x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Al Qa'eda and US fail to alter Middle East's perspective

Neither George W Bush's war on terror nor the efforts of his enemy have reshaped the political map, according to a regional analyst.

Maryam Amiri and Gilles Kepel during the <i>Global al Qa'eda and terrorism lecture at the presidential palace.</i>
Maryam Amiri and Gilles Kepel during the <i>Global al Qa'eda and terrorism lecture at the presidential palace.</i>

ABU DHABI // In the seven years since the September 11 attacks, both al Qa'eda's violent attempts to establish a new Islamic ummah and America's ambitious effort to redraw the Middle Eastern political landscape have failed dramatically, according to a French expert on Middle Eastern politics. Al Qa'eda has failed to galvanise support among Muslims, while America has been shown the limits of military might, said Gilles Kepel, professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris.

His analysis of the two "grand narratives" of the post-September 11 world was presented at a majlis hosted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, on Wednesday evening at Al Bateen Palace. Entitled Global Al Qa'eda and terrorism: Who is the winner, who is the loser?", Prof Kepel's address was one of a series of bi-weekly lectures throughout Ramadan. The professor argues that the lack of aprogress in America's aggressive policies in the Middle East proves the US is not the world's only major political actor and shows the limits of military might as a means of engineering social and political change.

But even as US efforts have been stymied in the Middle East, their declared enemy, al Qa'eda, has met with substantial failure as well. Indeed, al Qa'eda's attacks on the Twin Towers were not the beginning of their assault on the West, but instead represented the culmination of failed jihadi aggression throughout the 1990s in Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia and Chechnya. Al Qa'eda's stated goal of gaining support among Muslims for a global political ummah have "proved to be a failure", as have their hopes of transforming Iraq into an "Afghanistan of the 1980s", where jihadi guerrillas successfully expelled a Soviet invasion, he said.

Al Qaeda and other fundamentalist Islamic groups consider the ummah to be a pan-national "community of believers" encompassing the original Islamic caliphate that stretched, at its height in the 7th century, from Spain to South Asia. Meanwhile, America's strategy of transforming its military invasion of Iraq into a political victory against extremism that would send shockwaves of political change through the region, was hampered by the maelstrom that emerged in a leaderless Iraq.

"Actually, the party that managed to control the situation in Iraq, ultimately, was neither al Qa'eda... nor the US, but their common enemy: the Shiite radicals close to the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said. That has been the great surprise - that the fighting between al Qa'eda and the US led to the strengthening of the Iranian position in the region, he said. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis has emerged as another story of failure for both sides.

After September 11, al Qa'eda hoped to "enroll" the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas into their ideological orbit. Unlike al Qa'eda, which used violence to galvanise support for a global ummah, Hamas employed suicide bombing only to gain political leverage in its fight against Israel. Its goals were nationalist and it distanced itself from al Qa'eda's broader mission, Prof Kepel said. It was Hizbollah's success in the Levant that provided the most direct repudiation of US military strength in the Middle East.

Prof Kepel argues that the war in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, between the Israeli military and Hezbollah, exposed the collapse of America's goal of transforming the region's political status quo. "It showed that the Israelis did not benefit from any significant American action in the region because they had to undertake a war themselves, and a war that did not lead to any Israeli military success."

Prof Kepel says his analysis comes at a time when the US-led effort in Iraq appears to be stabilising but the threat of terrorism has grown, with more attacks, more militant groups and graver political implications from Europe to South Asia. He offered one important lesson for America's next president in the fight against Islamist militancy: we no longer live in a unipolar world. The ideologues close to US President George W Bush after September 11 believed that America was the only superpower and that military force was the way to exercise power. But Prof Kepel argues that the crises in the Middle East and Iraq have shown the military option does not work.

Co-operation between Europe and the nations of the Arabian Gulf can be an important way forward. Europe and the Gulf are ideally positioned, both geopolitically and economically, to play an active role in finding a non-military solution for the Middle East "powder keg," he said. His conclusion is that the EU and the Arabian Gulf should invest in the Middle East and provide an alternative to military interventions that threaten to erode what is left of the region's political stability.

The lecture series continues throughout Ramadan. Mohammed Abed al Jabiri will deliver the next lecture entitled: For a Renewal of the Arab Mind. mbradley@thenational.ae