The al-Qaida perspective

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 January 2004

The turn of the year has seen a sustained period of alerts affecting airlines flying into the United States, as well as a new tape from Osama bin Laden. In this, bin Laden renews his call for action against the western presence in the Arab world and reserves particular criticism for Arab governments, seen as failing abjectly to resist the encroachment of western power over the Islamic world.

The combination of the new tape and its indication of bin Laden’s continuing survival, along with the recent alerts, suggests an organisation that is far from being defeated. Against this, bin Laden’s very concentration on the failures of Arab states suggests that the dreams of an al-Qaida victory in pursuit of its aims are as far off as ever.

It therefore makes sense to examine the “war on terror” not from an American or European point of view but from the perspective of al-Qaida. On such a basis, what would be the year-end report for 2003?

The al-Qaida context

The al-Qaida movement began to develop in the late 1980s although its belief system relates to writings and teachings of radical Islamic thinkers like Sayyid Qutb going back many years earlier. It was never just a rigid hierarchical organisation but has long included a collection of affiliates, a network of like-minded organisations developing in many countries, even if the few hundred core members of al-Qaida formed a nucleus of commitment to their cause.

At the same time, the focus on Afghanistan in the 1990s was of real value to al-Qaida’s development, especially in terms of providing centralised training facilities for recruits. The Afghan base had its origins in opposition to Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and many of those who were later involved in al-Qaida’s development were initially aided by extensive support from the CIA and other US agencies.

During the 1990s, al-Qaida and its affiliates developed steadily, and were able to stage a number of significant attacks on US facilities, including the killing of US soldiers in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks block at the Dhahran US air base in 1996, the East African embassy bombings in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour in 2000.

The transition to a recognised transnational phenomenon and key enemy in the “war on terror” came with the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001, but these formed just one part of a much longer-term strategy that had been developing for more than ten years and has an outlook measured in decades.

From al-Qaida’s perspective, the key immediate aims of the strategy are the removal of foreign troops from the western Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, and the fall of the House of Saud and its replacement by a genuine Islamist regime. Somewhat peripheral to this, but still significant, is the defeat of Israel, although the specific Palestinian cause has never been a high priority for al-Qaida.

Although Iraq’s perceived resistance to western pressure after 1990 was not a negative element in the al-Qaida worldview, Iraq itself was in no way a beacon example of what was required. Indeed, under Saddam Hussein it was seen primarily as an illegitimate secular regime of little more than peripheral significance.

The longer-term aim of al-Qaida is the development of what its adherents believe to be legitimate and pure Islamic rule across the Arab world and beyond, bringing about something akin to a new caliphate. Indeed Osama bin Laden’s most recent pronouncement points to this in criticising the paucity of Arab economic achievements despite the oil wealth, when he “…blames the decline of Arabs and Muslims on their negligence of Islam as a system of government and state, and calls on Muslims to establish a council of wise men to rule after the overthrow of all regimes in the Arab and Muslim world.” (al-Jazeera web site, 5 Jan 2004)

Afghanistan and after

One anticipated aim of the original 9/11 attacks was to stimulate a very vigorous response from the United States, including a major US military involvement in Afghanistan, drawing its forces into south-west Asia and setting the scene for a long drawn out guerrilla war involving Taliban and al-Qaida paramilitaries against a foreign occupier.

The actual outcome constituted the first and only major mistake in al-Qaida strategy in recent years in that it was not anticipated that the United States would use the Northern Alliance forces, suitably re-armed, as its ground troops, instead of its own troops. The Northern Alliance forces, in conjunction with the heavy use of air power, terminated the Taliban regime rapidly, although in most cases the Taliban militias were not defeated to the point of surrender. Instead, they melted away into Pashtun areas of Afghanistan or into the border regions of Pakistan, usually with weapons and other logistic support intact.

The loss of training bases was a fairly serious problem, although most were rapidly evacuated and, in any case, many had been more concerned with training expatriate militias to support the Taliban in the context of the Afghan civil war, than with furthering al-Qaida’s transnational aims.

In one sense, the “loss” of Afghanistan and the capture of some elements of the al-Qaida leadership was a significant setback, but four factors have limited the damage. The first is that al-Qaida was already a dispersed organisation and has simply become more so, almost to the extent of being a “franchise” operation. There may be some direction from the centre and certainly help with training, tactics and technical expertise, but the enhanced roles of many regional variants have ensured a high level of paramilitary activity against western and associated interests.

The many examples of “successful” operations include attacks in Djakarta, Casablanca, Islamabad, Riyadh, Bali, Mombassa and Tunisia. Recent examples have been four separate attacks against Jewish and British targets in Istanbul, and the two assassination attempts against President Musharraf in Pakistan. There have also been major attacks in Iraq, including the bombing of the UN headquarters and the Jordanian mission in Baghdad and the Italian headquarters in Nasiriya, all of which probably had an external (if not direct) involvement of al-Qaida.

The second factor has been the persistent failure of western states to aid the rapid reconstruction of Afghanistan. Inadequate aid, a limit to security assistance and a reliance on warlords has resulted in considerable disorder, criminality, increases in opium production and insecurity. This has been of real indirect value to al-Qaida, allowing significant elements of the Taliban to regroup and leading to the probability of a renewed insurgency next spring.

