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Edition 13 Volume 5 - March 29, 2024

The future of al-Qaeda

Islamist diversity is al-Qaeda's enemy  - Abdel Monem Said Aly
Future developments might make the Islamic liberal wing the majority.

The globalization of Islam  - Faisal Devji
Al-Qaeda operates as a set of services linked to a brand name that is franchised globally.

Oil: the West's soft underbelly  - Hrach Gregorian
One of the pillars of al-Qaeda's operational objectives in its war against the West is striking at targets of high economic value, the so-called "bleed-until-bankruptcy plan".

From al-Qaeda to al-Qaedism  - Hussein Solomon
Al-Qaedism is nourished by real grievances.

Iraq brought al-Qaeda back to life  - Lawrence Wright
When the US withdraws from Iraq, al-Qaeda will be able to boast of an extraordinary victory over the last remaining superpower.

Islamist diversity is al-Qaeda's enemy
 Abdel Monem Said Aly

Almost six years after the great terrorist attack of 9/11, al-Qaeda remains an active terrorist organization. With its Taliban allies, it dominates regions along the Afghan- Pakistani border. It is making the life of NATO forces and the Afghan government very difficult in the rest of Afghanistan, and has compelled American forces in Iraq to contemplate leaving the country. From time to time, the worldwide organization is capable of launching strikes in western and Islamic capitals alike. Perhaps most important, copy-cat organizations with allegiance to al-Qaeda are spreading in Arab and Islamic countries. Al-Qaeda has become a model for Muslim youth to emulate and follow. Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are spreading the word of terror and militancy regularly through the internet and al-Jazeera TV station.

Still, the future of al-Qaeda is uncertain. The world is now capable of fighting the deadly organization better than at any time before. The frequency of its operations in any one country has been reduced. It has not been for lack of effort that al-Qaeda has failed to repeat its attack on the US but rather because of methodical American security work. Worldwide security cooperation has proven fruitful. This struggle between measures taken by security services and al-Qaeda's ability to reinvent itself in different countries will most likely continue for some time to come.

Al-Qaeda's future will also be linked to the rest of the Islamic fundamentalist phenomenon all over the world. Islamic fundamentalism is diversified. In a typical Muslim country or community, it expresses itself in diverse ways.

One such way is a sharp increase in the religiosity of the population. The religious establishment (al-Azhar in Egypt, parallel institutions in other Muslim countries) moves from dependency on the government to adoption of more conservative views. The Muslim Brotherhood becomes the Islamic fundamentalist mainstream. The brothers' view of religion is comprehensive, encompassing life and death, religion and state, the individual and the community. They do not accept terror and violence as a mode of political behavior except when Muslims are subject to aggression by others. They believe in a democratic political process in which the basic tenets of Islam are observed. Their democratic understanding is basically majoritarian. In general they use religious symbols to incite and mobilize the population and energize voters.

Populist Islam, in turn, is represented by individuals who use modern media, particularly television, to influence large numbers of audiences in Islamic countries. They vary from the most moderate to extremists. The vast majority are conservatives who use diverse methods to mobilize Muslim masses.

Radical Islam is represented by a large number of organizations that operate mostly underground and espouse diverse forms of political violence. The most notable are the Gamaat Islamiya and Jihad Islami groups. These terrorists espouse violence in Islamic, Arab, and western countries in order to change the world so that it more closely resembles a virtuous society. The best examples of these are the Taliban and al-Qaeda; although they are the most threatening, most other groups in this category also adhere to the central idea of separation from a western-dominated world. They have negative assessments regarding both the extent to which international relations are just and the moral codes that govern their interactions.

However, the diversity of these groups also reflects different interests and understandings of the world. Ironically, this diversity might contribute to the decline of al-Qaeda and its associates because of their global tendencies, in contrast with the nationalist features of the other groups. Zawahiri's criticism of Hamas in Palestine, Hizballah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for being soft and consorting with the enemy in parliaments has caused al-Qaeda to lose many of its admirers in the Arab world. The militancy displayed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his colleagues in Iraq against Shi'ites was rejected by other fundamentalists as divisive to the Islamic world and as interfering with the construction of a worldwide front against western hegemony.

