The Cuban in the Desert

The secret blogger who explains al Qaeda's new strategy.

In April 2011, a post appeared on the leading jihadist web forum Shumukh al-Islam authored by a little known writer called Abu Asma al-Kubi. The post itself was unimpressive. It argued that European support had been critical in keeping the United States in Afghanistan, and thus "individual jihad" targeting Europe could cause America's complete collapse "before the end of this year." The BBC's web monitoring service rightly described the post as "a poorly written and incoherent analysis of current events."

Yet even at the time, the jihadist sympathizers who ran the web forum treated the post with a sense of importance out of step with its meager intellectual heft. Shumukh al-Islam promoted it heavily, placing a banner advertising the article on its main page. This was the second time that the forum had given such a prominent place to one of Kubi's posts -- the previous time, it was for an October 2010 post contending that then-ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus was preparing to negotiate a ceasefire with al Qaeda. The author's adopted name -- al-Kubi, or "the Cuban" -- suggested that he spent time at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, a hint that the man behind these posts may have been someone of significance.

Kubi would continue to post online for another couple of years, anonymously producing over a dozen long posts for a variety of jihadist sites. And when his identity was revealed, he turned out to be more influential than Western analysts could ever have imagined: He was Said al-Shihri, the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It was only after AQAP admitted in July 2013 that Shihri had been killed in a drone strike that forum members went public with his identity.

At a time when the risk of a major terrorist attack by AQAP has succeeded in disrupting U.S. diplomatic work in roughly 20 countries, from Mauritania to Afghanistan, Shihri's writings provide a unique glimpse into the thinking of the organization's leadership. And with AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi's recent promotion to deputy manager of the global organization, they may even provide readers with hints of the direction that the entire terror organization will take.

Shihri's writings reveal a thinker who preferred a strong, centralized jihadist organization that nonetheless left ample room for individual initiative in carrying out attacks. At a time when some analysts still question whether al Qaeda is capable of strategic thought, he offered a phased plan for expanding jihadist power in the post-Arab Spring world. Yet despite his emphasis on strategy, Shihri's paranoia about Shiites -- who were seemingly an even greater target for his animosity than the United States -- distinguished him even from other jihadist writers. Given the renewed Sunni-Shiite sectarian animus over the Syria war, Shihri's writings may even have been ahead of the curve with regard to jihadist thought. If such views are held by Wuhayshi, al Qaeda may be poised to repeat some of the brutal errors it made in the past.

A jihad of one

Shihri's April 2011 post to Shumukh al-Islam claimed that "individual jihad" -- attacks by individuals not guided by al Qaeda's central leadership -- in Europe could cause the collapse of the United States. It was a theme he would harp on repeatedly. Several scholars have also addressed this issue, with some -- such as Marc Sageman in his 2008 book Leaderless Jihad -- suggesting that such informal networks could eclipse the importance of al Qaeda itself.

Shihri, however, saw no contradiction between individual jihad and al Qaeda's central hierarchy. In a February 2012 post, he described individual jihad as "very important," especially against the United States, which he viewed as a paper tiger. He thought it shameful that the United States had killed al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and Anwar al-Awlaki without provoking even small retaliatory attacks, such as setting fire to forests or cars.  Shihri stated that individual jihad could "harm, deter, and distract the enemy," pointing specifically to the economic consequences of forcing the United States to spend "billions to secure its inside."

Shihri's posts seem to differ with opinions that argue that either individual or regionalized jihad has eclipsed al Qaeda's organizational structure as the driving force in terrorism today. He sees no contradiction between the existence of many different al Qaeda branches and a central jihadist structure. As he writes, God blessed the movement with "many jihadist organizations under one emirate."  

A jihadist need not wait to coordinate with the larger group, Shihri counseled. Rather, he should take his own initiative in gathering information "and whatever he can find ... to benefit jihad." That information should be passed along to the nearest leadership outpost, and "if there is an outpost in his country, he joins it or proposes to it the work that he can do."

In other words, Shihri formulates a largely centralized model, but one that incentivizes, encourages, and sets the direction for individual actions. This is consistent with the messaging and propaganda of AQAP, whose online English-language magazine Inspire consistently encourages readers to undertake individual jihad.

Al Qaeda and the Arab Spring

Lost in the often tired debate over whether the uprisings across the Arab world over the past few years damaged al Qaeda is the manner in which these revolutionary events have changed it. Shihri propounded a clear vision for how jihadists should respond to the changes gripping the Arab world.

