As expected, the Qatari satellite television al-Jazeera, Osama bin Laden’s favorite, has broadcast what is supposed to be a new videotape showing the al Qaeda leader and his number-two, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, taking a stroll in a hilly area.
Islamist circles in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States have been abuzz with rumours regarding the coming videotape for weeks. A middleman from Birmingham in the English Midlands launched an advance-sales campaign for the tape last March. He began by asking $250,000, but ended up cutting the price to $25,000, a sure sign that OBL’s stocks are not as high as on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks against the United States.
OBL is the only one of the seven top leaders of the al Qaeda not to be fully accounted for. The organization’s number-two, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, is almost certainly hiding in Iran. The organization’s number three, and military commander, Muhammad Atef was killed in Afghanistan during the war that ended the Taliban rule. Three other leaders, the Palestinian Abu Zubaydah, the Yemeni Ramzi Bin Al-Shibha, and the Kuwaiti Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, were picked up between March 2002 and March 2003. Yussuf al-Ayyeri, the terror network’s theoretician, was killed in a gun battle in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in June.
Until last September, al Qaeda and its sympathizers or paid agents in the West kept announcing the names of their “martyrs” as part of a propaganda campaign designed to show that the war against “The Crusaders” had not ended. But with the number of those killed or captured running into thousands, the practice was halted. The remnants of the group realized that terrorism works when you can kill lots of people, and frightening many more, without losing many of your own. (It was this that gave the 9/11 attacks against New York and Washington such a dramatic impact.)
Last year at this time, some al Qaeda sympathizers were able to gather at a rented hall in central London to hear some of OBL’s old tapes and compare notes on their doomed movement. This year, however, there will be no such gathering. Some of the al Qaeda stragglers are either in prison or have fled Britain. A walk up on Edgware Road, London’s “Arab street,” reveals the end of almost two decades of al Qaeda-style terrorist presence in the British capital, once known as Londonistan.
The terrorists have suffered similar setbacks in other Western countries. Gone are the days when the Islamist terrorists could hold a convention in Dallas, Texas. A string of shops owned and used as cover by the terror groups in Paris’s second arrondissement, now lie empty.
In Hamburg, Germany, the scores of militants who acted as recruiting officers and fixers for various Islamist terror groups have vanished.
In military and police terms the war on terror has gone much better than anyone would have expected.
Of the dozens of bases the terrorists had in Afghanistan and Pakistan, only two or three may still be operational in the Mohand area, one of the seven mountain enclaves in Pakistan. The last place in the Muslim world where the terrorists could gather, as late as December 2002, is the dusty town of Rabat, a thieves’ bazaar located in the so-called “Devil’s Triangle” where the borders of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan meet. The liberation of Iraq has shattered the structures of two-dozen terror organizations, of which at least one was directly linked to al Qaeda.
Some money is still flowing into the coffers of the radical organizations which, in turn, finance the half-dozen terror groups still capable of launching sporadic attacks. But even there, what money now flows into terror is but a trickle, compared to the flood before September 11, 2001.
In the meantime, predictions that several Muslim countries would fall into the hands of the terrorists have proved unfounded.
Pakistan, regarded to be the “ripest for fall” is emerging from almost two decades of uncertainty and gaining a remarkable measure of self confidence.
Saudi Arabia, far from inaugurating a new regime headed by terrorists, is beginning to fight them in earnest, for the first time.
Algeria, another candidate for “fall,” is arguably more stable now than two years ago. Indonesia, which was presented as the next target of the terrorists, is consolidating its new-won democracy.
Last but not least, there is Iraq, where the most brutal regime Islam had seen in more than a century collapsed like a pack of cards largely because the Iraqi people welcomed their liberation.
More importantly, the past two years have witnessed an unprecedented debate in the Muslim world. One weekly magazine recently ran a series based on a central question: Who are we?
For the first time, mainstream media in the Muslim world allow difficult questions to be raised, including whether Islam should remain on the sidelines of the modern world and sulk, throw bombs at it, or take part in its development and improvement.
In almost every Muslim country what amounts to a civil war of ideas is taking shape. Modernists have realized that they could not dismiss Islam as a “feudal relic” but should seek to understand it in modern terms and redefine some of its practices to reflect the existential realities of their societies. The alienation of the modernizing elite from the largely illiterate and poor base of most Muslim societies created a vacuum that a small stratum of fanatics was able to fill with a message of hatred, violence, and terror. At the same time many Muslim regimes exploited Islam as a means of isolating and silencing their reformist critics. Those regimes have begun to realize that the monster that they trained to eat their foes could also eat them.
No one could deny the fact that the party of terror in the Muslim world has failed to attract any significant level of popular support. The liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq was largely approved by the silent majority of Muslims. The loudest protests against it came from within the Western societies, including the United States.
This civil war of ideas in Islam represents the most difficult, and ultimately the deciding phase in the war against terrorism. Unless this war is won by people who wish to lead Islam out of its ghetto and into the mainstream of contemporary human life, no number of military, police, and propaganda victories against terror will produce the safer world that we all want.
But a similar civil war is raging in the West.
On one side there is a neo-imperialist movement that urges the Western democracies to leave the Muslim world alone to stew in its own juice of poverty, despotism, and violence. The idea is that Muslims will never accept democracy and the rule of law and that the best the West can do is to ignore them in the name of cultural “alterity” (otherness) and political correctness. On the other side there is a neo-nationalist movement that believes the only way to deal with terror is to teach Muslims a lesson they shall not forget. This neo-nationalist movement ignores the need for a broad alliance with Muslim reformists and democrats in a joint effort to curb and ultimately defeat terror. It forgets the fact that the principal victims of terrorism are Muslims themselves. (Saddam caused the deaths of over a million Iraqis, Iranians, Kuwaitis and other Muslims. The Taliban massacred tens of thousands of Afghans.)
Two years after September 11, 2001 tragedy it is clear that the Muslim world has rejected the deadly message now associated with the name of Osama bin Laden, though he was but a small cog in a diabolical machine constructed over more than a century. Instead of understanding that vital fact and expanding people-to-people relations, some Western democracies have erected new barriers to keep out “the Muslim hordes.”
At the same time, some Muslim governments, anxious to preserve their despotic hold on power, have seized the opportunity for distancing their societies from the West and keep out dangerous ideas such as democracy and human rights.
The al-Jazeera tape may or not may not be a clever fake. What is certain, however, is that the tape’s voiceover, attributed partly to al-Zawahiri and partly to bin Laden himself, contains nothing but the usual diatribe against the United States. It is easy to make fresh threats against the U.S., harder to carry them out. By promising action and not delivering, whoever pretends to be bin Laden is bound to lose what little measure of credibility he may have among radical Islamists.
The latest al-Jazeera tape notwithstanding, the best information available shows that Osama bin Laden died on December 5, 2001 in Afghanistan and buried the same day in an unmarked grave. At the time OBL’s death was confirmed by the United Mujahedin Organization (UMO), the principal radical group that once supported him. In the past two years several members of bin Laden’s extended family, always speaking on condition of anonymity, have confirmed his death.
But even if OBL is alive, the fact remains that Binladenism committed suicide on September 11, 2001. Dreaming of another 9/11 does not amount to a credible political strategy. And there are no signs that sporadic terror attacks in various Muslim countries in the past two years would change the inevitable course of the war on global terrorism. Binladenism has no future in the Muslim world. But this does not mean that the Muslim world is ready to emerge from almost two century of confusion and crisis that led parts of it into the historic impasse of terrorism.
— Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.