One of the most extraordinary documents to emerge in recent years is the application form for a job in Osama bin Laden’s Jihad. It was found in the trove that the Americans captured when they stormed and killed the most wanted man in the history of their hit-lists. The questions run to two long pages, and my first reaction was to dismiss it as a spoof. Witness: “Do you wish to execute a suicide operation?” Slowly, however, the psychological evidence began to fit a pattern. Father’s name, grandfather’s name, but no mother’s name, as women are a fading identity in this scheme of things. Date of arrival was specific; day of departure from the “Jihad theatre” was more open [when not left to the Almighty]. Occasionally a “please” was thrown in, although not without a sense of chill: please, or else. You travel to heaven riding the chariot of free will.
The true surprise came from the cumulative. The form was deadpan bureaucratic. [Is deadpan a subconscious pun?]
There is an explanation. Doctrine says that a Jihad can be declared only by a state, and the Osamas and Caliph Ibrahims realise that their legitimacy, even in popular estimation, will be tested by form as much as cause. They try to acquire the trappings of formal power as quickly as they can manage. The biggest inducement for fresh recruits is control of some geography and a recognised base of government.
The most successful Jihad, by this measure, was the Taliban’s conquest of a whole nation, Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Taliban could not protect its gains because it did not know how to rule, and had absolutely no concept of an essential requirement, foreign policy. The Taliban outsourced most of its engagement with the external world to its mentor, Pakistan, and comforted itself with the view that recognition by Saudi Arabia and UAE was sufficient to ensure security. If the twin towers of New York had not been brought down by a parallel Jihad, the Taliban might even have got away with its spectacular coup, for there is evidence that America had begun to negotiate secretly with the radical regime in Kabul. But that is another “if” of history that will never be calmed by an answer.
Pakistan has been a fortress for Jihad, offering training courses as well as battlefield experience. The shadow conflicts nurtured by Pakistan never run on straight lines. Pakistan’s military establishment controls, or does its best to control, currents, crosscurrents and undercurrents.
The second most successful Jihad has been the rise of ISIS across a substantial part of Iraq. It now controls territory larger than the size of Britain. The world made a costly, early mistake when it accepted a nomenclature that ISIS adopted for itself: Islamic State. Whether this state was of Sham [Syria] or Levant is irrelevant. What was important was that it was a state. ISIS has magnetised recruits from a wider cross-section of the Muslim world than the Jihad against the Soviet Union, and every day that it survives becomes more evidence of success. Far from being battered by a multinational alliance, it has now captured Ramadi, within artillery distance of Baghdad. ISIS sits atop the most precious resources of the region, oil and water, confident that it can hold off adversaries who believe in an air war rather than a concerted ground offensive. If ISIS becomes an established fact, it will change not just the map of West Asia but also the geopolitics of Asia and north Africa.
The most interesting question in Osama’s application form was not “Have you been ever convicted by any court?” or “Have you ever been in jail or prison?” [We cannot be certain whether jail was a qualification or disqualification, but that is a separate story.] The most interesting query was: “How many trips have you taken to Pakistan and for what reason[s]?” There is a mention of the Afghan warzone, but the Pakistan question is the only one demanding a comprehensive answer. There is no similar question about any other Muslim country.
The reason is neither simple nor singular, although we can only speculate about Osama’s thought process. Pakistan has been a fortress for Jihad, offering training courses as well as battlefield experience. The shadow conflicts nurtured by Pakistan never run on straight lines. Pakistan’s military establishment controls, or does its best to control, currents, crosscurrents and undercurrents. Any applicant to Osama’s Jihad was hardly likely to have visited Pakistan, whether once or often, because he needed a holiday in Murree. Would he be a veteran or spy? In either case, whose veteran and whose spy? Sometimes the difference between loyalty and treachery might be nothing more than opportunity. As a person whose head offered a fortune for bounty hunters, Osama bin Laden had reason to be wary.
Osama bin Laden is dead, but his illegitimate Jihad has expanded beyond the horizons envisaged in his prime, or even during his long years of decline in Pakistan. Too many governments have believed that they can use these shadow warriors for short-term tactical interests, while the new Caliphs play the long game. There is a world war going on, and only one side is doing any real fighting.