What is left of al Qa'eda? Marginal incompetents fighting a sectarian war, says Nir Rosen. But if the United States has claimed the scalp it wanted, it has lost control of the Middle East.
Al Qa'eda was always a fringe group with no roots in the Arab world
On Monday night, in celebration of the death of Osama bin Laden, thousands of Americans took to the street waving flags and revelling in what was both righteous justice and jingoism. That same day I saw hundreds of thousands of communists, leftists and workers take to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara to commemorate May Day and demand more rights. Some sang an old communist guerrilla song about taking to the mountains to fight. Some saluted martyred student leaders from the 1970s. Others shouted "long live the worker's struggle!" and "hunger, poverty and us, this is your capitalist system".
Drawing conclusions from chance incidents in different countries can make one sound like Thomas Friedman. Nevertheless, to me, the two demonstrations seemed to symbolise the diverging trajectories of the East and West. In the Middle East, in what is being called an awakening, leaderless popular movements march to demand secular and leftist notions of universal rights. In doing so, they undermine dictatorships favoured by the US and religious extremists opposed to the US, alike.
Contrary to the claims of many western commentators, it turns out that people in the Middle East understand democracy very well. They proved that leaders rule only with the consent of the governed and that if the people demand their rights, they cannot be stopped. On the other hand, America, a nation in economic and political decline but perpetual war, was engrossed in right-wing conspiracy theories about where President Obama was born. That was before it received the nationalist fillip of an assassination 10 years, and one trillion dollars, in the making.
Following the attacks of September 11, America engaged in little introspection about its relationship with developing countries. Instead the nation embraced a self-righteous narrative about a Muslim world that "hated us for our freedoms" and had to be taught a lesson ("suck on this," as Friedman suggested). Americans sought revenge in Afghanistan and Iraq. They backed dictators and warlords. They abandoned the pretence of international law, vacillated on civil liberties and declared a global war. America's wars in the Muslim world killed tens of thousands of innocents. And still Americans clung to the belief that they were the good guys fighting for freedom. Now, the exaggerated American reaction to the killing of one man makes it seem as though the war has been won. That gives far too much significance to one ageing extremist hiding in Pakistan.
It is important to be clear about what, fundamentally, al Qa'eda is - what the sources of its appeal are and how limited its power has always been. Thanks to an industry of overnight experts and celebrity pundits, the group was presented in the West as a social movement with roots in the Arab world. The so-called experts advocated a battle of ideas, as though al Qa'eda was a dominant phenomenon and not a marginal group of a few hundred men out of one billion Muslims. These experts mixed only with the elites in the Arab world; all they knew of al Qa'eda were translations of pro-jihadist websites or videos. They did not spend time living and working with normal people and learning their concerns. They viewed Muslims as robots programmed only by Islam. Some supported "deradicalisation" programmes, to install new software into the robots' minds.
The truth is that al Qa'eda was a fringe organisation without roots in the Arab world, and that it has had almost no successes since it got lucky on September 11. It used its "A team" on that day to target a slumbering nation, and it got lucky. The attacks, which were tragic and criminal, came as a shock to a powerful, arrogant and proud nation blissfully unaware of the resentment it inspired. But they had little direct impact on the American economy or way of life. It was the American response, both at home and abroad, which changed everything.
The discourse used by those who fight imperialism may have shifted over the years from Marxist and nationalist to jihadist, but in the end the people of the Middle East just want to be left alone. America's militaristic imperialism is likely to engender violent resistance movements regardless of the ideological environment.
All the same, a major source of support for al Qa'eda is now something beyond anti-Americanism. It is the tension between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In this internal war in the Muslim world, al Qa'eda has become a major driving force of Sunni-Shiite hatred. Even non-Islamists have become sectarian and are adopting the Salafi view of Shiites. Some of them seem to view al Qa'eda as a potent symbol and an effective way to combat perceived Shiite expansion. Two weeks ago I was in a remote village in Diyala's Balad Ruz area visiting a Shiite village destroyed by al Qa'eda during the civil war. The al Qa'eda attackers had written on the remains of a home they blew up "Osama bin Laden is the sheikh of Islam".
How serious a force is al Qa'eda now? In my travels from Mogadishu to villages in Lebanon's Sunni areas to Iraq to remote areas of Afghanistan I have indeed met some people who admired "Sheikh Osama" (though never anyone who liked his associate and presumed successor, Ayman al Zawahiri). These fans were mostly young, few in number and comically unsophisticated. One group tried to blow up a McDonald's but sat down to eat inside it first, only to be caught on camera. Others are under such surveillance by powerful security forces that they get arrested just for talking about attacking Americans. Perhaps they may seek revenge for the slaying of their hero. Among the masses, though, there is no support for al Qa'eda, even if there is a deep resentment of American policy.
The threat from al Qa'eda was always exaggerated. The group was largely destroyed during the American invasion of Afghanistan. Forced into hiding in Pakistan, the remaining leadership was not able to run operations. Instead, al Qa'eda became a tactic for smaller groups to emulate. This can still be dangerous, of course. But the most serious blow to al Qa'eda, both as an organisation and as an example, was not struck by drones and "the quiet professionals" who can assassinate at will. It was struck by the millions of Arabs who have led a leaderless revolution, overthrowing dictators and ignoring al Qa'eda's view that a vanguard was needed.
There are now two dynamics at work in the Middle East and the US is unable to stop either one. On the one hand, popular revolutions led by youth and workers are overthrowing calcified dictators. On the other, strife between Sunnis and Shiites is at an all-time high and will likely lead to further violence. Al Qa'eda is now not an anti-imperialist force, it is a Sunni group fighting Shiites in a sectarian war throughout the region. This is bin Laden's most important legacy.
Nevertheless, some parallels to the Arab reaction to bin Laden's assassination may be found in Saddam Hussein's execution. Both men were reviled by the majority of Muslims. There was always a minority who romanticised Saddam and bin Laden after the fact. And yet the vast majority of Muslims - secular and Shiite ones included - could not gloat after their deaths, even if they didn't like them. They cannot celebrate an execution committed by the Americans because of the colonial implications inherent in the act. Just as the memory of Saddam was helped after the American occupation killed him, so, too, will some reconsider the memory of bin Laden, and he too may become an anti-colonial icon and martyr. Only an American execution can rehabilitate such criminals.
Americans complain when others celebrate the killing of Americans, but the world watched Americans rejoicing in an execution. While the Americans keep trying to present their violent acts as somehow sanctioned by notions of law and right and the "international community", Muslim masses will continue to have the opposite view because of how ingrained their enmity to colonialism is. Decades of oppression, the recent occupation of Iraq and most recently the belated withdrawal of American support for Mubarak mean that many Arabs will not trust the American account. They have been lied to before, and they will not sympathise with the American narrative because Americans showed them only cruelty.
Just as al Qa'eda's excesses brought about its own destruction, so too did the American response to al Qa'eda narrow the gap between America and other global and regional contenders, both politically and economically. America's excessive use of force led to a weakening of its hegemony. Now the Arab people are seizing their destiny. A revolt against Arab dictators is a revolt against their American sponsor too. American foreign policy in the Middle East was based on what it perceived to be good for America, not what was good for the region. But the region is fighting back. America may have succeeded in killing one extremist hiding in Pakistan, but it is losing its grip on the Arab world.
Nir Rosen's latest book, Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World, is about civil war, sectarian, occupation and resistance from Iraq to Lebanon to Afghanistan.