviets] from all over the world.” Having been so obviously successful in this regard, al-Yazid advised Muslims to ignore “baseless statements” by Western and official Muslim media and believe the mujahideen’s reports and statements.
Abu-al-Yazid also stressed that al-Qaeda’s position has not changed—it will remain at war with the United States until American policies in the Muslim world change. America, he reminded Muslims, “is the leader of the infidels in this age… [and] is holding the flag of the cross today.” America also backs Israel’s “usurpation and occupation of the Palestinian Muslim’s territory,” and is intent on establishing “one or another [military] base in all Muslim territories.” Abu-al-Yazid added that, more than ever before, al-Qaeda and its allies would make no distinction between the U.S. government and ordinary Americans – both would be attacked and killed until U.S. policies change. “Both of them [are] acting as the enemies of Islam, and are in a state of war against the Muslim community,” al-Yazid argued. “After all, it is these people [Americans] who choose governments through their votes and it is they who voted Bush to power for the second term, although they were well aware of his hostile agenda against Islam.” He said there “may be a few such wise people among the American nation who may be displeased with these activities,” and advised that it is “obligatory upon them that they should not vote for such tyrannical governments.”
Regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Yazid repeated none of the bleak views he expressed in March. When Ahmed cited U.S. claims that it had “overcome the fighters” in both places, al-Yazid said—based on long personal experience in an insurgency’s alternating periods of intense combat and prolonged lulls—that Washington made similar false assertions about Iraq in 2004 and other times and its current claims were also false and a “weird gimmickry and mockery of the American peoples’ wisdom.” In Afghanistan, al-Yazid claimed that the mujahideen were growing in number and are taking the initiative from the U.S.-led coalition: “Their defeat in Afghanistan is even more clear and evident,” the al-Qaeda Afghanistan chief claimed.
A Message to Denmark
Abu-al-Yazid used al-Qaeda’s recent attack on Denmark’s embassy in Islamabad to underscore that al-Qaeda’s leaders understood many Muslims disapprove of the large number of Muslims being killed in attacks by the organization and its allies. He did not give an inch on the need to kill Muslims working for apostate Muslim or Western regimes: “It is a shame even to call such people [the Pakistani guards at the Danish embassy] Pakistanis or Muslims.” Abu Yazid claimed that al-Qaeda and its allies are taking stringent measures to ensure their strikes do not kill innocent Muslims and that Western reports to the contrary were propaganda:
“Let me also make it clear that I have come to learn that media have carried a report that most of the people killed in the attack on the Danish Embassy were common innocent Muslims. I would like to clarify that this report is absolutely incorrect and the enemies of Islam have publicized it to undermine the value of this deed… Comrades who saw the Danish Embassy building, praise be to God, carried out inspection of the target in great detail and with great caution. They knew very well on which day the embassy expedited its internal affairs and had no common people visiting them for visas or other requirements. So such a time was chosen for action on which no common Muslims would be present around the embassy… Here, we would also like to emphasize fully the point that in every operation of this kind [suicide attacks], we try our best to choose a target that is miles away from the Muslim community. On many occasions, we abandoned our [planned] activities because Muslims were present around the target” (GEO News TV, July 22).
In these words, Abu-al-Yazid essentially apologized to the umma (Islamic community) for excessive Muslim casualties in al-Qaeda attacks. In this, his remarks follow similar expressions of regret by bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, al-Qaeda’s military commander in Iraq. Western officials and media often identify such words as a sign of weakness, but in the Islamic world repentance is a necessary step toward redemption. The penitent words of al-Yazid and the others—if true—foreshadow more attacks on Westerners and Western facilities in many areas of the world, particularly in places where the Muslim population is not large or in areas that some Muslims would deem to be under Western occupation, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. In addition, a change in course by al-Qaeda that yields fewer Muslim casualties would knock the pins out from under the organization’s Muslim and Western critics who condemn the un-Islamic nature of attacks that kill Muslims.
Media Second al-Yazid’s Optimism
Even as al-Yazid spoke, media reports suggested he had the right to be optimistic on two scores: Growing insurgent manpower and Islamabad’s eroding commitment to battle Afghan and Pakistani insurgents.
As long ago as The Jamestown Foundation’s December 2007 conference “The al-Qaeda Triangle: Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia,” there have been reports that increasing numbers of non–Afghan Muslims were coming to Afghanistan to join the Taliban-led insurgency. At the conference, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid explained that the population of Chechens, Uzbeks, and other Central Asian Muslims in Pakistan’s tribal regions had increased from fewer than 1,000 in 2001 to about 5,000 in late 2007 (though he did not provide any evidence for the presence of Chechens in Afghanistan). In recent weeks, Pakistani, Arab, and Western journalists have reported that non-Afghan Muslims—including Muslims from Europe and North America—were “flocking” to Afghanistan, in part because some were relocating from Iraq, but mostly because there is a widespread perception among Islamists that the West is on the ropes in Afghanistan (Timesonline, July 21; Daily Times [Lahore], July 19). Abu-al-Yazid, for example, said in his interview with GEO-TV that the suicide bomber that attacked the Danish embassy had arrived from Saudi Arabia, though Saudi officials said the man was not an Arab and was not a Saudi citizen (AKI, July 23). The Pakistani media has reported that Islamabad believes there are now 8,000 foreign fighters in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northwest Pakistan (The News, July 21).
On July 25-26, terrorist attacks occurred in India that probably will redound to the benefit of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. On July 25, seven bombs were detonated within minutes of each other in Bangalore, India—the hub of the country’s IT industry—killing two and wounding eight (BBC, July 25). The following day at least 17 bombs were detonated within minutes of each other in Gujarat state city of Ahmedabad, killing 45 and wounding over 160 others (Times of India, July 27). Even before the debris was cleared, Indian officials and media were blaming the attacks on terrorists sponsored by Pakistan. Responding to the attacks in Ahmedabad, for example, Gujarat Chief Minister Narenda Modi claimed that a foreign country—read: Pakistan—was probably behind the bombings and one of India’s leading national security commentators published an article entitled, “Another step in [Pakistan’s] ISI-sponsored Indianisation of jihad” (India Express, July 27; Rediff.com, July 27).
The attacks almost certainly will lead to heightened military tensions between India and Pakistan; indeed, Pakistani and Indian artillery batteries engaged in a 13-hour duel along the Line of Control in Kashmir on July 29, violating a 2003 cease-fire agreement (Bloomberg.com, July 29). This reality will, in turn, motivate Pakistan’s General Staff to request that regular army units be held back from operations in the FATA until it is certain they will not be needed on the Pakistan-India border. The new and fragile civilian government in Islamabad is likely to concur with such a request—especially if New Delhi does any saber-rattling—and thereby reduce Pakistani pressure on the Taliban and its allies.
Abu al-Yazid’s optimism is another signal of the on-going revitalization of the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, an insurgency now grown to the point, in size and geographic dispersion, that the two additional U.S. brigades promised by Senators Obama and McCain are likely make little or no difference. The Afghan situation, moreover, is certain to get worse before additional U.S. or NATO troops arrive because of the growing anger of Pakistanis over U.S. air strikes in the FATA and the growing unity and anti-U.S./NATO attitudes being fomented among the Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by those air attacks.