Tracing the hydra-headed reach of al-Qaida and how its leadership morphed into the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and elsewhere.
Former FBI agent Soufan (The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, 2011) composes a concise, accessible, enormously readable account of the trajectory of al-Qaida, especially through the actions of its murderous main protagonists. To tell the story of this splintering terrorist operation, Soufan—as others have had to do before him—first steps backward to delineate the state of the Islamic world in which these jihadis could take root: scant education for most Muslims, based on dogma and ritual and little critical thinking; oppression of women; unemployment and blunted economic opportunity; and insularity and ignorance about the outside world. In such conditions, radicalism was attractive, and Osama bin Laden, having “crystallized his legend by helping the mujahideen [sic] win a famous victory against Russian special forces in the mountain passes of Jaji near the Pakistani border,” stepped in after the Russian withdrawal and urged the Arab recruits to fight “the imperialists.” He believed it was necessary to concentrate the movement’s ire on defeating the Americans first, the far enemy—hence the spectacular success, by al-Qaida’s accounting, of 9/11. Bin Laden’s nemesis in building up the Iraqi jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by the Americans in 2006, would take up the struggle against the apostate Shia especially, to great controversy within the organization: “waging jihad with my brothers to establish for Islam a homeland and for the Koran a state.” After bin Laden’s death in 2011 and the rise of the Arab Spring, the main organization splintered, in Somalia, Yemen, Algeria, and elsewhere, with Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri becoming ringmaster. As the al-Qaida franchises proliferated, the goal—the establishment of an Islamic state, made possible more quickly than imagined by the Syrian civil war—was shared and spread, and, as the author notes, the organization “once again has the means and the opportunity to attack.”
In a dizzying scenario of violence, Soufan provides clarity and balance.