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On Bruce Riedel

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By now Bruce Riedel is pretty well-known, so I’ll spare you the CV: intimately involved in US foreign affairs in this general area (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Central Asia etc) he helped run one of the reviews of Afghan policy that Obama requested at the beginning of the year.  Nowadays he’s still quite active; writing, advising and so on.  He’s also the author of In Search of Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future (pub. Brookings, 2008).

I put together some thoughts on his book, and some final thoughts on a recent essay he wrote for CTC Sentinel, the journal of the ‘Combating Terrorism Center’ at West Point.  Occasionally I’ll quote from the book and respond to things that he says.

General Comments

In Search of Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future was published in late 2008 and offers an outline of the author’s views on the threat posed by ‘Al Qaeda’ in the past, as well as possible ways to engage with the situation and “how to defeat al Qaeda”.  A short book, it is presumably intended for as wide an audience as possible, and as such it is not rigourously sourced, nor is the writing style academic in any sense.

It begins with an recap of the basic facts of the 9-11 attack, covering all the traditional details of the plot as well as outlining some of the conclusions that he wants to explore in the rest of the book.  The following four chapters are structured around four character he believes to be central to the story of al Qaeda, each representing a separate strand of that narrative: “The Thinker: Zawahiri”; “The Knight: Osama”; “The Host: Mullah Omar”; and “The Stranger: Zarqawi”.  He ends the books with some thoughts on the current threat as well as his plan for ‘defeating al Qaeda.’

The most puzzling feature of this structure - out of which he explains his conception of al Qaeda - is the inclusion of Mullah Omar as a fundamental feature (a full one quarter of the narrative) of al Qaeda.  The author of these comments has not read an account of al Qaeda to date which makes a claim as bold as this for the role that Mullah Omar played.  Nor have I heard any claims that Mullah Omar was involved (to whatever level - Reidel is frustratingly unclear) in the planning or strategic decisions that lead to 9-11.  This in itself is not evidence to support a claim, but I have been engaged in Afghanistan and in research on the issues relating to jihadism and Islamism for at least eight years and had not previously heard this claim.

Another basic weakness of In Search of Al Qaeda is the poor evidence supplied in support of his claims.  Bold and new allegations are not backed up by credible sources (or, in some cases, any sources) and the reader must simply trust Reidel.  The Katmandu airplane hijacking, for instance, is presented on page 69 as the “dress rehearsal” for 9/11 but this relationship is not properly documented.  Similarly, there is some discussion of US attempts to negotiate directly with the Taliban over the issue of Osama, but the account is skewed, failing to represent the numerous initiatives taken in Pakistan between staff at the US Embassy and the Taliban’s embassy there.  The details of the UNOCAL/Bridas oil pipeline negotiations - and how they fit in with US policy in the region - are not mentioned at all in the book.  This is a big gap.

- “Bin Laden personally handled other essential elements of the [9-11] plot as well, bringing on board the Taliban [...] and its leader, Mullah Omar.  In his interrogation, KSM suggests the Taliban were uninformed about the Manhattan raid until the last moment and even pressed bin Laden not to attack American targets.  However, other evidence strongly suggests Mullah Omar was well inside the loop much earlier and a partner in the overall plan, if not the details.” (p.6)

Riedel makes the claim that the relationship with Mullah Omar and the Taliban was a crucial element of the 9-11 plot.  He offers evidence from KSM’s interrogation (and does so later) to suggest that the Taliban found out at the last moment.  Parts of KSM’s interrogation, however, have been shown to have been conducted using torture, water-boarding and other techniques and statements like the one above should be handled with extreme caution.  Similarly, other crucial sources which he cites (“other evidence”) are presumably classified (or non-existent) and the reader is simply expected to take his word on this and trust him.  There is no accessible evidence given here to support this claim.

