Some ten years ago, I had a conversation
with a senior official from the NSA about Afghanistan. I had
returned from there in 1988 and before that, had been a research
analyst for one of the activist groups then supporting the Afghans
against the Russians. I did my best to warn him of the influence
of Wahabis and Ikhwanis in Peshawar and Afghanistan. His reaction
was dismissive. "Oh, there are only a few hundred there",
was his response. I had no solid number for them but I thought
that there were a great many more and that they had a very dangerous
agenda. This notion was universally held then as it is now and
it is a grave error.
by David Dienstag
To this day
virtually all analysts and writers from Michael Scheuer to Robin
Wright start their chronologies of Al Qaeda in the nineties.
They continually ignore events before the nineties as unimportant.
It is a serious mistake. I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan when
the Jihadis first coagulated. I understood then and there that
the Afghan conflict was the war on which the millennium turned.
There were many signs of things to come. For many years, this
has been a deeply frustrating situation for me. I saw an attack
like 9/11 coming over a decade before it actually happened. I
did try to warn people about it but could not overcome an intellectual
stasis that persists to this day. Now as we try to sort out an
unclear Islamic threat, young Americans are dying. It will continue
until we get serious about who our adversaries really are. Right
after 9/11, most analysts were "prescient" if they knew
that this had been the work of Al Qaeda. In time, some have come
to understand that there is a greater Jihadi movement. But the
money for the most serious attacks on the U.S. has come from members
of the Wahabi sect in Saudi Arabia. They have consistently propagated
and financed hatred for America since well before Al Qaeda ever
Our Jihadist adversaries have been a gestating
idea since well before the nineties. This is a poorly understood
part of the problem. We are fighting a much different adversary
than is commonly understood. If we continue to characterize our
adversary as Osama or Zarqawi, we deprive ourselves of opportunities
to defeat and destroy them. Let's look at four different common
ways this adversary has been described:
1. Osama Bin Laden
2. Al Qaeda
3. "The Evil Ones"
Bin Laden is most certainly a dangerous menace who lives and
breathes to destroy the United States and murder as many Americans
as he possibly can. I have believed this since 1988, and I believe
this is why a friend of mine, Carlos Mavroleon, was murdered.
Osama is credited with and takes responsibility for financing
Al Qaeda in the early days.
I don't believe that Osama financed Al
Qaeda as much as he is commonly believed to. I saw some of the
"caves" that he had dug in 1988 and it would have cost
the kind of money that Federal road projects are budgeted for.
He did not have to personally finance them because it was easy
to raise money from the worldwide Islamic community. He certainly
had other options and personal financing is not the most efficient
way to go about this from a political as well as a financial
perspective. When you get people to donate to your cause, you
further cement your relationship with them by allowing them to
feel like more of a part of your movement.
Nor is Osama the "Great Man"
that Michael Schuyer portrays him as. Osama is a madman who
exists because he found himself to be in the right historical
circumstance to get away with a megalomaniacal fantasy. There
are a lot of madmen sitting around waiting for the right opportunity
in this world. Few get as good a shot as Osama did. Look at
Ward Churchill. If he had an Afghanistan to hide in and an international
fundraising mechanism to sustain him, would it be far-fetched
to posit that he might appoint himself as fearless leader of
a violent "revolutionary" guerrilla force? I think
Continually various news "experts"
talk about world events as if they are driven by great people
or great leaders and little else. It is a mistake and it is the
kind of perception that revolutions and revolutionaries take
great advantage of. Revolutionaries tend to have a better understanding
of the simple fact that they are surfing on a groundswell. They
also tend to be very aware of the ambitious men all around every
leader who are ready to seize power from that leader by force
if necessary or even convenient.
When Osama needed to hide, there was enough
depth on the Al Qaeda bench for other leaders to step in and
sustain the movement. The Jihadi doesn't need Osama that badly
and he will make a fine martyr one day. He may well be more effective
as a martyr than as a leader. In any case, the Jihadist movement
seems to be doing just fine without his money or his rhetoric.
There are plenty of young volunteers. There are plenty of leaders
trying to recruit and train young men for any number of Jihadist
organizations. There is plenty of money. A major goal of each
Jihadist organization, Hamas, Al Qaeda, etc., is to bring in
as many new young men as possible. I think that the most telling
words came from Osama himself. Shortly after 9/11, in a video
seen around the world, he takes responsibility for the attack,
describes how they thought that the towers would break rather
than collapse and earnestly asks a very telling question: "How
many brothers are volunteering in the mosques?" I wonder
if Al Qaeda has more chiefs than it has Indians. In any case,
Osama clearly expressed a need for more recruits. You may aspire
to be a "Great Man", but if you can't get enough young
bodies, you're a nut in a cave with a video camera whose best
days are behind him.
