The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged alqaeda
In Translation: al-Qaeda goes glocal

My friend Mohammed Si’ali, a veteran reporter for the Spanish news agency EFE and other outlets in Cairo and elsewhere in the region, has written an interesting piece on the evolution of al-Qaeda’s strategy in response to the Arab uprisings since 2011. Piecing together its reaction to the 2011 protests, the secession of the Islamic State from its ranks in 2013, the rebranding of the Nusra Front in 2016 and the emergence of a new united front of Sahelian jihadist groups in 2017 – among other things – he sets out a vision whereby al-Qaeda is trying to mainstream, win the support of Islamists disappointed by the Arab Spring, and combine a global strategic vision oriented against the West with pragmatism at the local level. To borrow from the HSBC ad from a few years ago, al-Qaeda appears to be trying to be glocal organisation. As ISIS faces military setbacks across the region, this has important consequences for the future of jihadism.

This In Translation feature is made possible with the support of our friends at Industry Arabic, a “Katiba Hans Wehr” of Arabic-English translation. Please give them your business!


Evolving with the Arab Spring: Is al-Qaeda Striving to Transform into a “National Liberation Movement”?

Mohammed Si’ali, Center for Kurdish Studies, 5 April 2017

Abstract: The new alliance announced last month between three jihadist organizations in Mali under the banner of al-Qaeda and local jihadist leadership, as well the contents of its founding declaration, have raised questions about its rapid efforts in this region to evolve ideologically and organizationally with the new reality that has characterized the popular uprisings in the MENA region since 2011. With the goal of improving its survival, development, and practical abilities in light of these new conditions, al-Qaeda is accomplishing this by reducing armed, violent acts and participating in peaceful political action and soft influence. Consequently, what has appeared is something that resembles an “Islamic national liberation movement,” whether in the MENA region or other places where this organization exists, such as the Greater African Sahara.

§§§

At the outset of the “Arab Spring,” al-Qaeda dreamt that it would finally obtain a popular ally and become the equivalent of the military wing of the popular Islamist movement. Its goal of establishing a caliphate in the Islamic world and liberating it from external influence seemed an imminent reality. The Arab uprisings coincided with the killing of Osama bin Laden on 2 May 2011 in an operation by American special forces in Pakistan and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s emergence as al-Qaeda’s leader. After the Arab uprisings, which overthrew dictatorial secular governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, al-Zawahiri issued a political manifesto in August 2012 to specify Islamic jihad’s role in this stage. He emphasized the necessity of “aiding Muslim people in their revolutions against corrupt tyrants, and enlightening them of the necessity of Sharia rule.” He also broadly called for “working towards the establishment of a Caliphate that does not recognize nation-states, links to nationalism, nor the borders imposed by the occupiers.” In September of the same year, he broadcast a military manifesto placing limits on armed action that member groups practiced under the banner of al-Qaeda. It focused the fighting on the United States and aimed to reduce military operations inside Islamic countries, thereby preventing those societies from eschewing jihad. Additionally, he showed many film clips that described the course and direction of the revolutions to steer their uprisings toward Sharia law, ending with the establishment of a caliphate state.

Al-Zawahiri’s interest in the direction of the Arab Spring shows that he, along with others in al-Qaeda’s leadership, sees these revolutions as complementary to the jihad carried out by the different arms of the organization and as a result of the 11 September 2001 attacks on America. As such, these attacks had pushed Washington to breathe life into popular pressure in Muslim countries, which “blew up in the faces of its clients,” i.e. the local governments. Additionally, Adam Yahiye Gadahn – the American citizen who worked as a senior spokesperson for al-Qaeda and was killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan in early 2015 – saw that the jihadist attacks against American interests and its allies had “eliminated many of the material, moral, and psychological obstacles that used to prevent the Ummah (Islamic community) from liberating itself from the corrupt and despotic governments subordinate to the West.” He added that youthful opposition in countries with popular uprisings had learned from the jihadists’ experience in their call for toppling tyrannical regimes on the internet, as well as the fatwas from jihadist scholars to remove despotic governments for their lack of Sharia law, which had a prominent role in liberating the hearts and minds of Muslim youths.

On this basis, al-Zawahiri considered the success of the revolutions as a victory for al-Qaeda over the West, since the revolting peoples “want Islam and Islamic rule, while America and West fight it.” Similarly, in one of his lectures he showed bearded demonstrators in Egypt carrying al-Qaeda flags and shouting slogans in defense of the religious state against the secular state. In another of Gadhan’s tapes, a group of demonstrators was shown praying at one of the sit-in sites, with women wearing niqabs taking care of an injured person and a man pointing to the Quran. Al-Zawahiri added in a 2011 recording:

 “The pro-American media claims that al-Qaeda’s method of clashing with regimes has failed. This same media pretends to ignore that al-Qaeda and most jihadist currents have struggled for more than a decade and a half mostly by abandoning the clash with regimes and focusing on striking the head of the global criminals (the United States). Thus, this method, especially after the September 11 attacks, has led, through orders from America, to the regimes’ loosening their grip over their people and opponents, which helped the movement and culminated into an eruption of massive public anger. This confirms what Osama bin Laden, may God have mercy on him, used to emphasize, that we increased pressure on the idiots of the modern era, America, which will lead to its weakening and the weakening of its clients. So, who are the real winners and losers of this policy?”

Al-Qaeda did not only attribute to itself the outbreak of the Arab Spring, but also considered the leadership of various jihadist currents, such as in Egypt, as precursors to the massive uprisings against the current regimes and those that have existed since the late 1970s. In this regard, al-Zawahiri said in one of his messages to the Egyptian people after the revolution of January 25, 2011:

“God knows that I always hoped to be in the front line of the Ummah’s uprising against injustice and oppressors. Before my emigration from Egypt, I had been eager to participate in the popular protests of 1968 against the setback represented by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government. Then, I participated in several demonstrations and protests against Sadat and his administration. I was with the protesters in Tahrir Square in 1971, whom I considered dear brothers. It was for them that the great events of the latest Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt government occurred. If not for fear of what danger would befall them, then I would mention them by name and praise their brave deeds. Likewise, I have repeatedly called, in my words to the Arab people and the Egyptian people specifically, to rise up against the regimes of corruption and tyranny that have dominated us.”

