Alqaeda: The 13th Myth

Note: This piece – which was in editing hell for months – was originally intended to complete the piece titled “12 Myths about Alqaeda“. It touches up on Alqaeda’s position on Israel, and where Alqaeda is likely to head after the Arab Spring.

 Alqaeda & Israel

In commemoration of 9-11, I posted a piece listing some myths about Alqaeda. Responses have been generally positive, but one (twitter) comment in particular caught my attention – what exactly is Alqaeda’s true position on Israel, given that it never even attempted an attack on it? The comment went something like: “Alqaeda didn’t as much pop a balloon in Israel.”

We’re dealing with two myths here, really. The first is that Alqaeda did not perceive Israel as a high priority target. The second (more “creative” one) picks up on that, arguing that since Alqaeda did not attack (or try to attack) Israel, that “proves” that it is somehow a Mossad-created & controlled organization all along.

I’ll start with the first myth, then the other. The discussion will also include discussions of post-Arab Spring Alqaeda, recent militant activity in the Sahara & Sub-Saharan Africa, the renewed “Alqaeda in Libya” scare, recent militant activity in Egypt’s Sinai, and generally about the status of Israel in a post-Arab Spring region.

 Israel: Favorite Scapegoat of Arab Tyrants

For the longest time, Israel has been the grand scapegoat for all things tyrannical in the Middle East.

Any tyrant who wished to clamp down on his people could trump up the Israeli threat to justify even tighter state security control (think Syria, Iran, or Baath-era Iraq). Any organization that wished to gain popularity only needed to talk tough on Israel or invite a military confrontation with it (think Hezbollah).

In fact, talking tough on Israel became the grand redeemer for dictators – regardless of their tyranny, corruption, or hubris, they could always wash their sins away in the river of Israel-phobia, and be redeemed in the eyes of their people. Most Arabs, after all, looked at Palestine as the most central and defining issue for contemporary Arab political activism and identity.

With the Arab Spring, Arab people stopped buying into Israel-phobia, and instead singled out the tyrant as their biggest enemy. Mind you, that didn’t (and won’t) make Arabs look upon Israel any more fondly – Israel remains deeply unpopular. But it’s increasingly dawning on Arabs that Israel may just not be their biggest problem.

 Alqaeda’s Manifesto Regarding Israel

Jihadi Salafists read things rather differently. They considered the absence of Islam, rather than the existence of Israel, to be the most central problem of the Muslim world, and hence considered “bringing back Islam” to be a much higher and nobler cause than the liberation of Palestine. The liberation, for them, would come naturally afterwards.

Furthermore, they seemed to take seriously the Prophet’s exhortation that “all Muslim blood is equal”, regardless of where it is spilled. They therefore thought that it is as much a calamity for Muslims to be killed in Chechnya, Bosnia, or Kashmir. Meanwhile, official Arab media regularly emphasized Palestinian suffering while downplaying death & mayhem elsewhere (for their own reasons, of course).

Alqaeda, being a Jihadi Salafist organization, inherited this position from the greater movement, and took it to heart.

Around 1998, Alqaeda’s target for violence became the United States. Through attacking the United States, they hoped to strike “at the root of evil” rather than the branches (the branches being US-backed Muslim dictators). America was already deeply unpopular in the Middle East, and Alqaeda gained in popularity, peaking sometime immediately after the 2003 Iraq war.

 Until…

As the Iraq war turned into a bloody massacre of civilians by both US troops & suicide bombers, Alqaeda’s popularity started to plummet hard. It was around this time that doubts and criticisms about their commitment to the “central Arab struggle” became very loud. Some even started seeing them as “Israeli agents” bent on inciting a sectarian war and destroying Iraq.

Things came to a head for Alqaeda in 2006 following the brief Israel-Hezbollah military confrontation, which caused Hezbollah & Nasrallah’s popularity to skyrocket in the Arab world. Hezbollah is, of course, an Iran-backed Shia organization, making it both a political & an ideological enemy of Alqaeda. Terrorists don’t like to be upstaged.

