Is the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Masri, dead? Iraqi authorities just proclaimed that he was recently killed due to infighting. But al Qaeda-related websites beg to differ: “[H]e is still fighting the enemies of Allah.” And the U.S. is unsure: “I [Lieutenant-Colonel Garver] hope it’s true; we’re checking, but we’re going to be doubly sure before we can confirm anything.” The most important question, however, isn’t being much addressed: Would the death of al-Masri — or any other Islamist leader — make any difference, at all?
One is reminded of all the hubbub surrounding the killing of al-Masri’s infamous predecessor — the head-chopping Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — nearly one year ago. Then, almost every major politician, including President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki, gave some sort of victory speech, some highly triumphant, others more cautious.
But if Zarqawi’s death did not hinder al Qaeda’s highly influential presence in Iraq — estimated to have grown since then — will al-Masri’s? Indeed, would the death of Aymin al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden himself have any tangible affects on the growth, spread, and goals of radical Islam? Recent history provides a lucid answer to these questions.
Consider the progress of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and oldest Islamic fundamentalist organization today, which Aymin al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two man, joined when he was fourteen years old. Founded in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, it originally boasted only six members. In the following decades, in part thanks to the radical writings of one of its premiere ideologues, Sayyid Qutb — whom al Qaeda quotes liberally in their many writings — the Brotherhood, though constantly clashing with Egypt’s government, grew steadily.
As leaders, both Banna and Qutb were eventually targeted and killed by Egypt’s government — the former assassinated and the latter executed. Far from dying out, however, the Brotherhood continued thriving underground for many more decades. Then, to the world’s surprise, the partially banned, constantly harassed Brotherhood managed to win 88 out of 454 seats in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections — making them the largest opposition bloc in the government.
After two of its most prominent leaders were killed, after thousands of its members have been harassed, jailed, and sometimes tortured, today the Brotherhood is stronger, more influential, and securer than at any other time in its turbulent history.
Palestine’s Hamas, itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood, is another case in point. Founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas has since been labeled a terrorist organization by several nations, including the U.S., most notably for its many suicide-operations against Israel. Due to Yassin’s figurehead status in Hamas, the Israeli government targeted him for assassination: on March 22, 2004, while the quadriplegic Yassin was being wheeled out of a mosque after morning prayers, an Israeli helicopter launched two Hellfire missiles at him, killing him instantly.
The result? Far from waning or demoralizing, Hamas, like the Brotherhood before them and also to international consternation, went on to win a major landslide election in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, thereby officially representing the Palestinian people.
Then there is the Ayatollah Khomeini — the original poster-boy of radical Islam. Overthrowing a secular government and coming to power in Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979, Khomeini transformed Iran into a theocratic state — precisely what al Qaeda yearns to see happen in the rest of the Islamic world. From influencing the American hostage crisis to issuing a fatwa condemning a novelist to death to taunting the U.S., which he termed “the Great Satan” — for one decade he was the West’s bane.
Today, nearly 20 years after the death of the Iranian cleric, not much has changed in Iran. Sharia law still governs; Sharia-endorsed enmity towards the West still thrives. In fact, the only real difference is that the Islamic theocracy’s aspiration for nuclear armaments is nearly realized.