End game for Al Qaeda?

Are the counter-jihadist movement and the Arab Spring two different things? I give you the answer now, half and half. Is Al Qaeda all but destroyed? Again I give you the answer. yes. But all three are part of a whole.

By Jonathan Power (Power’s World)

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Published: Wed 28 Sep 2011, 9:03 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 10:00 AM

In order to get in perspective the Arab Spring and the likelihood of Al Qaeda being able to do significant damage in the future we first have to look at the counter-jihad movement.

It began as a reaction to Al Qaeda’s continuing atrocities. Not to 9/11. That had a great deal of voyeuristic support by many Muslims who were just happy to see America done down. But that mood didn’t last for that long. Once Al Qaeda turned their guns on their own kind it was quickly dissipated. 3,000 died in the Twin Towers. 10,000 Muslims have died in Al Qaeda attacks. This comes through in a new book, “Rock the Casbah” by long-time Middle East watcher, Robin Wright.

“The counter-jihad has been palpable”, she writes, “since 2007, as Saudi and Egyptian clerics who once were Osama bin Laden’s ideological mentors began to publicly repudiate Al Qaeda”. For example, Sheikh Salman, who after five years was released from a Saudi Arabian prison, now preaches non-violence. Iraq’s tribal leaders mobilised a militia of 90,000 people to push Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia out of the most volatile province. Pakistanis have turned on their local Taleban leaders. Indian Muslims marched against their militant brethren who mounted terrorist attacks.

Since 2007 polls have shown a fast declining deport for the jihadists right across the Muslim world, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Palestine to Indonesia. Support for bin Laden has dropped to a mere two per cent in Lebanon and three per cent in Turkey. In 2010 it was down to 20 per cent in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan and since the death of bin Laden and the Arab Spring it has fallen even more. A poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found in 2009 that more than 60 per cent of Pakistanis viewed Al Qaeda negatively, double the number from one year earlier. Nine out of 10 Pakistanis said suicide bombs were never justified.

The counter-jihad can be seen in comic books in Kuwait, listening to preachers on Arabic TV and in the reports of the summits of senior clerics who probe Islamic texts in their quest to repudiate Al Qaeda. Counter-jihadism can even be found in many songs of local rap music- from Egypt to Morocco—and the flurry of Islamic text messaging all over the Muslim world by students.

Yet the counter-jihadist movement, at least until recently, has been a conservative, Islamist movement. Members still have deep reservations about the West. But their social views are changing. One sees this most clearly in the support for women’s rights. On Sunday, the king of Saudi Arabia announced that Saudi women can now vote and be candidates in local elections. Large majorities support the education of girls. Even in Pakistan there has been a big jump in support.

If only the US and NATO could see it and understand it the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan would now be over, doubly so since the death of bin Laden. President Barack Obama continues to talk as if Al Qaeda remains a big threat. But the links between local branches in Somalia, Iraq and Pakistan and central Al Qaeda are tenuous and most victims are Muslims. Only Al Qaeda in Yemen still shows any determination to hit US or European targets. The number of operatives in Yemen is estimated to be between 50 and 300 but they are mainly semi-literate and lack the skills of Al Qaeda Central. Al Qaeda and the Taleban are now effectively divorced. The number of Al Qaeda people active in Afghanistan is no more than 50.

“While top intelligence officials brief lawmakers that Al Qaeda is operationally and militarily in disarray, politicians continue to stress the gravity of its strategic threat”, writes London School of Economics’ professor, Fawaz Gerges, in a new book, “The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda”. He writes that vice-president Joe Biden, the late Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and former CIA director, Leon Panetta, appear to have been three of the few dissenters.

These facts on the ground, combined with the counter-jihadist and Arab Spring movements, means that Al Qaeda is effectively all but finished as a major political force.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London



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