Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism: A battle of hearts and minds

Osama bin Laden is dead. But the idea of Al Qaeda lives on. And as long as the idea of Islamist resistance provides oxygen, terrorists wedded to the cause of Islam will continue to strike, when they can

M.R. Narayan Swamy Jun 12, 2021
Al Qaeda: Author by Jason Burke

Osama bin Laden is dead. But the idea of Al Qaeda lives on. And as long as the idea of Islamist resistance provides oxygen, terrorists wedded to the cause of Islam will continue to strike, when they can.

Celebrated British journalist-author arrives at this unfortunate conclusion after a thoroughly impressive and penetrative study of Al Qaeda and the Islamist terrorism it gave birth to. Although scholarly, this is a gripping book, a virtual page turner; it can open the eyes of anyone willing to learn about Islamic history and what led to bin Laden and his band – and why so many Muslims embraced it.

Burke has spent considerable time in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, Kashmir, Iraq, Kurdistan, Algeria and more, talking to both the leaders and foot soldiers of terrorist groups as well as ordinary Muslims and officials besides newsmakers. He makes some fascinating observations.

Contrary to public image, Taliban leader Mullah Omar never viewed bin Laden as a friend of Afghanistan. During the anti-Soviet war, the Afghan Mujahideen saw the volunteers from the Middle East as a liability. Their fighting spirit was not doubted but the Arabs were generally disliked. This often caused problems and, on some occasions, violence. The Arabs’ practice of taking locals girls in ’temporary marriages’ was particularly provocative.

In the last few years of the Afghan war, clashes between the Arab Afghans and locals became more common, particularly in the northeastern Afghan border province of Kunar where hardline Wahhabis had declared an independent state.

Things came to such a pass that in April 1998 the Taliban received a high-level American delegation in Kabul. Two months later, Mullah Omar met Prince Turki al-Faisal, the head of Saudi intelligence, and agreed to a secret deal to hand over bin Laden for trial in Saudi Arabia for treason, a crime punishable by death. Mullah Omar was particularly irked by bin Laden’s announcement of a World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders. In July, the Taliban leaders sent an envoy to Saudi Arabia to reaffirm the deal and replaced bin Laden’s Arab bodyguards with Afghans loyal to Mullah Omar.

But unwittingly, the US changed the whole equation by bombing Sudan and Khost in Afghanistan after the August 1998 Al Qaeda inspired bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. When Prince Turki eventually flew into Kandahar along with commandos to take back bin Laden, a furious Mullah Omar refused to hand over the Saudi dissident. Mullah Omar had not found any new love for bin Laden but realized that giving him away to Saudi Arabia after the bombings would look like an act of cowardice.

Burke says that bin Laden’s relationship with the Taliban had never been easy. His Arab followers tended to look down on the Afghans. For their part, the Afghans, even Islamic activists, were generally resentful of the foreigners. Bin Laden tried to assuage Mullah Omar with several large donations to the Taliban treasury. But all this did little to pacify the Taliban leader. At one point, a worried bin Laden sent an aide to the Yemen to know if he could get a suitable base if the Taliban booted him out of Afghanistan.

One reason for Pakistan’s massive involvement in Afghanistan was the addiction of its key officials and politicians for proxy warfare. A key Pakistani aim was to secure a “strategic depth” in that country. This meant that the Pakistan Army should have enough space west of the Indus to reform and rebuild if forced back behind the river by an Indian invasion. “The Afghans’ own interests did not enter into the equation.”

Burke insists that Pakistan’s involvement in the dramatic growth of the Taliban was indeed deep. This was evident in the sudden development of relative tactical and organizational sophistication of the Taliban fighting forces. Pakistanis built radio and telephone systems and other logistical equipment for the nascent Taliban administration. (The dialing code for Kandahar was the same as Quetta!) Throughout 1997-98, it was an open secret in Islamabad that Pakistan helped the Taliban pay salaries to its bureaucrats. Major drug smugglers lived openly in Kandahar, Quetta and Karachi and maintained good social relations with senior Taliban and Pakistani military personnel, politicians as well as civil servants.

Among those who trained in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan were Pakistanis of two varieties: those who were almost exclusively focused on killing within their own country and a Kashmiri strain which paradoxically had mostly non-Kashmiris. Both strands, says Burke, were at times supported and exploited by agents of the Pakistani state and funded by states and private donors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere. With Pakistani intelligence agency ISI’s blessings, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba – created to revitalize the flagging guerrilla campaign in Kashmir -- were focused closely on Indian Kashmir. “By 1994, both groups had established bases in Muzaffarabad and were running recruiting offices throughout Pakistan.”

Why did Pakistan, supposedly a democratic state and a nominal ally of the West, actively encourage the training and deployment of thousands of extremists who flocked to the country from all over the world? From the time of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 to 1995, Pakistan remained the first port of call for any aspiring Islamic terrorist. The answer, Burke says, “lie in the structural flaws of the Pakistani state and the degree to which those weaknesses were exploited both by groups within the country and by external actors.” But the shift from secular nationalism to political Islamism, via demagogic socialism, was by no means unique to Pakistan.

Despite the crucial backing it got from Pakistan, the Taliban was no stooge of Islamabad. For the first four years of its existence, senior Taliban leaders rarely referred to the Islamic Umma or indeed to any event overseas. The issue of Kashmir (and Chechnya, Iraq or Palestine) was never raised. In June 2000, Pakistan gave the Taliban a list of 18 camps where sectarian militants were believed to be training. In response, the Taliban closed three. Three months later, Islamabad unsuccessfully demanded the extradition of 15 militants.

However much 9/11 may have shocked the world and made many Muslims think that the US can be taken on, the fact is that the vast majority of Muslims in all countries do not sympathize with bin Laden’s methods and reject his extremism, Burke says. This lack of sympathy for their radical views is attributed by Al Qaeda leadership to “false consciousness”.

However, the sad truth is that, says Burke, the world is far more radicalized now than it was prior to 9/11. He cites Kashmir as an example – a place where radical strands have replaced centuries of tolerant, pluralist, moderate and mystic form of Islamic observance. Though the Al Qaeda vanguard is scattered by the war on terror, the craving for jihad is flourishing. The West, primarily the US, and the autocrats of Islamic countries have contributed to the mess.

Is there no hope for tomorrow?

Burke sees both opportunities and gloom. “In fact, the greatest weapon available in the war on terrorism is the courage, decency, humor and integrity of the vast proportion of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. It is this that is restricting the spread of Al Qaeda and its warped worldview.” The causes of terrorism must be addressed while moderate Muslim leaders must be engaged and supported. In the end, it all boils down to a battle for hearts and minds. Unfortunately, he warns, “it is a battle we, and our allies in the Muslim world, are losing.”

This is not a new book. But since its publication, it has attained the status of a classic. If you want to read just one book on Al Qaeda, this should be it.

Title: Al Qaeda; Author: Jason Burke; Publishers: Penguin Books; Pages: 385; Price: 8.99 pounds.

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist who writes on diplomacy and politics. He can be contacted at