On the seventh anniversary of the tragedy of September 11 and the 20th anniversary of the even bigger tragedy of the founding of al Qa’eda it is safe to say that the network has seen better days.
In the 1990s, al Qa’eda was a force to be reckoned with, its members had been instrumental in the fight against the Russian invaders in Afghanistan that culminated in the establishment of a primitive and crude state under the control of the Taliban.
Middle Eastern governments paid attention to its every word and Muslim crowds secretly admired its leaders. Then came 9/11. To say that the world failed to comprehend the magnitude of this event is an understatement. The pride of none other than the most powerful nation in the world was damaged and with it the notion of Pax Americana. Regimes in two countries were toppled, decades long alliances with European states sidestepped and the Geneva Convention trampled upon by a signatory democratic state.
In the days after the 9/11 attacks, I remember receiving images of Osama bin Laden on my mobile phone. It wasn’t such a surprise, after all, two of my countrymen were involved in the attacks but the self-censoring UAE media then barely mentioned that fact and tacitly allowed us to associate the event purely with Saudis. OBL T-shirts were sold in Indonesia and Pakistan; his tapes were played in dark corners of the Arab world that resemble the damp caves that he calls home.
It is accepted that today al Qa’eda is weaker, though not defeated; more cowardly than ever and possibly – even in smaller numbers – more dangerous, just like a wounded and cornered animal. Yet, al Qa’eda’s weakness has less to do with America’s constant military assaults upon it, no matter what the Pentagon likes to have us believe.
In fact, what little sympathy for the devil that exists today is more likely due to American policies that are capitalised on by what I call the Friends of Al Qa’eda Network, such as the Al-Jazeera television channel, Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper and the Islamic Brotherhood movement to “expose” the American government.
What killed al Qa’eda in the hearts and minds of former supporters and sympathisers wasn’t a factor of might, but more a factor of light; people saw no such thing at the end of the al Qa’eda tunnel. There is no good to look forward to, only perpetual evil and destruction.
Following al Qa’eda’s doctrine, once the American enemy was destroyed, it would be Europe’s turn, then the countries of the Arab world, then the 50 or so “infidel” Islamic countries. In fact by the time they are done “cleansing” the world of all the people they call infidels, there won’t be many left other than OBL, al Zawahiri and a few dozen other bitter men in dirty garbs.
Al Qa’eda’s unpopularity is evident not merely from the dying pool of text messages praising the wise chief, and the dearth of the fashion conscious, T-shirt-buying everyday al Qa’eda supporter; what is more revealing is the recent about-turn of many of the co-founders of extremist Islamic violence. The list is astonishing: Dr Fadl, the founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and author of the Salafist Jihadist bible now calls al Qa’eda “immoral”; and Sheikh Salman al Oudah, a former jailed radical cleric turned peace activist and recent Ramadan Majlis guest of the forward thinking Abu Dhabi Crown Prince.
Sheikh Salman, who was previously referenced in an OBL manuscript, is now more identified with what is known as the “Ramadan Letter” to OBL in which he asked: “How many innocents, old men, children are killed in the name of al Qa’eda?”.
Finally, in a recent interview with Frank Gardner, the BBC security correspondent, Nu’man bin Othman, a former partner in arms of OBL, mocked his ex-comrade: “He declared war. He didn’t ask you, huh, you don’t know about it, and after that he would like you to support him. And if you don’t, he says, ‘Oh you let me down. You failed me and you failed Islam.’ Why should I believe I have a duty or obligation towards al Qa’eda?”
Young aspiring Arabs from North Africa are risking their lives to emigrate to the southern shores of Europe, not Pakistan; like their peers across the world, they’d rather end up in Abu Dhabi not Abu Ghraib. Al Qa’eda may still be able to harness the internet to brainwash individuals with double-digit IQ scores, but that is all they are good for; indoctrinating juveniles into a culture built around death instead of life, destruction instead of creation and misery instead of hope. The excitement of new recruits is most probably short lived.
Al Qa’eda today is deeply unpopular with Muslims, despite Guantanamo and despite Israeli and American belligerence. And that is probably the best news that we in the civilised world can ever hope for.
This article originally appeared in The National on September 14, 2008.