Salafist movements have struggled with how they should relate to the region's new democratic systems, with some arguing that electoral politics, even if problematic, can be beneficial in helping to usher in sharia (Islamic law). Shihri delivered a sharp rebuttal to this view, arguing that Salafists erred by forgoing violence, which in fact was necessary to establish legitimate religious rule.

Shihri explained that a crucial step in establishing sharia was "fighting the invading enemies, be they pure infidels or apostate agents, and driving them out of the Muslim territories." Only once they had fought could they move on to the second stage - reestablishing sharia as the "source of judgment in all Islamic countries."

In Shihri's view, the efforts of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to establish a religious polity through political participation was a fool's errand. While most Westerners think elections confer legitimacy while violence does not, Shihri argued the opposite -- that imposing a religious regime by violence is the only legitimate alternative, while elections would create illegitimate authority.

While Shihri saw no hope in the political openings of the Arab uprisings, he immediately recognized that the regional upheaval would give jihadists an unprecedented opportunity to spread their ideas in society. The al Qaeda leader believed that one important stage of the new period was undertaking dawa, or missionary activity. While the old regimes in places like Egypt and Tunisia used to suppress such efforts, a number of jihadist figures who weighed in on the matter -- including al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri -- correctly predicted that the new regimes' tolerance for once-prohibited ideas would offer jihadists a chance to expand their base of support.

Anti-Shiite hatred

Shihri's stance toward Shiites is clear, uncompromising, and chilling. "Kill them wherever they are," he wrote in November 2011, "because they are disbelievers and are forbidden to enter the entire Arabian Peninsula."

Shihri consistently referred to Shiites by the pejorative term al-rawafid  ("rejectionists"). He described Iran and Shiites in general as "the chief enemy of Sunnis today," and seemed to view them as a greater foe than even the United States or Israel. Not only did the al Qaeda commander foresee the Huthis -- a Shiite movement in Yemen that AQAP has sporadically attacked -- capturing the capital of Sanaa, he also thought Shiites would seize control of the oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, thus coming to dominate traditional areas of Sunni power.

With Wuhayshi's ascension in al Qaeda's ranks, understanding his strategic thinking is important -- and his former deputy's writing provides a good starting point. If Wuhayshi shares Shihri's views of Shiites, for example, al Qaeda might escalate some of its notorious sectarian attacks. It is also entirely possible that Wuhayshi's promotion will allow al Qaeda's core leadership to provide more frequent guidance to affiliates: After all, Yemen occupies a more central position than Pakistan, and in the past jihadists in Yemen have served as a conduit for communications between the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and North Africa.

Interpreting al Qaeda and its affiliates can be extremely difficult for Western analysts -- the organization remains so shadowy that we risk inferring broad trends from mere fragments of information. But as observers attempt to gain better perspective on Wuhayshi, they would do well to look at the online writings of "the Cuban" -- whose work, although it started so incoherent, eventually came to map a body of thought from which we might learn.

-/AFP/Getty Images


The Princeling of Manhattan

Will the exiled son of China's most notorious politician reclaim his father's legacy?

Two thousand years ago, in the kingdom of Jin, there was a courtier named Zhao Shuo whose grandfather and father both served as prime ministers. When a new ruler came to power, he felt threatened by the Zhao clan's influence and arrogance. With the help of a powerful general, he executed the entire family except for Zhao's pregnant wife, who escaped.

She gave birth to a son, known as the Zhao Orphan, who spent years studying ancient Chinese classics and Kung Fu, becoming a learned scholar and a fearsome swordsman. There are many different versions of the tale -- an ancient drama, a hit 2010 Chinese film, a 2012 opera adaptation -- and most end with the Zhao Orphan avenging his family by slaughtering the general and returning triumphantly to court. The saga of Bo Xilai, the former party boss of Chongqing and Politburo member who is set to face trial this month for corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power, is a modern variation on this traditional theme: a family empire collapsing after losing a brutal power struggle. But the fate of this generation's Zhao Orphan -- Bo Guagua, the son of Bo Xilai -- remains unknown.

Most of the key characters in the real-life drama have met their end. Last August, Bo's wife Gu Kailai received a suspended death sentence for murder; in September, Bo's former right-hand-man Wang Lijun was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Some of Bo's allies within the senior ranks of the party and the military have been purged and many of his cohorts in Chongqing have been sacked or jailed. As far as we know, Guagua, the 26 year-old son of Bo and his wife, and the heir apparent to the Bo family dynasty, is the last one standing.  

