An insider account of al-Qaida's latest assault.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 16 2004 6:05 PM

Al-Qaida's Next Action Hero

An insider account of the Khobar assault.

Not an action movie
Not an action movie

On June 1, al-Qaida terrorists conducted one of their most spectacular operations—a brutal assault on the Saudi oil town of Khobar, replete with seek-and-destroy missions targeting non-Muslims and gun battles with security forces. Now, on the Internet, an insider has posted his account of the attack. As a factual document, the report reeks of exaggeration and may even be invented. But as a specimen, it affords a true and valuable glimpse into the ideology and propaganda style—including Hollywood theatrics, rhetorical bravado, and anti-crusader ideology—that al-Qaida uses to rally support and recruit followers.

Al-Qaida supporters use the Internet avidly. In an ever-shifting matrix of Arabic-language forums, they thrill to the latest successes against crusaders and Jews. These sites are quick to publicize Osama Bin Ladin's calls to arms, and they're the place where boasters falsely claim responsibility for disasters ranging from last year's electrical blackout to California brush fires. Purportedly factual materials from this "jihadist Internet," as it's called, should be taken at face value no more than what you read on the Drudge Report. But unlike Drudge, the jihadist forums hone a hard core of ideology, making up for what they lack in veracity with their zeal to draw recruits.

The account by a man who calls himself Fawaz Bin Muhammad al-Nashmi and claims to have led the Khobar attack belongs to this genre. Mainstream news media have an annoying habit of attributing such texts to generic "pro-al-Qaida sites," as if we could log on to www.jihad.com and get the latest bulletins from the front. Some jihad forums have relatively stable addresses, but others flit from provider to provider and aren't always easy to find. (A site that recently hosted the pro-Bin Laden online publication Sawt al-Jihad, or Voice of Jihad, now posts this message.) Al-Nashmi's narrative was posted on June 3 to a forum called Al-Qal'ah (the Fortress), which, as of June 16, can be found by starting here and following instructions (in Arabic) from there.

Al-Nashmi's story takes the form of an interview with Voice of Jihad. Al-Nashmi recounts a heroic "battle" in which he, along with comrades called Nimr al-Baqmi, Husayn, and Nadir, set out to cleanse the Arabian peninsula of infidels. In one violent day, they attack the offices of two oil companies and a compound for Westerners, seeking out and killing non-Muslims, beating off assaults by Saudi security forces, and finally escaping with one holy warrior martyred.

The first striking thing about the posting is how much it resembles a Hollywood action film. Although al-Qaida adherents are commonly described as having a medieval worldview, their rhetoric and self-image owe as much to blockbuster movies and Mortal Kombat as to epic tales of seventh-century Islam. Al-Nashmi's narrative reads like a straight-to-video shoot-'em-up script, with James Bond car chases and people's heads exploding. "I shot him in the head, and his head exploded," al-Nashmi writes in describing killing an American in an oil company office. Later, when they battle security forces, al-Nashmi says, "I saw the skull of the soldier behind the machine-gun explode before me." As they make their escape, the group runs six roadblocks with Nimr hanging out of the passenger-side car window to squeeze off round after round, eventually taking a bullet in the chest. Al-Nashmi sums up the cinematic mayhem with a quote from Abu Bakr, who led the early Muslim community after the prophet's death in 632: "Strive for death, and you will be granted life."

The events al-Nashmi recounts took place in Saudi Arabia, but he uses charged words to link them to the larger jihad in Iraq and Palestine. He refers to the assault as a "martyrdom operation" against "settlements" guarded by "Humvees" and "checkpoints," evoking the Occupied Territories and Iraq in the same sentence. Al-Nashmi describes the first compound they attack as a subsidiary of "the American company Halliburton, which is involved in Iraq." Moreover, it is guarded by "Marines ... in military uniform," underscoring parallels with Iraq.

A more subtle link to Iraq lurks in al-Nashmi's use of the word "ilj" to refer to the non-Muslims he and his comrades murder. Of obscure origins, "ilj" burst into prominence during last year's fighting in Iraq, when the infamous Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf used the term to pillory George Bush and Tony Blair. Al-Sahhaf's use of the word—which may once have meant a "little donkey" and was apparently used in medieval times to refer to crusaders—sent viewers of Al Jazeera worldwide scurrying to their dictionaries, which define it as "uncouth person, unbeliever." It has become a jocular pejorative for U.S. soldiers, and Al-Nashmi uses it interchangeably with "kafir," the standard put-down for an infidel.

The infidels al-Nashmi and his men mark for death are not just unbelievers; they're cowards, too. Al-Nashmi's narrative is obsessed with the enemy's cowardice, a quality Bin Ladin has often attributed to U.S. forces. When the attackers encounter "Marine" guards, al-Nashmi says, "Their actions betrayed amazing cowardice. … When we drew closer to them, they retreated and moved away." Saudi security forces lack the courage to attack the group: "We threw grenades at them. The officer was killed and his soldiers were wounded. They were screaming to their comrades behind them. 'By God, get us out of here!' ... Nimr said to one of them, 'Come here, you coward.' But he ran away." Similar references abound.

Beyond ideology, the account conveys a stomach-churning sense of the moral abyss into which al-Nashmi wants others to descend. The varied elements of his narrative come together when he describes the murder of an Italian, blending associative rhetoric, present-day politics, global communications, effective propaganda, and sheer bloodthirstiness into a toxin that he defines as heroism:

Brother Husayn spotted the Italian infidel lout. He pointed his weapon at him and ordered him to approach. The infidel lout approached. We examined his identification papers and decided to contact Al-Jazeera so that he could address his countrymen and send them a message warning against fighting a war against Islam and its people. We would then cut his throat to send a message to the Italians who are fighting our brothers in Iraq and to the idiot leader of Italy, who wants to confront the lions of Islam. We contacted Al-Jazeera. I told the announcer to talk to him [the Italian]. He began to talk to him. The announcer asked me, "Does he speak English?" I told the announcer, "Do you have Italian translators?" He said, "Yes." I said, "So let him speak his language." He spoke for several minutes. I asked the announcer, "Did you record that?" He said, "Yes." Then the hero Nimr cut his throat.

To thrive, any ideology must offer its adherents an ideal. As improbable as it is that these events occurred as al-Nashmi describes them, his idealized narrative presents them as they appear to the mind's eye of al-Qaida. More important, it is how al-Qaida wants its fighters and followers to see them. The pool of potential recruits teems with young men adrift amid feelings of humiliation and powerlessness, eager for a worldview that answers their questions, and hungry for action. In his account of a blood-soaked day, al-Nashmi gives them what they lack—power over life and death, a mission to rid the world of enemies, and violence as the path to deliverance.

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