- “For the Taliban leadership, the critical prerequisite to an attack on the United States was another al Qaeda plot in which they had a vital interest, the murder of Massoud. [...] In her memoirs, the widow of the team leader has given an extensive account of the family’s visit to Kandahar, where they stayed at the bin Laden home to prepare and train for the attack on Massoud.” (p.6)

One of the key aspects of the 9-11 plot that Riedel emphasises in the introductory chapter as well as in the chapter specifically relating to Mullah Omar is that the murder of Massoud was some sort of trade-off between Mullah Omar and bin Laden, through which Mullah Omar would grant his approval/acquiescence for the 9-11 operation if Osama could kill Massoud.  Riedel offers no evidence to support this claim (no statements by Mullah Omar, no anecdotal evidence etc) and merely inserts a story about the suicide bombers who killed Massoud, stating that they “stayed at the bin Laden home [in Kandahar]” while they were preparing, as if simply by being in Kandahar staying at bin Laden’s home this automatically implies the links to the Taliban (and even complicity, perhaps).

In particular Riedel fails to address the relationship between Osama and Massoud.  After Osama started to spend more time on the frontlines, he soon aligned himself with Hekmatyar, a fierce opponent of Massoud.  Indeed Osama’s beliefs about Massoud most likely played a key role in the break of his relationship with his former mentor Abdullah Azzam, who by the late eighties regarded Massoud as the only option for Afghanistan’s future.  Abdullah Anas recalled how he brought steadily increasing sums of money to Massoud, and how Osama was opposed to the idea.  Azzam himself made several trips into the Panjshir to visit Massoud himself.

In all likeliness, it was the influence of Zawahiri and Hekmatyar who shaped Osama’s opinion about Massoud.  Furthermore Massoud, like many other mujahedeen, and in contrast to Hekmatyar, had a by far more nationalist agenda.

- “The connection is also hinted at in the memoirs of Pakistan’s military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, who says Mullah Omar was aware of the plot against America in 2000 and was initially not pleased with the idea of taking on the United States so directly.  In time, however, probably after being briefed on the plot to kill his rival in the north, Omar apparently came around.  In any case, as Musharraf notes, he did nothing to stop bin Laden once he learned of the plan.” (p.7)

Riedel offers Musharraf’s autobiography as a source for his claim of the Taliban’s involvement in 9-11.  Not mentioning or suggesting any of the host of valid reasons for Musharraf to be biased in his relating of this part of the story, he simply drops this in as an external ‘source’.  Again, no evidence is offered, and allegations are presented as facts.

- “The life of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, provides further insight into al Qaeda.  Omar is a very secretive man; only a handful of non-Muslims have ever met him.  He avoids the press and interviews.  He is probably only semiliterate and writes very little.  But he created the first and only jihadist state in the Muslim world and was a partner in the attacks of 9/11.” (p.11)

The problem here is one of definitions.  Nowhere in the book does Reidel define what he means by his various uses of the terms “terrorist” (which is used throughout the book with dizzying regularity), “jihadist”, and “fundamentalist”.  They are used more as moral colour rather than as precise terms with (potentially) precise meanings.  In this extract, “jihadist state” presumably implies a place where the functions of the state are focused towards the purpose of “jihad” - presumably of the international kind.

This is not the picture that emerges of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan during the late 1990s.  Granted, there were training camps and other groups used Afghanistan’s territory as a haven from which to conduct their operations.  The extent to which the Taliban’s intelligence services knew about these activities, however, is open to question.  One extensive and detailed account of the day-to-day routine of these training camps (Omar Nasiri’s Inside the Jihad) offers evidence to suggest that trainees and Taliban in the same area had next to no contact, and that there was even considerably enmity between the two groups.

- “By now extremely fundamentalist, Osama hated Shia as any Wahhabi would and detested secular revolutionaries, yet seemed willing to mix with all these elements while in Sudan.” (p.49-50)

I include this simply as an example of the weak (and undefined) use of terminology throughout the book.  For the evidence and arguments that Reidel makes to be taken seriously, this needs to be far more rigourously applied.