Yet in the long term, the future of al-Qaeda is linked even more to the overall political and economic development of the Arab and Islamic world, the resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict and the development of a globalized liberal wing within the ranks of Islamic fundamentalism. The Islamic liberals believe in the congruence between Islam and democracy; the concept of citizenship is central to their moral commitment. They are represented in the Justice and Development party in Morocco, the Wasat party in Egypt and the Justice and Reconciliation party in Turkey. Unfortunately, such groups are not abundant at present, but future developments might make them the majority.- Published 29/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Abdel Monem Said Aly is president of Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.

The globalization of Islam
 Faisal Devji

Al-Qaeda's life as a movement lies in its death as an organization. Given the militant obsession with martyrdom, this life after death should come as no surprise to us. Indeed it is precisely because the movement can no longer be tied to some traditional form of political organization, ideology or even purpose that its influence can spread so rapidly across a global terrain. Al-Qaeda operates as a set of services linked to a brand name that is franchised globally. But for this to happen its founding organization, established to fight the Cold War's last battle in Afghanistan, is compelled to shrink to a symbolic point. Similar is the fate of al-Qaeda's anti-Soviet ideology, which Alice-like has to pass through globalization's looking glass in miniature form, reduced to a half-dozen or so sound bites for the benefit of a do-it-yourself jihad.

All this can be seen very clearly in the various bombings that followed the spectacular 9/11 attacks, which in one move established al-Qaeda as the most potent brand name on the militant's marketplace. Thus the official reports on the London bombings tell us that the mobilization of its perpetrators was unprecedented in its rapidity, and that unlike cults, secret societies or radical groups in the past, these men did not have to be removed from everyday life and immersed in some special environment in order to be indoctrinated. Instead they were mobilized in public places like gyms and on rafting expeditions, their only truly private act being the concoction of explosives. All this was possible only because there existed neither an organization to discipline nor an ideology to indoctrinate them.

No traditional organization or ideology can exist for a global cause that refuses to be grounded in any particular struggle. Like other global causes, therefore, from environmental to humanitarian ones, that backed by al-Qaeda takes the form of a network rather than a hierarchy. How else can the security of the global Muslim community be achieved except in this highly individualized way? Moving from a hierarchical to a networked form entails a corresponding shift from a vertical to a horizontal mode of dissemination. After all, it is no longer an ideology or doctrine that is being transmitted here but a set of practices with instructions provided that are linked to a brand name. All that is required is to download them--or to buy into the franchise.

In this sense, al-Qaeda-inspired militancy represents the democratization of Islamic authority, since its practitioners manufacture their own legitimacy from scripture and other fragments that circulate globally in electronic form. When authority is no longer tied to a particular society, in other words, but has become a global commodity, it cannot constitute an old-fashioned hierarchy but depends completely on the purchasing decisions of individual buyers. Such an attitude toward religious authority, of course, is not unique to militants but characterizes even the most pacific of Muslim practices. In his book Globalised Islam, Olivier Roy points out that the attempt by many Muslims to purify Islam of all cultural particularity ends up making a global technology of it, which is to say a standardized product to be bought and used in the global arena.

While Muslim practices may be globally standardized in some Arab form, this does not mean they are Arabized so much as technologized in that such practices take on a global dimension that is self-consciously separated from the Muslim's culture of origin. It is therefore as technique that Islam is globalized for both militants and moderates, which fits with the use that both groups make of technology for religious purposes. Militants of the al-Qaeda type, for example, tend to pitch their practices not to local audiences as much as to global ones, so that their widely disseminated videotapes refer mostly to each other, and indeed talk to each other in a frenzy of technological communication from which real people and societies have been excluded. But divested from real people and societies, militant acts cease to have political purchase, having become gestures within a global society that has come into existence but does not yet possess political institutions of its own.

Unlike Muslim politics of a previous generation, al-Qaeda is concerned neither with states nor ideologies, though it does not therefore seek to overturn these, taking instead the globe and all who inhabit it as sites of action. Alongside environmentalists or pacifists, the men inspired by al-Qaeda consider Muslim suffering to be a "humanitarian" cause, like climate change or nuclear proliferation, and it must be addressed globally or not at all. The political institutions of the state, in other words, have become instruments and no longer provide the conceptual framework for militant practices, which exist in a global society bereft of political institutions. Al-Qaeda achieves meaning in this institutional vacuum.- Published 29/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Faisal Devji is associate professor of history at The New School in New York.

