Session: Bin Laden After Bush, moderated by Basharat Peer.
There’s something a little off about sitting in the sunny front lawns of Diggi Palace and talking about terrorism. This type of thing should happen somewhere gloomier, grimmer, clammier. But here I am, surrounded by pretty decorations and prettier people, turning into a kebab in the sun while furiously taking down quotes of Lawrence Wright, Max Rodenbeck and Steve Coll. Oh, and how cute is Steve Coll! Who’d have thunk that a man who looks like something out of a Pixar cartoon would be the man behind books like Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens. Also, how much more like the stereotypical war correspondent could Max Rodenbeck look — tall, lean, aquiline features, salt and pepper hair… Sigh.
Anyway, quotes ahoy.
Lawrence Wright on Al Qaeda and Palestine:
There are no Palestinians in Al Qaeda because it doesn’t offer a solution to Palestine’s problems but Osama Bin Laden mentions it in many of his speeches to give Al Qaeda credibility. So it’s really a mercenary use of Palestine by Bin Laden.
Today, 75% of Gaza lives on $1 a day. Twenty years ago, it’s poverty rates were not very different from America’s. It’s a society that has been flattened in 20 years and it’s shocking to think more than a million people are imprisoned on that land.
The Obama administration has expressed very little interested in democratising the Middle East.
I spoke to a group of people in Gaza but most of them were probably killed in a shootout that happened at a mosque a few days later.
Al Qaeda hasn’t got a grasp in Palestine like it does in Yemen or Morocco.
Max Rodenbeck on the nuances in radical Islam:
There’s a confusion and conflation of different Islamic beliefs by the Bush administration and this is a huge problem.
In Palestine, the Hamas are trying to crush Al Qaeda. In Lebanon, the Hizbollah is a Shia group and affiliated to Iran. What they share with other groups, like Al Qaeda, is the same basic worldview of ISlam being under threat. That’s the basic large grievance but within that there are enormous differences in the details of the beliefs.
Steve Coll on where Al Qaeda stands today:
Al Qaeda is failing politically but militarily, it’s resilient. This paradox is the problem for the American administration.
I see Al Qaeda as an organisation, which has management committees and an operating structure. It is also a network of like-minded groups. This definition of Al Qaeda also has the aspiration of becoming a brand. The good news is that the aspiration to generate a political movement in the Muslim world has failed spectacularly but the management remains resilient. The proof that it has failed politically is that the number of people they can call upon is less.
There is now a deep set of credible polling across the Islamic world. What that polling shows is that the radical claims of Al Qaeda is just as resilient now as in 2002 but huge majorities have said that they’re done with Al Qaeda’s means of dealing with them. Al Qaeda wanted to be the vanguard of a revolution but ten years on, they’ve nothing and this is unlike Lenin of Castro. Ten years on, they were building something but Al Qaeda have failed.
Lawrence Wright on Al Qaeda today:
If you look at the history of Al Qaeda, it follows a pattern. It runs up against an obstacle and then changes its goal. Dr. Zawahiri is an excellent example. He didn’t succeed in Egypt, where the movement was suppressed brutally and successfully. So the Egyptians went to Afghanistan to recruit, not to fight soviets, and they found Bin Laden. He was a rich Saudi and they surrounded him. The Egyptians provided the organisation and Bin Laden provided the mystique.
Al Qaeda’s ambition is reaching a roadblock but does it mean an end for Al Qaeda? I hope so but it may not necessarily be so. It’s no longer a political organisation but you can call it a religious terror organisation. Like a shark, it needs to keep moving. What will defeat it is an argument within Islam, the kind that’s beginning to happen now. The theological arguments are now going against Al Qaeda and this is the only thing that can weaken it.
It’s fascinating to see Al Qaeda’s frustrations. Dr. Fadl was Zawahiri’s emir at one point and then they’ve had a falling out. Fadl accused Zawahiri of plagiarism. It’s essentially a literary dispute, which is sort of fitting a subject for where we’re discussing this now. Who knows, maybe next year, it’ll be Dr. Fadl sitting here, explaining how his work was stolen by Zawahiri. Zawahiri doesn’t have the religious credentials to dispute Fadl but he’s trying. He’s brought out three boks. But you see how shaky Al Qaeda has become in its sense of the authority they command. They’ve been reduced to publicly claiming 9/11 and announcing that no it wasn’t the Mossad. Al Qaeda is getting marginalised by the disputes within it and its ideology.
Steve Coll on the Afghan-Pakistan theatre:
There are some basic questions when you look at the Af-Pak region. Where is the network of like-minded groups the strongest? The answer is Pakistan. It has the best resource of regional actors. It’s the most dangerous space and proof of how it can cohere is 26/11.
There’s plenty of provisional evidence of Al Qaeda learning and bomb-making experience and techniques in the handiwork of the local groups. It’s clear there has been a dissemination of information. It’s much harder to actually find concrete, non-circumstantial evidence to connect Al Qaeda to the groups.
It’s worth remembering that Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak region is in the hundreds, at best. Pakistani Taliban, on the other hand, are in thousands. Al Qaeda provides specific node skills and information. But it’s a very tenuous and vulnerable position for Al Qaeda. It could happen that one of the layers it rests upon could sell it out. Abroad Al Qaeda is a valuable brand but in this region, what is their value? Particularly for the risks taken by it’s supporting groups to protect the Al Qaeda? Once you teach them how to make bombs, how long before they send you home? Al Qaeda inspires others to adopt their narrative but I’m not sure all of them think it’s value for money.
The infuence of Al Qaeda’s thinking can be seen in the media operations. Al Qaeda’s own media operations number to about 100 but Taliban media operations are in thousands today. Once, Taliban media operations were basically papering over oil paintings and dealing with what media images were available. Now the Taliban are among the most prolific video image producers.
Someone told me once, the Pakistani army is the best negotiator when it’s holding a gun, to its own head.