Worth reading these accounts. We need to see many many more. The other side of this story is one that needs to be told.
People in the same family now sleep apart because they do not want their togetherness to be viewed suspiciously through the eye of the drone.
For those interested in AQAP goings on and US strategy may I suggest reading Gregory Johnsen’s thoughts here, as submitted for Frontline’s Q&A as part of its AQAP documentary. Following on from this is an excerpt from an interesting piece by Sarah Phillips of the University of Sydney.
The war against AQAP can never be won if it is framed as the US against AQAP in Yemen.
This is much more than a framing issue, but that is where it has to start. The US has to realize when it can be a force for positive change in Yemen and when it needs to take a step back and allow local clerics and preachers the space to confront AQAP.
In Yemen, al Qaeda is not only a network of ruthless militants but an accusation that can be leveled, with varying degrees of credibility, against members of the regime who have facilitated it. In this sense, al Qaeda is more than just a terrorist organisation; it is so often evoked as a domestic political pejorative that it has become enmeshed in mythologies about how national power functions. In becoming part of the narrative that sustains the squabbles of Sana’a's elites, al Qaeda is also viewed as a symbol of the regime’s detachment from ordinary Yemenis. That the presence of al Qaeda has brought American drone attacks, air strikes, civilian casualties and the destruction of property only sharpens the symbolic connection between the carrying on in Sana’a and the violence that is either experienced or feared by Yemen’s citizens.
While the US is being careful to emphasise that it is only conducting counter-terrorism operations in Yemen, not a broader counter-insurgency, it is wading into something much more complex than simply ‘jihadis versus the state’. The problem of al Qaeda in Yemen is deeply political, which is why fighting it with drone strikes (that can now target people on the basis of suspicious activity) or with ‘Special Operations Forces who are as comfortable drinking tea with tribal leaders as raiding a terrorist compound’ is likely to fail.
I’d like to finish this little series with a personal note, and an announcement, as by now it is probably clear to you that this subject, along with others related to it, is something I feel very strongly about.
Where I could I have tried to support some folks as they sought to build a new life for themselves, since there are no official programs they can tap into. Some have done so and persisted against all odds; others who initially sought my help have wavered, fearful of going against their families. When there is no official support, it’s not surprising they waver, and try to avoid angering the only other support they have, their families. They feel they are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t. In these cases, I have stepped back; the decision is theirs and it is not my place to pressure them.
Instead, what I plan to do is to keep learning and hold myself to a higher standard of neutrality. On the basis of this learning, I also plan to continue to speak out against labeling people, many of whom are trying so hard to leave their past behind, and to speak out against dehumanizing practices and actions in general. In my view these have become more predominant as counter terrorism has moved away from a law enforcement approach based on the rule of law and become increasingly more militarized and less accountable. This I might add is exactly what al Qaeda wanted and relies upon for sustenance and growth.
I recognize here that militarization is an inadequate word, and in part puts more blame on the military than it perhaps deserves, as a significant part of the problem comes from militarized elements of intelligence, which operate outside judicial scrutiny and oversight. This is why, as I’ve commented before, intelligence should never have control over counter terrorism; although here I’d add neither should the military. (Again, this is a subject for another blog post). Sadly, it seems support for these tendencies has also taken root in parts of what pass for counter terrorism studies.
For these reasons, as I mentioned on twitter recently, I do not wish my blog to be associated with the ongoing metastasization of what now passes for counter terrorism. Lest anyone accuse me of going rogue, I’d refer you to Australia’s National Counter Terrorism White Paper in which there is no support for dehumanizing practices and actions, with a lawful, proportionate and accountable response that upholds democratic principles and universal human rights instead advocated.
To be effective, Australia must pursue a principled and proportionate response that promotes and upholds the values we seek to protect. The Government does not support the use of torture or other unlawful methods in response to terrorism. Terrorism is a crime and the Government will pursue terrorists within proper legal frameworks and in accordance with the rule of law. A response based on our democratic values and universal human rights serves to undermine the narrative of terrorist groups that seek to portray our actions, and those of our allies, as oppressive…
I can’t tell you how many times in dialogues I’ve ended up with nothing else left to say in trying to explain the ‘war on terror’ except for “but we’re not like that,” “we don’t torture,” “my country does not support these things.” Because of this, I’d very much like to see both sides of Australian politics grow a backbone and speak out more strongly against those in the international community whose response has and continues to operate outside democratic values and universal human rights, and in doing so impacts upon the security of our country too. Sadly, I don’t see this happening any time soon.