Born in 1987, Guagua is a de facto member of China's communist aristocracy -- his maternal grandfather was a powerful general, while his paternal grandfather, Bo Yibo, held the rank of vice-premier, a higher position than his son, Bo Xilai, ever attained. Before his father incited the biggest political scandal to rock China in decades, Guagua lived a charmed life. At age 12, he enrolled at the elite Harrow School in London. The first Chinese national to attend the school in its nearly 550-year history, Guagua told a Chinese talk show host in 2009 that he studied Shakespeare, developed his oratorical skills, took up fencing, and became president of the equestrian club. He then went to Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics, and in 2010 he enrolled in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

It is not uncommon for Chinese princelings -- the sons and daughters of top Chinese officials -- to study overseas, but Guagua was unusually high profile. At Harvard, he lived in an apartment that rented for around $3,000 a month and drove around in a Porsche. According to the British newspaper Daily Telegraph, in 2010 Guagua helped organize a "China Trek" for his classmates; he arranged for them to meet senior communist leaders in Beijing and gave them a grand tour of Chongqing, complete with a police motorcade.  

The public attention soon proved to be a political liability for his father, who at the time was conducting a controversial campaign to fight corruption in the municipality of Chongqing. Bo seemed hypocritical for championing Maoist ideology to the people of Chongqing while encouraging his own son to spend tens of thousands of dollars of someone's money -- it is still not clear whose -- to study Western politics and philosophy.

On March 9, 2012, at a combative press conference at the sidelines of China's annual congress, Bo Xilai called reports that his son had been caught driving around Beijing in a red Ferrari "nonsense," and said that Guagua's Oxford and Harvard educations were paid by scholarships. There are people, Bo said, who have "poured filth on myself and my family." Six days later, the filth caught up with him: Bo was removed from his position, the culmination of years of political infighting. He hasn't been seen in public since, though in late July prosecutors charged Bo with "bribery, abuse of power and corruption." 

Since Bo's dismissal, Guagua has received added scrutiny: Pictures of him posing bare-chested with two young Caucasian women at an Oxford costume party, urinating in a park, and vacationing with the granddaughter of revolutionary veteran Chen Yun in Tibet, have circulated widely on the Chinese Internet. His father's foes have called on the government to bring Guagua back to China from the United States for investigation. "The party leadership should extradite Bo Guagua," said a Chinese journalist who was imprisoned by Bo Xilai in the 1990s. "Otherwise, he could turn into a potential threat and the current leadership would bitterly regret."

The uncertainties surrounding his father's case and talks of extradition in the media have forced the modern-day Zhao Orphan to disappear from public view. In early August, news surfaced that Bo Guagua has enrolled in Columbia University Law School. A pro-Bo princeling, who asked to speak anonymously, said the news could indicate that Bo Xilai has struck a deal with President Xi Jinping and will plead guilty to the charge of corruption. In return, Guagua will be shielded from prosecution and the Bo family would be able to preserve some of its assets overseas, including a villa in Cannes.  

There is an added benefit: studying at Columbia will enable Bo Guagua to keep his legal status in the United States without applying for political asylum, and allow him the distance to nurse and meditate on his grievances. "The political calamity that befell the Bo family could be the catalyst for Bo Guagua's transformation from a dandified playboy to a man of political conviction," says Chen Xiaoping, a New York-based China scholar. "Bo's family tragedy might stoke his political ambition."

That might prove a bit optimistic, but there is something almost Kennedy-esque about the rise and fall of the house of Bo: A U.S. lawyer described Gu Kailai as the "Jackie Kennedy of China" because of her "brains, charm and beauty"; he knew her in 1998, around the same time she reportedly met Neil Heywood, the British businessmen she was convicted of murdering. Guagua inherited his father's good looks, charisma, passion for public service, media savvy, and probably his ambition as well. "He wants to make a billion dollars and be politically important," said a Chinese businessman who knows Guagua, according to an April 2012 Reuters article. Guagua, moreover, was rumored to have confided to a friend that he aspired to be the John F. Kennedy of China -- the charismatic leader of a new, more open generation.

Whether that can happen anytime soon is an open question. In a speech at Beijing University in 2009, Guagua told his young audience that he was not planning to pursue politics, but instead was interested in spreading education and culture to "benefit the people." It's a common denial for aspiring politicians both in the United States and China -- but since seeing what happened to his father, his ambitions may have sharpened. The tale of the Zhao Orphan normally ends with the protagonist righting the wrongs of his parent's generation. Will Guagua have the same opportunity?