It seems that al-Qaida’s dream is on its way to turning into reality. At last it has found a foothold on the Palestinian scene. Witness the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston in Gaza by the al-Qaida affiliated Jaish al-Islam 100 days ago yesterday, and the heated battles in Nahr al-Barid refugee camp between the Lebanese army and al-Qaida sympathisers Fatah al-Islam over the past month. And with Gaza and the West Bank sliding further into anarchy, with Hamas and Fatah turning on each other after a year of crushing siege, this new presence can only grow stronger.
Since declaring jihad in 1998, al-Qaida has aspired to acquire the legitimacy of representing the Palestinian cause, well aware of its rich symbolism within the Arab and Islamic collective conscience. Ever since the eruption of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, Palestine has offered vital legitimacy to a great many political movements and regimes, from nationalist Nassirites and Ba’athists to liberals and Islamists. It is this moral authority that gave the late Yasser Arafat the status he enjoyed not only among Palestinians, but across the Arab world and beyond.
Palestine is the mirror in which the Arab political scene is reflected. Fatah was an expression of the rise of the left and nationalism; Hamas of the shift towards political Islam. And that is precisely why events in Gaza and Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps today should not be taken lightly. They are ominous harbingers of what could lie ahead. When Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri issued their “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” statement on February 28 1998, responses to their declaration varied from apathy to amusement. They were an obscure group lost in the faraway emirate of the Taliban, a pathetic remnant of the fight against the USSR during the cold war. Their role looked historically defunct and their discourse archaic.
Things could not be more different now. Al-Qaida has become an intensely complex global network, with a decentralised, flexible structure that enables it to spread in all directions, across the Arab world, Africa, Asia and Europe. Whether pursuing active cells or searching for sleeping ones, the security world is haunted by al-Qaida’s ghost. Like bubbles, these cells are autonomous, bound together neither by hierarchy nor by a chain of command. It only takes a few individuals who subscribe to its ideology and terrorist methods for al-Qaida to extend its reach to a new part of the globe.
With the Middle East moving from one crisis to another, this small organisation saw itself miraculously transferred from periphery to centre. In its founding statement, al-Qaida defined its mission as a jihad aimed at cleansing the Arabian peninsula of the American “locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations”, and liberating Palestinian land from Zionist occupation. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Qaida was offered a firm foothold in the Middle East and the unique chance to implement its “resistance against Jews and crusaders” project.
The organisation’s penetration of Palestinian politics is the climax of a long, still unfolding process. Rapidly expanding from one location to another, al-Qaida currently boasts branches throughout the Arab region. These developments are worrying not only from the point of view of ruling governments and their western allies, but from that of mainstream Islamic movements too. The defeat of Nasserite nationalism in 1967 saw these movements turn into the principal active players on the political map. Nationalist demands and aspirations of liberation of Palestine, independence from foreign dominance, and sovereignty over resources, began to be spoken with an Islamic voice, in a region where the national and the Islamic have always been intimately intertwined.
With the severe restrictions imposed on them by their western-backed governments and the evaporation of American promises of reform and democratisation, this “democratic Islam” currently finds itself in the grip of a crisis. The greatest beneficiary is al-Qaida. In the Middle East, its battles are fought on two fronts: against “traitor” regimes and their western backers on the one hand, and against popular Islamist oppositions deemed “deviant from the true path of jihad” on the other. In a speech recently broadcast on the al-Jazeera satellite channel, al-Zawahiri scolded Hamas for straying from the path of resistance by participating in the political process.
Events on the ground give further credibility to al-Zawahiri’s words. Arabs have watched with horror as Palestinians have been severely punished for their electoral choices, isolated, starved, and propelled towards the bottomless pit of internecine feuding. The message from Washington and London seemed to be: don’t bother with the ballot box – only through bombings and violence is change possible. Between occupation and obstruction of peaceful change, the US is creating the ideal environment for al-Qaida to flourish, the product of a sick geopolitics and a deformed view of the region and its needs.
But one thing is certain: the smoke rising from Nahr al-Barid’s ruined camp will not be the last the region will see, and the flames will not stop at the Middle East’s borders, or consume its people alone.
First Published in The Guardian, Thursday 21 June 2007