Despite al-Qaeda’s new, strengthened approach after 2011, in 2008 al-Zawahiri had called for action in addition to the struggle and propaganda. He called for demonstrations to change the “corrupt reality” and establishing an Islamic state, while modifying the pursuit of these goals through the tactic of “fixed elections.” Thus, after the workers’ demonstrations on 6 April of the same year in Mahalla el Kubra near Cairo, he said:

“The workers and students must move their anger into the streets. They must turn the mosques, factories, universities, institutes, and high schools into centers of jihad and resistance. Everyone must mobilize, because it is not just one group or organization’s battle, but the entire Ummah’s battle. The Ummah must stand shoulder to shoulder with its fighters, its men, its women, and its masses to expel the crusading invaders and Jews from the lands of Islam and to establish an Islamic state.”

Since the outset of the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda began employing concepts that were unfamiliar in the jihadist lexicon, such as “revolutionaries,” “revolution,” and “resistance,” alongside religious concepts. This turning point in the direction of al-Zawahiri’s propaganda was reinforced in one of his recordings to businessmen. In it, he said that they should “benefit from the recent opening in Tunisia and Egypt” and establish new media outlets to call for “the true creed of Islam, which is liberated from its dependence on the arrogant and rejects the injustice of corrupting rulers.” He added, “The noble free people who care about Islam in Tunisia must wage a propagandistic, provocative, and popular campaign to gather the Ummah. They must not stop until Sharia is the source of law and order in Tunisia.” These ambitions did not appear out of thin air. During the Arab revolutions, it was the young and old of the jihadist currents, despite their small numbers, who took their place among the poplar demonstrations, wearing Afghani garb and raising the black flags of al-Qaeda. In Tahrir Square, Egypt during the period following the 25 January Revolution, pictures of Osama bin Laden were sold alongside pictures of deceased Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

It was clear after the revolutions of the Arab Spring that al-Qaeda strove to profit from a popular ally in those countries and to participate in peaceful movements, but without slackening its violent activities. In the document “The Victory of Islam,” al-Zawahiri called on the Islamic currents to “aid Muslim people in their revolutions against tyrants and to enlighten them of the necessity of Sharia rule.” In the document “General Directives for Jihad,” the leader of al-Qaeda required that military action be focused against the United States. More importantly, they demanded that the jihad avoid harming Muslims and religious/ethnic minorities during acts of violence so that they are not roused against the jihadists. He also called for peace with local regimes to proselytize, recruit, and gather funds. As for the places that fell under jihadist control, he demanded that “wisdom prevail,” meaning to prioritize propaganda and education to avoid the jihadists’ expulsion from those regions due to civil discord or revolt by those opposed to their occupation.

According to al-Qaeda, the conflict between the people and regimes is the local manifestation of an original conflict between the former and the West. In its view, the regimes in Muslim countries are a façade or tool that the West has used to rule the region remotely since the beginning of what Adam Yahiya Gadhan called the “age of neo-colonialism.” But in spite of the outset of the confrontation between al-Qaeda, supported by its allies, and the Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as its continuing operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Algeria, Mali, Yemen, etc., the original tactic of this organization has been to avoid conflict with regimes in Muslim countries, except where confrontation is necessary.

One Moroccan member of the “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (formerly the al-Nusra Front, considered the formal arm of al-Qaeda in Syria) says that al-Qaeda “is trying to exploit the situation that emerged from the Arab Spring to penetrate Islamic society. It also strives, if possible, to avoid direct clashes by instead working tactically, except in places where there is fighting already.” It is confirmed that al-Zawahiri’s intensive speeches during and after the Arab revolutions were directed at revolutionaries and moderate Islamic currents. The organization itself is managed internally by secret decisions issued by Shura councils, the general leadership council, and orders from the general commander, not through open statements.

Despite the new direction of al-Qaeda’s leader and all its affiliated factions, the “Islamic State” opposed it and unleashed its own military actions against Shiite citizens, especially in Iraq and Syria, where it carries out daily car bombings in restaurants, public markets, hussainiyas (Shia congregation halls), and pilgrimage caravans. This lack of obedience pushed the general leadership of al-Qaeda to wash its hands of the Islamic State through a formal statement on 22 January 2014. It stated its eagerness for the different jihadist organizations “to be part of the Ummah, and to not take guardianship over its rights, nor dominate it, nor deprive it of its right to choose who rules it from among those who fulfill the conditions of legitimacy.”  In addition to its defiance of the directives of al-Qaeda’s leadership, the Islamic State carries out attacks against other jihadist organizations that had publicly or implicitly adopted al-Qaeda’s new direction, such as the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Syria.

The point of departure in the dispute between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State was the latter’s refusal to comply with al-Zawahiri’s request to restrict its military operations in Iraq and to leave the jihad in Syria to the former al-Nusra Front (before it changed its name and joined with al-Qaeda). The Islamic State did so because it considered the Levant to be a separate geopolitical province wherein it leads most of the Syrian jihadists; as such, the Islamic State believes that it better understands their society.

The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s experience was repeated in Mali, where branches of Ansar Dine, which include the Macina Liberation Front, al-Mourabitoun, and the Saharan leadership al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, announced at the beginning of this month (April 2017) an alliance under one organization calling itself the Jama'a Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin. After renewing their allegiance to al-Zawahiri, they specified their main goal as “standing as the first line of defense against the occupying crusading enemy.” Just as in the founding statement of the new organization, led by the Malian al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist Iyad Ag Ghaly, it cited the foundations of al-Qaeda’s jihad, which include “good will towards people, becoming familiar with them, engaging their hearts and minds, and not burdening them with anything they cannot bear.”

Conclusion: While the Islamic State aims to apply its international, truly extremist vision, a vision in which some leaders of al-Qaeda used to believe, the strategy changed completely when the latter began to decentralize its global organizational structure and establish regional movement branches in Muslim countries. According to this strategy, local jihadi leaders direct its operation while enjoying tribal, religious and ethnic legitimacy. In this way, it can make broad social alliances and separately adapt its operations according to local circumstances in each country. The issues that matter include people participating in government, supporting Muslim minorities, and fighting against external influence. Thus, al-Qaeda has added a temporary tactical dimension that loosely joins the organization’s general leadership and its strategic goals on one hand with the local issues of Islamic societies and its short/long-term goals on the other hand. The point of this new direction is to eliminate the barriers between moderate and radical Islam and to make the organization appear like a “national Islamic liberation movement.” It could also become alluring to youth groups inside Islamic political movements, if they are exposed to unexpected tyrannical treatment typical of the political rat race, continual economic injustice, repressive governmental practices of in Islamic countries, or if some of them continue to depend on the world’s superpowers. This may prove to be the case, especially given the rarity and weakness of modern opposition fronts and the growing attempts by the superpowers’ client states at brutal, vertical control.

