Friday, March 16, 2007
he's got ambition, baby, look in his eyes:
BAGHDAD -- As I wait to see when I can get out to Ramadi, the Times publishes an excellent story that touches on the phenomenon I'm going there to track. In a politically untouchable Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, a former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi named Shakir al-Abbsi has established an al-Qaeda franchise.

It's a pretty huge deal. To date, al-Qaeda has been notable for having remarkably few Palestinians in its ranks. It makes sense: Israel is right there, with plenty of targets ripe for attack, and no shortage of support among the population for attacks against the Zionist Entity, including ready recruits to replenish those killed by the IDF. Why go global when the enemy is so close? Typically, the Mideastern jihadis who've turned to al-Qaeda have come from countries whose offenses to jihadist sensibilities are less direct, and hence more open to the bin Ladenist narrative that America is the root of all Muslim woes, like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi, Yemen and the Gulf states.

It also helps that Palestinian refugee camps typically don't have the sort of economic stability that lends itself to going global. al-Qaeda isn't the wretched of the earth, as Marc Sageman documents, and so impoverished militants tend to have local focuses to match their capabilities: poor Pakistanis go to Kashmir (and sometimes eastern Afghanistan); poor Palestinians attack in the West Bank and Gaza; poor Iraqi Sunnis fight Shiites and Americans in Iraq; and so on. (Perhaps this has changed somewhat due to the jihadist flights to Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Somalia, but if so, I haven't seen the data.)

If his organization, Fatah al-Islam, proves itself to be more than just the boastings of a 51-year old (!) jihadi, al-Abbsi will upend this pattern. Another Palestinian refugee camp has been exporting jihadis to Iraq, but the Times describes al-Abbsi as growing disillusioned with killing American soldiers: it's "no longer enough to convince the American public that its government should abandon what many Muslims view as a war against Islam." In this manner, al-Abbsi's gone several steps of grievance away from the conditions within the refugee camps and hatred of Israel.

The test will be whether this means he has difficulty attracting capable recruits with the means to try and reach the U.S.; or whether a shift is taking place within the Palestinian refugee camps, effectively bin-Ladenizing hatred of Israel to require war against America. Homeland security isn't the greatest thing, but, without being sanguine, it's still fairly difficult to get into the U.S. if you're from a Palestinian refugee camp, even admitting of the prospects for quality forged documentation. That's why jihadist theoreticians like Abu Musab al-Suri urge a focus on radicalizing Muslims already in the west. If he can't pull off his desired attacks, his membership will probably want to move on, either to more effective and localized jihadist pursuits in Israel or Iraq, or, for the less committed, out of the jihadi game entirely.

Not to write my story before I've reported it, but Abbsi is going up against a series of phenomena that past jihadis have found difficult to overcome in a sustained fashion. None of this suggests that Fatah al-Islam isn't dangerous, but it does suggest that Abbsi will be something of a test case for al-Qaeda's future strength as it figures out what works and what doesn't.
--Spencer Ackerman
Your Baghdad reporting is excellent, and I am sure you are busy, but please don't let Marty's column on how great he is and how terrible everyone else is go by without comment.

Is he truly as much of an arrogant prick in person as he comes across as in print? I can't imagine.
Blogger N.D. Burnside | 5:32 PM