Qaeda, as an organization, is the product of Ikhwan, Wahabism
, Pakistani ISI as well as Saudi intelligence efforts. In the
early days, the former two had an international vision while
the latter two were more regional. In 1988, I ran into quite
a few early volunteers in Peshawar. At that time, there was no
Al Qaeda to speak of. But there was a growing Arab awareness of each
other and there was a commonality of vision. Even then, they
made little effort to disguise their intentions. Defeat the Russians
first and go after America next. They said as much to me in Jalez
The volunteers were a mixed bag of Saudis,
Egyptians, Jordanians, Yemenis and Syrians that I know of. They
were from very different classes. Some were obviously from wealthy
backgrounds and some were very poor.
They also had different takes on the people who were training,
organizing and feeding them. I met and talked to one Saudi who
decided to go home before he finished his training. He was disillusioned
by what he saw. I regularly saw another volunteer in the dining
room of Green's Hotel frequently making a nuisance of himself
by making impossible demands on the dining room staff, protesting
vigorously when they couldn't satisfy his expensive tastes. We
used to call him the "Saudi Shrimp" because he was enormous and
made a commotion one night when he demanded shrimp from a
frightened waiter even though it was not on the menu."Are there no prawns in Peshawar?" he bellowed. I realized later that this insufferable jackass was none other than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who helped finance the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and the "principal architect of the
9/11 attacks" according to the 9/11 Commission. It was
my impression then and it still is today that many of these volunteers
are misfits who can find nowhere else to fit in. By no means
do I mean to suggest all of them are. I did meet earnest, decent
young men among the early volunteers. What interests me is the
difference between them as a possible source of cracks in the
organization. God-fearing, self-respecting people tend to be
turned off by the kind of buffoons I often saw in Peshawar.
I am convinced that not everyone who went
through Jihadi training program bought into the whole Islamist
Caliphate nonsense and some may have had agendas of their own.
A young medical student from Egypt who I met among the Jihadis,
will find out, sooner or later, that he will want more than a
cave to live in.
Again, I remind the reader of Osama's
concern about recruitment of "brothers" in the mosques.
Unfortunately, too many analysts are looking at the personalities
of various Jihadi leaders and not looking for opportunities closer
to the ground level of their organizations. I saw signs of many
drop-outs and less enthusiastic Jihadis. If Wahabi generosity
shrinks, how effective will Al Qaeda be in Pakistan?
Bush's characterization of Al Qaeda as the "evil ones"
is on the right track but vague. It says more about George Bush
than it does about Al Qaeda or the Jihadi movement. During the
first presidential campaign, a minor fuss was created when a
reporter asked candidate George Bush who the leaders of Pakistan
and India were. He didn't have an answer and he seemed annoyed.
Within days, the unhappy reporter was accused of practicing "gotcha
journalism". In my opinion, it was one of the smartest questions
of the campaign. Knowing the importance of the region and seeing
a candidate's lack of knowledge speaks to his understanding of
that region as president. It is not reassuring. The term "evil
ones" does point to something important. It is an explanation
of the motives of Al Qaeda leadership in the terminology of personality
theory and morality rather than political or religious ideology.
But it is still only an understanding of the movement as a monolithic
entity. There have to be factions within it. I can find no "expert" discussion
of what those divisions may be. Nationality, class, and any of
the 1001 versions of Islam offer real opportunities to identify
It is inadequate to lump together all of
Al Qaeda and its supporters as merely evil. They have an agenda
or agendas which no one has adequately identified. I continually
hear seemingly intelligent people bleating on about the presence
of U.S. soldiers on the Arabian peninsula as being the casus belli
for Al Qaeda. The very idea is stupid. For one thing, Islamic
looney tunes were painting "Death to America" in Peshawar
long before American soldiers were in Saudi Arabia. For another,
no revolution will point to some attainable goal after which they
will simply go home. Revolutions and revolutionaries need to
perpetuate themselves or they are out of business. If next week,
all American soldiers were to pull out of Iraq and the Saudi
monarchy were to hand the reins of power to Al Qaeda, does anyone
seriously believe that the revolutionaries will become peaceful
members of the world community?
The Jihadi movement is a systematic organization
of hatred with America as the primary focus of that hatred. Its
stated goals of creating caliphates and defeating America are
so remotely plausible that they appear more like conveniently
unobtainable goals that provide a self-perpetuating raison d'etre.
is an overused word. It is a method, not a movement. The people
who twice attacked the World Trade Center were only one crew
of terrorists. They are not Hamas, PLO, Shining Path or Red Brigades.
All Poodles are dogs. All dogs are not necessarily Poodles. It
still amazes me that no one has thought to find and exploit differences
between these organizations.
