In Timbuktu, Al Qaeda showed 'seeds of its decay'

A secret letter written by Al Qaeda's leader in north Africa during his 10-month rule of Timbuktu reveals the internal contradictions of jihadists that will end their appeal.

Rukmini Callimach/AP Photo
A Timbuktu resident sifts through documents left behind by Al Qaeda leader Abdelmalek Droukdelat after French troops ended the group's control of the northern Mali city. A confidential letter by Droukdelat warned his Islamic fighters to go softly on the people in order to make their takeover of northern Mali last.

The late American diplomat George Kennan predicted in 1946 that Russia’s communist empire was built on so many contradictions and false concepts that it had within it “the seeds of its own decay.” The West needed to be patient and mainly contain the Soviet Union. He turned out to be right.

Would a similar prediction hold true today for Al Qaeda if the radical Sunni group were able to rule over a Muslim people with its harsh vision of an Islamic theocracy?

The answer may be found in secret documents discovered last month in the Malian city of Timbuktu, where Al Qaeda was able to rule with its own governing institutions for 10 months until ousted by French troops.

The papers, discovered by The Associated Press, are part of a “confidential letter” written by Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of Al Qaeda in northern Africa. He left parts of the letter as he fled the city. In it, he warns subordinates that they have been too quick and brutal in imposing sharia, or Islamic law. He worries that local Muslims will reject the religion and come to hate the jihadists, which would “consequently lead to the failure of our experiment,” which includes establishing a global base for Al Qaeda.

He decries the stoning of adulterers to death, the barring of women from public areas, and the prevention of children from playing. He worries about losing local support after his men destroyed local shrines that they deemed sacrilegious.

Al Qaeda’s notion of women as second-class people can be seen in one court document also found in Timbuktu that ordered a woman to be given 60 lashes for “mixing with men.” During its 10-month reign, Al Qaeda required women to be clothed head to toe when in public. They could wear no makeup and use no perfume.

Mr. Droukdel, who was appointed by Osama bin Laden and now takes orders from Al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, also revealed a sharp debate over the group’s failed attempts to set up an Islamic state in Somalia and Algeria. This disclosure of internal dissension helps justify the approach of the West and moderate Muslims to contain violent jihadists as well as preempt their attacks.

Locals in Timbuktu now report that the Al Qaeda fighters would show up in mosques with guns, telling people what to do. This zealous righteousness and armed authoritarian manner violated the people’s moderate practice of Islam. Indeed, Muslims worldwide have turned against Al Qaeda for regularly violating an Islamic tenet not to kill other Muslims.

Droukdel, who is also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, wrote of a tactical need for deception in trying to hide behind a “front” of a local separatist movement in Mali. “Better for you to be silent and pretend to be a ‘domestic’ movement that has its own causes and concerns,” he wrote to the estimated 2,000 fighters of his group, which is known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. “There is no reason for you to show that we have an expansionary, jihadi, al-Qaeda or any other sort of project.”

But even that tactic failed as the alliance with the local rebels erupted in fighting.

His 10-page letter reveals many fatal flaws of Al Qaeda. Beyond AQIM’s deception and grab for power by force, the group also denied the equal dignity of every person, especially women. It failed to honor the freedom of individual conscience.

The letter shows how much the group violates the Quran’s requirement that rulers be held accountable by the community. Most of all, it shows how much Al Qaeda believes it deserves to hold the keys to power because it claims to have the keys to heaven.

These are the seeds of its eventual decay. The same may be true in Iran where supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rules in defiance of any popular will, or regard for pluralism and a balance of power between competing ideas of a good society.

If bad ideas do indeed collapse on their own fallacy, as Kennan and many others have advised, then the short reign of Al Qaeda in Timbuktu shows just how well that truth holds up.

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