Face to face with Al Qaeda militants in Yemen. Saleh Magiam/Demotix All rights reserved.As the Kouachi brothers sprayed the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo with bullets and executed Ahmed Merabet on their way out (a French Muslim police officer who attempted to confront them), the assailants reportedly shouted, “We have avenged the Prophet! We have killed Charlie Hebdo!”
But these Al-Qaeda affiliates’ so-called vengeance for the Prophet is nothing short of ironic, if not outright ridiculous. At the same time, those who hold Muslims accountable for these acts in one way or the other, or demand that they apologize for them, are no less delusional themselves. Because for over a decade, it is the Arab and Muslim populations that have suffered the most at the hands of Al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
In European capitals, terrorist attacks plotted by Al-Qaeda have led to reprisals against Muslim immigrants who had traveled to Europe from parts of Africa and the Middle East in search of a better life. In the early hours following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, at least three separate mosques in France were reportedly targeted. Terrorist attacks, such as the 2004 Madrid train bombings or the 2005 London bombings, have also intensified the deluge of xenophobia and racism directed at these immigrant populations over the years. Burqa bans, hijab interdictions, legislation against minarets and constraints placed on other manifestations of Muslim faith and culture have become increasingly commonplace in western Europe, aided no doubt by the ascent of extreme right-wing parties.
Beyond Europe, Al-Qaeda has declared open war against most Arab and Muslim-majority countries, especially those allied to the west. The populations of these countries have paid the lion’s share of the death toll and destruction that the confrontation has brought along with it. In Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the organization with which the Kouachi brothers were thought to be affiliated, controls certain towns in Southern Yemen, targets Yemeni security forces almost on a daily basis and terrorizes the local population. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elsewhere, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates routinely plot and execute terrorist attacks. In Iraq, car bombs detonate in busy souks and streets leaving thousands dead and injured every year. According to a statistic released by the US State Department, 6,378 people were killed and 14,956 wounded in terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2013 alone. Their victims? Arab and Muslim men, women and children for the most part.
But Al-Qaeda today is an organization in crisis; its attack against Charlie Hebdo smells of desperation. The death of its leader Osama bin Laden at the hands of US Marines in 2011, the spectacular rise of Daesh with whom it competes over recruits and funding, and its inability to orchestrate any meaningful operations for some time – until this week at least – has left the organization in shambles.
The decision to attack Charlie Hebdo was no doubt very deliberate; the goal was not to land the highest toll of civilian casualties, as most terrorist attacks are expected to do. Instead, the aim presumably was to play on the symbolism of the cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed in the hope of reviving some of the outrage that once swept Muslim populations throughout the world because of them. The attack was almost akin to a desperate rallying cry; an attempt by Al-Qaeda to portray itself as the defender of the imaginary global Muslim community (oummah) and its symbols.
Despite the stark differences, this rallying cry is somewhat reminiscent of the Ottoman Caliph’s hopeless call to jihad in November 1914 urging Arabs and Muslims to take up arms against England, Russia and France during the First World War. But the Arabs, determined to rid themselves of the Ottoman Caliph and his reign, were already allied to the British and the French. The Arab and Muslim populations were not listening to the Caliph’s last-ditch call for jihad back then. Nor do they seem to be listening to Al-Qaeda’s rallying cry today.
The overwhelming reaction of Arabs and Muslims worldwide to this act of vengeance is one of shock and condemnation, as Al-Qaeda’s chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri is probably disappointed to learn. They may not tweet #JeSuisCharlie, because they view Charlie Hebdo as an inflammatory and outright insulting publication, but they do not condone the killing of innocents in the name of Islam or the Prophet either, something many of them witness on a daily basis in their own countries.