As a Moroccan journalist and researcher based in Rabat, Si’ali worked as a correspondent for a global news agency as part of its bureau for the Middle East and Gulf regions between 2011 and 2016. Subsequently, he has reported on the development of Islamic extremists in the region and throughout the world. He earned a BA in Public Law and Political Science from the University of Tangier, Morocco.

In Translation: Do al-Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahri still got it?

The leader of al-Qaeda since Obama bin Laden’s death, Ayman al-Zawahiri, posted a new speech on 5 January that was chiefly targeted at asserting his jihadist credentials and denouncing the Islamic State. Since 2014 (when the Islamic State announced it has established its “caliphate”) especially, the rivalry between the two groups in Syria and Iraq has expanded to other fronts; this rivalry is not only based on theological disputes but also strategic ones, particularly concerning what are acceptable levels of violence against Shias and non-Muslim minorities and the order of priorities between fighting the taghout (local despots) and the West. Moreover, they have tended to be eclipsed by the Islamic State, whose spectacular brutality and control of territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya (until recently) had made everyone’s public enemy number one.

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a top Jordanian expert on jihadist groups, dissects Zawahiri’s message in the piece below. He is rather scathing about what he sees as Zawahiri’s desperate plea for relevance. I certainly do not have his level of expertise, but I am not sure I share his view of al-Qaeda’s decline – the issue may be that the autonomisation of various AQ groups, especially Jabha an-Nusra, AQAP and AQIM – has now made “AQ Central” less relevant. But it is true that Zawahiri comes out as defensive in this latest video. Because I’m tempted to make analogies with hip-hop on just about every topic, one might say that this mirrors the discourse in Dr. Dre’s return to gangsta rap in his (fantastic) album 2001, in which he bemoans that people Forgot About Dre and that would do well to remember that he is Still D.R.E.. Except, you know, Dr. Dre is effortlessly cool and Dr. Ayman, well, a loser.

Thanks to the OGs at Industry Arabic for making this feature possible. Check them out for your Arabic translation needs.


Zawahiri and the Delusional Fight over Baghdadi’s Legacy

Hassan Abu Haniyeh, Arabi 21, 8 January 2017

It is indisputable that al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri is nothing like it was under Osama bin Laden. In his lifetime, Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was an icon for jihadists and a guiding model for global jihad. Every jihadist movement and organization strove to obtain its blessing and the honor of joining its structure and putting itself under its leadership. On the other hand, Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda lacks the legitimacy to represent global jihad.

Unlike Bin Laden, whose charismatic personality enabled him to preserve a cohesive bureaucratic organization and strong ideological discourse, Zawahiri has failed to maintain the group’s unity. There have been many defections during his reign, with increasingly dynamic rebellions and acts of disobedience, while his rhetoric has been plagued by contradictions, shifts, and disorder.

As the Islamic State group, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, faces a comprehensive, universal war and is occupied with repulsing the attacks of the international coalition led by the US (whom Zawahiri routinely describes as “Crusaders”), regional and local Shia forces (typically described by Zawahiri as “Persian Zoroastrian rejectionists [rafidah]”) and Islamic-Arab forces (which Zawahiri makes sure to accuse of blasphemy, apostasy and collaboration), Zawahiri has appeared in a new speech distributed by the As-Sahab Foundation under the title, “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow,” in which he attacks the Islamic State group and Baghdadi.

Zawahiri has been preoccupied with pushing back against what he calls a campaign of distortion, intimidation and demoralization waged against the “mujahideen.” Among those who have participated in this campaign, according to Zawahiri, are the “liars” of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He has accused Baghdadi of deception and slander aimed at distorting the image of al-Qaeda and its activities, and has stressed that the priority of jihad should be to strike America.

It seems that Zawahiri’s reading of the conditions of global jihad are extremely confused and wrapped up in a state of denial which has made him unaware that the age of al-Qaeda has ended and that the world is now living in the age of ISIS – which has become the preferred model for new jihadists. Zawahiri’s speech is based on a wishful reading that predicts the decline and demise of ISIS, whose mantle will then be taken up by a new iteration of al-Qaeda.

Zawahiri’s speech did not mention any feelings of solidarity or any desire to reconcile with the organization, and instead carried out a relentless campaign against the group and against Baghdadi, without mentioning the disintegration, weakness and collapse that has befallen al-Qaeda.

In an attempt to restore and revive al-Qaeda at the expense of the Islamic State, Zawahiri has fallen into the Islamic State’s trap. By opposing ISIS for standing its ground, his speech lapsed into self-contradiction.

Instead of emphasizing the difference between al-Qaeda’s discourse and that of the Islamic State, he identified with it at the same time that he claimed to oppose and criticize it. He said that the “liar” (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) has claimed that al-Qaeda does not denounce un-Islamic regimes as blasphemous, falls in line with the majority opinion, has praised (ousted Egyptian President) Mohamed Morsi, and has even called for Christians to share as partners in power. He added that Baghdadi’s followers have claimed that al-Qaeda does not practice takfir against Shias.

Thus, Zawahiri, instead of saying, “Yes, we affirm our differences with ISIS about these foregoing issues,” pretended that al-Qaeda had held these positions since its inception — and this is, without a doubt, completely untrue.

These issues and others have been matters of contention between al-Qaeda and ISIS from the time of Zarqawi’s network up to Baghdadi’s state. In particular, al-Qaeda entered into a new phase upon the killing of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in a US special forces operation in Pakistan in 2011, which coincided with the Arab Spring revolutions.

At that time, Al-Qaeda inaugurated a number of transformations to adapt to the new circumstances. With the failure of the democratic transition process, al-Qaeda’s positions became contradictory, and it began to focus on building alliances with Islamic revolutionary and jihadist forces, and changed its priority from confronting America to fighting local regimes.

Leaders in the most active branch of al-Qaeda, in Syria, announced through the Nusra Front that they would refrain from confronting or striking America or the West in any foreign operations and limit their priorities to fighting in Syria and building ties with local forces – an approach which was also followed by al-Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabaab [in Somalia].