For all of these reasons, I have for quite a while now toyed with the idea of taking the blog down, or finishing it because I don’t wish it to be associated with what counter terrorism is now conceptualized as, associated with, has become, and looks likely to become. But after some consideration I thought it best to keep it up, keep undertaking more research and to keep speaking out, and to do so with a new title for the blog; the rather unoriginal but pointed name of The Blog Formerly Known as All Things Counter Terrorism.
It may not mean much in the grand scheme of things. But it is what it is: the protest of one former analyst turned academic and public commentator, who’s sick and tired of watching what are in my view amoral, legally questionable, and counterproductive practices that go against democratic principles and universal human rights being justified and enacted as “counter terrorism.”
I’ve already noted no support mechanisms exist for those wanting to leave, or for after-care following a successful exit. This is something in dire need of attention. But it must be done in a way that provides a safe climate for women and children to leave, and safe climate allowing them to rebuild their lives wherever they settle.
Owing to the tendency of most counter radicalization or de-radicalization programs to be focused on exploiting counter radicalization benefit from those previously involved in the milieu, I fear that as it currently stands there is a very real likelihood that any assistance programs developed would be conditional on those assisted speaking out—particularly if these programs originate in the West. The reason for this is political; support is unlikely to be found in the West for such an initiative without public disassociation being a pre-requisite for provision of assistance and/or support.
So it is worth making clear how counterproductive this would be by raising some important points about how the pressures and safety issues for those leaving these lifestyles do not necessarily end after they have left. Here I’d note that the higher the jihad pedigree of the family the more criticism children and wives are subject to for leaving and/or speaking out, and this just doesn’t stop once they have left. It is ongoing. This is why it shouldn’t be that the only way out would be conditional on participating in a counter radicalisation narrative and publicly condemning the actions of their families and friends, and the only support network they’ve ever known. It’s counterproductive at best, and dangerous at worst, owing to the factors I’ve described above, and would make it all the harder for others to safely leave and start a new life.
Besides, the simple act of leaving speaks more than thousands of words or statements ever could. And in this instance, the quieter it is done the better; because quietly is how al Qaeda and other groups do their internal business and react to internal pressures such as this. Pressuring or forcing children and wives to speak out would thus be as counterproductive as labeling them, and draws from the same well of ignorance of both children’s situation within the milieu, how the issue of their leaving is dealt with inside these communities, and the impact pressuring them to speak would have on them, their willingness to leave, and their ability to do so safely.
Of course if they want to speak out they should be able to—but it shouldn’t need to be a pre-requisite for getting help. There is also much work to be done for creating safe spaces for them talk, if that is what they wish to do. It is worth remembering that those who have already left find themselves in a world where they and those they know continue to be dehumanized; a world that seems to reinforce what their parents and community have told them; that they would not be treated as human.
Consequently, in addition to creating a safe climate for them to leave if they wish, we need to address the issue of dehumanizing labeling. If we don’t, others watching who may want to leave will have their sense of being dehumanized and doomed reinforced and wonder “why bother, they hate us anyway.” If we don’t, we only reinforce the narrative of those seeking to pressure people and in particular women and children not to leave, and make those who have left vulnerable to being made an example of in their former communities. This not only impacts upon their safety, but also the willingness and ability of others to safely leave.
Walking away is a tremendously brave thing to do. Those who do face great risk and danger, and are turning their backs on all they know, with little to no support and often equipped with limited education or skills for a trade they can use to build a new life. They might not like America’s actions, or Australia’s actions or the actions of the West, or a raft of other countries for that matter. Nearly all of them have had family members and friends die. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not something they celebrate, it’s something they mourn. Over the years, I’ve seen this first hand.
They may be deeply embittered at their treatment and that of their families while also feeling anger towards their own family for its treatment of them. So many are struggling with conflicting emotions and feelings born from a life they did not choose, and paying the price of the actions of their parents—those who were meant to protect them. They are traumatized. Couple that with being isolated, cornered and targeted, and if you do manage to get out seeing yourself and others you care about (the only people you’ve ever known and who understand what it is like) being dehumanized and it adds up to some very powerful forces for radicalization. In view of this, it is truly remarkable that so many of them still choose to leave this lifestyle and don’t hate us to the extent they want to stay and fight, or take up the fight if and when they get home.
When they do get home, they don’t want our pity or even necessarily our charity. As I’ve repeatedly been told, all they want is to be treated as humans and to try to live a normal life. We should show them tolerance and understanding, not ignorance. We should not dehumanize them, or scorn them. When we do so, we only prove their parents and community right, and fail to provide a safe environment for them and others to leave. These children deserve better than this. They deserve to be treated as humans. And for those who have managed to leave against the odds, well they deserve our respect and support for making such a brave decision.
