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Terrorism, the evolution of Isis and Al Qaeda: from the Islamic Legion to Zarqawi

Isis and Al Qaeda are two sides of the same coin, minted at different times but with a common goal: to recreate the Caliphate abolished by Ataturk. This represents not only a concrete danger for global security, but also risks triggering a war of religion with uncertain outcomes

The terrorism of Isis and Al Qaeda and its possible developments. This is the title of a study, now in its third part, carried out by the group “Indomitables,” which traces the history of the two formations and the phenomena that led to their rise and fall, as well as the “rebirth of the Phoenix”. A new formation, which builds on the peculiarities of each of the two sides of the same coin: leadership, operational and logistical skills, and technology. This in order to recreate with every means, violent in the first place, the Caliphate abolished by Ataturk. The analysis, divided into chapters, intends to be a useful tool to understand the new terrorist form and to look for suitable instruments to contain and/or mediate the disruptive dynamics of Jihadism, covering various geopolitical areas and historical periods. Such developments represent a concrete danger for global security, in the West and elsewhere, and could unleash – as recently happened in New Zealand and Italy – a full-fledged religious war with uncertain outcomes, and potential chain reactions leading to a spiral of violence of uncontrollable magnitude and difficult containment.

Bin Laden develops two parallel axes in Afghanistan: one in support of the Taliban and the other for the development of the International Islamic Legion

From 1996 to 1998, Osama bin Laden developed in Afghanistan two parallel operational strategies. A large part of his veterans operated in support of the Taliban, as an Islamic militia for the government of the emirate, training the still inexperienced young recruits as well as assisting the militias in the imposition of an uncompromising sharia. Furthermore, the same support was given to the Taliban militias to counter the Northern Alliance – led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, “the lion of Panjshir” -, which opposed the expansion of the Emirate in the north-eastern part of Afghanistan. The other component of Al Qaeda – the hard core of its veterans – proceeded with the enrolment and training of new recruits for the “International Islamic Legion”. This was done in order to foster the various terrorist “metastases”, both those formed by the “veterans” of the Afghan guerrilla warfare against the Soviets and those formed during his stay in Sudan.

Ariana Afghan Airlines, managed by Viktor Bout, becomes the “terrorist taxi service”

In order to establish the “international Islamic legion”, bin Laden also took control of Afghanistan’s national carrier, “Ariana Afghan Airlines”, whose management was entrusted to Viktor Bout. Through the airplanes of this wheeler-dealer and former agent of the Russian Military Intelligence Service (GRU), Islamist militants, weapons, money and opium were transferred to the various terrorist groups of the network: Ariana was de facto employed as a “taxi service for terrorism”. Al Qaeda thus became a two-dimensional network. Vertical for the chain of command, and horizontal for the contacts between about 24 groups of extremists. These groups were independent of each other, but all bound by the same oath: the so-called baya, an act of submission of an individual or a group, which recognizes the political and spiritual supremacy of a person to prescribe the observance of Islamic law, that is, the imposition of the sharia and the establishment of the caliphate.

The triumvirate of Al Qaeda’s leadership is born: Osama bin Laden, Aiman al Zawahiri and Mohamed Atef. Also, a fatwa against the United States is issued

A triumvirate represented the leadership of Al Qaeda: Osama bin Laden, Aiman Al Zawahiri – his political advisor – and Mohamed Atef, military advisor. A shura, a sort of advisory council, operated under the control of the sheikh and the two lieutenants providing legal, religious, financial, informative and military guidelines. In February 1998, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, who had by then consolidated both their friendship and the network of the terrorist group, decided that the time had come to take action against the United States, which occupied the “Islamic Holy Land”. In a camp in Central Eastern Afghanistan (Khost province), they signed – together with other leaders of terrorist groups – a fatwa in the name of the “International Islamic Front for the jihad against Jews and crusaders”. This fatwa called for the killing of the Americans and their allies as an “individual duty for every Muslim”, in order to “free the al-Aqsa mosque (in Jerusalem) and the sacred mosque of Mecca from their grip.” 

The anti-USA fatwa is followed by a campaign of terrorist attacks, which will culminate with the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001

The fatwa was followed, on August 7, 1998, by attacks on the United States embassies in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and in Nairobi in Kenya (on the anniversary of the arrival of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War), which killed hundreds of people. Then, In October 2000, suicide bombers on a boat carrying explosives attacked the destroyer USS Cole while in port in Aden, Yemen, for refueling. The explosion ripped a hole in the hull of the ship, killing 17 US sailors. These attacks and other minor actions – carried out by the Qaedist “metastases” – were the nefarious prelude to the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, which resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.

The International Islamic Front is the instrument to build the Caliphate

The “International Islamic Front” was the tool through which bin Laden and Zawahiri intended to build the long-awaited Caliphate gradually, through terrorist attacks on Jews and Christians. The Shiites, always considered a schismatic faction of Islam, were not yet in the sights of the terrorists. This was both because of the previous experiences of bin Laden in Sudan (in cahoots with Teheran, who opposed the Saudi kingdom), and because Osama’s mother was Syrian and of Alawite confession, one of the Shiite sects (widespread especially in Syria) considered a “vehicle” of doctrines that were not compatible with the basic tenets of the Muslim religion of the Sunni religious tradition. 

