Wielding astonishing original research, including interviews with several of Osama bin Laden's wives and children, Clark and Levy offer an insight into the dynamics of jihadism—and the roles of Iran and Pakistan in promoting itby David Tonge / June 26, 2017 / Leave a comment
The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight, by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, Bloomsbury, £22.50
“Osama bin Laden in flight”—the mawkish subtitle may make you pause. But one look at the book’s 65 pages of notes and you’ll overcome that. The range of people interviewed by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, authors of The Exile is stunning. Presidents, generals and diplomats, spies and counter-spies, leaders of al-Qaeda and of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), CIA officers and torturers, and many of Osama Bin Laden’s five wives and 21 children. The results have been combined with the reports, scoops and leaks which have emerged over the past decade. The result is an egregious family tale. Far more, it is an insight into the dynamics of jihadism—and the roles of Iran and Pakistan in promoting it.
In 2001, Iran had provided targeting details on al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the US, had helped Washington’s candidate, Hamid Karzai, become President of Afghanistan, and was negotiating to transfer Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Afghan government control. Then President George Bush denounced the country as part of his “Axis of Evil.” As the authors explain, that prompted the hard-liners in Tehran to decide that al-Qaeda should be treated as a potential asset and to offer a haven for its senior members.
The Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the body handling Iran’s covert foreign policy interests, gave refuge to them—and also to members of bin Laden’s family. In 2003, Iranian modernisers decided to offer these guests to Washington. They were curtly rejected. The Exile describes how the reclusive Major General Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds Force, held four members of al-Qaeda’s military council for a decade, before eventually setting them loose to fight Islamic State in Syria. The authors argue that Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over command of al-Qaeda after bin Laden was killed in 2011, still operates from Iran.
The Exile makes clear the strength of Iran’s state within a state. By contrast, the authors’ description of Pakistan makes one hesitate even to describe it as a state. Islamabad has lost control of large parts of the country to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, “a leathery coalition of Islamists, warlords, robber barons, and cutthroats that would become known as the Pakistan Taliban and sought Islamabad’s submission through suicide bombs, improvised explosive devices, kidnappings and beheadings.” Al-Qaeda regarded this as an affiliate.
The book also describes the faltering control which Pakistan’s authorities have over the country’s institutions. Even a military dictator—General Pervez Musharraf was President from 2001-2008—faced limits in dealing with his army chiefs and they had even less control over ISI, which in turn seems to have had no control over the its own S-Wing. This is the Islamist section of the agency, which, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had channeled US and Saudi funds to the Taliban and continues to run fundamentalist factions on behalf of the deep state. These factions include Lashkar-e-Taiba (responsible for the Mumbai siege of November 2008); the Haqqani network (which attacked the US Embassy in Kabul); the 313 Brigade staffed by former ISI agents and mujahideen allied to al-Qaeda—and, the authors argue, probably behind the attempt to assassinate Musharraf in December 2003; and Jaish-e-Mohammed whose attack on the parliament buildings in New Delhi in December 2001 distracted attention from Tora Bora, easing bin Laden’s escape to Pakistan.
While the US has long applied sanctions against Iran, its aid to a far-from-unsullied Pakistan averaged $3.6bn per year during the first decade of this century. This munificence did not win it friends. The drone-directed killings in the country’s Tribal Areas caused widespread resentment. The visits to Washington of General Pasha, director of the ISI from 2008 to 2012, were normally confrontational, and became particularly so after the Abbottabad raid. That said, the authors do not appear to have found any evidence that ISI provided cover for bin Laden. According to the official US story, the CIA had picked up the courier of bin Laden nine months before the US Navy SEALS went in, following him to the compound he had built for bin Laden. It did not share this information with the ISI.
From Abbotabad—according to the hand-picked selection of the million related documents which Washington has released—bin Laden sought to rein in his old lieutenant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as he launched what became IS in Iraq. In a meeting with the Mauritanian Sheikh Mahfouz Ibn El Waleed in Nouakchott, bin Laden told them how the Quds Force had given “special” passports, weapons and money to al-Zarqawi to facilitate his return to Iraq. In his view, both al-Qaeda and Tehran had been wrong about the man who had started slaughtering Shia Muslims.
As IS in Iraq morphed into IS in Syria, the gulf with Al Qaeda grew. The Exile describes a $1m offer by al-Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to detach Abu Qatada (who long resisted Theresa May’s attempts to deport him from the UK) and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the intellectual godfather of al-Qaeda and former mentor of al-Zarqawi, and bring them on side. They were seeking to save some of the hostages held by IS. They ended up denounced as western stooges. Maqdisi received an e-mail describing him as “the pimp, the sole of the tyrant’s shoe, son of the English whore.”
For now, it is IS which has the headlines, claiming the recent attacks in Manchester, London Bridge and against two of Tehran’s proudest symbols, the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini and the country’s parliament. But, with IS now apparently on the retreat in Syria and Iraq and outraging many Muslims with the destruction of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, the once-faltering brand of al-Qaeda can only gain. The Exile helps to explain how that has happened, and how grim a prospect that represents.