The culture these children have been born into is unity at all costs. Do not speak out against your parents, your family, your social environment. Do not act against it. Do not leave the unit. Not only do they face strong familial constraints against leaving, but also broader social constraints from within the milieu.
I’ve already mentioned how children were denied educations, but the boys fared far better than the girls. Most girls were married off very young. Some of these girls were not even in their teens. Soon they had children, trapping them even further. Many were used by bin Laden and others as bargaining chips, married off to solidify fraying allegiances, to ensure that families did not leave, to tighten intra group ties, or to forge new alliances. For example; bin Laden orchestrated the marriage of his son to Abu Hafs al Masri’s daughter in order to further tie him to al Qaeda after hearing he was considering resigning.
Both direct and indirect family ties have been used to prevent wives from leaving. If the marriage was to a cousin or into another family in the milieu with close social ties these child-wives were further restricted in their ability to leave, by being subjected to added layers of familial and social pressure. A stranger might have family support they could rely on and return to, so where possible this type of marriage was to be avoided.
And then we have the women who are now widowed and their children. How do they get out?
They need chaperones. As I said before, there is no one to contact, there are no initiatives in place. There is nothing. And so, usually, the widows are married into another family. Some are so traumatized they don’t want to leave; they want to die on the soil where they lost their husbands, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. And then of course there are some who support the cause and want to stay. But my focus here is on those who want to leave but cannot.
Some time ago someone traveled to the region to try to get the women and children out–owing we can reasonably assume to there being not one single program in place for them to attempt to return through any official channels, and the likelihood they would in any event be exploited. This person who was working to try to get the women and children out (and who himself was a child born into the militant milieu) was killed in a drone strike. That he was trying to get the women and children out was widely known in certain circles, and was information that without doubt reached intelligence elements. Perhaps this person was involved in other activities causing them to be targeted for killing, but we’ll never know because there is no accountability or transparency for these extra-judicial killings. The morality, legality and accountability of and for these types of extra judicial killings deserves its own blog post, but I raise it here because the consequence of this particular extrajudicial targeted killing has been that even this option is now closed off, further trapping women and children who wish to leave.
It is also important to note that this option was limited to begin with, because using it meant you had to have permission to leave. In some family environments women and children are obliged to follow the direction of their husband, father, brother, uncle or other family patriarch. Obliged in this sense means they have no choice but to obey, or face the consequences. It’s not like this for everyone, but I think it is important for people to know that for many it is. Women and children don’t always have agency; they don’t always have choices. Even when they do have permission it doesn’t stop pressure or counteraction from within the community.
For those who do have permission and are willing to go against such pressures, the closing of this route out means there is even less hope of leaving. As I mentioned earlier, it has also become more dangerous. They need chaperones and must by necessity travel with men who can be the subject of extra juridical targeted strikes. Still they try to leave, and some die in the process.
It has also become more dangerous to leave because of changes within the milieu, particularly in areas of Pakistan which militants have sought sanctuary (although also in some home areas to which they return). Owing to so many having left or trying to leave, a split has taken place in the younger generations. Those who have stayed and want to stay have become more, rather than less radical. This development has been driven not only by their exposure to the increasingly takfir nature of the ideological positions being propagated in areas they have sought sanctuary (and in the broader milieu), but also by their isolation and lengthy exposure to aerial strikes and conflict in general. Simply put, this development is fed in part by ideological and doctrinal elements and in part by conflict trauma and revenge, both of which are now inextricably linked, causing further radicalization in the milieu, which has important consequences for future militant activities, particularly in shaping the doctrines underpinning their targeting strategies (but this too requires its own blog post).
I raise it here because it is important to note that a consequence of the reliance of aerial strikes and targeted killings has been the elimination of older more pragmatic figures. This has resulted in the newer generations who have chosen to stay and the ideological current around them becoming particularly virulent because there are few left with the clout and pedigree to challenge the emergence of a more violent and unrestrained dynamic within the milieu.
It has also manifested in the increasing radicalization against the state in those parts of Pakistan where militants have sought sanctuary. But violence against the state is just one element. Aid workers are now at greater risk of violent attacks and unable to operate in some areas; no small thanks to the takfiri teachings and actions driving and/or justifying attacks on them, but also to those intelligence agencies who use aid work as cover. A consequence is that these areas are not safe to work in and are not receiving important aid assistance. As a result, aid organizations would face significant difficulties if they were to try to create safe pathways out for the women and children. They too may find themselves subject to attacks by both internal and external forces, not only endangering them, but also the women and children they may seek to assist.