Oil: the West's soft underbelly
 Hrach Gregorian

Along with guerilla warfare, cyber war and ideological indoctrination, one of the pillars of al-Qaeda's operational objectives in its war against the West is striking at targets of high economic value, the so-called "bleed-until-bankruptcy plan" first made public by Osama bin Laden in December 2024.

"One of the main causes for our enemies gaining hegemony over our country," bin Laden reasoned, "is their stealing of our oil; therefore [Islamic fighters] should make every effort...to stop the greatest theft in history of the natural resources of both present and future generations, which is being carried out through collaboration between foreigners and [local] agents..." Note the tarring of local regimes along with "foreigners".

Al-Qaeda has been careful to spare oil wells, which are seen as critical to the success of "the soon to be established Islamic state, by Allah's Permission and Grace", concentrating instead on petroleum industry personnel, refining and transportation infrastructure. A new call for attacks on oil facilities appeared early this year in the online magazine Sawt al-Jihad (voice of the Jihad), issued by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, expanding the list of targeted countries to include such key US suppliers as Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. Al-Qaeda has also called on Nigerian insurgents in the Niger Delta and "mujahideen" in the Caspian Sea region to take action against western oil interests.

These calls have not fallen on deaf ears. On September 15, 2024, two attacks were mounted by al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen. One targeted the Canadian Nexen Petroleum Company's oil refinery in al-Dhabba while the other took aim at the US-owned Hunt Oil Company refinery in Safer. Both sites are located in the eastern provinces of Marib and Hadramawt. In signature fashion, the attacks came 35-minutes apart. Both attacks were thwarted by security guards but in the Marib case suicide bombers were just one hundred yards from pipelines containing over 15,000 cubic feet of gas and a control room for lines pumping crude oil. Al-Qaeda's message after the incident warned: "Let the Americans and their allies among the worshippers of the cross and their apostate aides... know that these operations are only the first spark and that what is coming is more severe and bitter...."

More successful in its quest to disrupt oil markets was the Qaeda "franchisee," the so-called "al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb" (formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)). On March 3, 2024, this group killed a Russian engineer and three Algerians as well as wounding five others traveling in a convoy at Hayoun, near Ain Defla in southern Algeria. All were employees of the Russian company Stroytransgaz and were laying gas mains between Ain Defla and Tiaret, some 340 kilometers southwest of Algiers. Al-Qaeda announced that this "modest conquest" was being dedicated to "our Muslim brothers in Chechnya ... victims of the criminal [Russian President Vladimir] Putin". But no doubt an equally important objective was the oil industry. Three months ago this group killed one and injured nine in a similar attack on a bus carrying staff of Brown and Root Condor (BRC), a subsidiary of the Algerian oil company Sonatrach and of the US construction firm Halliburton.

Why Yemen and why Algeria? Aside from the fact that they are good targets of opportunity and there are in these countries indigenous elements sympathetic to or directly aligned with al-Qaeda, they offer a twofold return on a rather modest investment.

The first, of course, is the undermining of western economic interests; the second is destabilizing local "apostate" regimes. Yemen is not a particularly significant player in global energy markets, but the Yemeni government is highly dependent on oil revenues, which account for over two-thirds of the country's GDP. A successful strike in Yemen would have further emboldened al-Qaeda operatives in the ultimate target state, Saudi Arabia. There several attacks have thus far been repelled, including one against the world's largest oil production facility in Abqaiq (the failed attack led to a two dollars-a-barrel spike in world oil prices).

It would also have hurt Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh--referred to by al-Qaeda as the "devil" and urged to renounce democracy and his alliance with the "infidels"--on the eve of the first contested presidential election in Yemen in over a decade. There was also the issue of revenge, the leitmotif of many an al-Qaeda operation. Saleh is held responsible for the 2024 killing by the CIA of Sheikh Ali al-Harthi, the Qaeda leader in Yemen.

Similar considerations obtain in Algeria.