In his speech, Zawahiri attempts to revive the rhetoric of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. “Message to our Ummah: To Other than God We Will Not Bow” — the title of his speech — belongs to a different era, when al-Qaeda saw itself as the vanguard of the Ummah.

However, Zawahiri’s fantasy of the Ummah belongs to an imaginary Ummah that does not see therein a representation of its aspirations regarding state and society. Even the groups closest to Zawahiri, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ahrar al-Sham movement, blame him for dividing and distracting the Ummah.

Even Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani broke ties with Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda and founded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with his blessings and commendation from his aides, such as Abu Khayr al-Masri and Abu Faraj al-Masri, notwithstanding the fact that Zawahiri considered the calls for al-Qaeda to stay out of Syria “flimsy.”

In his speech, Zawahiri revealed the extent of the contradictions and divisions inside al-Qaeda and its branches. In response to calls for al-Qaeda to be kept out of Syria in order to free Syrian groups from the “terrorism” label, Zawahiri said: “It is as if pleasing America was the purpose or path to victory in jihad, and as if al-Qaeda has become criminal because it antagonizes America and its corrupt agents in our lands. It is as if America was not annihilating Muslims before and after al-Qaeda was established.”

It is as if Zawahiri was indicating his dissatisfaction with al-Nusra Front cutting ties with al-Qaeda, a fact that came to light as a number of leaders rejected this decision, such as Abu Julaybib, Abu Bilal, Abu Hamam and others.

Zawahiri, in his latest speech, does not appear to be more than an observer and ideological guide with no real connection to the al-Qaeda organization and its branches. He does not issue orders or instructions, but incites, hopes, and beseeches. He is directing speeches at an imaginary Ummah, calling for the revival of jihad to liberate the Muslim nation from occupation by the infidels, as he puts it, saying that America and its allies are the primary target and reciting so-called crimes committed by the US that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda’s mission, such as the eradication of five million Vietnamese, the dropping of an atomic bomb on Japan, the killing of 60,000 Germans in the firebombing of Hamburg during World War II, and so on.

Zawahiri, as if he was in an introductory college course on refuting conspiracy theories, deflected accusations from al-Qaeda, saying: “Those with (hidden) purposes have accused al-Qaeda of different forms of collaboration. They have said that we are agents of the Americans formed in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion. They have said that we are Saudi agents formed with their financing. The rafidah, the new Safavids, have accused us of being American and Israeli agents. Their propaganda tools, in pure lies, say that the attacks of September 11 were a Zionist conspiracy and that they were a pretext for an American attack on Iran (which has not happened) even after 15 years of attacks — rather, their relationship has strengthened and they have become allies against Muslims in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Syria. The propaganda tools and servants of American bases in the Gulf have accused us of being agents of Iran working in their interests, and finally they warned against us because we are America’s enemies, and those who side with us inherit our crimes.”

Zawahiri, in his attempt to prove al-Qaeda’s legitimacy, falls into a historical ideological and moral dilemma. In attempting to delegitimize ISIS and Baghdadi, he says that the figure Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi[1] was “a role model for veterans of Saddam’s army officer corps and his intelligence services, who awarded the caliphate to Ibrahim al-Badri [the real name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi], who used to kill his rivals in Kufa if they did not testify against themselves as infidels.” But Zawahiri himself, during the time of Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, never tired of deflecting accusations away from that same organization, singing the praises of ISIS and the same men, and attacking those who fought against the organization as members of the Sunni Awakening and collaborators.

I believe that, in his speech, Zawahiri revealed a major disruption affecting al-Qaeda with his leadership — not only because of his loss of legitimacy to ISIS, but first and foremost because of his dwindling legitimacy among al-Qaeda and its branches.

Among his followers and supporters, accusations have been mounting that he is unable to confront ISIS, hesitant in dealing with it, indecisive in his positions, unable to maintain al-Qaeda’s appeal and ability to galvanize, and of losing control over the organization’s branches, which pushed him to rehearse al-Qaeda’s guide for action, “code of conduct” and aims — most importantly to impose sharia, unite the Ummah, release prisoners, etc. — and emphasize that the principles had been developed after consultation with all branches in order to hold them responsible.

It seems that Zawahiri’s legitimacy has been lacking among al-Qaeda’s followers and supporters, even moreso than among other jihadists, at a time when it had been possible for Zawahiri to recover something of al-Qaeda’s appeal by summoning Osama bin Laden’s charisma by appointing his son, Hamza bin Laden, whom the United States recently placed on its terrorist watch list. In a speech last year, Ayman al-Zawahiri presented Hamza as “son of the lion of jihad,” before going on to call upon the youth of Islam to fight against the “Americans, Jews, and the rest of the West.”

However, Zawahiri has appeared unable to understand the transformations at work and unable to control al-Qaeda. The group, which had depended for its organizational structure and ideological aspirations on both Saudis and Egyptians, has now become, in the age of Zawahiri, basically Egyptian. Everyone was surprised by the announcement through the Nusra Front’s media platform, Al-Manara Al-Bayda, that Zawahiri’s deputy would be Abu Khayr al-Masri.

It is no small irony that the announcement was not made through the As-Sahab Foundation [al-Qaeda’s media production unit]. The Nusra Front’s step of breaking ties with al-Qaeda revealed how weak and fragile Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda has become, and showed the dispute among various wings, leaders, origins and nationalities. It is no longer possible to play the Bin Laden card or enforce the Saudi line.

Before that, it had been possible for Hamza bin Laden to become “the new face of al-Qaeda.” His latest speeches had revived the image of his father. Last July, his words were consistent with his father’s when he said: “Al-Qaeda will continue to carry out its attacks inside your country and abroad in response to the repression suffered by the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and other Muslim countries.” He was decisive when he threatened America and the West and promised to avenge the death of his father, Osama bin Laden.

The bottom line is that, in his speech, Zawahiri appeared unable to comprehend the current transformations and was preoccupied with defending his choices, despite saying that al-Qaeda’s policies were not sacred writ. His concerns appeared largely narcissistic, as he was preoccupied with his own reputation and tried to place the blame on others — from the Islamic State and from his own group — for the organization’s dissolution and weakness. He took no notice of the campaign faced by ISIS, was unconcerned by the defeat of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and other opposition groups and their expulsion from Aleppo, and did not touch upon the state of his crumbling branches in Yemen and the Maghreb, which are being dispersed and losing effectiveness.

