By Jason Burke
4 Aug 2019
Do you remember al-Qaida? Not the al-Qaida of today that no one pays any attention to, but the one of a decade or so ago, with its sinister mastermind leader hidden in the deep cave complexes of the Hindu Kush; the “sleeper cells” all over North America; or, more realistically, its ideology that inspired young men in the UK to travel to Pakistan to be trained in the terrorist techniques used to kill more than 50 people on tube trains and a bus in London.
Probably not. If you’ve given much thought to the organisation in the past year or so, you’re a member of a fairly select group.
This raises a profound question: how is it that a group that commanded such extraordinary, unprecedented attention across the world from 2001 to 2011 can disappear from public attention so completely?
Once, stories about new threats posed by al-Qaida – biological weapons smeared on door knobs (false), explosives concealed as liquids and smuggled on to planes (true) filled our newspapers. Rappers parodied its propaganda videos. Osama bin Laden’s every utterance was parsed and picked over. He was described, wrongly, as a Muslim Che Guevara. His face was on the leather jackets of Thai bikers and T-shirts in Kenya, while his name was given to a rogue elephant in northeastern India.
The Guardian and Observer, whose pages were once replete with reports on the organisation, mentioned al-Qaida just 11 times in the past year and two of those references were prompted by the death of the son of Osama, Hamza bin Laden, which was reported by US officials last week. And when al-Qaida did appear in speech notes of the US president, it was misspelt.
One obvious reason for this precipitous decline in the attention given to the group has been the appalling successes of Islamic State in recent years, particularly its far superior use of modern media techniques and technology. Its rivals’ bloody videos have overshadowed al-Qaida’s pedestrian efforts at communication, which still often comprise tedious lectures by its wooden, uncharismatic, 68-year-old leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Could the digital revolution be to “blame”? Though conventional wisdom is that new media provide opportunities to insurgents and extremists, al-Qaida’s ability to command global headlines peaked well before digital technologies were widespread. Its decline occurred as they have spread. Perhaps, like “legacy” news organisations, the group has simply struggled to adapt to the new media environment.
But this seems inadequate as an explanation for al-Qaida’s almost total eclipse. There are others that are simpler. One is that Bin Laden, a perfect front man with his back-story of relinquished riches and quiet authority, was killed. But it is interesting that, contrary to the expectations of many, his death at the hands of US special forces at his hideout in northern Pakistan in 2011 did not create a cult following, although his name is still venerated in jihadist circles.
The real reason for its lower profile is that al-Qaida has dramatically changed its strategy in recent years. It now eschews spectacular attacks on western target, or targets in the west, in favour of a slow, careful expansion in the Sahel, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere. There have been many setbacks, but this approach brings some dividends – a solid presence in important parts of the Islamic world, loyal participants in high-profile conflicts, a distance from Isis’s egregious brutality and a significant decline in attention paid to it by western policymakers.
This leads to an important conclusion. Al-Qaida’s eclipse is not just the natural passing of a once-dangerous group. Nathan Sales, the US state department’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator, told reporters that “what we see today is an al-Qaida that is as strong as it has ever been”. It is a deliberate choice, which implies that acquiring the high profile the group once enjoyed was a conscious decision too. After all, very often what you turn off, you can turn back on.
This says a lot about the nature of terrorism and the reaction it produces. Bin Laden became notorious by design, not accident. He used violence to radicalise supporters, mobilise backing and terrorise enemies. He built his brand, in the days before digital media, by ensuring that what he did received vast publicity.
Not only did he understand that those targeted by terrorism extrapolate from a single act to imagine a general threat – one bus has been attacked, so all are now seen as dangerous; one office block in one city has been destroyed, so all such buildings are now at risk – but that sympathisers did so too.
For everyone, including many policymakers, a small number of spectacular and very violent gestures suggested a power and potential to harm that was very much greater than the group ever really possessed. Even the 9/11 attacks in 2001 involved just 19 hijackers, plus a relatively light support network and a training camp or two. Most of its operations involved fewer people and resources. The cave complexes and those secret weapons did not actually exist.
This is not to say the group never posed a threat – it did, as the appalling carnage that resulted from its attacks attests – but that for much of its existence there was very much less to al-Qaida than met the eye. One aim of the violence was to prompt a massive and in many ways counterproductive response from the west. In this, too al-Qaida was successful.
No one knows which direction the late and unlamented Hamza bin Laden might have taken al-Qaida had he assumed leadership. A United Nations security council report last week disclosed that al-Zawahiri is in poor health with “questions over his longevity”.
If a new head of al-Qaida decides to ramp up the global profile of the group with a few attacks on western interests, would we respond any differently than we did between 2001 and 2011? I doubt it.
Jason Burke is the Africa correspondent of the Guardian
Source: The Guardian, UK