Unfortunately, these four terms are often
used interchangeably in both the media and in government. Media
and government seem to be far more comfortable talking about
specific political actors. They focus on Osama, Zarqawi, Zawahiri
or any of a dozen or so individuals on the terrorist Most Wanted
list. These names have become something like the characters of
a soap opera. But this is a movement that defines itself as revolutionary.
It is best understood from the ground up. No one in our foreign
policy senior leadership seems to want to give this rule its
proper importance. It's like a mental disease among them. They
simply will not leave plush, air conditioned surroundings to
deal with the dusty, gritty reality of Afghanistan. Case in point:
Milt Bearden CIA chief of station, Peshawar, 1986-1989.
I saw Milt Bearden on TV last year as a
member of a panel discussion about Afghanistan (where he was
introduced as a former CIA station chief. I'm not blowing any
covers here.) One of the things he said was a rather insulting
comment to the effect that those of us who saw Massoud and the
Jamiat as a much-abused ally in the Afghan guerrilla alliance
as a "Robin Hood". This is fatuously wrong. What could
be seen clearly from a good journey into Afghanistan was that
the Jamiat and Massoud were far more capable at making effective
alliances with other guerrilla factions. They had to because
they didn't have the numbers to act as a monolithic ethnic force
in the way that Hekmatyar and the Hezbi Islami did. It's also
very clear in the CIA's own ethnographic map of Afghanistan.
There is a heavy Pashtun dominance all along the Durand Line.
As you go further west and north, the various other ethnic components
of Afghanistan become more of a patch quilt of Tajiks, Turkmen,
Hazaras, etc. For Massoud, it was essential to make accommodations
with various other political factions in the resistance. While
there were frictions, they became more prominent after the Soviet
withdrawal. They still managed to pull together to fight the
Taliban and became known as the "Northern Alliance". What
I liked about the Massoud's Jamiat was that they could work with
other factions more effectively as an equal partner than Hekmatyar's
Hizbis. I saw this ability to work with other factions as a very
good thing for the end game in Afghanistan, after the Soviet
pullout. The CIA and State Dept saw something very different
and played no endgame at all.
It seemed to be another situation where
you can win a war and lose the peace. Whenever that happens,
it's time to examine the competence of your diplomats and intelligence
I saw a picture of station chief Bearden "in Afghanistan".
He looks plump. I can tell you from experience, that if you went
trekking with Afghans into their country, you will lose weight
in a hurry from sheer physical exertion if not from a few microbial
passengers. The climate, altitude and food are a great way to
drop many pounds. Afghans could make a fortune running fat farms.
But you do have to get out of your air conditioned Toyota and
live in conditions somewhat less like the safaris the CIA was
famous for. Fatuous living leads to fatuous thinking. Mr. Bearden
seemed far more interested in maintaining a personal relationship
with the leadership of Pakistan. The "strategy" for
Afghanistan was to buy a lot of weapons and give them to the
Pakistanis to disperse to the guerrillas. I am reminded of an
old Tom Lehrer song about German V2 scientist Werner Von Braun:
"Once the rockets go up, who cares
where they come down?
That's not my department, Says Werner Von
That's the way the CIA handed out arms
in the eighties.
The Pakistanis took those weapons and gave
them out heavily favoring the most virulent anti western faction
in the Afghan resistance, the Hezbi-Islami led by Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar. Alternative means and distributions like direct air
supply, were fought vigorously by the CIA. That would mean having
to work hard and take risks. Not only did the CIA refuse to have
people in country in any serious numbers, they didn't even go
outside of their compounds in Pakistan enough to see what was
happening right around the corner. They simply refused to read
the handwriting on the wall. In a place like Pakistan, graffiti
Instead diplomats, congressmen and CIA
officers preferred a patrician to patrician relationship with
their Pakistani counterparts who recognized this as a golden
opportunity to take advantage of. The Saudis and the Pakistanis
did the same thing. They told the CIA whatever they thought the
CIA wanted to hear while continually feeding a cobra that was
to bite us at the twin towers on 9/11. It is very reminiscent
of the operational modality of the CIA before the Shah was overthrown.
Ignore the street and concentrate on rulers.
What was consistently missed was the information
readily available to anyone who cared to look. This is a very
old pattern with State Dept. and CIA employees. No one, it seems,
will address this gigantic weakness. Entire revolutions can spawn
right in front of them and they will be caught completely off
guard. They seem to think that they can carry out a foreign policy
by remote control. Somehow, in some way, American diplomats and
intelligence officers need to stop hobnobbing exclusively with
patricians, dictators and the leadership class and learn to read
the handwriting on the wall.
Graffiti is public diplomacy that matters.