London and After: What al-Qaeda Fears

Five Thoughts on the London bombing

God, I love the Brits!

Prescient? ‘My Son the Fanatic’

Their collective response to the London bombings is infinitely courageous, infinitely dignified, unflappable, sober, inherently collective, and educated and worldly in their assessment of the event, its meaning and the necessary response. Listening to the BBC all day that day, the word I heard most often from officials and commoners was “sensible.” Britain needed a sensible response. Of course it does, and the implications of that word being so heavily in play were pretty obvious. The broader circumstances against which the London attacks occurred remind us that what we’ve seen since 9/11 has, in fact, has been anything but sensible.

Questions about whether the effect on Blair will be similar to the effect of Madrid on Aznar are facile: It didn’t take a bombing wave to convince the Brits that Blair’s support for the Iraq war has been a disaster, and they punished him for it at the polls a few months back. (If he’d been a Tory, he’d be gone.)

The British public is plainly far too sensible to let the bombing change its view on Blair in either direction.

Meanwhile, if all those young second generation Pakistani immigrants from Yorkshire commenting on the fact that four of their peers became suicide terrorists, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d seen this all before. You might well have, in the dark comedy My Son the Fanatic, based on a story by Hanif Kureishi, about an immigrant father whose second-generation son turns Taliban on him. (And to understand all those Pakistani-British kids in Yorkshire with the Geoff Boycott accents who can’t understand why anyone from their neighborhood would want to blow up the London tube, you could also rent East is East.

Homegrown Jihad: A Tactical Miscalculation?
British Intelligence believes there are as many as 15,000 Qaeda supporters in Britain. Interesting thing is that while they’ve been busily recruiting for Iraq and other foreign projects, they haven’t until now launched attacks in Britain itself despite calls by Bin Laden and others to “punish” Britain for its role Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not hard to imagine why: Presumably they’ve seen more benefit in channeling the energies of British jihadis outside of Britain, than drawing the wrath not only of the authorities, but also presumably of much of the British Muslim community by striking on home turf. It’s not hard to imagine that many in that community would be sufficiently angered by what Bush and Blair have done in Iraq to sanction recruitment and fundraising for jihadist activities in Iraq and elsewhere abroad, but when those elements start blowing up subway trains in London, the equation may change even for many British Muslims who see the “jihad” option as legitimate in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’d hazard a guess that the four men who blew away so many innocents in London are going to get a lot less support and respect in their own communities than if they’d been killed fighting in Iraq. Terrorism is the use of spectacular violence in pursuit of political ends, and the analysis of its impact must proceed, first and foremost, from the question of how it transformed the political landscape. While “punishing” Britain may be an emotionally satisfying action for Qaeda supporters around the globe, in Britain itself — which appears to have been a major recruiting ground — it could actually prove to be a self-inflicted setback. Indeed, some British Muslim groups that might share al Qaeda’s dim view of U.S. and British actions throughout the Middle East have nonetheless unequivocally condemned the London bombings, as have Hamas, Hizbollah and scores of likeminded Muslim groups.

Chronicle of a tragedy foretold
Britons know exactly why the bombing occurred — they’ve literally been expecting it — and aren’t likely to get mired in hours of discussion on “why they hate us.” They know full well that there’s plenty that could have been done in the wake of 9/11 to transform the political climate in the Arab and Muslim world in ways that would isolate the Qaeda types and dim their appeal. Instead, the exact opposite has been done, and the U.S. has behaved in ways that have actually burnished al Qaeda’s appeal. And the Brits new full well that there would be a price to pay. They tried from the outset to impress on Bush the sheer folly of trying to fight al-Qaeda and its influence while leaving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festering. Instead, Bush (to the alarm of the Brits) backed Sharon to the hilt and gave him the green light to bypass any peace process, instead pursuing his own unilateral tactical adjustments such as the current Gaza plan. Like it or not, the Israeli-Palestinian issue remains the single most important prism through which the Muslim world reads U.S. bona fides. The Bush administration’s failure to march Sharon along the road to a solution based on the 1967 borders almost precluded success on the political front in the “war on terror.” And on top of that came the Iraq invasion, which Britain’s foremost security experts believe has been the single greatest boon to al Qaeda, with additional booster shots in the form of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and similar scandals. Leaving Iraq won’t disarm or demobilize al Qaeda. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that going in in the first place has done Bin Laden’s movement more good than harm. Perhaps Britain’s suffering will give London more weight in the transatlantic discussion. But don’t hold your breath.

