Like an ever-profitable horror B-movie franchise, the al-Qaeda myth simply refuses to die.
United States intelligence has now focused its lasers on the alleged 300 al-Qaeda jihadis concealed in Yemen’s craggy, rural Maarib province – as much as the Pentagon has deployed infinite might to find those maximum 100 prowling the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan.
But wait. Didn’t top US intelligence officials recently swear on their government paychecks that it’s all but “certain” that this sinister, multifaceted hydra with sleeper cells all over the planet – “al-Qaeda” – will attack inside the US within the next six months?
What is more likely is that these neo-jihadis will never come from Yemen or the Waziristan tribal areas in Pakistan or the whole AfPak tribal belt for that matter. And they will not be native, pious Sunnis from Saudi Arabia or Egypt either. They will have at best a vague connection to some Middle Eastern dictatorship/petro-monarchy. They will certainly be young, ultra-globalized and passionately, perversely addicted to a fantasy – the virtual ummah (Muslim community).
Their life journey will certainly have evolved as in a triangulation. Many will have moved from their home country to live in a Western country – or even have been born there; and that’s where they will have honed their yearning to join jihad in a third country.
Like characters in a novel
Neo-jihadis may eventually – but not necessarily – go to Yemen or the Waziristans only after they have made the conceptual leap from idealizing the ummah on the Internet to actually feeling the irresistible urge to act on the ground.
Whenever this happens, they have already broken communication with their families. This is the pattern followed by virtually every neo-jihadi – from Dhiren Barot (who planned to bomb the New York Stock Exchange) to the shy underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. They are all living exercises in deterritorialization. It’s all virtual – especially their idea or vision of Islam itself. It’s all very individualistic – no orchestration by a sinister “al-Qaeda” network. And it’s all done in English – the lingua franca of global communication – not Arabic. Welcome to the age of the virtual jihadi nomad. In earlier times, these would have been characters in a Fyodor Dostoevsky or Albert Camus novel.
As for the motivations of “al-Qaeda”, Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and a top global scholar of terrorism, argues that al-Qaeda “does not have a political strategy of establishing an Islamic state”. But he insists al-Qaeda’s global enemy is the West – not local regimes. That’s not true; al-Qaeda, the historic leadership, treats local regimes as US lackeys, thus they should be toppled. It’s not their priority; a hefty case can be made that “al-Qaeda” is nothing but a dissidence (or a “rogue” arm) of Saudi intelligence, considering the very close relationship between Osama bin Laden and wily Prince Turki bin Faisal, the former director general of Saudi intelligence.
Unlike Roy’s assessment, al-Qaeda’s fight has nothing to do with Che Guevara’s in the 1960s. Al-Qaeda is certainly not about ideology – but about an idea/flame that seduces, as Roy puts it, “the lonely avenger, the hero, who can redeem a life he is not happy with by achieving fame while escaping a world where he finds no room”. But that could also be a portrait of John Lennon’s murderer.
American intelligence is unlikely to consider these subtleties. The multi-billionaire machine is still hostage to the outdated notion of “territory”. So it’s automatic to have the Pentagon dispatch its might to fight “al-Qaeda” in Yemen and in the Waziristans. They will find nothing but ghosts.
Iraq, AfPak and now Yemen have been granted by Washington the same holy trinity of building “development” and “governance”, and counter-terrorism, which in practice means governance hijacked by Beltway-conceptualized counter-terrorism. No wonder this recipe was a failure in Afghanistan and will be a failure in Yemen.
The Yemeni theater will feature yet another deadly mix of counter-insurgency as applied by the Israelis in Gaza and West Bank and the Americans in AfPak. What happened in the AfPak tribal belt is enlightening. The power of hardcore locals – the Pakistani Taliban – was greatly enhanced; and “al-Qaeda” jihadis quietly left the building, spawning a mini-global migration. The same will happen in Yemen.
All this is tragically farcical. Obama has done a George W Bush in Afghanistan, branding the al-Qaeda ghost to justify Washington’s “soft” invasion of Yemen. The government of US-aligned President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana’a accuses the Huthis of being linked to both al-Qaeda (Wahhabi radicals who consider Shi’ites as worse than the plague) and Iran (Shi’ites who abhor al-Qaeda). It doesn’t matter whether this is utter nonsense. Sooner or later, Washington will inevitably brand the Huthis as “terrorists” – just like every resistance in Iraq was “terrorist”, whether they were Sunni or Sadrists.
And the Pentagon runs amok
Tens of thousands of foreign troops are bogged down in Afghanistan because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked its Article 5 collective defense provision in 2001 to fight “al-Qaeda”. Sooner rather than later, NATO will also hit Yemen.
As much as oil is power, the good ol’ “war on terror” – rebranded or not by the US – is alive and kicking. Iraq, Afghanistan (then AfPak), Yemen, Somalia, these are all cogs in the relentless full spectrum dominance machine, the real deal behind the “war on terror” cover story, intimately linked to Washington’s scramble to control and/or monitor as many global sources of oil and gas as possible.
And for a Pentagon already running amok, it is getting deeper and deeper into this key stretch of the “arc of instability”, from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, and at the same time instilling the flames of a new Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Blessed are those “al-Qaeda” virtual jihadi nomads.