Third, there is now a new or greatly enhanced US military presence in Afghanistan and a range of Central Asian Islamic states, some of which have leaderships pursuing vigorous counter-terrorism policies with scant regard for human rights. Al-Qaida can therefore feel confident that further recruits to its cause will follow from such a trend.

Fourth, the widespread pursuit of a policy of detention without trial by the United States and its associates is a remarkably powerful recruiting sergeant. Camp Delta is just the more visible sign of a much wider range of detentions stretching across the world, with every detained person having a family and coming from a community that is only too well aware of the personal predicament and the lack of any immediate resolution.

All of these factors are of value to al-Qaida but they are experienced at a time when it has suffered some limited reversals, including the detention of some core operatives and the much wider detention of members of local affiliates. In spite of this, the logistic and support base for al-Qaida has remained strong, especially as a wide variety of informal routes of financial movements have been developed.

Even so, it might well have been the case that the potential for further al-Qaida enhancement could have been limited, and President Bush’s “war on terror” at least approaching a stalemate, were it not for two further issues, both serving as veritable “gifts” to al-Qaida in the pursuit of its long-term objectives – Iraq and Israel.

And then…Iraq

The real advantage to al-Qaida in Iraq is that it has introduced the United States as an occupying power in the heart of the Islamic world in a manner that would have been difficult to believe only a year ago. Well over 100,000 US troops are now trying to curb a rebellion that is primarily generated from internal Iraqi sources – the effect of external involvement from al-Qaida and associates is almost certainly still in its infancy.

It is highly unlikely that anyone among the al-Qaida strategists believes that the United States it going to enable Iraq to be a truly independent democracy. Indeed the view that is endemic across the region is that it will be a client (that is, puppet) regime of Washington, with a substantial military presence maintained, including permanent military bases, even if the current insurgency recedes in the short term.

In such circumstances, and recognising that the US presence in Iraq is linked to the region’s huge oil reserves and should therefore be measured in decades, al-Qaida is in a strong position to “play it long”. In doing so it can point out to its followers that it has already forced the US military to withdraw almost all its forces from Saudi Arabia. With far larger forces in Iraq and a much closer control over the Iraqi economic and political systems, the vulnerability of US forces gives al-Qaida, in its own view, far greater potential for action.

The Israel connection

If that was not enough, the US connection with Israel is of substantial and continuing value to al-Qaida, in both a general and a particular sense. At the general level, the Sharon government is seen throughout the region to be hand-in-glove with the Bush administration while it pursues vigorous and repressive policies against the Palestinians. There is no perceived reining in of Sharon from Washington, the roadmap is lost, the West Bank and Gaza are increasingly seen in the region as little more than open prisons, and the end result is that a Zionist-American anti-Arab identity can be promulgated with ease.

Moreover, and in particular, the recent reports of remarkably close links between the Israeli and US military are already well-known across the Middle East, including those reports from reliable US sources that the Israel Defence Force is working with the US Training and Doctrine Command (Tradoc) to train its soldiers in urban warfare. To the US military this is doing little more than helping to preserve the lives of its soldiers in the difficult insurgency environment in Iraq. To al-Qaida it is evidence of a Zionist-American operation to control Arab oil in the face of determined opposition. That is the view that is now common across much of the Arab world.

Al-Qaida’s concerns

In such circumstances, what changes in US policy would cause an organisation such as al-Qaida most concern?

  • One would be a determined western effort to ensure security in Afghanistan, limit the power of the warlords and aid civil reconstruction. This would need to hugely transcend what is currently envisaged and would be more akin to repeated requests and demands from experienced UN officials, Afghans and independent analysts.

  • Allied to this would be the withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia coupled with action against the governmental human rights abuses endemic to much of the region.

  • In Iraq, moves towards a genuine democracy rather than a client regime, coupled with UN oversight of the transition and a rapid decrease in the US military presence, would be paralleled by an avoidance of recourse to crude market forces and an acceptance of the need for temporarily centralised development planning.

  • In parallel with this would be external pressure on Arab autocracies to modernise and democratise; a further worry for al-Qaida would be real pressure on Israel to concede a peace agreement with a viable Palestinian state.
From al-Qaida’s perspective, though, none of these represent serious concerns. There are few prospects of any of this happening, and those prospects disappear entirely if another major attack can be mounted in the run-up to the US presidential election.

In the short term, then, the prospects look reasonably positive for an al-Qaida that has survived vigorous counter-terrorism action by the United States and its associates for well over two years.

In the longer term, a forceful US military presence in the region can be virtually guaranteed given the country’s continuing heavy reliance on Gulf oil; with this, there is every prospect for al-Qaida to recruit, train and activate further adherents to its cause.

Al-Qaida may have experienced some setbacks since 9/11 but we should expect the mood within its more senior ranks to be one of quiet confidence in its eventual success, given that it is working to a far longer timescale than, for example, four-yearly presidential elections. Whether such confidence is realistic will depend on whether there are radical changes in western approaches to the underlying dynamics from which al-Qaida draws its support. At present, there are few signs of that.

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