Al-Qaeda ideologue held in Syria
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - The al-Qaeda ideologue responsible for formulating strategy in the
South Asia war theater, and who also instigating a rebellion against the
Pakistani armed forces among Pakistani tribesmen and jihadi militants in the
cities, has been languishing in a Syrian prison for the past several months.
Seventy-year-old Egyptian Abu "Amr" Abd al-Hakim Hassan, popularly known as
Sheikh Essa, was arrested in Syria in 2009 and, according to high-profile
intelligence sources, is in a poor state of health.
His presence confirms that a sizeable number of al-Qaeda leaders have now moved
to the Middle East to turn neighboring Iraq into
their strategic backyard and to ensure that the insurgency there flares up once
Essa's presence would normally be sufficient to launch a movement for a
revolution in any country, but today he is sick and contained in a dark and
small detention center in Damascus, where he was arrested, a senior Pakistani
security official told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity.
Islamabad was officially informed about the arrest by Syrian authorities of the
most-wanted person in Pakistan who had turned the pro-Pakistani jihadi
establishment against the state of Pakistan. Essa had succeeded in giving the
slip to the Pakistani security apparatus after a brief arrest and then he moved
to Lebanon to prepare new battlegrounds for the al-Qaeda-led revolution in what
the Arabs call Balad-e-Sham (Lebanon-Syria and Palestine).
By sending the elderly Essa to the Middle East, rather than a military
commander, al-Qaeda revealed once again that the aims of the group are to set
ablaze the whole region by instigating a khuruj (revolt-like situation
in Arab states) and to turn the region of Syria, Lebanon and Yemen into the
strategic backyard of the Iraqi resistance. Recent incidents reflect that
al-Qaeda appears to have had some success in this regard.
Iraq, known as The Land of Two Rivers ( the Tigris and Euphrates), responded
fiercely to the foreign occupation in 2003. Compared to Afghanistan, where the
Taliban's rag-tag militia dispersed in the face of the invasion of 2001, Iraq's
tribal-based insurgency was led by the Ba'athist leadership, and al-Qaeda was
nowhere in the picture as the two - Ba'athists and al-Qaeda - are sworn
However, the situation changed when most Ba'ath leaders were rounded up by 2004
and the rest took refuge in Syria, Yemen and Jordan. They tried to keep up the
insurgency by remote control, but it never worked.
At the time, al-Qaeda had no roots or strong alliances in Iraq, compared to
those in Pakistan. The organization went to Iraq only in 2003, and a leadership
void at that time in the insurgency allowed them the space to take charge. By
2006, al-Qaeda was calling the shots and by 2007 it had taken the insurgency to
There were difficulties, though. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (now killed), a new
al-Qaeda affiliate who was a minor commander of a sectarian organization and
had never been a member of al-Qaeda, proved incapable of fully commanding the
The most trained and visionary eyes of the then-commander of US forces in Iraq,
General David Petraeus, were quick to spot this weakness and things started to
go badly for al-Qaeda after the Americans opened lines of communication with
the tribal insurgency, especially through the Sunni "Awakening Councils" that
were sponsored to take on al-Qaeda.
From late 2007 to late 2008, al-Qaeda had become a virtual outcast and no
longer relevant on the Iraqi scene; the anti-American resistance had turned
into a sectarian battle and there was major in-fighting between the tribal
resistance and al-Qaeda.
However, the situation then took a turn for the better for al-Qaeda, which had
brought some of its veterans into Iraq and surrounding areas, such as Syria and
Lebanon. But in the process it did lose some of its key leaders, such as Hadi
al-Iraqi, who was arrested while crossing into Iraq.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri has written about
He was arrested and tortured in Egypt, which he endured
patiently. He graduated from the College of Commerce and then from al-Azhar's
College of Theology. His scholarly and scientific efforts are copious. Among
the works he produced were the books
in three parts, Jihad in the Path of God: Etiquette and Rules in two
parts, and Guiding the Mujahids to the Commission of the Trustworthy Prophet
, which is a book explaining the Prophet's (peace and blessings be upon him)
commission to listen and obey those in authority.
He emigrated to Afghanistan twice - the first during the jihad against the
Russians [in the 1980s], the second time during the time of the Islamic Emirate
[the Taliban - 1996-2001]. He was the supervisor of the journal Signposts of
Jihad, which was a quarterly scholarly journal that used to be published by the
al-Jihad group. He established the Salah al-Din Center for Proselytizing and
taught lessons which were not suspended [even] along the frontiers and
When America launched its Crusader invasion on Afghanistan [in 2001], he lined
up with the mujahids, educating them, issuing them fatwas [decrees], and
adjudicating between them. The sheikh has a website on the Internet that
contains his valuable publications and fatwas. We beseech God to bless
his righteous work, his health, and his life and to provide for us, for him,
and for [all] Muslims constancy upon the truth and a good end.
After the US invasion of Afghanistan, Essa crossed the border to the North
Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan. There, with the help of two prominent
clerics, Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq Haqqani, he turned the sympathies of the
tribal areas, previously loyal to Pakistan, against the military.
However, he did not limit himself to the tribal areas and found allies all over
the country. Masood Janjua (detained by the security forces several years ago
and still missing) was his first adherent and in a matter of a few years Essa
had a huge following in Pakistan.
The most prominent of these were the prayer leaders of the Lal Masjid (Red
Mosque) in Islamabad that became a pro-militant sanctuary. Essa's literature
and teachings convinced a sizeable number of Pakistani jihadis of the "heresy"
of the Pakistani rulers and persuaded them to press ahead with a fully-fledged
All high-profile attacks on the Pakistani security forces in Rawalpindi,
Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi were the handiwork of his adherents. To reduce
the influence of his literature, the security forces established a special cell
in a detention center where militants were treated to undo Essa's
Essa and other al-Qaeda members traveled frequently across the country to
convince religious leaders to launch a revolt. On one of these trips in 2008 he
was arrested in Faisalabad, but because of his age he convinced security
officials that he was an ordinary Arab religious cleric and not the al-Qaeda
operator they were looking for; this gave him the breathing space to escape and
go to Lebanon and then on to Syria.
Just as he had been when he arrived in North Waziristan, he was alone, but he
wasted no time in in approaching Islamic networks and trying to get them to
rebel against the Ba'athist rulers. Then came his arrest last year.
Al-Qaeda sending Essa to the Middle East reflects how the group had seriously
pondered its failures in Iraq and neighboring countries - mainly as a result of
the serious disorientation of local leaders fighting under al-Qaeda's flag.
Zawahiri wrote several dispatches to these "franchises" in Iraq expressing his
dismay over their lack of vision and understanding of how an al-Qaeda
resistance should operate. Hence, the need to send out ideologues like Essa,
and there are many others like him.
This is one reason the situation in Iraq has flared up in the past months. And
if, as expected, the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon
implicates Hezbollah in the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in
2005, tensions will certainly mount in Lebanon, and by implication in Syria and
Al-Qaeda, with a new force of ideologues in the region, will exploit the
situation, much as Essa did in Pakistan.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and
author of upcoming book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban 9/11 and Beyond
published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at email@example.com