This was a harsh reminder for Alqaeda that regardless of their positions on what the priority should be, they have to “do more for Palestine” in order to keep their credibility. But this is where they found themselves to be at a dead end: how do they get a footing in, around, or even near Palestine?

Attempting attacks from Egypt, Syria, or Jordan was out of the question – the borders were tightly patrolled on both sides.

Arab-Israeli borders

Also, the intelligence organizations of these countries had pretty much eradicated any native Jihadist presence, forcing most operatives elsewhere. Al-Zawahiri (from Egypt), Al-Souri (from Syria), and Al-Zarqawi (from Jordan) did not live or operate from within their native countries, and in fact would have been immediately arrested and most probably put to death if spotted there.

 Gaining a Foothold

This left Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Lebanon was problematic, with a heavily armed, highly trained Hezbollah. This did not stop Alqaeda from trying – within months, they had gained a foothold among the disenchanted and disenfranchised Palestinian refugees, forming a branch. This was discovered and violently eradicated by a Lebanese-Syrian army operation in 2007 (that according to some sources killed more civilians than operatives.)

The Palestinian territories were equally problematic for Alqaeda, Hamas having been for decades the best organized and most popular Islamic organization. Hamas was backed by Syria & Iran, but its ideological roots went back to the Muslim Brotherhood, ideological competitors to Jihadi Salafism.

For a while, small splinter groups pledging allegiance to Alqaeda did exist side by side, but following the 2007 Hamas-Fatah clashes and the subsequent Hamas domination of the Gaza Strip, Hamas consolidated its power and brought the disparate Islamic groups under its fold; the ones that resisted were clamped down upon.

This is, in no little detail, how Alqaeda failed to get within striking distance of Israel.

 Alqaeda after the Arab Spring

I have argued before that Alqaeda has lost most (if not all) importance in the Arab world since the Arab Spring. No doubt, they were thrilled to see Ben Ali and Mubarak go, but perhaps they did not fully realize what this newfound empowerment of the Arab masses would do to their relevance or ideology.

Their only opportunity to stage a grand come back was to find and join an armed revolution against a tyrant, where they can arise as heroes in the fight against tyranny, make a genuine claim that they were part of the Arab Spring, and perhaps gain renewed relevance, support, and (of course) recruits.

However, they were edged out of the scene. In Libya, they were upstaged by the NATO (I suspect this made part of the decision by NATO to go to war). In Syria, they had no foothold after decades of severe government clamp downs and tight intelligence control. In Yemen, where they do have a presence, the wisdom of the revolution’s youth has so far preempted a large-scale slide to violence.

I recently argued that Alqaeda will likely move into a “new swamp”; suggesting Central Asia & Sub-Saharan Africa as potential destinations. Recent militant activity in Niger seems to confirm this. They may attempt to gain a foothold in southern Libya (if at least to attack their arch-rival, the Algerian government), but they have no support there and will likely prefer Mali, Chad, or Niger instead.

Ironically, the chaos in Egypt may allow Alqaeda to finally attempt to operate out of Sinai, directing their violence at Israel (as has happened recently). However, this is a little too late, and even though they can cause pain to Israel and wreak havoc with Israel-Egypt relations, it’s rather unlikely that they’ll ever be able to stage a comeback in popularity in Egypt or the Arab world.

Still, the situation out of Sinai will be interesting to watch. I’d rather not comment about it now, but it may warrant an article soon.

 Conspiracy Theories that Just Won’t Die

Finally, I turn my attention to that second myth: “Alqaeda is just a Mossad operation”. I think my rather detailed article above puts this to rest, but I want to look behind this myth to examine a chronic intellectual problem that has plagued the Arab psyche for decades and just refuses to die: conspiracy theory. Especially, conspiracy theories involving the Mossad & Israel.

On second thought, let’s not even talk about it. Let’s just hope that the Arab Spring puts this one to rest, too.