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appears on the radar, turning from a young criminal into a leader. With the Kuwaiti ideologist Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Maqdisiand, he establishes Jamaat al-Tawhid Waal Jihad (JTD)

During the establishment of his International Islamic Front, bin Laden met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – alias of Ahmed Fadeel al-Khalayleh – born on October 20, 1966 in Zarqa, Jordan. Of Palestinian origin, he was a Salafist and a repeat offender. In 1988, the Jordanian extremist had begun to attend a mosque set on Islamist positions and, having embraced the Jihadist theories, he went to Afghanistan to join the Mujahidin who were fighting guerrilla warfare against the Soviets, participating in various operations. During his stay in the Asian country, he met the Kuwaiti Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, an ulema considered a theoretical leader of the jihad, who had set himself the goal of fighting against the secularized Arab governments. Zarqawi was influenced by al-Maqdisi, and soon shared his aversion towards the Shiite Muslims. The Afghan stay was short, but enough to root revolutionary theories in them. Both returned to Jordan in 1993 and tried to organize a subversive group to constitute, in that country, an Islamic state based on the Sharia. To this end, they recruited Jordanian extremists and foreign elements inspired by the same creed, forming the Jamaat al-Tawhid Waal Jihad (Group for the Unity of God and the Jihad – JTJ), of which Zarqawi was the leader and Maqdisi the ideologue.

Bin Laden meets Zarqawi. The two don’t like each other, but the Jordanian terrorist still gets funds to set up a training camp in Herat

JTJ was responsible for several attacks in Jordan, culminating in an attempt to blow up a cinema, but the attack was foiled. Zarqawi and Maqdisi were captured by the police and then sentenced to 15 years in prison. In April 1999, the King of Jordan declared an amnesty and Zarqawi was released, but immediately afterwards he was suspected again of having organized preparations to carry out attacks on hotels and Christian places. Therefore, he left the country again, with the intention of uniting JTJ with the separatist Islamic rebels in Chechnya. To reach the country he went to Pakistan, where he was arrested for his expired visa (but was immediately released) and then went to Afghanistan with a letter of introduction to meet bin Laden in Kandahar. According to some, the meeting between the two was rather tense: Osama (his mother was an Alawite – a current of Shiism) felt disturbed by the violent anti-Sciite sectarianism of the young Zarqawi. Zarqawi, for his part, refused to swear allegiance to Al Qaeda, but obtained money with which he set up a training camp for mujahidin near Herat. The Jordanian demonstrated natural leadership skills and the gang of extremists he had with him since the beginning of 2000 grew from a few dozen to about 3,000 men towards the end of 2001.

After September 11, 2001: Al Qaeda and the Taliban in diaspora

After September 11, 2001, the conflict that defeated the Taliban regime favored the diaspora of Al Qaeda and the Taliban themselves. The leadership took the route of the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), taking refuge in Waziristan (areas around Jalalabad) and in Beluchistan (areas around Quetta). Instead, the “Arab-Muslim legionaries” reached the Maghreb, the Sahel, the Arabian Peninsula and the Caucasus (in particular Chechnya, which had become a land of Islam to be defended from Russia). From here they gave life to: 

a) Jemaah Islamiah, “Islamic Congregation” (JI) – a terrorist group tied to al-Qaeda and militant in South East Asia – that aimed at the constitution of a regional Islamic Caliphate, which hit the headlines on October 25, 2002, after having carried out the massacre in Bali (Indonesia). JI is a transnational organization with cells in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as links with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayaff group;

b) Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), founded in 2005 by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, led by the Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel – a jihadist organization formed in the nineties, in the environment of the Algerian Civil War, with the purpose of constituting an Islamic State in Algeria – which joined al-Qaeda and renamed itself AQMI;

c) Emirate of the Caucasus, known as the Caucasian Emirate – a self-proclaimed state entity and successor to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria – founded on October 31, 2007, by Dokka Umarov, former head of the Ichkeria and self-appointed first emir, with a military branch represented by the Caucasian Front;

d) Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), known in Yemen as Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist organization that operates mainly in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. A Salafist jihadist group formed in 2009 by the fusion of Yemeni and Saudi Qaedist cells by the Emir Qasim al-Raymi.

The following map by Limes clearly shows the diffusion of the terrorist cells trained to carry out the ambitious project of the global caliphate.

Zarqawi remains in Afghanistan fighting with the Islamic Emirate, but after a U.S. attack he flees to Iraq

Zarqawi, however, did not leave Afghanistan and with his group – JTJ – he joined the Taliban in the fight against the U.S. troops. In December 2001, he was wounded in the chest following a U.S. bombing that destroyed the camp he had set up in Herat. He managed, however, to get out of Afghanistan with about 300 followers and – through Iran – he reached the north of Iraq. In the following months, the Jordanian Jihadist – in order to collect money and enlist fighters – shuttled between Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the autonomous region of the so-called Kurdistan of northern Iraq and the Sunni area in southern Iraq.

