Al-Qa'ida opens up a new front line in the Middle East

On the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, Patrick Cockburn examines how the terror leader's network has capitalised on the Arab Spring

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a sight the world had got used to: a crater in the road where the suicide bomber detonated the explosives packed into his vehicle; the pools of blood and hunks of flesh of people caught in the blast; ruined buildings where floors have collapsed on top of each other; shocked survivors wandering amid the mangled cars and broken glass.

Almost invariably during the past decade such carnage has been the work of al-Qa'ida or similar Islamic fundamentalist movements such as the Afghan or Pakistan Taliban. But the latest such explosions, coming a year after the killing of Osama bin Laden, took place this week in the Syrian city of Idlib where two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the headquarters of army and airforce intelligence services. The Syrian government says that nine people were killed and 100 wounded.

The Syrian opposition claimed that these and other attacks on symbols of the Syrian state are the work of the Syrian government seeking to discredit protesters. They said they were "fabricated, staged explosions". But the attacks have all the hallmarks of an al-Qa'ida operation and the CIA has confirmed that previous suicide bombings in Syria have been the work of al-Qa'ida. An al-Qa'ida-inspired group called the al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant has claimed responsibility for a bomb in Damascus that killed 10 people last week.

These bombings are significant because they show al-Qa'ida is still very much in business, despite the death of Bin Laden and other al-Qa'ida leaders. It not only still exists but it is becoming engaged in new conflicts that have followed the Arab Spring. Al-Qa'ida has always been the child of war. This was true in Afghanistan when the Taliban were fighting to take over the country before 2001; in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003; and in Yemen where civil conflict has escalated since the Arab Spring.

It may be comforting for Western governments to imagine that the jihadist version of Islamic fundamentalism is a back number since the onset of the Arab Spring. There are now other avenues for effective protest by disaffected Muslim youth. But this view is deceptive because, if the Arab Spring has brought change, it is also brought armed conflict to much of the Arab world where change has been blocked, as in Syria, or state power has weakened, as in Libya.

Developments in Syria are important because al-Qa'ida is beginning to show strength in a core region of the Middle East and is no longer confined to isolated fastnesses in north-west Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. The convulsions of the Arab Spring may have been inspired by different ideas than those of Bin Laden and his followers, but the weakening of police states across the region makes it easier for al-Qa'ida to operate. The Arab world today looks more and more like it did in the 1950s and 1960s, when nationalists, Islamists, Communists, secularists and liberals contended for power. After the uprisings of last year, many countries will be freer, but many will also be more divided and violent.

How did al-Qa'ida survive the intense pressure placed on it by security services after 9/11 and will it be able to do so in future? The answer is that it did so because the organisation never existed in the form so-called counter-terrorism experts imagined. It was never a sort of Islamic Comintern, with tentacles stretching from Waziristan to Birmingham. When it was at its strongest as a cohesive group at the time of 9/11, Bin Laden could only look to some 100 men to facilitate attacks. On the other hand, the ideology he espoused and the fundamentalist jihadist tendency in Islam, is far broader and more difficult to eliminate.

Groups that have no organisational connection with al-Qa'ida now employ its tactics because they are effective.

Al-Qa'ida-type organisations may find the political waters of the Middle East easier to swim in in future because they can take advantage of a series of escalating conflicts. Bin Laden saw his enemies as being primarily American, but, from the beginning, al-Qa'ida's franchisees have had different priorities. The Arab Spring was a popular uprising against police states in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt but it was not only that. East of Egypt it fed into, and exacerbated, the conflict between Shia and Sunni in Syria, Bahrain and Iraq. It has deepened the confrontation between the Iranian-led coalition, broadly opposed to US influence in the Middle East, and its Saudi-led opponents.

Western governments and media give the impression that al-Qa'ida and its associates are purely anti-Western organisations. The counter-terrorism industry, often peopled by academic, journalistic and intelligence mountebanks, ignores or downplays the degree to which jihadist militants target Shia civilians more frequently than Westerners.

And there has always been a contradiction in the US-led war against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban. It has been conducted in alliance with two states – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – whose policies are geared to supporting Sunni fundamentalist movements. The ISI military intelligence service in Pakistan was central to the birth of the Taliban and their resurgence since 2006. The Pakistani military has been successful in being, at one and the same time, America's ally against al-Qa'ida but also suspiciously incapable of wiping it out entirely. To do so would devalue the ISI's co-operation in the eyes of the US.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and al-Qa'ida is a little different. Saudi security pursues its militants, but Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's variant of Islam, is very close in ideology to al-Qa'ida. It is a fundamentalist faith, its original adherents committed to restoring primitive Islam, fighting to the death and entering paradise as martyrs. It is fiercely anti-Shia, whom it sees as being on the offensive since the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are of crucial importance for the future of Sunni fundamentalism, whether it is under the rubric of al-Qa'ida or some other like-minded organisation. The balance of power in the Arab world has changed, with states such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq weakened or in turmoil, and the Saudis and Qataris filling the leadership vacuum. This strengthens Sunni fundamentalism, of which al-Qa'ida is but one extreme offshoot. Bin Laden may be dead, but Islamic radicalism – and the causes which gave rise to it – is very much alive.