The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Getting over al-Qaeda


Marc Lynch makes a good point about the Arab media not giving much coverage to the attempted plane bombing in Amreeka, and its possible al-Qaeda connections: people don't really care.

In most of the Arab newspapers which I follow on a daily basis, the failed airplane plot didn't even make the front page -- or, at best, got a small and vague story. Gaza dominates the headlines, as it often does. Yemen continues to command considerable attention because of the ongoing clashes between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi movement, something which has been of far more consistent interest to the Arab public than to the American. Iran's protests are covered heavily. Most of the better papers also focus on local political issues. One of the only papers to cover the story prominently is the deeply anti-AQ Saudi paper al-Sharq al-Awsat, which leads with "passengers save America from a terrorist catastrophe." It's the same on the major pan-Arab TV stations. On the al-Jazeera webpage, the story doesn't even appear on the Arab news page, while a bland story about the airplane incident is only the sixth story on the international page (the same place it held in the broadcast news roundup; yesterday it was the third story in the news roundup, with the killing of 6 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza the lead). It does not crack the top 6 stories on the al-Arabiya website today.

The Arab media's indifference to the story speaks to a vitally important trend. Al-Qaeda's attempted acts of terrorism simply no longer carry the kind of persuasive political force with mass Arab or Muslim publics which they may have commanded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Even as the microscopically small radicalized and mobilized base continues to plot and even to thrive in its isolated pockets, it has largely lost its ability to break out into mainstream public appeal. I doubt this would have been any different even had the plot been successful -- more attention and coverage, to be sure, but not sympathy or translation into political support. It is just too far gone to resonate with Arab or Muslim publics at this point.

The downgrading of al-Qaeda and the "War on Terror" by the Obama administration helps this trend along, even if the dynamics which produced it were largely local and internal to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The failure of the failed plot to capture even a modicum of mainstream Arab public interest speaks volumes to the robustness of this trend... though the frankly disturbing enthusiasm for the story in some quarters in the U.S. suggests that not everybody is happy to see al-Qaeda recede.

I don't think there ever was much support for al-Qaeda among the Arab public, or any chance that al-Qaeda turning into a leading shaper of public opinion. That was even less likely as the Baader Meinhof gang and Red Brigades becoming leading shapers of European opinion. There may have been some misplaced and insensitive "chickens coming home to roost" reaction to 9/11, but I don't ever believe that a Bin Laden moment would be lasting. This is a crucial point missed by some in the West, partly because of the spin and focus the Arab reaction stories were given after 9/11, which represented shadenfreude as the leading Arab reaction. This in turn led to the moronic "why do they hate us" meme, which survives to this day largely through the efforts of Thomas Friedman and his wish for "an Arab civil war" (a notion that implicitly puts al-Qaeda as a serious contender in the "battle for Arab minds").

In other words, the Arabs have gotten over (never fell for?) the mystification and fetishization of al-Qaeda. Their governments now concentrate on its security element, which ultimately is partly a policing matter, partly about preventing failed states and lawless areas in the region, and in the case of Saudi Arabia about curbing tolerance for jihadism within the regime. When will the Americans follow suit? This is not to underplay the threat of al-Qaeda inspired terrorism (as the recent arrests suggests it is all too real), but rather to take the grand teleological meaning it is ascribed by so many.