Cracking al Qaeda's code
Last December, Brynjar Lia, an analyst at the private Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, came across a 42-page document in Arabic on the Global Islamic Media Web site, one of many Islamist sites that he routinely surveys for his research on terrorism. Entitled "Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Dangers" and produced by someone claiming to be part of the Mujahideen Services Center, the document outlined a strategy for breaking up the U.S.-led coalition by directing "painful strikes" at America's allies, particularly Spain.
Although impressed by its sophisticated analysis of Spain's domestic politics, Lia concluded that the paper's focus on jihadist activities inside Iraq, where foreign fighters were already attacking coalition partners, would come as little news to the larger intelligence community. "I mentioned it to my wife," Lia recalls, "but only to her."
After the Madrid bombings on March 11, however, Lia recalled other salient aspects of "Jihadi Iraq" that he had earlier skimmed over. He and a colleague, Thomas Hegghammer, returned to the document and this time came to a startling conclusion. In both style and substance, the article seemed to bear the markings of an authoritative statement of al Qaeda strategy. Announcing their findings to the Norwegian media, Lia and Hegghammer also posted an overview of their analysis on their institute's Web site on March 19. Since then, the Norwegians have been fielding queries from various intelligence agencies (they won't say which) while scholars and counterterrorism experts have weighed in on the article's significance.
Difficult. But why didn't Lia grasp the document's apparent importance immediately? His initial hesitation underscores the difficulties intelligence analysts face in monitoring a foe whose tactics constantly evolve within an ideological framework that is itself strategically flexible. Those problems are compounded by the chaotic nature of the Internet, which has become one of the jihadists' preferred means of communication. "There are literally hundreds of Islamist Web sites and, at times, up to 50 different addresses related to al Qaeda alone," says Gabriel Weimann, a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace who has been tracking Internet sites for seven years in his work on terrorism and the mass media. "The great challenge is telling who is authentic and who should be analyzed."
What struck the Norwegians most on their second reading of the document was that the author of "Jihadi Iraq" seemed to be suggesting that attacks might be necessary beyond Iraq. In fact, the anonymous writer laments "the lack of direct influence of Iraq events on life in Spain," broadly implying that the "painful strikes" should hit closer to home. He also emphasizes that the strikes should take place around the time of the elections. "We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three, blows after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure," he continues. "If its troops still remain in Iraq after these blows, then the victory of the Socialist Party is almost secured, and the withdrawal of the Spanish forces will be on its electoral program." Indeed, after the March attacks, the Spanish voted in the Socialists, who began withdrawing Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq last month.
That is not the only passage that appears to have had consequences. The author also advises Sunni jihadists in Iraq to put aside their historic differences with the Shiites and "if possible draw them into combat with the Americans." According to Lia, in September 2003, when the document was purportedly written, such counsel represented a pragmatic shift in al Qaeda policy, which previously reflected Wahhabi-style Islam's contempt for Shiites as takfir, or apostates. But to make such an authoritative decision--and one that appears to have been heeded--suggests that the author had credible standing.
Even without subsequent events in Spain and Iraq seeming to confirm the document's authority, "Jihadi Iraq" provides other hints of its legitimacy, say Lia and Hegghammer. For example, its reference to the Mujahideen Services Center appears to be an intentional echo of the Mujahideen Services Bureau, the predecessor of al Qaeda set up in Pakistan during the anti-Soviet struggles in Afghanistan. And the paper is dedicated to Yusuf al-Ayiri, who was considered a direct link between bin Laden and the jihadist movement in the Arabian peninsula before he was killed by Saudi security forces last June. Al-Ayiri also ran what was once the premier al Qaeda Web site, Alneda, and arguments from his tracts on holy war are quoted throughout "Jihadi Iraq."
Fingerprints. Many experts argue that the use of insider references and coded language, often deriving from Islamic theology and history, is one way of signaling and responding to directions within the jihadist network. "I think there is a set of fingerprints and symbols that identify statements as authoritative," says David Cook, a professor of religious studies at Rice University who has studied the evolution of radical Islamist thought since the defeat of the Taliban. Indeed, the man who appeared on videotape to claim responsibility for the Madrid bombings identified himself as Abu Dujana al-Afghani, which Lia and Hegghammer say may echo the document's reference to Abu Dujana, a companion of the prophet Mohammed known as a particularly fierce fighter.
Not everyone buys this textual parsing, however. Adam Dolnik, a fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, told the British online magazine Spiked that the references to the Services Center and al-Ayiri were "not particularly telling." Analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency also found the article unremarkable, "a document like any number of other documents," says one intelligence official. Even Weimann notes that Global Islamic Media is not thought to be one of the official al Qaeda Web sites.
But at the very least, "Jihadi Iraq" complicates the accepted wisdom that began to form shortly after the destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan--that the radical Islamist threat is now not so much from al Qaeda, the organization, but from a growing movement of loosely affiliated groups. Just last month, Ambassador J. Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, testified before Congress that antiterrorism operations had decimated and isolated the al Qaeda leadership, resulting in what Black calls "a lack of clear strategic direction" within the jihadist movement.
But some experts see disturbing signs of continued strategic coordination. Husain Haqqani, a Pakistani journalist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has written about "Jihadi Iraq," suggests that the article might come from someone in an informal network of al Qaeda sympathizers, a kind of electronic think tank. What is most striking to Haqqani, however, is the clarity, coherence, and effectiveness of al Qaeda strategy, whether it is formulated by al Qaeda cadres or by fellow travelers. "The biggest problem for those fighting radical Islam," Haqqani says, "is that the ideology that feeds al Qaeda has never been focused upon."
That ideology, many analysts hold, is one big reason that radical Islamists did not splinter into mutually recriminating factions after the great losses in Afghanistan. Cook, for one, gives large credit to the jihadists' resourceful use of traditional models of resistance dating from the earliest days of Islam. Even the post-Afghanistan shift from al Qaeda as a vanguard organization to al Qaeda as an ideological resource for freelance operations is rooted in the military strategies pursued by Mohammed and his followers after suffering a major defeat in the battle of Uhud in A.D. 625.
What the ideological al Qaeda does so successfully is to tap into its own radical reading of the Islamic heritage to formulate and validate its plans toward the larger goal of uniting Muslims in one state living under strict religious rule. As a first step in countering this ideological campaign, which appears to be swaying even many moderates, Western intelligence services, Cook says, "should be learning how to interpret and decipher the authority of these strategic documents." If it remains difficult to determine with certainty whether a particular document is authoritative, it is possible, both Cook and Weimann suggest, to discern which documents bear the markings of an authoritative voice.
But what should intelligence agencies do with this information? Obviously, Weimann says, they should share it among themselves and with allies. And they should make the jihadist strategies more widely known. "Maybe more public awareness of the ideas in the document would not have prevented the bombings in Madrid," Weimann says. "But the Spanish people might have been more aware of who was targeting them and why they were being targeted."
And maybe more reluctant to fulfill al Qaeda's apparent wishes.
This story appears in the May 17, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.