x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Abdel Bari Atwan predicts the most dangerous phase of Al Qaeda

Abdel Bari Atwan is a controversial journalist with a keen insight into the conflicts affecting the Muslim world - and he still calls Osama bin Laden "Sheikh".

Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, during the fifth Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai earlier this month. Sarah Dea / The National
Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, during the fifth Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai earlier this month. Sarah Dea / The National

Abdel Bari Atwan leaves a lasting impression wherever he goes.

The sometimes controversial senior journalist and Al Qaeda expert looks serious and intimidating as he approaches a huge group of fans and well-wishers waiting outside a session at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where he gave a talk about After Bin Laden, his latest book.

Serious, that is, until he cracks a big smile and says: "Ahlan ahlan! Hello hello!"

And he doesn't have just Arab fans. The editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi – a leading pan- Arab daily newspaper, where he has been the editor since its foundation in 1989 - has garnered international interest due to his regular appearances on global news networks and his contributions to English newspapers.

Even though he replies with wit and charm to the questions he is posed, there is a very earnest side to Atwan that reveals itself as soon as he starts talking about the conflicts rupturing parts of the Arab world.

"In Syria, in the battle for power between Al Qaeda and Ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood], Al Qaeda will win," he says.

"The irony of it all is that Bashar Al Assad was saying this and using this line when it wasn't true. It is now a sad reality and I wouldn't be surprised if Al Qaeda launched an attack against Israel from Syria."

He lists some of the groups that are fighting in Syria as "branches" of Al Qaeda, such as Suqour Al Sham and Jabhat Al Nusra, and warned that we should be wary of them.

He also says that, according to his sources, Israel was about to bomb chemical weapons sites in Syria, but the US put a stop to it to prevent the whole region from "sinking into a toxic disaster". Atwan predicted that "the situation in Syria is going to be even worse than Iraq".

Atwan's first insights on Al Qaeda arrived after he famously interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1996 in Afghanistan, even sleeping in the same cave as the Al Qaeda leader. He then spent several years tracking the rise of the head of Al Qaeda and the group's development as a whole.

"You know something, Sheikh Osama didn't snore," he says. Whenever Atwan mentions bin Laden, he insists on calling him "Sheikh", a title given to Muslims who are considered diligent and knowledgeable in Islam.

"He was a simple and reserved man. Polite and soft-spoken, speaking in a dialect of classical, almost Quranic Arabic," he says.

Some of Atwan's recollections of his time with bin Laden include crawling up mountainous terrain dressed in Afghan clothes and sleeping on a battered mat next to boxes of ammunition.

"He wasn't initially concerned with Arab causes like Palestine. He cared more about the peripheral Muslims who were persecuted in non-Arab states.

"He was strict with his children. They lived without air conditioning, without TV and without any luxuries," he says. "But I did see his children once playing video games."

Atwan claims that Al Qaeda was a name the US gave to bin Laden's group, which was called "Al Jabha Al Islamiya Lemoharabat Al Yahoud wal Nasara", a name that translates as "the Islamic Front for the fight against Jews and Christians".

"He told me once that he can't fight the West in their own land, and how he can win if he brings the West to our lands," says Atwan. Shortly afterwards, the September 11 attacks took place.

When he is asked about Al Qaeda's plans in the Arabian Gulf, he says that there are "no plans for Al Qaeda operations in the GCC".

As for the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, it is one of "hate", he says.

"Al Qaeda views Ikhwan as a moderate movement that has derailed from the right and straight Islamic way as Quran and the Prophet had set. They are enemies."

As for the funding of these groups, Atwan says they are backed by rich businessmen from the Arab world, using "indirect means".

"Some people say that Al Qaeda is now a dead topic, but I say that Al Qaeda is more dangerous now than before, as there is no one leader," he says. "The Arab Spring was the best thing that could happen for Al Qaeda. A failed state is what Al Qaeda looks for and thrives in."

From being born and raised in a refugee camp in Gaza to making his own way in London, to death threats and being banned from travelling to certain countries at different periods of his career, Atwan's life story may soon be re-imagined on the stage. "There is interest to turn my story into a play, especially my experiences with the Al Qaeda leaders," he says.

In 2012 he was named as one of the "50 most influential Arabs" by The Middle East magazine.

Atwan recounted his meeting with Osama and included his take on his death in a reprint of his 2006 book, The Secret History of Al Qaeda.

One of the recurring accusations thrown at Atwan is that he took money from both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi.

"If that was true, I would be a billionaire now!" he laughs. "I wouldn't be working like mad in a tiny office."

When asked about his one weakness, he says it is "women. Nothing like a beautiful woman who smiles at you," he jokes.

But his true weakness is Palestine. "I will not stop dreaming and planning for the day when Palestine is freed and returned to us," he says. "Even though I have lived across the world and in the best cities, my fondest memories are still from my days in the refugee camps. We were all equal there. We all ate the same food, drank the same tea, and all shared the same canned food."

He notes the general lack of interest in the Palestinian cause and how it hurts him that the world, especially the Arab world, doesn't want to talk about it anymore. "When I write about Syria, it is the top story. When I write about Palestine, it gets much less readership than my usual pieces," he says. "Instead of finding solutions to the conflicts ruining our region, we sweep the issues under the rug until the next disaster. It will be turbulent in the next five years for the Arab world."

Until then, Atwan will continue to voice his controversial opinions and is preparing himself for a "worse kind" of Al Qaeda.

"The most dangerous phase of Al Qaeda is coming, and we must be careful to document everything and plan for the worse."

Rym Ghazal is a senior features writer and columnist for The National.