Sunday 26 June 2011

Syed Shahzad's informative but flawed final work

Abducted and murdered in Pakistan in May by persons as yet unknown, Syed Saleem Shahzad was a remarkable journalist. Over many years while reporting for Asian Times Online he had won the trust of elements of the Pakistan Taliban and even of al-Qaeda. Ilyas Kashmiri, the former Pakistan Army captain who had formed al-Qaeda's 313 Brigade and Shadow Army (Lashkar-e-Zil) and who was behind many of that organisation's most devastating attacks in Pakistan, gave Shahzad his one and only published interview, along with other important figures from the jihadist movement who refused to speak to anyone else.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the most significant Afghan guerrilla faction, and Qari Ziaur Rehman - another important guerrilla commander and al-Qaeda recruit - both spoke to Shahzad. His access was legendary and he broke many important stories.
His posthumously published book, Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11 (Pluto Press, London, 2011), contains much new material and is chiefly important for the insight it provides into the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. Shahzad explains this as a Pakistani intelligence operation that was hijacked by al-Qaeda, or at least a number of former Pakistani Army officers who had allied themselves with al-Qaeda.
Principal amongst these was Major Haroon Ashik, also a former Lashkar-e-Toiba commander, whose intention was to provoke war between India and Pakistan and hence force Pakistan to move troops from anti-guerrilla actions along the Afghan border. Major Haroon was recently named in the US trial of David Headley and Tahawwur Rana. He is now believed to be in prison in Adiala, Pakistan where he is facing abduction charges.
It was Haroon who also came up with the strategy of attacking NATO convoys in Pakistan in an attempt to strangle the Coalition forces in Afghanistan by cutting off their supplies.
Shahzad's book also outlines in detail the way al-Qaeda has burrowed into the Pashtun tribes along the Afgthan-Pakistan border and attempted to break down the old tribal structures and subvert them to its own goals. This is undoubtedly true and one day will be seen by the Pashtuns as their greatest mistake and greatest tragedy.
However, the book is marred in two major respects. 
First, it has not been edited and is very repetitive and contains a mountain of irrelevant material. In addition, the book is incomplete - for example, it only contains footnotes for the first three chapters. Considering Shahzad's untimely death this can perhaps be forgiven.
The second weakness is more substantial. Shahzad seems to have fallen for much of al-Qaeda's propaganda. He offers few criticisms and sees the last five years as an unbroken chain of success after success. He refers to the devastating drone attacks that have wiped out most of the al-Qaeda leadership in FATA, but still believes they are on the verge of driving the Coalition forces out of Afghanistan. He suggests that al-Qaeda has subsumed both the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban beneath its black banner and dominates them politically, militarily and ideologically.
Shahzad thinks 2012 will be the year of victory for al-Qaeda, but couches it in the language of mystical Islam. In some ways we should thank him for exposing the wackiness that is at the heart of al-Qaeda's misbegotten form of Islam, even if he appears to have succumbed to it himself. You need look no further than the last couple of paragraphs of the book to see this:
"Al-Qaeda's next aim is to occupy the promised land of ancient Khurasan, with its boundaries stretching from all the way from Central Asia to Khyber Paktoonkhwa, through Afghanistan and then expand the theatre of war to India.
"The promised Messiah, the Mahdi, will then rise in the Middle East and al-Qaeda will mobilise its forces from Ancient Khurasan for the liberation of Palestine, where a final victory will guarantee the revival of a Global Muslim Caliphate."
That is literally Shahzad's conclusion. No word here of the Arab Spring and the rejection by the Arab Street of Islam as a vehicle for revolution. He sees al-Qaeda's predicted success as the fulfilment of an ancient religious prophesy. But while this messianism at the heart of al-Qaeda's religious philosophy is something that has not received the attention it deserves, it also firmly puts that organisation into the camp of failed revolutions and crackpot religious fantasies. It is only a pity that an astute and well informed writer like Shahzad should fail to see the essential idiocy of such thinking. Roll on 2012.


Anonymous said...

I certainly plan on buying the book therw was no better journalist covering the inner politics of the Taliban-AQ side than Shahzad.

However is it really correct to call his conclusion "idiocy"?

"Al-Qaeda's next aim is to occupy the promised land of ancient Khurasan"

I could see how this could happen. The lines between the Taliban and Al Qaeda's ideologies have become very blurred in the last 6 years.

With the US retreat in 2014 the Taliban could easily continue the civil war and control most of Afghanistan, while also holding the rest Pashtunistan on the Pakistani side of the border.

This could then be used to help the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan seize most of the Uzbek south.

As for the rest you might be right in its messanic end times tone. Or it may be the case that Shahzad was simply reporting the views and thinking of Al Qaeda. Sometimes being a journalist is more than just analysising and more concerned with the reportering and chronicling the ideas of the subject you are covering.

Might not mean he believed that the Mahdi would come just that he was reporting what the common belief amoung the soldiers in AQ is.

Nick Fielding said...

To begin with I thought that Shahzad was just reporting the views of al-Qaeda about the Mahdi, but he mentions it in several places in the book without comment. In the end I was forced to conclude that he believed this to be a possibility. He appears to have spent time discussing this concept with members of the various jihadist groups and yet he offers no critique. And, don't forget, it is the point at which he chose to conclude his book.
There is no doubt that Shahzad was a great journalist and a credit to his profession in Pakistan. However, this should not disguise the fact that for some reason he decided not to critique this messianistic element of the jihadist ideology.