Al-Qaeda strategists have been assisting the Taliban fight against U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan because they believe that foreign occupation has been the biggest factor in generating Muslim support for uprisings against their governments, according to the just-published book by Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistani journalist whose body was found in a canal outside Islamabad last week with evidence of having been tortured.
That Al-Qaeda view of the U.S.-NATO war in Afghanistan, which Shahzad reports in the book based on conversations with several senior Al-Qaeda commanders, represents the most authoritative picture of the organization's thinking available to the public.
Shahzad's book "Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban" was published on May 24 -- only three days before he went missing from Islamabad on his way to a television interview. His body was found May 31.
Shahzad, who had been the Pakistan bureau chief for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times, had unique access to senior Al-Qaeda commanders and cadres, as well as those of the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban organizations. His account of Al-Qaeda strategy is particularly valuable because of the overall ideological system and strategic thinking that emerged from many encounters Shahzad had with senior officials over several years.
Shahzad's account reveals that Osama bin Laden was a "figurehead" for public consumption, and that it was Dr. Ayman Zawahiri who formulated the organization's ideological line or devised operational plans.
Shahzad summarizes the Al-Qaeda strategy as being to "win the war against the West in Afghanistan" before shifting the struggle to Central Asia and Bangladesh. He credits Al-Qaeda and its militant allies in North and South Waziristan with having transformed the tribal areas of Pakistan into the main strategic base for the Taliban resistance to U.S.-NATO forces.
But Shahzad's account makes it clear that the real objective of Al-Qaeda in strengthening the Taliban struggle against U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan was to continue the U.S.-NATO occupation as an indispensable condition for the success of Al-Qaeda's global strategy of polarizing the Islamic world.
Shahzad writes that Al-Qaeda strategists believed its terrorist attacks on 9/11 would lead to a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan which would in turn cause a worldwide "Muslim backlash." That "backlash" was particularly important to what emerges in Shahzad's account as the primary Al-Qaeda aim of stimulating revolts against regimes in Muslim countries.
Shahzad reveals that the strategy behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the large Al-Qaeda ambitions to reshape the Muslim world came from Zawahiri's "Egyptian camp" within Al-Qaeda. That group, under Zawahiri's leadership, had already settled on a strategic vision by the mid-1990s, according to Shahzad.
The Zawahiri group's strategy, according to Shahzad, was to "speak out against corrupt and despotic Muslim governments and make them targets to destroy their image in the eyes of the common people." But they would do so by linking those regimes to the United States.
In a 2004 interview cited by Shahzad, one of bin Laden's collaborators, Saudi opposition leader Saad al-Faqih, said Zawahiri had convinced bin Laden in the late 1990s that he had to play on the U.S. "cowboy" mentality that would elevate him into an "implacable enemy" and "produce the Muslim longing for a leader who could successfully challenge the West."
Shahzad makes it clear that the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were the biggest break Al-Qaeda had ever gotten. Muslim religious scholars had issued decrees for the defence of Muslim lands against the non-Muslim occupiers on many occasions before the U.S.-NATO war in Afghanistan, Shahzad points out.
But once such religious decrees were extended to Afghanistan, Zawahiri could exploit the issue of the U.S. occupation of Muslim lands to organize a worldwide "Muslim insurgency." That strategy depended on being able to provoke discord within societies by discrediting regimes throughout the Muslim world as not being truly Muslim.
Shahzad writes that the Al-Qaeda strategists became aware that Muslim regimes -- particularly Saudi Arabia -- had become active in trying to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2007, because they feared that as long as they continued "there was no way of stopping Islamist revolts and rebellions in Muslim countries."
What Al-Qaeda leaders feared most, as Shahzad's account makes clear, was any move by the Taliban toward a possible negotiated settlement -- even based on the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. Al-Qaeda strategists portrayed the first "dialogue" with the Afghan Taliban sponsored by the Saudi king in 2008 as an extremely dangerous U.S. plot -- a view scarcely supported by the evidence from the U.S. side.
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