For those that don’t know, Abdel Bari Atwan is editor-in-chief of al-Quds al-Arabi, the most independent of the London-based pan-Arab dailies. He has probably interviewed Osama bin Laden more times than any other journalist, and is considered an expert on al-Qaeda (like Peter Bergen, he derives his credibility at least in part from the fact that he has met bin Laden). In the below-translated article, he writes that analysts underestimate al-Qaeda’s continuing strength. TBE is unqualified to offer an opinion, but we do see the article as a useful counterpoint to the recent round of articles and blog posts about al-Qaeda’s imminent demise.
Update: Today appears to be a big one for al-Qaeda-related news:
- US airstrike kills al-Qaeda operative in Somalia.
- The new bin Laden recording.
- Marc Lynch reviews said recording.
And finally, the translation, from al-Quds al-Arabi’s Sept. 14, 2009 edition:
Opinions about and appraisals of al-Qaeda’s situation and the threat is poses vary, eight years after the attacks on New York that unleashed the evils of the war on terror, beginning with the attacks on Afghanistan and ending with the occupation of Iraq. There is, among analysts that expound on the subject, an opinion that al-Qaeda is weak and retreating due to the fact that it has not launched any attacks in the last eight years that rival September 11 in size. And there is also the opposite opinion, which considers the organization to be strong and expanding. This group points to its increased activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to the attacks in London and Madrid and several other thwarted attacks, the last of which being the bomb plot at London’s Heathrow airport.
The fact of the matter is that those that speak of the organization’s weakness are expressing their own hopes, and they continuously try to obscure and deceive with these analyses that they excel in peddling on television programs and in articles. Yet the organization exists, right up until this very moment, and is celebrating twenty years since its founding. This in itself is a clear sign that the war on terror, which has cost the US treasury $908 billion dollars so far (a sum expected to eventually exceed $3 trillion) and the lives of 5,000 and left 30,000 wounded.
Whereas eight years ago there was one address for al-Qaeda, the caves of Tora-Bora in Afghanistan, today there are a number of different addresses for different branches of the organization, which are perhaps stronger and more dangerous than the “main” branch. There is now al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and in the Islamic Maghreb, in addition to the branches in Iraq and along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. There is also the Somali branch, which has revived and rebuilt and is now stronger than it was in a previous iteration.
Al-Qaeda is like the many-headed dragon of myth – when one of its heads is cut off, it sprouts several more in its place.
In the period when many believed that the US occupation in Afghanistan had put an end to the organization by killing or arresting or driving away its members and leadership, they have returned to their Afghan safe haven, conducting military training and attracting hundreds of volunteers. The same thing can be said of Iraq: After General Petraeus celebrated breaking the organization’s backbone in what was previously referred to as the Sunni triangle (Anbar province and its surroundings) due to the increase in US troop numbers, and formed the Awakening forces, al-Qaeda regrouped after it learned from its mistakes, and claimed responsibility for “bloody Wednesday [the August 19 bombings that led to the current Iraqi-Syrian imbroglio],” a series of attacks on Iraqi ministries and the parliament in the heart of the Green Zone.
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The irony is that al-Qaeda, whose first military operation against US forces was the downing of a black hawk helicopter in Mogadishu in 1994, killing 18, has returned to Somalia, in the guise of the ‘Shebab al-Islam.’ The organization now attracts recruits from neighboring countries and Europe, and is the source of great concern amongst Western countries and their security services. Al-Qaeda began as a regional organization with limited, modest goals, the most prominent of which was expelling American forces from the Arabian gulf following the completion of its stated objective: the liberation of Kuwait. It then transformed into a global organization, owing to the American stupidity and its failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with the previous administration’s intentional humiliation of Arabs and Muslims.
The United States and its Western allies are now fighting a war of attrition, both financial and human. It is the most expensive war in history. Even more importantly, it is a war that cannot be won decisively. The Taliban, overthrown eight years ago, currently controls two-thirds of Afghanistan, and not a day passes without NATO forces sustaining heavy losses. August was the bloodiest month since the occupation began, with the American dead reaching 50, with this number perhaps doubling by the end of this month.
American plans to counter these setbacks, whether military or moral, are no better. As for the elections held ten days ago to demonstrate democratic action, everyone agrees about its lack of integrity, and the fact that it could turn out to be a disaster that benefits the Taliban. The opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah, whose father is Pashtun and mother is Tajik, has warned of disturbances to protest electoral fraud. Victory celebrations for Hamid Karzai are not expected, either by Afghans or Western occupiers. His corruption and his brothers and the warlords from past wars amongst his supporters have made him persona non grata. Perhaps the mistakes the US and Western forces have made in Afghanistan, such as the use of unmanned drones to hit targets on the ground believed to be al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters, the majority of the victims of which are later shown to be civilians (In the last incident, 100 people were burned, including children, during an attack on two oil tankers), are the greatest gift of all to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. They make it easier to recruit members and suicide bombers into their ranks.
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Al-Qaeda does not carry out large-scale attacks in the West because it is no longer a top priority, as it was during the days of the ‘Republic of Tora Bora.’ They no longer need to send suicide bombers to New York or London or Madrid because there 100,000 Western troops in Afghanistan – half of them American – and more than 140,000 US troops in Iraq. This has saved them, and their leaders, the burden of having to plan how to penetrate security and create new explosive devices like liquid bombs. The other point worth highlighting is the West’s skill, and the US’ particularly, in turning the Middle East into a collection of failed states where extremist groups like al-Qaeda can find safe havens: Iraq is one of them. Afghanistan and Somalia and Pakistan and Sudan and Yemen on the verge of joining, with the Gaza Strip and Lebanon on the same path.
Aside from the American attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, the most important development of the past eight years has been the growth of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen and the Islamic Maghreb. Pakistan has a nuclear capability. Yemen is a base of operations in the Arabian peninsula, threatening Gulf oil production, a pillar of Western economic life. As for the appearance of a branch of the organization in the Islamic Maghreb, it has access to a stock of 30 million Muslims in Europe, some of whom face the threat of racism, unemployment and marginalization.
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Al-Qaeda became a force in the Middle East in the shadow of retreat by the traditional Arab and Muslim forces due to their weakness and corruption, which manifested itself both internally and externally. The audacity to launch one attack against Israel might raise its popularity to new heights, especially in light of the growing unpopularity of regimes and their corruption and attachment to the failed peace process conducted under US auspices.
It is true that the traditional leadership of al-Qaeda is aging. Sheikh Osama bin Laden, the organization’s leader, is 52, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in his 60s. In addition, they face difficult life circumstances due to the fact that they are targets. But the new, young generation of al-Qaeda’s leadership may be more dangerous and more severe, and they are already in leadership positions.
Al-Qaeda today has transformed into an international ideology that enjoys greater autonomy. With that comes a better ability to attract a larger pool of supporters and sympathizers and to recruit more of them, with the help of modern means of communication such as the internet and Facebook and Youtube and the like. This is what the so-called ‘experts’ who craft reports and recommendations in a way that satisfies their governments do not realize, and why their reports don’t reflect the facts on the ground. In this way governments lose and al-Qaeda wins on its 20th birthday.