As the arc of chaos grows from Afghanistan to Somalia by way of the Middle East, the region’s states are growing weaker and their armed groups gaining in power. But in this battle for competing visions between the US and al-Qaida, the Sunni resistance is now opposing al-Qaida in Iraq, as are the Taliban in Afghanistan.
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
There is a widening split between armed Islamists, as two recent incidents show. In March the local Taliban in the Pakistani tribal zone of South Waziristan killed foreign fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Almost simultaneously, infighting broke out between the Islamic Army in Iraq and the local branch of al-Qaida. The confrontation between the two strategies – and two different ideologies – of the Islamist struggle is getting more violent.
Many of the foreign volunteers who have flooded into Pakistan and Iraq since 2003 are Takfirists, who regard “bad Muslims” as the real enemy (see ‘Takfirism: a messianic ideology’). Indigenous Islamic resistance groups have reacted uncomfortably to the growth of this near-heresy within al-Qaida which, by waging war against Muslim governments, has brought chaos to the populations it claims to defend.
Between 2003 and 2006, across the war zone that is the two Waziristans, Afghanistan and Iraq, the complexity of the situation reinforced al-Qaida’s doctrinaire thinking and reduced indigenous groups to silence. The consequence of Takfirist influence was the emergence in the two Waziristans of a self-styled Islamic state that challenged the writ of the Pakistan government within its own boundaries and fuelled the spread of armed conflict to major cities. The aim was to provoke armed insurrection against the pro-western military regime.
The fierce response of the Pakistani army led to the deaths of hundreds of non-combatants, including women and children, and fuelled the anger of Takfirist ideologues. But many Taliban leaders privately felt that the Takfirists had lost touch with reality and were distorting the sharply focused anti-western strategy developed during the 1990s by Osama bin Laden. The war of national resistance against foreign occupying forces had been transformed into one aimed at Pakistan’s military establishment.
On the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leading Takfirist, arrived from Waziristan to emerge as the frontline resistance leader. He publicly pledged allegiance to bin Laden and became the rallying point for the foreign militants who coalesced into the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida. The situation in Iraq soon came to resemble that in the two Waziristans and Afghanistan.
Resistance was slow
Resistance in post-Saddam Iraq was slow to mobilise. The realignment of the tribes, fragmented religious groups, former Ba’athist party elements and officers from the defunct republican guard into combat units took several months. Meanwhile, foreign fighters who had streamed into Iraq from the Muslim world to gather beneath the black banners of al-Qaida formed a coordinating majlis al-shura (council). They proved more effective than the leadership of the internal Iraqi resistance, who were left with little scope to express their reservations about the arrivals’ Takfirist ideology. It was left to individual elements within the indigenous groups to deplore the excesses of al-Qaida, which had begun to concentrate on diverting the struggle against occupying forces towards attacks on Shia religious centres.
When, in 2006, al-Qaida announced the formation of an ideologically pure Islamic emirate, the strategy of the indigenous resistance groups became subservient to al-Qaida’s Takfirist ideology and divisive global agenda. A war against foreign occupation had turned into a nightmare of sectarian strife. The seeds had been sown for an eventual break between the international combatants and the indigenous resistance.
Understanding this split requires an examination of the specific circumstances that led to the ideological transformation of al-Qaida during and after the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Arabs who poured in to join the Afghan resistance fell into two camps, Yemeni and Egyptian. The zealots who went to Afghanistan, inspired by their local clerics, were mostly in the Yemeni camp. In breaks from fighting they spent their days drilling and cooking their food, before going straight to sleep after the isha (last prayer of the day). As the Afghan jihad tailed off, they went home or melted into the population in Afghanistan or Pakistan, where many married. In al-Qaida circles, they were called dravesh, easy-going.
In the Egyptian camp were the politically minded and ideologically motivated. Though most belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood (1), they opposed its commitment to elections and the democratic process. The Afghan jihad cohered these like-minded, often educated, individuals, many of them doctors and engineers or former soldiers associated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad under Ayman al-Zawahiri, now Bin Laden’s deputy. This group had been responsible for the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981 after he signed a peace deal with Israel at Camp David. All agreed that the US and its puppet governments in the Middle East were responsible for the decline of the Arab world.
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