The Ummah that Zawahiri claims to represent has disappeared and withdrawn into itself – and in that sense it is not very different from what Zawahiri himself has become. Are we waiting in anticipation for another speech? I think not.


  1. A governor of Iraq under the Ommeyyad dynasty (seventh-eighth century) reputed for his ruthlessness.  ↩

Moussaoui Calls Saudi Princes Patrons of Al Qaeda

Ahem:

WASHINGTON — In highly unusual testimony inside the federal supermax prison, a former operative for Al Qaeda has described prominent members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family as major donors to the terrorist network in the late 1990s and claimed that he discussed a plan to shoot down Air Force One with a Stinger missile with a staff member at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

. . .

He said in the prison deposition that he was directed in 1998 or 1999 by Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan to create a digital database of donors to the group. Among those he said he recalled listing in the database were Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the Saudi intelligence chief; Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States; Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a prominent billionaire investor; and many of the country’s leading clerics.

“Sheikh Osama wanted to keep a record who give money,” he said in imperfect English — “who is to be listened to or who contributed to the jihad.”

Mr. Moussaoui said he acted as a courier for Bin Laden, carrying personal messages to prominent Saudi princes and clerics. And he described his training in Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

. . .

In addition, Mr. Moussaoui said, “We talk about the feasibility of shooting Air Force One.”

Specifically, he said, he had met an official of the Islamic Affairs Department of the Saudi Embassy in Washington when the Saudi official visited Kandahar. “I was supposed to go to Washington and go with him” to “find a location where it may be suitable to launch a Stinger attack and then, after, be able to escape,” he said.

Entirely plausible.

AsidesThe Editorssaudi, alqaeda
The Franchising of al-Qaeda
New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

New York Times' map of al-Qaeda network

NYT's Ben Hubbard, on al-Qaeda's second wind:

What links these groups, experts say, is no longer a centralized organization but a loose ideology that any group can appropriate and apply as it sees fit while gaining the mystique of a recognized brand name. In short, Al Qaeda today is less a corporation than a vision driving a diverse spread of militant groups.

“Al Qaeda is kind of a ready-made kit now,” said William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution. “It is a portable ideology that is entirely fleshed out, with its own symbols and ways of mobilizing people and money to the cause. In many ways, you don’t have to join the actual organization anymore to get those benefits.”

AsidesThe Editorsalqaeda
Yemen: Can AQAP mount an insurgency?

This post was co-authored by the editor of the recently released report "A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes, and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen", Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, and the author of the same report. For reasons of security and to facilitate future research in the region the author's name has been withheld from the report. Gabriel is an associate at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and an instructor in the Department of Social Sciences.

On 15 January a member of a United Nations team was kidnapped from an upscale neighborhood in Yemen’s capital.  He was reportedly taken to the eastern governorate of Marib and held for more than a week by heavily-armed tribesmen who demanded the release of their relatives held on suspicion of supporting al-Qa`ida. The day of the abduction, word spread of militants from an alleged al-Qa`ida affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia`a, overrunning a city just 80 miles south of Sana’a.  A week later, footage of an alleged commander of the group, a tribal sheikh and brother in law of Anwar al-`Awlaqi named Tariq al-Dhahab, was posted on YouTube.  The clips seem to show Ansar al-Sharia`a fighters in control of the city’s mosque, enjoying support from some local residents, and for the first time on video, soliciting oaths of allegiance from young men on behalf of al-Qa`ida’s leaders in Yemen and Pakistan. (Click here for videos)

Both events have been interpreted as the latest evidence of Yemen’s imminent collapse, an outcome especially troubling for the United States. Whereas the Arab Spring has spurred varying degrees of optimism regarding political developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and even Libya, Yemen appears headed in the opposite direction. The prospect of al-Qa`ida inspired militants moving to fill the void left by a faltering central government makes a bad situation that much worse. AQAP is not alone in taking advantage of the chaos. Across the country the Yemeni government is ceding ground to a variety of sub state actors. These include Southern Secessionists in the former PDRY (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), Houthi insurgents in the North, and since May of 2011 in Abyan and perhaps Baydah governorates, al-Qa`ida’s local offshoot, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Shar`ia. 

Given the grim picture, bleak predications about Yemen’s future are inevitable. But they represent only part of the story.  The abduction of the UN official or seizure of Rada’a while troubling, are not proof of Yemen’s “failure” – much less victory for AQAP.  While these events might be conclusive evidence of collapse in a country with a history of a strong, centralized government, Yemen has never neatly matched up with Weberian concepts of sovereignty. To make sense of where Yemen is going, events must be evaluated using Yemeni metrics rather than ahistorical assumptions about territorial control taken from the West, or other Arab countries for that matter.

The recent kidnapping of Gert Danielsen is a useful example.  Although the Norwegian was rushed to an area long considered beyond the writ of the Yemeni government, his safety and ultimately his return to the capital was ensured precisely by the norms and social organizations long accused of weakening the Yemeni state: tribesmen and customary law. This conclusion may seem contradictory to those who presume that safety and stability are exclusively the purview of the central state. But given President Saleh’s departure and the political gridlock in the capital, governance does not end at Marib’s borders.  Accepted methods of dispute resolution were enacted immediately following news of the kidnapping.  A delegation of sheikhs from `Abeeda, ironically one of the tribes most frequently accused supporting al-Qa`ida, headed mediation efforts with the kidnappers, and within days an agreement was struck that returned Gert to Sana’a.

Ansar al-Shari`a’s takeover of Rada’a is also telling.  The week long ordeal seemed to confirm suspicions that al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula had once again diversified its operations. No longer content with simply attacking security forces, the group or its affiliates appeared to be seizing territory and administering social services in a strategic shift that is typically associated with insurgent movements, not small terrorist groups.  Though AQAP has only vaguely in described its exact role in these developments – save for an unusual online question and answer session last April – Ansar al-Shari`a’s recent actions are much less circumspect.  The group has reportedly raised al-Qa`ida’s banner and screened AQAP media in areas in which it retains a presence. Its media wing (al-Madad) has used a series of newsletter to “preview” upcoming AQAP releases in addition to spreading news of its own activities. (click here for access to all of al-Madad’s recent releases from Aaron Zelin’s jihadology blog)

To be sure, links exist between these groups.  Based on the newsletters alone there is evidence to suggest coordination between members of the media wings of both groups.  Yet, overlapping manpower and interests hardly constitutes a formal alliance. Even if the two groups are coordinating their activities, a loose alliance with semi independent groups also has its downsides for AQAP.  According to our report:

The growth of sympathetic movements certainly bolsters al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula‘s presence in Yemen. Yet the rise of jihadists who display none of the characteristics that have sustained AQAP‘s resilience does not. An Ansar al-Shari`a accused of kidnapping children, beheading civil leaders and imposing Taliban-like shows of justice does not strengthen the integrity of the AQAP brand. Regardless of the veracity of the claims—few of which have been definitively proven—a nominal al-Qa`ida ally that is thus far incapable of matching its sponsor‘s skill for messaging or disciplined use of violence dilutes the integrity of perhaps AQAP‘s most valued asset, the credibility of its name.