With this option not currently in operation those wanting or trying to leave must run the gauntlet of pressures and actions from within their own communities, aerial strikes and unscrupulous intelligence agencies, who are, particularly in the case of young boys, likely to try to send them back in as assets. Accordingly, to try to leave is more dangerous now than ever.
And then we arrive at the question of what happens if they do manage to get themselves out?
Despite all this, the bin Laden children are, in some respects, luckier than some. Children from other families often don’t have family resources or support to assist them to leave, or to start a new life–if they do manage to find their own way out. Nor can they necessarily find a government to take them. But yet, still, when they could many have tried to escape this lifestyle. Their choice to persist and in doing so turn their backs on all they have ever known is by no means easy. Not only must they confront familial and social pressure against walking away, but there are very real physical challenges involved with trying to leave. Even back before the war in Afghanistan began, it was virtually impossible for them to leave.
To illustrate…I was told one story of a child who wanted to leave. For anonymity’s sake we’ll call the child Mahmud.
Without the knowledge of family, Mahmud got himself over the border and into Pakistan, but then what? Mahmud had limited money and no documents. Mahmud’s family members were wanted. Mahmud didn’t even know where the embassy of his country was. And even then, had Mahmud managed to get there, what fate would have awaited him?
Being of an age where he could be manipulated, Mahmud’s likely fate would have been, as it has befallen others, to be grabbed by the intelligence services, broken and used to spy on his family and others. It’s happened before. It still happens. And make no bones about it; how children are manipulated for these purposes is something truly hideous.
Perhaps the most awful publicly known example I can think of is the fate that befell one child in Sudan. He was sodomised and tortured by intelligence agents who used this to blackmail the child into spying on his family and others. He was discovered by militants to be spying, tortured again, and despite pleas from his family and others ordered executed by Ayman Zawahiri. Other children have been betrayed by those who blackmail or coerce them into working on their behalf. Abominably, these practices (and not only against children) still go on and intelligence agencies that are ostensibly held to codes of conduct turn a blind eye.
Children are raised on these stories, and taught to fear there is no help if you want to leave. Instead you will be used against your family, against the only people you know. Or you will be detained, tortured and possibly killed. They are taught they cannot trust and they cannot leave. As the fate of several children attests, this is not without grounds.
So where else would children like Mahmud, go?
There was and is no other home. In some cases, parents have been out of their home countries for years. Identity documents are lost, or forged, or nonexistent. Many of these children have been dragged from country to country, living under other names. The stress of this alone is enough to break a person.
They only had each other. There was no other support network. There were no exit routes for this type of situation. There were no opt-out programs through which they could seek help. There was nothing.
There is still nothing.
Let that statement sink in and think about.
In over ten years of war, the majority of children have tried to get out, and in doing so make the most powerful statement against their former lives that can be made, and yet there is not one single organization or initiative addressing this issue. Not one. I know because I’ve spent a good period of time focused on this, trying to see where help is or could be offered.
So let me tell you again. There are no programs for children or wives to contact. There is no organization to support them to leave. There are no organizations to help them rebuild their lives, to get an education, to support their families, to have their own families. From so many perspectives this is a travesty.
What there is consists of a spate of programs aimed at counter or de-radicalization, or countering violent extremism. None of these are suitable and most (particularly those in the West) are inherently flawed by their very titles and the premises underpinning them—not least because they first objectify who they seek to influence (but this is a subject for another post).
My point is that these programs assume radicalization tendencies or vulnerability, and thus a degree of assumptive guilt is placed on those they seek to influence, and/or they are objectified by being identified and singled out because of their vulnerabilities. Others are rehabilitative or amnesty based; aimed at those who have been actively involved in the milieu. What is there for people who were trapped or born into a lifestyle they never wanted or supported?
What is out there for the women and particularly the children, for whom leaving carries such great burden and risk, of going against family, culture and everything they’ve ever known?
Within their world bin Laden’s children have been among the most critical of Qaeda. In fact, what few people know is that bin Laden’s children were given a particularly hard time of it by other Arabs in the militant milieu because it was known they did not like their father’s activities. In addition to being burdened with his legacy they were ostracized by others and often prevented by both their family and others from socializing within their own community. Put that in the context of the isolated life they already led in these small communities, and you start to get a picture of how hard things were. In addition, it seems bin Laden’s response to the recalcitrance of his older children was to further isolate his younger children, as if they lacked any form of control already, and which makes the dehumanizing labeling of them all the more troubling.
