Whilst the death of an al-Qaeda strategist as brilliant as al-Libi should be celebrated, it should simultaneously be mourned: he provided us with better advice than we were able to produce ourselves at the time.
The death of Libyan-born Abu Yahya al-Libi, the “general manager” of al-Qaeda, has provoked a new round of debate over the use of drones by the United States. Many al-Qaeda leaders have met their end after encountering the business end of a drone (credit to John Quinn for dreaming up such a brilliant phrase), proving them a useful tool in the American military toolbox for eliminating threats in territory that they do not control.
“We went into Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan to find al-Qaeda, now it appears that they (al-Qaeda) have left Afghanistan and gone to Pakistan. But we can’t actually go and find them in Pakistan because Pakistan is our friend and they’re still helping us look for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.”
Pakistan has described the killing of al-Libi on Pakistani soil as “unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty”. But Pakistani protests over the presence of American troops conducting assassinations on Pakistani soil would be far greater, as would the effect on anti-American sentiment (bin Laden’s departure as a case in point). If one adheres to the argument that to counter the extremist group one must destroy its leadership, drones are undoubtedly the lesser evil.
This debate is not constrained to issues of sovereignty however. Following confirmation of the success of the strike by American authorities, the dead Libyan’s brother, Abu Bakr al-Qayed, asserted that “the way the Americans killed him is heinous and inhumane”. “Regardless of my brother’s ideology, or beliefs, he was a human being and at the end of the day deserves humane treatment”. This aspect of the debate – that of human rights – is one that I shall (happily) leave to one side in the knowledge that others more capable than myself will be tackling it on these pages shortly.
Al-Libi’s fame was born out of his escape from Bagram in July 2005, subsequently proving his worth as an al-Qaeda strategist and theologian. The “explosive cocktail of youth, rage, arrogance and intellect that has made him a force” among Jihadis was demonstrated when he provided the sole remaining superpower with unsolicited advice on how to defeat the militant Sunni group (Brachman 2008).
Amusingly the neutralization of senior leaders was a key point in his suggestions: al-Libi was a self-appointed target. His further recommendations can only be regarded as brilliant. He argued that America should focus on promoting the voices of those who had renounced extremism, in much the way that certain countries use former extremists within their deradicalisation programmes: what better person to use to discredit the movement than one who has been through it and come out the other side. Further, mainstream Imams should be encouraged to issue fatwas against al-Qaeda and its followers. By using such a line of attack, al-Qaeda’s appeal to potential recruits is dramatically lessened and the West may start to win the war of ideas.
Building upon that foundation, al-Libi suggested that America make up stories about the organisation and exaggerate its mistakes. If America were to insinuate that these fictitious or embellished events were inherent to the movement, the group’s public support would undoubtedly drop significantly. He mentions the damage done to the image of the organisation by rumours that al-Qaeda had imposed a death penalty on those who renounced its violent ideology.
The most pertinent argument provided is that of encouraging and strengthening Islamic movements that favour democracy. As Brachman asserts, Jihadist thinkers are threatened by such groups (the Muslim Brotherhood as an example) as they utilize the same texts to legitimize their world-view and appeal to the same kind of person. The Muslim Brotherhood are, evidently, eminently preferable to al-Qaeda.
To close, whilst the death of an al-Qaeda strategist as brilliant as al-Libi should be celebrated, it should simultaneously be mourned: he provided us with better advice than we were able to produce ourselves at the time. Jarret M. Brachman’s 2008 work Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice should be consulted by those that wish to read more upon this subject – I strongly recommend it.