Risky Business (Book Review of "Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11")
By Jeff M. Smith
Fall/Winter 2011 – Number 21
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 (Pluto Press, 2011), 272 pp. $26.00.
Tragic is the word most often used to describe the life of Syed Saleem Shahzad. A celebrated Pakistani investigative journalist, Shahzad nearly became a household name in May 2011 after his mysterious murder made international headlines. Reviled by terrorists and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) alike for his penetrating reporting, months before his murder the forty-year-old reporter repeatedly warned friends of specific threats to his life from Pakistani intelligence agents. One day after publishing a report about militant infiltration into Pakistan's security services, Shahzad was kidnapped. His body was found, dumped in a canal and bearing obvious signs of torture, two days later. Widespread accusations leveled at the ISI inside Pakistan were privately echoed by U.S. officials, marking another grim chapter in the history of the world's most notorious intelligence service.
In the dark art of reporting on militant organizations inside Pakistan, Shahzad was a journalist almost without peer, and his articles were required reading for South Asia watchers worldwide. In his time as Pakistan bureau chief for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times, Shahzad enjoyed unprecedented access to the world's most fanatical terrorists. His credentials include time spent in Taliban captivity as well as personal interviews with some of the CIA's most wanted individuals, most notably Sirajuddin Haqqani, the commander of the deadliest militant group in the Af-Pak region, and the late Ilyas Kashmiri, al-Qaeda's former head of military operations.
Consequently, it is unfortunate that Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11, released a week before Shahzad's murder, is a book as tragic as the life of its author. Given the depth of Shahzad's knowledge and the quality of his writing at the Asia Times, it was more than a little surprising—and disappointing—to find the book utterly devoid of the guiding hand of an editor. Inside al Qaeda is inaccessible to all but the most veteran Pakistan-watchers, racing through the events of obscure militant groups and tribal personalities with little historical or practical context. More problematic, and befuddling even to those familiar with the book's subjects, the narrative follows little logical progression, darting inconsistently across time and topic. Perhaps most frustrating, though, is the book's extraneous repetition, as seen in the need to frame every notable event as a part of Al Qaeda's ongoing "A Thousand and One Nights drama," a reference so frequent it appears at times in consecutive paragraphs.
It would be charitable to say Shahzad was done a disservice by his publishers and editorial team. That the book has received generous praise from reviewers is a testament to Shahzad's reputation and the tragic circumstances surrounding his death. But not all the plaudits are undeserved: Inside Al Qaeda does indeed provide some rare insights into the shadowy figures and events central to a war that has been little studied and poorly understood in the West. Though history books will remember this conflict as the Afghan War, it is in neighboring Pakistan—where the stakes are arguably much higher—where some of the most important and bloody battles have been fought, and where most of the key players reside.
Inside al Qaeda is at its best when shining light on the opaque history of this forgotten war. Here Shahzad provides compelling accounts of pivotal events like the Lal Masjid mosque raid and the battle for the Swat valley. He also provides useful additions to our understanding of mythical Taliban figures like Nek Mohammed, Abdullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud, and Qari Hussain, as well as non-Taliban jihadi leaders like Tahir Yuldashev, head of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, operational commander of the infamous Haqqani Network. Not least, Shahzad offers some rare insights into the various clans and tribal rivalries that shape the landscape of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). And Inside al Qaeda contains a smattering of newsworthy accounts, such as the story of how Lashkar-e Taiba, the lethal, ISI-backed Pakistani militant group responsible for the Mumbai attacks of 2008, likely tipped off Pakistan's security services to the location of Abu Zubaida, one of the highest-ranking al-Qaeda commanders ever to be taken into custody, after an internal jihadi dispute over the provision of funds.
Most intriguing for some will be the insights into Pakistan's mysterious Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Asfaq Kayani, and his estranged relationship with his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf. For instance, when President Musharraf resigned as COAS after his re-election in 2007, Kayani—who Shahzad describes as "ruthless" and "unconcerned about inflicting collateral damage"—was not the "preferred successor." However, Kayani was chosen for the most powerful position in Pakistan because he was "close to the US military command." When President Musharraf was weakened by street protests in 2008, Kayani came to see the president as a "liability," subsequently distancing himself from Musharraf and "instruct[ing] his military colleagues to do the same." In turn, Musharraf tried twice to remove Kayani, but failed when his desired replacement, General Tariq Majeed, refused to breach protocol and accept the position.
Unsurprisingly, the central players of Shahzad's book remain al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Shahzad goes into great depth discussing the origins of the TTP, a homegrown network of FATA-based militant groups united in their opposition to the Pakistani state. His coverage of al-Qaeda is equally extensive, but suffers from one serious, reoccurring flaw; Inside al Qaeda too often conveys undue, almost omnipotent power onto the terrorist group (al-Qaeda had supposedly "foreseen the victory of the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama" a year before he was elected), portraying it as master manipulator behind every notable event in the war for Pakistan. He attributes the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to al-Qaeda, although the CIA and ISI have concluded that it was a TTP operation. Passages like "Al-Qaeda clearly dominated Pakistan in 2007 and 2008," meanwhile, contradict what we know of the group's position in Pakistan during this period.
Shahzad also gives undue credit to al-Qaeda for the creation and management of the TTP, which he calls "the first-ever popular local and fully tribally supported Al-Qaeda franchise in the world." In contradictory accounts, Shahzad notes at first that the TTP was formed indigenously as a response to Pakistani military operations into the FATA, only to argue later that it was fashioned by al-Qaeda as a "parallel entity" designed "to reinforce its positions in the natural fortresses of seven of Pakistan's tribal agencies." Finally, we are told al-Qaeda created the TTP "as the catalyst to draw the Afghan Taliban away from [leader Mullah Omar's] influence, to carry forward the Al-Qaeda agenda in the region." Although analysts have indentified numerous ideological and even operational links between al-Qaeda and the TTP, few believe al-Qaeda created the TTP, let alone that it maintains tactical control over the group.
Shahzad's final conclusion offers a representative mix of insight and tendentious conjecture. The author argues that al-Qaeda, despite suffering heavy losses among its leadership, is devising new strategies to "keep the West running from pillar to post until it exhausts itself and Al Qaeda can announce victory in Afghanistan." This is almost certainly true. But according to Shahzad, after America's defeat in Afghanistan, the terrorist organization will claim all the land from Central Asia to Pakistan, and expand its war to India. "The promised messiah, the Mahdi, will then rise in the Middle East and Al-Qaeda will mobilize its forces from Ancient Khurasan for the liberation of Palestine, where a final victory will guarantee the revival of a Muslim Caliphate." That passage will surely raise eyebrows among students of Islamic ideology: the Mahdi is a central tenet of Shi'ite theology; a concept abhorred by Sunni Salafists of al Qaeda's ilk.
In the end, Inside al Qaeda is a worthy tool for analysts of the Af-Pak war willing to dig deep to uncover nuggets of valuable information; for the general public, however, it remains largely inaccessible. Thankfully, in the end Shahzad will be remembered not for this flawed but useful tome, but for a lifetime of fearless work uncovering the some of the world's best kept secrets about some of the world's most dangerous men, in one of the world's deadliest countries. For that, he deserves our gratitude and respect.
Jeff M. Smith is the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.