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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

MEMRI casts doubt on "alleged" al-Qaeda message 

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has published a translation of the claim of responsibility for the 11th March 2004 train bombings in Madrid issued by the al-Qaeda-linked "Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades".

MEMRI's President, Yigal Carmon, has provided a commentary to this translation, in which he states that the tape "includes linguistic usages and concepts that are incompatible with or alien to authentic Al-Qa'ida writings by Osama bin Laden, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and others". Although I can not comment on specific uses of Arabic, I believe Mr Carmon is mistaken in a number of his claims, and find the text to be in keeping with other al-Qaeda publications.

Carmon says:

Following the Qur'an verses is the title "The Trains of Death Operation." This is uncommon in bin Laden's writing.

In fact, the diabolical kitschness of the "Trains of Death Operation" is not unprecedented in al-Qaeda statements. For example, Suleiman Abu Gheith, the most prominent al-Qaeda spokesman until his recent capture, a man who constantly accompanied Usama bin Laden in his videos and audiotapes, used the phrase "aircraft storm" after the September 11 attacks.

Comparing bin Laden's and Suleiman Abu Gheith's statements, it seems clear that very different rhetorical styles are used by the Director and his Lieutenants.

The concept of conditionality, as in the statement "And if you renounce [fighting us], we too will stop fighting you" is not a bin Laden concept.

On the contrary, this conditionality runs through many of bin Laden's statements. (Whether it is a statement of his genuine intentions is certainly debatable, since ceasing to attack the West would contradict other planks of the al-Qaeda ideology.)

Take these statements for example:
"To America I say I swear by God the great... America will never taste security and safety unless we feel security and safety in our lands and in Palestine. . . They will not feel safe until the troops of the United States of America withdraw from the Muslim holy places."

"I ask the American people to force their government to give up anti-Muslim policies. The American people had risen against their government's war in Vietnam. They must do the same today. The American people should stop the massacre of Muslims by their government."

"We say to the Americans as people and to American mothers, if they cherish their lives and if they cherish their sons, they must elect an American patriotic government that caters to their interests not the interests of the Jews. If the present injustice continues with the wave of national consciousness, it will inevitably move the battle to American soil, just as Ramzi Yousef and others have done. This is my message to the American people."

Additionally, a video released by al-Qaeda in October 2003 (no longer online) contained the first ever al-Qaeda message in English, which contained the following ultimatum:
"We want from all Christian and Jewish to go out from our Islamic countries and release our brothers from jails. And stop killing Muslims. Or we will kill you, as you are killing Muslims. We will continue in our fighting until we will get what we want."

"Settling old accounts," both as a linguistic form and as a concept, is alien to authentic Al-Qa'ida writings.

This is contradicted by the following statement by Usama bin Laden, released following the Bali bombings:
"This is unfair. It is time that we get even."

Carmon's claim that "The phrase 'but you did not get the message' is not one used by bin Laden, who does not cast his operations in the light of 'messages,' rather, as acts in and of themselves to further the goals of Al-Qa'ida for the sake of Allah." is likewise contradicted by the tape following the Bali bombings:
"We warned Australia before not to join in [the war] in Afghanistan, and [against] its despicable effort to separate East Timor. It ignored the warning until it woke up to the sounds of explosions in Bali."

The sequence of events al-Qaeda is attempting to follow is derived from the 'Jihad' against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This methodological model, which I explored in my recent thesis, can be represented as follows:

Afghanistan and the Soviet SuperpowerPredicted demise of the Crusader Superpower
1Soviet infidels invade (1978)Crusaders and Jews invade Arabian Peninsula
2Jihadis enter Afghanistan (1978 onwards)Jihadis attack America and allies
3Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan (1988)'Crusader-Jewish Alliance' leaves the Middle-East
4Soviet Union collapses (1991)America/West collapses
5Afghan Communist regime collapses (1992)Arab regimes collapse as Western support is withdrawn
6Islamic regime begins to take shape. This becomes a key destination for Jihad training. (Taliban emerged 1994)Islamic State(s) established in Arabian Peninsula, leading to the eventual spread of Islamic radicalism throughout the Peninsula, Muslim countries, and possibly the entire world.