What al Qaeda Wants
The “Al Qaeda” idea is not simply a nihilistic negation of Western ideas and modernity. It presents itself to its followers as the organizing principle of a broad insurgency designed to drive Western influence out of Arab and Muslim lands. That influence and presence is blamed not only for the continued humiliation of the Palestinians and more recent offences such as the occupation of Iraq, but very importantly it is seen as the reason local Islamist groups are unable to topple the authoritarian “apostate” regimes in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Bin Laden and Zawahiri sought to transform the local battles waged by Islamist warriors in these places into a global jihad targeting the U.S. by arguing, and demonstrating, that it was possible to strike at the “far enemy” as they called it, and in driving him out of the region the “near enemy” (the “apostate” regimes) would collapse. That was the strategic logic of 9/11 and the attacks that preceded it. They were intended to rally local Islamists to the global cause, and leadership of OBL/Zawahiri. And the combination of the response by the U.S., as well as the intensification of the Palestinian intifada, actually reinforced the traction and appeal of the Qaeda world view among its intended audience. Iraq was particularly disastrous in this respect, confirming the validity of bin Laden’s portrayal of the U.S. in the minds of many Muslims – probably the majority – even if they would never support terrorism against civilians. Thus, for example, even those Iraqi Sunnis who are cooperating in the new U.S.-authored political process in Iraq nonetheless continually restate their belief that while attacks on civilians are impermissible, they believe attacks on U.S. forces there are “legitimate resistance.”

Al Qaeda’s original leadership may be dispersed and it can no longer operate from a single geographic base as it did under the Taliban, but Iraq has ensured the movement’s survival – indeed, British security officials now believe that Iraq will serve the new generation of Qaeda types in the way that Afghanistan did their forebears, creating a hand-on training environment whose results will be spread far and wide.

Bush likes to argue that by fighting the jihadis in Baghdad he won’t have to fight them in New York. That’s ridiculous, of course, because they have no plans to invade New York, and Iraq does nothing to stop them planning new long-distance operations in the future. But bin Laden may well be arguing the inverse: Fighting the U.S. in Iraq is far more effective than mounting long-distance terror operations against mounting security odds. (9/11, after all, took the U.S. by surprise.) Attacks on New York are hardly likely to force the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East. But the Qaeda types may well believe that by forcing a humiliating retreat by the superpower in Iraq, they can turn the tide elsewhere in the region, too. In other words, the Qaeda types may well actually prefer to face the U.S. on home ground rather than try to export their jihad over long distances.

What al Qaeda fears

Qaeda’s Zawahiri:
Fear of politics

President Bush likes to remind us that the extremists fear democracy, and he’s not wrong — although he’s only right to the extent that he means a genuine democracy that gives the Islamists a political option, and it’s far from clear that the U.S. is pushing for genuinely free elections in places like Egypt that would very likely put the Muslim Brotherhood in power. Still, I was struck last month by the vehemence with which Ayman Zawahiri warned Islamist groups in the Arab world to shun democratic politics. “Continue with jihad, do not give up your arms and do not be drawn into the electoral process,” Zawahiri said claiming that the agenda of Israel and the U.S. could not be defeated “solely through demonstrations and speaking out in streets.”

Terrorism and conspiracy thrive in climates where their agendas cannot be pursued in open, electoral or mass politics. Pretty much all of the localized insurgencies that together were melded into al Qaeda shared the common experience of being born in situations like Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, where police states violently thwarted the Islamists. And, of course, the Qaeda argument has been that the only way those local insurgencies can prevail is by joining the global jihad against the “far enemy.” Which also puts Zawahiri and OBL in charge. But what if the political order in the Arab world was reversed, in a way that allowed the Islamists to pursue their agenda and contend for power through democratic means?

Plainly, that’s a scenario Zawahiri fears, not least because it would make him and OBL somewhat irrelevant in those countries where their fellow travelers opted for that path. Nor is that a farfetched scenario: Drawing violent Islamist groups into the mainstream political process is precisely the strategy being pursued by the current Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to fold Hamas into the democratic process, even though it could eclipse him there.

Hizbollah has not put down its arms, but it has for years been the largest single party in the Lebanese parliament. Plainly, there are many Islamists who are just as interested in democracy in the Middle East as the U.S. professes to be. That was certainly the conclusion of a group of senior former U.S. and British intelligence professionals who recently conferred in a series of exploratory talks held this past April in Beirut with various Islamist groups considered beyond the pale for formal talks by their governments

Plainly, al Qaeda potentially has something of a problem in its efforts to advocate violent jihad as the sole valid approach for likeminded groups all over the Muslim world. That may be what prompted Zawahiri’s outburst. But thus far, there are few signs that Zawahiri has much to worry about, for the simple reason that the U.S. has yet to demonstrate that it’s serious about Arab democracy.

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