More importantly, even if al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula was behind the capture of Rada`a, and `Azzan, Houta, Ja`ar, and Zinjubar before it, such an embrace of insurgency may in fact be the surest route to the group’s defeat in Yemen.  Unlike the Houthis who have been fighting since 2004, AQAP’s background is in terror not insurgency.  Furthermore Yemen is neither Iraq nor Afghanistan.  Attempts by AQAP to highlight a limited U.S. military presence in the country notwithstanding, there is no foreign military occupying Yemen.  In Rada’a, the nearest thing to an “occupying” force was likely Ansar al-Shari`a itself. 

Even if AQAP could potentially evolve into a deft practitioner of insurgency in the future, such a transformation will involve significant organizational tradeoffs.  Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula has thus far proven successful in Yemen thanks to a cadre of leaders who have imposed unusual discipline on the group, balancing competing constituents while pursuing local, regional, and more recently international agendas.  However, the principles that help to explain AQAP’s success as a small, leader-centric group will not predispose them for success in insurgency.  Disciplining a tightly bound group focused on terrorist attacks and assassinations is one thing; keeping a hodgepodge of "insurgents" in check and on message is another. A larger AQAP means a broader movement, one less under the direct control of the Yemeni leaders who have guided the organization for more than five years.  As we noted in our report last October:

While organizational flattening will improve internal security, decentralization can be expected to erode AQAP‘s ability to discipline the use of its narrative and violence. Greater distance between the group’s talented founding commanders and newer cells and sympathizers leaves a swelling cohort animated by the rhetoric of al-Qa`ida’s ideology but less restrained by the foresight of AQAP’s leadership. Regulating the behavior of members who are loosely tied to the group’s command will pose a serious risk to AQAP’s coherence of behavior and message.

Such dangers are rendered more likely with the continued rise of Ansar al-Shari`a.  As the Rada`a case indicates, while liberating communities from corrupt security forces may generate local support, imposing governance on existing and accepted forms of social organization, including tribal law (to which al-Qa`ida’s ideology is fundamentally opposed) does not.  Ansar al-Shari’a’s success has come in part because they are directing their efforts against Yemen’s highly unpopular security forces, in areas where their presence has long been resented, and where turmoil in Sana’a makes it difficult for Yemeni soldiers to stay and fight.  Yemen’s tribal units share none of these disadvantages. 

A confrontation with Yemen’s tribes would force AQAP or Ansar al-Shar’ia to fight levies of tribal fighters on their home territory, in regions where they represent the most legitimate governing force, and where tribal notions of honor and prestige will propel them to defend their land, unlike an average 18 year old conscript in the Yemeni military.  Rather than success against Yemen’s security forces, carefully observing how Ansar al-Shar`ia and AQAP engage with local and tribal communities, at least in the short run, is probably the best barometer for evaluating the group moving forward.

Bin Laden finally dead
A bittersweet moment: he deserved to die, but it took so long  to track him down, despite all of the billions spent in intelligence and high-tech defense gear, that by the time he died it seemed almost irrelevant to the wider problems of the region. Also, to think of all the time and lives wasted, and the unnecessary, criminal ventures like the war on Iraq that were justified in the name of fighting Bin Laden. But I'm a believer in revenge, and symbolically this is important for the US, and for the families of the victims of 9/11. Let's hope this might be used as an occasion to turn the page in US foreign policy. 
Several things do strike you, though. First, outside of Pakistan and the US this won't be much of a big deal — and it probably wouldn't have been either at any point in the last decade, which goes to show how the alarmism about Bin Laden being some kind of popular figure in the Muslim world was misplaced. Secondly, where's Ayman Zawahri? And thirdly, the amount of Pakistani complicity with Bin Laden really seems beyond the pale. From the NYT:

The strike could exacerbate deep tensions with Pakistan, which has periodically bristled at American counterterrorism efforts even as Bin Laden evidently found safe refuge on its territory for nearly a decade. Since taking office, Mr. Obama has ordered significantly more drone strikes on suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan, stirring public anger there and prompting the Pakistani government to protest.

When the end came for Bin Laden, he was found not in the remote tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border where he has long been presumed to be sheltered, but in a massive compound about an hour’s drive north from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. He was hiding in the medium-sized city of Abbottabad, home to a large Pakistani military base and a military academy of the Pakistani Army.

Mr. Obama called President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan to tell him about the strike after it was set in motion, and his advisers called their Pakistani counterparts. “They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations,” Mr. Obama said.

. . .

Mr. Obama said Pakistan had helped develop the intelligence that led to Bin Laden, but an American official said the Pakistani government was not informed about the strike in advance. “We shared our intelligence on this compound with no other country, including Pakistan,” the official said.

Mr. Obama recalled his statements in the 2008 presidential campaign when he vowed to order American forces to strike inside Pakistan if necessary even without Islamabad’s permission. “That is what we’ve done,” he said. “But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to Bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”

Relations with Pakistan had fallen in recent weeks to their lowest point in years. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly criticized the Pakistani military two weeks ago for failing to act against extremists allied to Al Qaeda who shelter in the tribal areas of North Waziristan. Last week, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, head of the Pakistani Army, said Pakistan had broken the back of terrorism on its territory, prompting skepticism in Washington.

