The Al Qaeda Most Americans Know Is Basically a Myth at This Point
This article first appeared at Not Safe for Work Corporation.
When I left Vegas last week, Mali was still the center of the world. I got home today, after taking a few wrong turns, and Mali is well on its way back to nowhere. Google News only listed 23 stories tagged “Mali” last week, and they were all about a supposedly secret Al Qaeda communique found in Timbuktu after the Jihadis bugged out.
This is just a phase, like your parents told themselves when you were 12. It’s the phase where the war reporters lag behind the war, and don’t get into town until the fighting is over (not that there was much fighting in Mali in the first place) after the French have tidied up after their airstrikes. Now, when the big fuss is over, Timbuktu and Gao are crawling with reporters who just can’t find much to talk about—because there never really was much to talk about in these teeny desert outposts, not even when the Jihadis were in charge. So Associated Press is screaming to anybody who’ll listen that its reporters found a vital secret document while snuffling through the trash in Timbuktu:
”TIMBUKTU, Mali - (AP) -- In their hurry to flee last month, al-Qaida fighters left behind a crucial document: Tucked under a pile of papers and trash is a confidential letter, spelling out the terror network's strategy for conquering northern Mali and reflecting internal discord over how to rule the region.”
That’s a pretty cool lead sentence, like the start of a good spy novel, until you realize every key word should have an asterisk after it, leading to a footnote that says, “Look, we needed a big story here—you know how much it costs to get to this stinking hellhole? So give us a break.”
So let’s break it down, phrase by phrase.
First, “Al Qaeda”. Every time you read that name, you should spit and shrug like a peasant turning down a horse with a hernia. It’s a scam. First of all, who says there is such a thing in the first place? Al Qaeda is an organization that makes no sense in traditional guerrilla terms. You don’t hold guerrilla jamborees, guerrilla mixers—you compartmentalize and only let members who are already blown meet with other movements. The whole idea of Al Qaeda as a jihadi ecumenical lovefest is so stupid that almost two years ago, I said we should be asking whether there even is such a thing as Al Qaeda.
There wasn’t anything like a “terror network” operating in Mali, even when the northern half of the country was marked with those diagonal red lines meaning “under Islamist control” a few months ago. Al Qaeda is as dead as bin Laden, and it died—if it ever really existed—years before the Old Man himself was shot up while watching Jeopardy reruns in Abbotabad.
There are plenty of Islamists, from one or another of the hardline traditions—Salafist, Wahhabi, Deobandi—but they don’t report to any central Al Qaeda Board of Directors. It’s always local, much more local than the news services want to tell you. In Mali, there was a simple physics problem, a surplus of energy in the Maghrib, the rim of North Africa. Some of that energy spun back south, across the Sahara, into places like Mali.
Normally, if you’ll recall your HS Physics, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” but Nature is normally willing to tolerate one in Mali. It was just that for a while, after the Islamists lost the Algerian Civil War and Qaddafi was blasted out of Libya, there was so much excess weaponry and such a huge surplus of unemployed freelance jihadis up there, a lot of them Tuaregs nursing the old ambition to have their own ridiculous landlocked chunk of Sahara, that something was bound to pop in Mali.
Naturally, what happened next was that local agendas started dividing the Jihadis. This always happens, because “Jihad” means whatever a bunch of 20-something local guys want it to mean. To the Tuareg nationalists of the FMLN, it meant a Tuareg homeland. To the Algerian Salafists, it meant a chance to regroup and win, for once, against a much softer opponent than the Algerian Army. To Ansar Dine, a crossover band, it meant a Tuareg homeland that would be quasi-Islamist, soft-Jihadi. To the Mauritanian Maraboutis, who’d been sulking for years about the way AQIM promoted Algerians over West Africans, it was a chance to form their own command, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). For a few hundred freelance Jihadists who bounce from war to war, it was a great new gig. And for the few—real few—actual Al Qaeda management types trying to keep all these groups in line, it was one more chance to try to establish a genuine “Qaeda,” a real base of operations, without screwing up yet again.
