Al Qaeda in its Own Words
Gilles Keppel and Jean-Pierre Milelli, editors; translated by Pascale Ghazaleh
Harvard University Press, 2008
27.95 US, 363 pages

Did Winston Churchill read Mein Kampf? Did Chiang Kai-shek read any of Mao’s works before fleeing to Tawain? Do Mao and Hitler share anything in common with Osama bin Laden?

This collection presents a rare glimpse into the thoughts of those allegedly inspiring attacks on our society and an opportunity to do our own personal human intelligence analysis.

The writings of al-Qaeda were selected and put into context by French academics. Though dismissed by some as a non-contributor in this so-called war, France has been at the forefront of fights fermented by similar ideas. Chad and RC South in Afghanistan, where some French Special Forces personnel suffered horrific deaths, provide evidence.

Each of the four al-Qaeda “gurus” is introduced by a French perspective. Context is vital as we discover wisps of the medieval world, with talk of martyrdom and religious indoctrination in the ether of the Internet.

The importance of written text – words – is explained in the introduction. The nature of al-Qaeda is to be understood through “comprehension” of internal, or not so internal documents, not spectacle. Spectacle is an instrument in the campaign against the West. The written works or spoken “words” seek “mobilization of militants” through “decentralized recruitment.”

If there is a messianic dimension to al-Qaeda, and bin Laden in particular, then the words of the prophets need interpreters in the manner of the words of the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, al-Qaeda can mean “the rule” in Arabic; it can also mean “database or reservoir” of information.

Bin Laden, with his command of English, is perhaps the most accessible without filters and the most interesting study in the book. Certainly Omar Saghi, a scholar whose interests include Saudi Arabia and contemporary Arab literature, in his introduction, flags some interesting dimensions of bin Laden’s contribution to al-Qaeda doctrine. The struggle is for political space and the battle is fought in media space. Thus, targets are selected “to emphasize an image.”

More ominously, Saghi suggests that al-Qaeda wishes to remain forever in conflict. These shades of perpetual war found in Orwell’s 1984 would suggest that negotiation is not really an option, at least for bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. On the other hand, the Taliban did form a government and now seem to seek power.

There are other important distinctions between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Bin Laden apparently avoids takfir, a term associated with the Taliban for pronouncing the apostasy of worldly behaviour. And bin Laden’s concept of “miracle elites” might not sit well with Pathan tribal society.

Interestingly, bin Laden’s Tactical Recommendations resemble writings found in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung, and Second Letter to the Muslims of Iraq could almost be one of the titles of a Christian epistle.

Abdallah Azzam, the second prophet covered in this collection, was assassinated in November 1989 by a car bomb in Peshwar. Labeled the “Herald of the Afghan Jihad,” he is credited with moving the Afghan fight against the Soviets from a regional to global scale, and his theories on global jihad remain part of his legacy.

In excerpts from Azzam’s Morals and Jurisprudence of Jihad, I found an interpretation on the Islamic funeral rites for suicide bombers and the innocent Islamic victims of their attacks. What is not clear is whether the innocent victims of Coalition attacks on suspected terrorists hideouts fall under the category of “martyrs.”

The third prophet, Ayman al-Zawahari, an Eygptian whose personal path was apparently influenced by imprisonment after Sadat’s assassination, emerged from jail opposed to any attempts by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to reconcile, through non-violent means, with more secular Muslim regimes. This is reflected in Zawahiri’s work of the 1990s, Bitter Harvest, excerpts of which are found in this volume. A more widely known work, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, appeared after 9/11.

Zawahiri’s role in al-Qaeda is marked by disagreement with Azzam, a split with bin Laden and a difference with the Iraqi battlefield leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Zarqawi, with his anti-Shiite views, is a proponent on an eternal jihad on the international stage as well as a Sunni-Shiite civil war in the Muslim world. If his view is more restricted, so too are his words in this book. Only a letter to bin Laden and Zawahiri is included.

Like the Bible, these epistles of al-Qaeda are not easy reading. However, this combination of excerpts and expert assessment gives readers the opportunity to do something that followers of bin Laden, Azzam, Zawahiri and Zarqawi will probably never do – consider the guidance contained in their opposition’s doctrine.

Reviewed by Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC). Six of his seven deployments to UN mission areas involved Muslim adherents as one of the belligerent parties.