JTJ and Zarqawi gain strength through the Operation Iraqi Freedom

In 2003, due to the Iraqi Freedom operation – an occupation of Iraq by the British and the United States – the Iraqi resistance developed, instigated also by the Republican Guard and the Iraqi secret services, initially deployed in defense by Saddam Hussein. This event favored the strengthening of the JTJ in Iraq, where al Zarqawi had established very close relations with:

a) Ansar al-Islam (“partisans of Islam”), a Kurdish Islamic militant group based in the extreme north-east of the country, which allegedly had ties with the Iraqi secret services. According to some sources, Saddam Hussein intended to use Ansar as an instrument of repression against the Kurds who were fighting for the independence of Kurdistan (Peshmerga);

b) Muntada al Ansar, a group of which almost nothing is known except for having claimed the kidnapping and killing of the American businessman Nicholas Berg.

In 2004, the Jordanian terrorist swears allegiance to Osama bin Laden and founds Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, aka Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)

In 2004, al Zarqawi pledged his troth to Osama bin Laden and, on October 17, 2004, he established the group Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (or Jihad Base in the Country of the Two Rivers), otherwise known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It included his organization, Al-Jamaat al-Tawhid waal-Jihad (JTJ), the group Ansar al-Islam, the group Muntada al Ansar, and a significant number of foreign fighters who, once in Iraq, had been recruited from Zarqawi’s local contacts. The number two of al-Qaeda, the Egyptian doctor Ayman Al Zawahiri, wrote a letter to the Jordanian terrorist, in which he explained his concept of “base area”, which he was to constitute in Iraq: “To establish an Islamic or Emirate authority, then develop and support it so that it reaches a level of caliphate over the entire territory of Iraq on which it would be possible to extend its power” (Ahmed Rashid, “Chaos Asia” – p. 327 – Feltrinelli, Milan 2008).

Zarqawi becomes the “Emir of Al Qaeda in the Country of the Two Rivers” and with AQI in 2005, he declares total war on the Shiites in Iraq. According to U.S. sources, he died on 7 June 2006 because of an air attack

Zarqawi was given the title “Emir of Al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers” and AQI, under his leadership, declared “total war” against the Shiites in Iraq in September 2005. This activity resulted in a deep fracture with his mentor Maqdisi, who was in favor of a soft approach to the settlement of differences between the two main expressions of the Islamic faith. The ideologist tried to stop the militant and extremist radicalism of his former disciple, which was utterly counterproductive and in conflict with the guidelines given by Al Zawahiri. Such a change, also criticized by Al Qaeda’s leaders (Osama was still alive), took place after the offensive of Iraqi troops – sent by the Iraqi Transitional National Assembly – against the insurgents of the Sunni city of Tal Afar. On June 7, 2006, during a joint air attack carried out by American and Iraqi forces on a house near Baquba, al-Zarqawi was seriously injured. According to American sources, he was killed in the raid. 

Gli Indomabili

Translated by Andrea Di Nino

Chapter 3 – From Somalia to Afghanistan. Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and the Taliban for the Global Jihad

Chapter 2 – The rise of bin Laden and Turabi up to AIM and Khomeini

The First Chapter – From the dawn of modern terrorism to bin Laden

The Authors

Luciano Piacentini – Commander of Operational Detachment and Company in the 9th Paratroopers Assault Regiment “Col Moschin” (SF-Tier 1) of the Italian Army with the rank of Lieutenant and Captain. Assigned to the Army General Staff, he subsequently commanded the “Col Moschin” Regiment. Later he held the position of Chief of Staff of the Paratroopers Brigade “Folgore”. Then he has worked in National Information and Security Bodies with assignments in different areas of the Asian continent. He is graduated in Strategic Sciences and Political Science.

Claudio Masci – Carabinieri Officer coming from the Military Academy of Modena. After having taken over the command of a territorial unit mainly engaged in the fight against organized crime, he passed through National Information and Security Bodies. He graduated in political science. Among his contributions, “Intelligence between conflicts and mediation” (Caucci Editore, Bari 2010), and “The future of intelligence” (April 15, 2012, Longitude, the monthly magazine of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Pino Bianchi – Architect, expert in risk management, organization, process re-engineering and business management systems. For over twenty years he has conducted business, marketing, communication and organization activities in American and European multinational companies. Management consultant in ICT, marketing, communication, business planning and project financing.

Francesco Bussoletti

Claudio Masci and Luciano Piacentini – Authors of the article “The Future of Intelligence” (Longitude, April 15, 2012), and of the books “Intelligence between conflicts and mediation” (Caucci Editore, Bari 2010), and “Humint… this unknown (Function intelligence evergreen)”. Buy it from Amazon here.

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