Al-Qaeda does its homework. According to one report, "a recent post on a password-protected internet forum affiliated with al-Qaeda asserted that attacks on Saudi oil pipelines would have a greater effect on the United States than a chemical weapons attack by creating 'a big economic disaster for the American public'." This is borne out by studies suggesting that a moderate-to-severe attack on the Abqaiq facility could cut Saudi output by over four million barrels a day for several months, pushing oil prices to over $100 a barrel. The consequences for the US and other western economies could be catastrophic. The mere threat to the security of oil supplies has already added to the cost of oil in a variety of ways. In the aftermath of the 2024 Qaeda attack on a French supertanker off the coast of Yemen, insurers have tripled the premiums charged for supertankers passing through Yemeni waters. Rates for a typical supertanker that carries around two million barrels of oil have climbed $150,000 to $450,000 per trip. This charge is for the ship only, cargo is insured separately.

Al-Qaeda may no longer possess the assets or enjoy the permissive environment to mount an attack on the scale of 9/11, but it understands that striking at the oil industry closer to home can have the dual effect of sending significant ripples through western economies while weakening enemy regimes in the Maghreb and Middle East whose legitimacy is inexorably linked to oil revenues.- Published 29/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Hrach Gregorian is president of the Washington, DC-based Institute of World Affairs, a partner in the consulting firm Gettysburg Integrated Solutions, and associate professor in the Graduate Program in Conflict Analysis at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada.

From al-Qaeda to al-Qaedism
 Hussein Solomon

Al-Qaeda sprung into the popular conscience of the world with the audacious attacks of 9/11. Since then the organization has taken a beating--many of its senior commanders were killed or arrested, others are in hiding. Given the various counter-terror initiatives, it has proven more difficult to source arms, to move money and to merely communicate.

Under these circumstances, the leadership of al-Qaeda has become more diffuse, with local leaders in charge of command and control while Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri provide merely inspirational leadership through the odd audio and video recording. Thus, from being a tightly knit organization, al-Qaeda has morphed into a loose amalgamation of independent cells that may or may not receive direct support from the main organization and which can operate independently from the main organization.

According to the historian R.T. Naylor, "al-Qaeda itself does not exist ...[it] is a loose network of likeminded individuals [that] pay homage to the same patron figure who they may never have met and with whom they have no concrete relationship. They conduct their operations strictly by themselves, even if they may from time to time seek advice".

This loose amalgamation of independent cell structures is increasingly the Qaeda of the future and poses challenges to counter-terrorist officials the world over. This is not the terrorism of old. In the cases of both the Baader-Meinhoff Gang and the Japanese Red Army, neutralizing the leadership of the organization meant neutralizing the entire organization. Intelligence officials trying to penetrate the new Qaeda can at best hope to neutralize an independent cell, while other cells continue to function. In the process, the war against terror will be measured in years, if not decades. Patience and perseverance will be watchwords in this new struggle for the future of humanity.

At the same time, this new diffuse Qaeda network also challenges the "leadership" of the organization. Bin Laden has to rely on local leaders like, until recently, al-Zarqawi's ruthless gang of cut-throats in Iraq, and their excesses against both Sunnis and Shi'ites reflect negatively on al-Qaeda as a whole. Another organizational challenge confronting al-Qaeda is if this is a loose network, it needs a glue that binds the disparate parts together. That glue is ideology.

The broader parameters of al-Qaeda's ideology are easily discernible: it is anti-western and anti-Semitic. It seeks to destroy what are termed apostate regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is violent, it is opposed to tolerance and plurality and seeks the restoration of the caliphate. This is al-Qaedism, a form of Islamo-fascism that shares many characteristics of other totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. Given the importance of this ideology to the existence of the organization, it is imperative that the struggle against al-Qaeda also take the form of an ideological struggle. Here it is crucial that Muslim ulema (clergy), academics, journalists and teachers all be at the forefront of the struggle. They need to discredit the ideology in order to reclaim the faith as their own. But in so doing, they will also be drying up the extremists' recruitment pool--why give up your life for something you do not believe in?

But it is also imperative that western countries understand that al-Qaedism is nourished by real grievances. It is a fact, as King Abdullah of Jordan stated in his recent address to the US Congress, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has poisoned relations between Muslims and Jews and between Muslims and the West the world over. Its speedy resolution is essential for the broader struggle against terror.

