Eye on Arab Media: Al Qaeda Adjusting to New Era

October 8, 2009 by  


New America Media, News analysis, Jalal Ghazi

This year Al-Qaeda celebrates its 20th birthday, having outlived the Bush administration. It may even outlive the Obama administration as well, despite all the all the manpower and resources that have been allocated to the war in Afghanistan.

Abdel al-Bari Atwan, the editor-in chief of the Al-Quds Al-Arabi, told Arabic News Broadcast (ANB), “Al Qaeda continues to strengthen and expand despite the 8 years of search and destroy, which shows that the US has lost, not al Qaeda”.

Atwan said that Al Qaeda has managed to drag the US into wars of attrition. He explains, “when I met bin Laden in November 1996, he told me ‘I can’t fight America inside America, but if I manage to drag America to Arab and Islamic countries, then I can win because I would be fighting it in our land.’” The US so far has spent $918 billion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at a time when its economy is in serious crisis.

Osama bin Laden’s latest audiotape message confirms that he views the war in Afghanistan as an opportunity to fight a war of attrition against the US. Bin Laden said in the tape, which was aired on September 13, “If you [Americans] stop the war, then fine. Otherwise we will have no choice but to continue our war of attrition on every front just as we have worn out the former Soviet Union for ten years until it disintegrated.”

“Continue to fight for as long as you wish,” bin Laden warned. “You are fighting a desperate war that you can’t win.” He also observed that Obama was "powerless" to halt the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and must rethink his policy on Israel.

Dia Rashwan an Egyptian expert at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies told Al Jazeera English that Al Qaeda became an enfranchised enterprise after the war in Afghanistan. Radical Islamic groups – such as the Algerian Salafi group for combat and Islamic Call, and the Tawhed and Jihad group of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq — joined Al-Qaeda by simply declaring allegiance to the organization.

Atwan agreed with that assessment. He said before the war in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda was confined to “a cave in Tora Bora,” but now has presences in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Europe, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and North Africa. And the list is growing.

This makes it extremely difficult to defeat Al-Qaeda because it requires defeating many Al-Qaeda-franchised groups on many war fronts, Rashwan said. While Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups were weakened in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, other Al-Qaeda groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Africa were strengthened.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Asia Times bureau chief, told Al Jazeera English that “Al Qaeda is no longer an Arab organization. Now it is more of a South Asian organization because a big number of men from this region [“Tribal area”, in Pakistani] joined the organization”.

Therefore, defeating Al-Qaeda can only be achieved by defeating its ideologies.

Atwan said that Western media, and even some Arab media, have mistakenly concluded that Al-Qaeda was weakened because it failed to carry out attacks inside in the West in recent years. Rather, it is a new strategy by Al-Qaeda, which no longer considers carrying out attacks inside the West and the US a priority, especially after the election of Barack Obama.

Atwan told ANB, “without a doubt the election of Barack Obama put Al-Qaeda in a very awkward position. So far Obama’s policies have deprived Al Qaeda from many justifications that Al-Qaeda was using to fight the US.” He added, “Obama is an American president that wants to reconcile with the Muslim world. His father was a Muslim. He gave a speech in Cairo in which he spoke about mutual respect and interests.” Obama, in effect, has managed to pull the rug from under Al-Qaeda by his reconciling speeches.

Atwan added, “this was like an earthquake that shook all Al-Qaeda’s plans, and ideologies.” This explains the change of Al-Qaeda strategy, which was evident in Bin Laden’s latest audio recording.

Osama bin Laden said in the audiotape, which was aired on Al Jazeera English on Sep 13, that he wanted Americans to stop their support for Israel. Bin Laden said, “Are your children, money, jobs, homes, economy and reputation more important to you than the security of the Israelis, their children and their economy? Should you choose your security and stopping war, this would require you to hold accountable those who are meddling in our security on your behalf. We are ready to respond positively to this option on solid and fair bases.”

This is a big change from bin Laden’s previous messages, in which he threatened bloody attacks against western and Arab countries.

Bin Laden even had an intellectual suggestion to the American people, urging them to read books by professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt to find out for themselves about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the US.

Dia Rashwan also saw a dramatic change in tone. He told Al Jazeera English, “I think that Osama bin Laden changed his speech compared to previous speeches. For example, Osama bin Laden spoke about September 11 attacks without saying ‘Ghazwa’ which means conquest; he only said 9.11. He never mentioned his 19 martyrs, his heroes. For the first time, he is making a distinction between bad and good American administrations.” In this case, the bad administration was that of former President George Bush’s.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, vice president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, saw it in another way. He told Al Jazeera English, “Bin Laden referenced John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and their assassinations. He argued that once a train is on its tracks, it can’t leave those tracks. His argument is that if Obama deviates too much from the Bush administration, then he can get assassinated. In essence… regardless of if you like [Obama] more than Bush, the nature of the US is not going to change. That is a very defensive stance vis-a-vis Obama.”

Bin Laden’s focus on the Palestinian plight in his latest speech may have also been intended to offer a new image of Al-Qaeda in contrast to the bloody one that has been imprinted in the minds of Muslims worldwide. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups were responsible for a great deal of bloodshed not only in western countries but also in Arab and Muslim countries, including Iraq and Algeria.

Giving up its rhetoric about using violence against Arab regimes, and confining its armed attacks against American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan at least temporarily makes Al-Qaeda appear less extremist. Bin Laden hopes this will reestablish its legitimacy, clearly eroded after Obama’s election.

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