A most remarkable conversation
January 30th, 2010

It is prudent to understand threats, and we in the west accordingly read the writings of the jihadists in an attempt to understand them, while they in turn read the writings of our analysts — and something not unlike a conversation emerges.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, for instance, has twice quoted Will McCants and Jarret Brachman’s Stealing al-Qaida’s Playbook report for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, once in a video and once in his book, The Exoneration. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi too has cited material from the CTC, comparing it favorably to that of his challengers within the jihadist environment:

The understanding of our enemies and their readings of my publications, have yielded results that differ completely from the calls of those inexperienced people and their understanding. For example, the theorists of the Combating Terrorism Center in the US Military, in the 6th issue of their magazine, studied the possibility of exploiting Al-Maqdisi to strike at jihad and the mujahidin (as they have exploited the leaderships of the Egyptian Islamic Group). The conclusion was that such an attempt will lead to failure because of [Maqdisi’s] steadfastness and the firmness of his positions. This is what the enemies said about me and distributed on the Internet.

So al-Maqdisi is writing jihadist materials (“my publications”), western analysts such as Joas Wagemakers are then publishing “their readings of my publications” in the CTC’s magazine, al-Maqdisi is commenting on this on his own website, whereupon Thomas Hegghammer at the Jihadica blog translates al-Maqdisi’s comment, and posts it at Jihadica with commentary of his own.

Each side is basically addressing its own people here, and the other side is eavesdropping — and yet as I said above, a sort of conversation emerges. When you read someone, and quote them, and they read your work and see themselves quoted, you and they may be bitter adversaries — but you are bound to feel some degree of personal connection, perhaps even satisfaction. Indeed, Hegghammer admits “I would be lying if I said I am not envious of their being cited by jihadi legends” — to some extent mirroring the delight al-Maqdisi takes in being assessed as “steadfast” and “firm” by the folks at CTC.


In the case of Abu Walid al-Masri and Leah Farrall, the conversation has been taken a whole lot farther.

Leah Farrall was until recently the “al Qaeda subject matter expert” for the Australian Federal Police, and investigated the 2005 Bali bombings on their behalf. She is presently completing her doctoral dissertation on “Al Qaeda and militant salafist jihad”.

Some months back, Leah “rather cheekily requested a dialogue with a prominent Islamic militant,” Abu Walid al-Masri, whom she describes as “a legendary figure in mujaheddin circles … known during the Soviet-Afghan war for his prowess as a military strategist” and “the first foreigner to swear allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar.” Abu Walid has written, “I cannot deny that it amazed me personally. I did not think in my mind that this would happen one day” — but he accepted Leah’s suggestion, and they have now exchanged a considerable number of posts, each posing questions to the other.

Abu Walid’s posts in response to Leah’s questions are up on Leah’s website in Arabic — Leah has already translated some of them into English, the rest will follow — and very recently, Leah posted her own, extensive responses to Abu Walid’s questions. I’d already written up the correspondence between the two of them on this blog and on Zenpundit some time back, shortly after it began, and Leah has graciously invited me to post my own responses to this most recent exchange, which I will again do in two parts, here and on Zenpundit.


Here, I want to address the issue of online communications between people of opposing views. These can often be contentious in the extreme, as anyone who reads the comments appended to online press reports of anything from politics to soccer games can quickly tell.

Leah and Abu Walid are not, on the face of it, “on the same team”: Abu Walid describes them as “the (terrorist) and (counter-terrorist)” — and yet their tone throughout is cordial. Thus Abu Walid writes:

I hope that our dialogue will be a step towards a common understanding and human relations between the natural and fair people. That is a goal worth working for and sacrificing for. It also illustrates the importance of the brave step you have taken to open the door to such a dialogue and continuation of it.

and Leah responds:

Like you, I think our dialogue is important. We may not agree, but hopefully we can keep talking and come to a greater level of understanding. As you say, it is a small step, but it is an important one, and any step towards greater understanding is a step away from conflict, which we all want to end. At the end of the day we are all humans. We all have families. We all want to live in peace and freedom and support our families to the best of our ability. I hope that these universal traits eventually lead us down the road to peace instead of conflict.

My own response (soon, on Zenpundit) to the substance of their discussion will begin from that point.


My purpose here is to draw attention to the possibility this dialogue exemplifies, that of having a probing yet civil dialogue between people with passionately held opposing points of view.

To my way of thinking, Leah and Abu Walid manage this by speaking plainly, by sharing a common interest in learning more about each other’s views, by allowing each other the understanding that there may be some things each of them would prefer not to discuss, and — I believe, very significantly — by couching their dialogue in the form of questions.

These questions may contain assumptions, in some cases, with which the respondents disagree — but because the format is question- rather than statement-based, the respondents can then dispute the assumptions while proposing their own views. The question and question format — because this is not an interview, in which one person questions and the other responds, but a mutual questioning — in my view facilitates listening, facilitates the hearing of the other’s position.


In her article about this dialogue for The Australian, Leah comments:

In the war on terror it has become commonplace to dehumanise our adversaries and disregard their grievances. A fear of moral contagion means talking to militants legitimises their cause. Understanding what drives them has taken second place to eradicating them, even in the academic world.

The US Secretary of Defense said recently that he recognizes the Taliban to be “part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point”, and that “Political reconciliation ultimately has to be a part of settling the conflict”.

The dialog between Leah and Abu Walid lays some groundwork for that process, in a manner unthinkable before the advent of the internet.

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