The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Rethinking Taba

The Washington Times has an in-depth article looking at how the Israeli intelligence community has re-assessed its attitude towards Al Qaeda's influence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in light of the Taba bombings. Talking to many Israeli intelligence experts in academia and government, as well as Palestinian and Saudi analysts, it draws a picture of Al Qaeda extending its network's activities beyond its "core" areas -- the Saudi regime and the US -- to the pro-US Arab regimes like Egypt. In the long term, the aim is to also have Israel as one area of activity, which would add an entirely new dimension to the conflict as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have thus far stayed away from Al Qaeda.

The consensus in Israel's intelligence establishment is that al Qaeda is intensifying its campaign against Arab states that have close ties to the United States. Al Qaeda's long-term goal, according to the intelligence establishment, is to rid the Middle East of perceived Western implants, including the Jewish state.

Bin Laden confirmed that view 21 months ago.

Accusing the moderate Arab regimes of backing the Bush administration in the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq, he described them as "Jahiliya" heathens — the Arabic term for paganism practiced on the Arabian peninsula before the advent of Islam.

In March 2003, Al Jazeera television and some Arabic Web sites carried bin Laden's "will," in which he said that "getting rid of the Arab regimes is an Islamic commandment because they are heretical and cooperate with America."

Until Taba, there has been speculation in Egypt as to why it had been spared from the terrorist attacks that in the past three years have hit Casablanca, Riyadh, Istanbul, Bali, Madrid and other places. Some analysts even ventured as far as saying Al Qaeda had explicitly excluded Egypt from their hit-list, although they had little evidence of this. And while the Egyptian government's version of events was to downplay the importance of the group that carried the bombings -- they basically argued that it consisted of local thugs who had just recently gone fundamentalist -- the ongoing campaign of arrests in Sinai suggests that they are looking for something much more sophisticated than this.

Another interesting thing from the story was a little backgrounder on Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Islamist activist after which one of the groups that claimed the attack. Azzam is a veteran of Al Azhar, Saudi universities and the Afghan civil war, and apparently a leading proponent of the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be addressed by dismantling the pro-US Arab regimes.

Azzam's slogan, "The Way to Liberate Jerusalem Passes Through Cairo," implies that the downfall of Egypt's pro-U.S. regime will lead to Israel's elimination from the Middle East.

That slogan is something that over the past year I've heard over and over in demonstrations in support of the intifada or against the Iraq war. The idea it expressed has been endorsed by not only Islamists but also leftists who are enraged by the Mubarak regime's support of the bogus peace process of the 1990s and the current roadmap effort. I doubt that many of the non-Islamists who chant it are even aware of its origins, but the elegant idea that freedom must come to Cairo (and Riyadh, and Amman, and Damascus and elsewhere) first has an ecumenical potential -- even if their interpretation is not, as above, "Israel's elimination from the Middle East" but rather a stronger, more united Arab stance in negotiations with Israel.

One of the main sources for the Washington Times article was Reuven Paz, whose ideas on the meaning of the Taba bombing are explored in this article reprinted on Internet Haganah.