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The Al Qaeda Most Americans Know Is Basically a Myth at This Point

The world recently got a good taste of how al Qaeda operatives have a lot in common these days with cubicle-dwelling bureaucrats.

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“It is very probable, perhaps certain, that a military intervention will occur ... which in the end will either force us to retreat to our rear bases or will provoke the people against us…Taking into account this important factor, we must not go too far or take risks in our decisions or imagine that this project is a stable Islamic state."

What he’s saying is, “Go easy on the locals until we’ve made them loyal to us. Then we can step it up and apply fullcourt Shariah. If we do it now, when we’re probably going to have to flee after a few months, they’ll remember us as mean bastards, which will ruin the whole project.”

The trouble is, when you’re a Jihadi, you’re not supposed to think in terms of projects or gradualism or marketing. You’re supposed to make Jihad. You’re supposed to do it by the book. Period. That’s the one weak point of a totalized ideology: you can’t really take it slow. Not if you’re ready to give your life for the Book. There must’ve been some angry Jihadis reading Droukdel’s weak, whiny argument to take it slow, to treat Mali as an “experiment”:

"One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Shariah, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion. Our previous experience proved that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender hatred toward the mujahedeen, and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment."

He really does talk like a marketing consultant: “Our previous experience proved that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion…” Here again, of course, he’s right in practical terms but the hotheads are right in Jihadi terms. If you really believe in the one holy Book, you’re not supposed to take “the environment” into consideration. That’s the whole fuckin’ idea, as Joe Pesci might say: one right way, and screw the local variations. God is supposed to be on your side, damn it, and if that’s true, if you really believe it, why should you care about “the environment”?

To imagine what the internal arguments in Jihadist Timbuktu must’ve sounded like, just think of Joe Pesci’s argument with de Niro in Casino, with the same mid-desert location but different costumes—turbans instead of 70s casual. The hothead (Pesci in a turban, an awful thought) does a slow burn listening to the middle-management moderate telling him they have to go slow, use their heads, play it smart—and comes back the same way Pesci does: “You only have your fuckin’ casino because I made that possible!”

It’s just a hopeless job trying to be the moderate Jihadi in a Salafist military occupation, especially when it’s a Malian town you’re occupying. A lot of what passes for Islam under Wahhabism is Arab culture, and it doesn’t fit well at all on a Niger River town like Timbuktu, where a lot of the culture—especially the way men and women relate to each other—is much warmer and more relaxed than it is in the Arabic-speaking countries.

Malians like courtship, like flirting, don’t see it as evil incarnate the way it is in places like Saudi. (I remember stories of the Mutawwa, the Saudi religious police, organizing 12-man stakeout operations in the local mall in the small Saudi town where I lived, just to catch a teen guy waving to a girl.) You can see Droukdel whining about this over and over in his memo, complaining to his subordinates in Timbuktu that “…you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population." You can get away with that stuff in the Peninsula, but not in Africa. Kids play there; men and women too.

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