The memo that our intrepid Associated Press reporter found going through the trash in Timbuktu was written by Abdelmalik Droukdel, the official leader of Al Qaeda in West Africa. But what the memo shows is that, with so many different agendas, local traditions, and just plain levels of militant craziness in the command, Droukdel had no control at all over what his men did in the few months they had control of Northern Mali.
Which brings us to the second big asterisk in that lead sentence AP wrote: their claim that this memo spells out “the terror network’s strategy for conquering northern Mali…” I mean, that’s a fair assessment; the memo does talk about strategy; but a lot of us have a lot of strategies. A lot of us have a strategy to beat the lottery or make it in Hollywood. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and the fact that the remnants of Al Qaeda had a notion of what they should do in Mali doesn’t mean they ever had a chance to put it into practice. AP more or less admits that in the last part of the sentence, where they add that the memo also “[reflects] internal discord over how to rule the region.”
That’s the key here. In fact, Abdelmalik Droukdel had no control over the various militias operating in the name of Jihad. His memo is one long whine about what the Jihadis are doing wrong. But what’s even more interesting is that, as usual, the Jihadis are doing what their holy Book says to do; Droukdel was in a hopelessly weak position not only because he didn’t really control the troops under his nominal command but because the hotheads really were doing what a Jihadi is supposed to do—and his only argument against doing it is that it wasn’t politically wise.
Over and over, Droukdel says that it’s not politically smart to start amputating people’s hands and whipping women for not covering up. He talks like middle management—which he is, in the ridiculous Al Qaeda organizational chart. He talks about Mali as a “project,” as if he was dealing with product placement in a new franchise—which he was, according to his terms. And like a good guerrilla manager who’s read his Mao, he tries to teach the knuckleheads working for him that taking and losing territory isn’t nearly as important as winning over the people.
In other words, it’s stupid to apply Shariah by the book in a region that has its own variant of Islam, a Sufi-based version that allows women more freedom than they get in the Arabian Peninsula and even allows the people to pray at the graves of Sufi saints (any elaborate grave is a mortal sin to a Wahhabi). Here’s how Droukdel says it:
“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.
Droukdel’s memo is an amazing little document, but not in the way AP is making it out to be. They’re pretending it’s as if we got a real secret document from a real opposing power, like the USSR back in the day. It’s nothing like that. Al Qaeda, if it exists at all, is so totally penetrated by now that nothing it does is secret, except from us nobodies in the general population. The people who count in DC, Brussels, Moscow and Beijing get copies of Al Qaeda memos before the troops do. And as for the “strategy” they’re supposed to reveal—there’s more strategy in a Hail Mary pass with a few seconds on the clock.
What the memo really shows is how damn hard it is to play the middle-management compromiser, the squeamish marketing specialist, in an organization that’s defined by going strictly by the Book. In that way it’s got the basis for a great sitcom, with Droukdel as the harassed boss trying to keep a bunch of nutty subordinates in order long enough to get through the day. It’s a hopeless stance he’s taking, and a hilarious one: “Shariah yes, but gradual Shariah, just a little Shariah at a time...” It doesn’t work that way, and you can’t blame the people who rolled into town for being a little severe with the populace, cutting off a few hands or whipping a few unveiled females. They’ve seen most of the people they knew killed off for Jihad, and now this Ace Rothstein of the Jihad is telling them, like de Niro told Pesci, to go easy to “let the bullshit blow over for a while.” And there’s nothing in the Book that allows for that.
It’s an amazing moment in history we’re living in, and even if my life personally isn’t much, I’m glad to be in it. Just imagine, a figurehead middle-management Jihadi executive issuing whiny memos about marketing the Holy War to a mixed bag of Salafist scalawags in Timbuktu, mixing up Mao’s adages about winning the populace with the Quran and focus-group jargon. I just hope Droukdel wasn’t a casualty of the withdrawal, taken out by a French air strike somewhere north of Kidal.
There’ll always be plenty of jihadis and middle managers, but comic talent like his doesn’t come along every day.