Al-Qaeda is currently working on step two and appears to be laying the groundwork for later stages. Attacks on the West are motivated both by the individual religious obligation (fard ayn) to attack all 'Crusader States' (whether involved in Iraq or not - witness the attacks on French interests) and by the objective of dividing and weakening America's alliances and forcing the Coalition out of Iraq. In Iraq, attacks are designed to make the country ungovernable and knock out the pillars of support for a future democratic state (the UN, other Arab States, Shia, infrastructure, police stations, aid organisations). Outside Iraq, there is an attempt to influence the public to pressure Governments into withdrawing from Iraq.

With all international support withdrawn from Iraq, a new "location for Hijra" could be established, after the demise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. More on this can be found in this MEMRI translation of a bin Laden tape. This would, in other words, be a base of operations for the training of jihadis and the projection of Islamist violence around the world. The withdrawal of Western troops from Iraq at this point would have catastrophic consequences for the entire world.

The tape should be viewed in terms of this grand plan; released in conjunction with the shocking pre-election bombings, its aim was to change the Spanish Government, thus pulling Spain (and other supporters) out of Iraq. The plan has worked - the Popular Party seemed poised to win until the attacks of the 11th of March, days before the election. Although the new Socialist Government has stated that it will be tough on terrorism, it may yet withdraw material support for the Coalition in Iraq.

Carmon's commentary points out a number of linguistic features and conventions that are supposedly "alien to bin Laden's scholarly Islamist style". However, the tape in question does not purport to be from bin Laden himself, but from a satellite group. As already noted, al-Qaeda spokesmen often adopt a different rhetorical style to bin Laden. In this case, the tape's author or authors are clearly targeting a Western audience.

In my opinion, Carmon's two most compelling blows against the credibility of the tape are that it uses the term 'events' rather than 'ghazwah' (raids) to describe the attacks, and that the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades previously claimed responsibility for the August 2003 blackouts in America, which were later shown to be caused by technical failures, not terrorism. I can not explain why the Brigades used the word 'events'. However, the making of a previous false claim of responsibility does not render all subsequent claims false. Multiple claims of responsibility have been common in previous terrorist conflagrations. Since the point of terrorism is its psychological impact, it makes sense to augment real terrorist attacks with claims to have committed other acts.

Extracts from the tape published by The Age but for some reason not translated by MEMRI use trademark al-Qaeda language, such as "You love life and we love death, which is an example of what the Prophet said."

Given that the Brigades are willing to make false claims, some points need to be made:

  • The bombs were set off simultaneously using mobile telephones, a technique widely used by al-Qaeda affiliates such as Abu Sayyaf Group. In fact, the attacks are reminiscent of a series of bombings of buses, bus shelters and shopping centres in Manila from September to October 2002. These attacks were claimed by Abu Sayyaf Group (which is named after Rasul Sayyaf, a prominent mujahideen leader who was closely allied with Usama bin Laden in Afghanistan) before they took place.
  • The explosives used were not dynamite, the favoured explosive of ETA, as previously claimed by the Spanish Government.
  • ETA denied responsibility for the attack, which would be unusual for such a group: a terrorist organisation following the national liberation model, in which violence is used as a tool to directly extract a specific action from the Government.
  • Men were seen taking heavy bags from a white van and placing them in one of the trains that exploded. This white van was later found to contain detonators and an audiotape of the Quran in Arabic (purchased from a shop).
  • The attack was exactly quarter of a decade (2.5 years) to the day after the September 11 attacks, as stated on the tape. (Through a strange numerological quirk, exactly 911 days passed between 11th September 2001 and 11th March 2004 - although this was presumably a coincidence not noticed by the attackers).
  • Five men of Arab origin were arrested after being connected to a mobile telephone connected to one of the bombs that failed to explode. One of the suspects was wanted in connection to last year's Casablanca bombings.

    While expressing disagreement with the content of Mr Carmon's article, I must affirm my respect for Mr Carmon and MEMRI, whose work I often cite.
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