- “[Khalid Sheikh Mohammad] is a consummate terror planner, inventing diabolical plots incessantly until his capture [...]” (p.59)

Similarly, this kind of language does not advance any argument, instead seeking to provoke an emotional response from the reader.  This kind of language and method is evident throughout the book.

- “As for bin Laden, he was their guest.  They could not hand him over, nor would they.  In truth, he was too valuable to them and especially to their leader, Mullah Omar, to give up.” (p.62)

Once again, opinion is presented as evidence.  The reader is expected to trust Reidel, to trust his experience and his knowledge of the subject.  This knowledge and experience does not come across in the sections in which Reidel discusses Afghanistan.  His conception of the Taliban is murky, blurs boundaries between the Taliban and al Qaeda, and fails to demonstrate a grasp of the historical and cultural origins of the Taliban movement.

- “The Taliban recruited heavily among the madrassas in Pakistan, especially in the border region.  Over time, Pakistan became increasingly tied to the Taliban. [...] Meanwhile the Taliban were developing another patron, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization, which became in effect a state within the state.  Mullah Omar was drawn steadily closer to bin Laden as the two collaborated.” (p.64-5)

This statement belies the fact that the author is not familiar with Kandahari culture.  Projecting a western mentality onto Mullah Omar, Reidel assumes that the Taliban had a specific policy to ‘develop another patron’, whereas there is no evidence to support this claim, neither in the book, nor available in the now-steadily-increasing wealth of anecdotal source materials on the early years of the Taliban.

- “Not a major Islamist ideologue or a writer, Omar seemed to find in bin Laden as well as in Zawahiri the intellectual complement to his life of action.  They provided the narrative that justified the Taliban’s cruel and oppressive rule and government.” (p.67)

This is an argument that sounds plausible on paper (simply in the phrasing) but has no component evidence in reality and hard facts.  The idea that Mullah Omar and bin Laden complemented each other -- the implication here is that Osama to Mullah Omar is a little like the role of Zawahiri to bin Laden.  Moreover, there is scant evidence to suggest that the ideology of the Taliban - in as much as there was one - was informed in any significant way by the ideology of bin Laden.


If there’s anything that this examination of Riedel necessitates, it’s more precision and evidence-based research of the topic at hand.  There is still very little information on the Taliban’s side of the 9-11 equation.  My colleague and I have spent the last month or so reviewing all the sources on the matter and the available public-domain evidence for what was going on among the Taliban prior to 9-11 is negligible.  Even when eyewitness accounts seem to exist - some of the tales in Kathy Gannon’s I is for Infidel, for example - there is no way of verifying everything; soon there is no way of distinguishing reliable from false, such as the well-known story of how Osama married Mullah Omar’s daughter, and Mullah Omar married Osama’s daughter (no truth in the claim, by the way).

In his recent CTC Sentinel article, Riedel gives us another example of the kind of sloppy scholarship that we should be wary of:

“Much of the hardest fighting in the current war has been conducted by non-American troops. The British in Helmand Province, the Canadians in Kandahar and the Dutch and Australians in Oruzgan have been fighting for the last several years in the heartland of the Taliban’s Pashtun belt. They have taken considerable casualties in the process.  Indeed, for much of the last five years the principal battle against the al-Qa`ida enemy that attacked the United States in 2001 has been fought by American allies, while the United States’ primary focus has been on a secondary al-Qa`ida target in Iraq.”  (pp. 2-3)

The line between so-called ‘al-Qaida’ forces and those of the Taliban is hereby blurred, something I’ve been noticing a lot recently as coverage of Pakistan has increased.  Even one of my favourite quick-look news sites (NewsNow Afghanistan) has been taken over by this confusion: most of the articles about ‘Taliban’ incidents from Pakistan end up in the Afghan section as if there’s no difference.

Of course, careful and patient scholarship is difficult to conduct in current circumstances.  Southern Afghanistan is not the easiest place to live or work, but the dangers of not fully understanding the things being manipulated is a sure-fire path to failure, whatever our goals.

What do you think?