Bin Laden’s children were denied the opportunity of an education, and not allowed to mix in the outside world — unless that is their father thought it would serve his purpose. At times they were not even allowed to live with electricity. It was never about them. They were never his priority; they never had control over their destiny while under his authority. When training was still going on, they were put through it at extremely young ages. It wasn’t a choice.
They never had a choice to join al Qaeda—people always just assumed their membership, despite most of them wanting no part of it. Bin Laden even pressured his own children to become suicide bombers. In Growing up Bin Laden, Omar bin Laden recounts his father’s efforts to convince his boys to sign up to the martyrdom list al Qaeda was circulating:
Once we were at his feet, my father said, “There is a paper on the wall of the mosque. This paper is for men who are good Muslims, men who volunteer to be suicide bombers.”
He looked at us with anticipation shining in his eyes. No one spoke or moved a muscle. So my father repeated what he had said. “My sons, there is a paper on the wall of the mosque. This paper is for men who volunteer to be suicide bombers. Those who want to give their lives for Islam must add their names to the list.”
That’s when one of my youngest brothers, one too young to comprehend the concept of life and death, got to his feet, nodded reverently in my father’s direction, and took off running for the mosque. That small boy was going to volunteer to be a suicide bomber.
I was furious, finally finding my voice. “My father, how can you ask this of your sons?”
Over the past few months, my father had become increasingly unhappy with me. I was turning out to be a disappointment, a son who did not want the mantle of power, who wanted peace, not war. He stared at me with evident hostility. “Omar, this is what you need to know, my son. You hold no more a place in my heart than any other man or boy in the entire country.” He glanced at my brothers. “This is true for all of my sons.”
My father’s proclamation had been given: His love for his sons did not sink further than the outer layer of his flesh. At last I knew exactly where I stood.
My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons.
That last line encapsulates in a nutshell the situation of children born into this life. They are sacrificed; their needs and safety subjugated by those meant to nurture and protect them.
As for the list; al Qaeda wasn’t short of recruits. Just prior to 9/11 there were 121 people on that list. Bin Laden bragged about it. So it’s not like he had to tap his own family members to bolster numbers, but still he was willing to pressure his own children and sacrifice them in order to strike his enemies. The extent of the control bin Laden exerted over his children is highlighted again in Omar’s book:
My father wanted his sons to be aloof from all men, to follow his direction, a man whom few people really knew. He said, “My sons must be the fingers of my right hand. My thoughts must control your actions in the same manner my brain controls the movement of my limbs. My sons, your limbs should react to my thinking as though my brain was in your head.”
We were to be robots, in other words, without opinions or actions of our own.
In view of this, it is all the more remarkable that through his fortitude Omar managed to get himself, his mother and some of his siblings out. More remarkable still, is that he spoke out about his experiences despite this coming at great personal cost.
For those asking themselves when reading this…well if the majority of children felt that way, why haven’t they too spoken out? But here, consider the impact of being labeled or having your siblings and friends labeled in a way that implies you don’t deserve to be treated as human. Why would they speak out? They have everything to lose and nothing to gain. They’ve already seen how little it did for their brother and friend.
And yes, some of bin Laden’s wives came back from Iran and joined him in Pakistan, but an important point here is that they had no control over how or where or to whom they were released. They were pawns in al Qaeda’s, or more specifically, bin Laden’s game. The hostage taking that spurred their release wasn’t to get his family out—it was to get senior members out. Even then family wasn’t priority.
In any event, my point is that in the aftermath of the Abbottabad raid, we’ve seen the complexities of how the situation of the wives and children played out. Given the time it took for their return to be negotiated, it’s not like they could have just up and left once they reached the compound and headed home to Saudi Arabia.
Maybe the wives and one older child didn’t want to leave. Maybe they were happy to stay. Until and/or if they publicly speak out in circumstances where they are not under duress we’ll never know. (As for the older child, well the dead can’t speak and we’ve not heard why he too was shot like his father rather than detained.) At least one wife, it seems, willingly chose to travel from outside the region to join bin Laden, but the children and grandchildren in that compound, with the possible exception of the one older child, had no choice where or with whom they lived. They could not go home and their older siblings were powerless to get them out. The older child living with his father may have made the choice to stay, but here too, it is important to remember that he was essentially stateless—making leaving all the more difficult, especially once in that compound.
The bin Laden children, though, are luckier than others. After their father’s death, the younger ones have been received by Saudi Arabia, will have the opportunity to get an education, and as best as possible live normal lives, while under the permanently watchful eye of family and government. They will live forever knowing they are under scrutiny, and with a legacy you would not wish on any child–and on which they are already being judged and labeled.