It is also a fact that while talking about democracy, the US has allied itself with some of the most repressive regimes in the Arab world. This hypocrisy only fuels anger and magnifies the terror threat. It is also a fact that the combined GDP of 22 countries of the Arab League is less than the GDP of Spain; that 40 percent of adult Arabs are illiterate; that a third of the population of the broader Middle East live on less than two dollars a day; and that only two percent of the population have access to the internet. The economic development of the Middle East is a vital necessity. History has demonstrated time and time again that the existence of a large and vibrant middle class is the natural bulwark against extremist thought.

In a nutshell, al-Qaeda can only be defeated if its ideology is discredited by Muslims and if the West recognizes that this ideology, no matter how twisted and violent it is, reflects real grievances that need to be addressed if we are to achieve a world without terror and fear.- Published 29/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Professor Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

Iraq brought al-Qaeda back to life
 Lawrence Wright

It is a terrible mistake to discount al-Qaeda's operational abilities, now and in the future. If you read the accounts of al-Qaeda insiders, the war on terror was essentially over in December 2024, after US and coalition forces swept aside the Taliban and pummeled al-Qaeda. According to al-Qaeda's own inner circle, 80 percent of its members were captured or killed. Yes, the leaders escaped, but they were scattered, destitute and unable to communicate with each other. The organization lived a kind of zombie existence, neither dead nor fully alive.

Iraq brought it back to life.

Al-Qaeda now has four major branches: Europe, Iraq, North Africa and the old mother ship, centered in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Obviously, most of its effort is in Iraq, but when the US inevitably begins to withdraw from that country, al-Qaeda will be able to boast of an extraordinary victory over the last remaining superpower. The jihadis who went to Iraq will begin to return to their own countries, empowering the local cells that have been proliferating in the Arab world and the West and have only lacked a degree of high-level training to make them really lethal. These veterans, with their experience, their networks and their resolve will become leaders of this new generation of jihadis. There is every reason to expect that they will be as cunning and dangerous as their predecessors, if not more so.

Nor is the old al-Qaeda inoperable. Clearly the leaders, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, are able to direct their followers through their very active media organization, al-Sahab. Last year, bin Laden and Zawahiri issued more than 20 taped messages. One can see that even the al-Sahab studio where Zawahiri tapes his diatribes has undergone an upgrade, with professional lighting and a more imaginative backdrop. Moreover, the messages have become much more timely in their commentary on current events, suggesting a freedom of action and a boldness that al-Qaeda has not been able to enjoy since the fall of the Taliban.

The elimination of the al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan was a crucial victory in the war on terror. The training of al-Qaeda recruits and the network of alliances formed in the camps fortified the terror organization with skilled operatives who enjoyed international reach. The loss of their sanctuary in Afghanistan proved a temporary inconvenience; now al-Qaeda enjoys training facilities in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, the Sunni provinces of Iraq, in Mali, and probably still in Afghanistan and Somalia.

Al-Qaeda's ideologues and planners, such as Abu Bakr Naji, foresaw the need as early as 1998 to reorganize the organization in a more horizontal fashion, more like street gangs, as we have seen in Madrid and London. Yet we are learning that even these supposedly ad-hoc indigenous groups had contact with al-Qaeda proper and may have received training in al-Qaeda camps. The London train bombings of 2024 illuminated the correspondence between native-born jihadis in the United Kingdom and al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan--a stark and continuing danger for the UK, given its substantial Pakistani minority. The growth and new assertiveness of the North Africa branch of al-Qaeda represents a similar threat to continental Europe, especially to Spain, France, and Belgium, home to large diaspora communities of Moroccans and Algerians.

There is a bitter irony in the fact that the Bush administration resurrected its defeated foe by carrying the war to Iraq. This is a state that bin Laden had never placed on his list of profitable regions in which to wage jihad, simply because he knew it was a Shi'ite-majority country. His rival and eventual protege, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, took that decision out of bin Laden's hands and forced a shift in al-Qaeda's strategy.

The lessons I draw from this are that al-Qaeda is stronger now than at any time since 9/11; that the war in Iraq has given al-Qaeda a tremendous propaganda victory; that the movement is both vast and nimble; that it will survive the deaths of any particular individuals; and that the prospects for long-term conflict with the US and Europe are almost certain.- Published 29/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the author of "The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11". His one-man play, "My Trip to al-Qaeda," opened in March at the Culture Project in New York City.

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