Last week I finished reading Abdel Bari Atwan’s latest book, After Bin Laden: al-Qaeda, the Next Generation. This renowned Palestinian journalist is regarded as an international expert on al-Qaeda, the extremist jihadi network.
Atwan’s sweeping account takes the reader around those parts of the world blighted by the presence of al-Qaeda-affiliated, and al-Qaeda allied violent groups (or AQAM, as the jargon puts it – al-Qaeda and Associated Movements). It’s a bleak picture.
Atwan sets out in no uncertain terms an uncomfortable reality for Western intelligence agencies, more than 12 years after George W. Bush launched his “War on Terror”: al-Qaeda is growing and flourishing.
Despite the killing of large numbers of its leaders and cadre around the world, famously in 2011 including Osama bin Laden himself, this fanatical movement is expanding. According to Atwan, the network and allied groups now have some degree of presence from Nigeria to as far east as China.
How can this be?
The horrific doctrine and practices of bin Laden and his followers ensures that the popular appeal of al-Qaeda in the Middle East is always going to be limited at best. Add to that the defeat that al-Qaeda “central” (bin Laden and his small group did not originally name themselves “al-Qaeda,” but soon adopted the western-invented moniker when it because a byword for fear after September 2001) suffered in 2001 when America and its military allies invaded and bombed Afghanistan, destroying its bases, toppling its Taliban allies and forcing its leadership to flee to Pakistan.
However, there is no denying that, insofar as al-Qaeda fights invading foreign troops, the group holds a certain appeal to some. This might help explain why some Sunni former officers from Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime joined al-Qaeda in Iraq after the American invasion, reportedly training them in IED technology.
But in a region as religiously and ethnically diverse as the Middle East, this appeal is highly limited. There was popular disgust with the group when its reached its nadir during the turn of al-Qaeda in Iraq to its most horrific phase under late leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The result was a sectarian bloodbath, as his group focused on targeting civilians in Iraq, often Shia, sometimes Christians.
It must also be acknowledged here (as I have discussed in this column previously) that the American occupation forces had a crucial role in instigating and stoking this sectarian war, having set up anti-Sunni sectarian death squads soon after the occupation began.
Eleven years after the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, the country’s long torture shows no sign of ending any time soon. Although Western journalists have long-since stopped caring, car bombs and suicide attacks happen with depressing regularity. More than 400 people have been killed in March, 2100 in 2014 so far.
The invasion of Iraq was, and still is, a major factor boosting al-Qaeda. It has provided a steady propaganda boost to the group, and given it a stream of recruits. As of this year, al-Qaeda controls large territories in western Iraq, and al-Qaeda in Iraq, re-branded as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (a group so fanatical that current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawarhiri recently distanced himself from it) controls significant areas in northern and eastern Syria. And the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, which fell out with ISIS) is still one of the most important and powerful insurgent groups fighting the Syrian government.
So ultimately, by invading Iraq, the governments of the United State and Britain aided the movement they so frequently claim is their number-one enemy. Likewise, it seems highly unlikely that at least some of the weapons making their way from western and Gulf Arab governments via their spies operating in northern Jordan will not end up in the hands of al-Qaeda in Syria.
If Iraq is a major factor behind al-Qaeda’s resurgence, there is a more fundamental reason: western coddling of the vile totalitarian regime that dominates Saudi Arabia.
Alongside Israel, the Saudi royalty is the most regressive, counter-revolutionary and oppressive force in the region. No wonder, then, that their interests have begun to more and more visibly coincide in recent years.
Ostensibly, al-Qaeda and the royals are no fans of each other. Bin Laden famously regarded them as corrupt and subservient to the infidel West. The Saudis have faced threats from the network, such as when one of their Yemeni operatives tried to assassinate security chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in 2009.
But Saudi Arabia, until recently, tolerated (indeed, encouraged) fighters to go to Syria to wage war on the regime there. In their minds, this killed two birds with one stone, as the militants would be out of their hair and no longer a domestic threat, while ultimately likely to be killed on the battlefield. But there are already signs that the Saudis may be regretting this policy.
The point is woefully under-covered by the British media. One exception to this general rule has been the brilliant Patrick Cockburn, whose seminal five-part series “Al-Qaeda, the second act” was published in The Independent last week. The series correctly puts Saudi Arabia at front and centre of his penetrating analysis of al-Qaeda and the region’s wars, not least in the sectarian fanatical propaganda TV channels the Saudis fund or tolerate.
As long as this disgusting regime is free to export its violent fanaticism around the region, groups like al-Qaeda will only thrive.
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.