Nir Rosen on Yemen and the US
A bold claim by Nir Rosen in this piece on Yemen's uprising:
The small al Qaeda franchise in Yemen is known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The American industry of terrorism experts has dubbed AQAP the greatest terrorist threat facing the United States and has wrung its hands over AQAP’s threat to the Yemeni regime. This is despite the fact that AQAP’s international success amount to a failed underwear bomb and a package bomb that failed to detonate. In fact the regime does little to pursue AQAP because it does not perceive it as a threat. Rather than being too weak to fight AQAP, the regime has focused its various security forces attention on fighting domestic political opposition, killing or wounding hundreds of demonstrators. Likewise the demonstrators have not been concerned about al Qaeda except as a pretext for the regime’s security forces to target innocent people or receive international support. Al Qaeda is a marginal phenomenon in Yemen (as in the rest of the Middle East). While it is the primary concern of the United States government and hence the United States media, it is far from the real problems facing Yemen which the demonstrators express in a near blackout of international media attention. 
I'm ommitting a lot of great narrative that you should read for yourself — firsthand observations of how the protests unfolded. Rosen concludes:

The Yemeni Qat chewing habit was evinced as a factor militating against revolution there. In Yemen the daily cycle for most people seems to revolve around Qat, which they start chewing in the early afternoon, halting other activities and often gathering at “Qat chews”. In fact these sessions are where people discuss issues very passionately, and they can be seen as a grass roots democracy, a place where debates are continuous, especially when the press is not free. Thanks to Qat chewing there are no secrets, everybody talks, even ministers participate, and the information travels and spreads. Qat is a stimulant. Its not like being in an opium den. It makes you want to do things, it leads to agitated discussions, it does not prevent activism. Unlike some of their Gulf neighbors, Yemenis are not spoiled and are willing to put up with the hardships of a revolution. When holding sit-ins Qat can actually help, keeping you awake. Unfortunately Qat is also a way for the government to attract balataga.

The demonstrations continued to grow forcing the establishment opposition parties to take a more aggressive stance against the regime and leading to defections of major tribal leaders. Taghir, change, became the semi-official name for the demonstrator’s camp, and even al Jazeera referred to it as such.

Taking advantage of the lack of any strong U.S. response to his regime’s abuses and the earthquake in Japan distracting the world’s attention Saleh’s forces increased their violent crackdown over the weekend of the 12th and 13th of March, killing at least seven protestors while injuring hundreds of others. In a pre dawn raid the youth demonstrators camped by Sanaa University were ambushed with live automatic rifle fire, rubber bullets, electrical stun guns, and some form of gas that caused terrible convulsions. The regime also began to expel the few remaining foreign correspondents covering the protests. Obama’s silence on Saleh's escalating attacks on demonstrators and its tacit support for his tactics makes it likely that when Saleh falls the government that succeeds him will be less friendly to the United States. President Salih has offered reforms but as in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, once the dictator declares war on his own people his days are numbered. The recent Arab revolts have also shown that once a dictator concedes to the demands of the people he is transferring legitimacy to them, and their victory is inevitable. The chants in Yemen are now “After Qadhafi, oh Ali!”

After yesterday's massacre, in which at least 45 died and resulted in the imposition of a state of emergency, the US has stepped up its tone. But like in Bahrain, it finds itself in a situation where the old Middle East of alliances with tyrants and the new Middle East of peoples calling for their independence from domestic and foreign oppression are irreconciliable. It's not even a question (aside for Americans themselves and their desire for a more moral foreign policy) of having to choose: the choice will be imposed, not taken freely.

More Israeli propaganda failures

Max Blumenthal shows that the IDF is quietly redacting its own press releases to remove allegations of links between the IHH members of the flotilla and al-Qaeda:

Not content to believe that night vision goggles signal membership in Al Qaeda, Israel-based freelance reporter Lia Tarachansky and I called the IDF press office to ask for more conclusive evidence. Tarachansky reached the IDF’s Israel desk, interviewing a spokesperson in Hebrew; I spoke with the North America desk, using English. We both received the same reply from Army spokespeople: “We don’t have any evidence. The press release was based on information from the [Israeli] National Security Council.” (The Israeli National Security Council is Netanyahu’s kitchen cabinet of advisors).

Today, the Israeli Army’s press office changed the headline of its press release (see below), basically retracting its claim about the flotilla’s Al Qaeda links.

We debunked the basis of previous al-Qaeda links here.

Getting over al-Qaeda
warhol.osama22.jpg


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.
The Long War


Another good al-Jazeera English feature, here on the "long war" between al-Qaeda and, well, just about everyone else. Panel of commentators includes Lawrence Wright, Robert Pape, Gen. Richard Myers, and Mark Sageman.

Part II after the fold.
Links for 10.13.09
Essay - The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate - NYTimes.com | Speaking of the Large Hadron Collider, this is pretty cool.
BBC NEWS | Europe | 'Al-Qaeda-link' Cern worker held | Terrorist attack of potentially cosmic proportions: "The suspect had been working on the LHC Beauty (LHCb) experiment, which is investigating the slight differences between matter and anti-matter by studying a type of particle called the "beauty quark"."
Kurdistan Halts Oil Exports - NYTimes.com | Over payment dispute with central government.
AFP: Hamas claims member tortured to death in Egypt jail | In other words, a Hamas member is treated like an Egyptian.
Erotic Poet Cavafy’s Trace Fades in Egypt’s Mythic Alexandria - Bloomberg.com | The usual nostalgia for cosmopolitan Alexandria. Do visit the Cavafy museum when in Alex, though.
Loonwatch.com - "The Mooslims, they're heeere!" | A newish website that tracks Islamophobia, with a particular lookout for the kind of people who write for Middle East Forum and other reflexively anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sites.
Middle East: a Belgian solution? | Khaled Diab | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk | This is a funny, surreal headline but Khaled Diab is very misinformed about Belgian politics: the Belgian model is not pragmatic compromise, but rather wasteful deadlock.
Ben Barka: Le dossier secret de la gendarmerie - affaire ben barka - leJDD.fr | Ben Barka's body said to have been incinerated outside of Paris.
Tariq Ali: Ahmed Rashid's War | Nasty attack on Ahmed Rashid by Tariq Ali. Don't know if any of this is true, but Ali alleged Rashid operates on behalf of Hamid Karzai.
Middle East News | Egypt detains 24 Muslim Brotherhood members | More zero-tolerance in Egypt towards people protesting in solidarity with Palestinians.
Algerian Islamists in the Era of Reconciliation « The Moor Next Door | On the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brothers, and their relationship with the regime.
New Statesman - Textbook injustice in Gaza | Gazan children go back to school with few textbooks, and anything else for that matter.
FT.com / UK - Airline flies on natural gas | Qatar experiments with natural gas-derived kerosene, which makes sense for the country with the world's biggest gas fields.
Netanyahu: No war crimes trials for Israelis - Yahoo! News | One day there will be many trials ya Bibi... and until then Israeli officials will be less and less able to travel abroad.
Palestinian Memo says Hopes in Obama 'Evaporated' Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | "JERUSALEM, (AP) – An internal document circulated among members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' political party says all hopes placed in the Obama administration "have evaporated" because of alleged White House backtracking on key issues to the Palestinians."
Links for 09.14.09
Why I Love Al Jazeera - The Atlantic (October 2009) | Robert Kaplan. Incidentally, while some of what he says about al-J (here he means the English channel) is interesting, he does not seem to be conscious that The Atlantic is one of the most biased publications among the mainstream pseudo-highbrow mags in the US.
Osama bin Laden: in it for the long haul | World news | guardian.co.uk | Ian Black on the new Bin Laden audio tape.
Middle East Report 252 contents: Pakistan Under Pressure | New issue of Middle East Report, Getting By in the Global Downturn," with selected articles available online.
A la Mostra, le déroutant voyage d'Ahmed Maher - LeMonde.fr | Success for Egyptian director Ahmed Maher at Venice Film Festival.
The five ages of al-Qaida | World news | guardian.co.uk | Infographic.

Obama's Ankara speech
There were two passages in Obama's speech in Ankara, which I suppose is his much-touted address to the Muslim world, that struck me. The first moved away from the idea that engagement with the Muslim world is a policy solely based on the war on terror and the problem of Islamic fundamentalism. This is a great step, and most of the advocates of public diplomacy in the last few years were deeply wrong in framing the need for outreach in the context of al-Qaeda. The subtext to that idea was, essentially, a conflation of al-Qaeda and Islam that was deeply damaging to America's image in the Muslim world -- and it did not help that President Bush pathetically tried to show his understanding of Islam by holding iftars and other pageants. Here it is:

But I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim work cannot and will not be based on opposition to al Qaeda. Far from it. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. And we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better – including my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country – I know, because I am one of them.

Above all, we will demonstrate through actions our commitment to a better future. We want to help more children get the education that they need to succeed. We want to promote health care in places where people are vulnerable. We want to expand the trade and investment that can bring prosperity for all people. In the months ahead, I will present specific programs to advance these goals. Our focus will be on what we can do, in partnership with people across the Muslim world, to advance our common hopes, and our common dreams. And when people look back on this time, let it be said of America that we extended the hand of friendship.


The great thing about this approach is that it says to Muslim countries, and societies, that while America has a problem with al-Qaeda it will not deal with Muslims through that problem alone, but in a multilateral fashion that addresses the "normal" global problems we all face: climate change, trade policy, diplomacy, conflict resolution, etc. The focus on education (in a dire state in much of the Arab world at least) encapsulates the universalism of these common concerns. Basically, the difference between Bush and Obama's approach is a switch from a focus on exceptionalism (Muslim societies as unusually problematic) to one of universalism (all countries and societies face common challenges far beyond the ones that have to do with religion and its excesses.)

The second part is linked to Obama's choice of Turkey, a Muslim majority country with deeply secular values despite the fact that its current government is Islamist, as the venue for the speech. In many respects it's an odd choice, considering that for a long time Turkey wore many different hats than "large Muslim country" in US policy circles: NATO partner, prospective EU member, Eastern Mediterranean economic powerhouse, energy crossroad, gateway to Central Asia, etc. I interpret it in the fact that aside from India and possibly Indonesia, no country with a large population has the type of government that could be seen as progressive, at least partly committed to democracy and that can be seen as successful in terms of socio-economic development. Hence the focus on the very particular Turkish heritage of Attaturkism, which for all its faults has helped create a very dynamic, relatively open society in Turkey:

This morning I had the privilege of visiting the tomb of the great founder of your Republic. I was deeply impressed by this beautiful memorial to a man who did so much to shape the course of history. But it is also clear that the greatest monument to Ataturk’s life is not something that can be cast in stone and marble. His greatest legacy is Turkey’s strong and secular democracy, and that is the work that this assembly carries on today.

This future was not easily assured. At the end of World War I, Turkey could have succumbed to the foreign powers that were trying to claim its territory, or sought to restore an ancient empire. But Turkey chose a different future. You freed yourself from foreign control. And you founded a Republic that commands the respect of the United States and the wider world.

There is a simple truth to this story: Turkey’s democracy is your own achievement. It was not forced upon you by any outside power, nor did it come without struggle and sacrifice. Like any democracy, Turkey draws strength from both the successes of the past, and from the efforts of each generation of Turks that makes new progress for your people.


Not only does Obama here recognize the heroic resistance of Turkish nationalists against efforts by Europeans to carve out their country after World War I, but explicitly rejects the idea of external imposition of democracy (a landmark Bush administration idea) and puts the focus on domestic forces. Beyond this, he also puts the emphasis on Turkey's achievement as a a secular country whose ruling party, while notionally Islamist, accepts and has thrived within a secular framework. I am probably reading too much into this, but I like to see in it an argument for the secular framework as, in recent history at least, a great model for development, especially compared to the outright Islamist models of Iran, Saudi Arabia or Sudan that have been respectively civic, moral or social failures -- or indeed the hybrid pseudo-secular experiments of Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Algeria and most other Arab states.

The problem here is that while it's an approach that greatly appeals to me ideologically (I believe that the secular model is best), I am not sure it is practical anymore. The contemporary dominance of Islamist ideology, and its recuperation by the power elites of Arab countries even when they claim to cherish secular values, has gone too far. The opportunity that Turkey grabbed (not to disregard Attaturkism's cultish tendencies and human rights abuses) has passed the Arab world by, and we are left dealing with a bizarre mishmash of the worse that Islamism, socialism, capitalism and nationalism have to offer: intolerance, inefficiency, cronyism and empty jingoism. The trick is now to find the best of those same ideologies, and in this case Islam's ideal of social justice does have something valuable to offer.

The question for Obama will be whether, in going beyond the idea of democracy promotion that we know is difficult to practice when facing deeply-entrenced anti-democratic forces (first and foremost the regimes in place), he will abandon it altogether. For me the first test of this would be to see him back the formation of a representative national unity government in Palestine that includes legitimately elected Hamas, making new elections possible in which, this time, I hope the United States won't waste their money interfering in on Fatah's side.