Abd al-Bari Atwan could certainly give Peter Bergen a run for the title of knowing more about al-Qaeda than any other Western-based analyst. Atwan is the editor of al-Quds al-Arabi, the most radically Arab nationalist of the mainstream London-based Arabic dailies and a primary outlet for al-Qaeda communiques and a primary source for reporting from inside the Sunni insurgency and the wider Islamist milieu. He has met bin Laden (a meeting rather hilariously recounted in the first chapter of his book, The Secret History of al-Qaeda... let's just say that Atwan did not feel at home in the Afghan mountains). Atwan isn't an Islamist, but he is one of the leading Arab commentators on al-Qaeda, a frequent guest on al-Jazeera, and one of the most important sources for anyone trying to understand al-Qaeda today. So his column yesterday makes for fascinating reading, particularly for the contrast it offers with Bergen's New York Times account of "What Osama Wants."
Atwan emphasizes al-Qaeda's growing strength, pointing to recent al-Qaeda threats to Saudi oil fields as one more reminder that the Gulf remains in a state of emergency after five years of the war on terror. After all America's efforts and wars, one would assume that al-Qaeda at least would have ceased to exist, and the world would be more secure, but instead we see the complete opposite. The organization which five years ago was encircled and on the brink of destruction in the hills of Tora Bora, and which never had more than a couple of thousand of members at the most, has become more powerful and influential and poses a greater threat to American hegemony and its allies and the world economy than ever before.
Al-Qaeda has America to thank for rebuilding its strength and replenishing its ranks, Atwan argues. The invasion of Iraq was Bush's greatest gift to al-Qaeda's cause. In addition to the material costs to the US and the opportunity the presence of so many American troops gives al-Qaeda militants to kill them (preferably on video), the occupation of Iraq has allowed the whole world to see America's failure and weakness. Al-Qaeda, writes Atwan, owes much of its success to Bush's insistence on sticking to failed policies which alienate Muslims and waste American power while accomplishing little. The one place where Bush has changed is the one where he should not have: instead of promoting democracy, he now relies on the same old corrupt dictatorial regimes in the name of 'stability' or 'moderation.'
The most important thing, for Atwan, is how al-Qaeda has changed its strategy since the first days of the war on terror. Before there was one al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan, but now there are many al-Qaedas: AQ in Saudi Arabia, AQ in Iraq, AQ in Europe, AQ in Somalia, AQ in Lebanon, AQ developing in Darfur (if the US insists on sending troops there). The main accomplishment of the American war on terror has been to create a series of failed states, in Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia (?) and soon in the West Bank/Gaza, and each of these failed states offers a perfect environment for a jihadist organization like al-Qaeda. The new generation of jihadists which has emerged enjoys complete independence from the mother organization, he writes. These new cells do not need to communicate directly with the leadership, and couldn't even if they wanted to since the new organization has no address. Anyway, everything the cells could want - from literature to bomb-making advice - can be found on the internet now.
Most importantly, al-Qaeda has won the media war and the information war. News of its activities and threats dominate the media around the world, and al-Qaeda has now achieved complete independence in the media realm. It no longer depends on an outlet like al-Jazeera to broadcast its tapes since it now has its own alternative media outlets on the internet. If Osama bin Laden died or was arrested, it wouldn't change a thing, Atwan writes. As with the invention of the nuclear bomb, once the technology exists anyone can use it and there is no going back to the pre-al-Qaeda era any more than to the pre-nuclear era.
Nothing Atwan says in this column is particularly new. But beyond the image it conveys of a self-confident al-Qaeda ascendant, it is interesting to see what is not included in his tour d'horizon. He says hardly a word about Iraq, beyond how useful it is for al-Qaeda (150,000 troops there make prime hunting for its fighters) and how many Iraqi civilians have died or fled. He says nothing about the question of American withdrawal (or, for that matter, the coming American elections). Far from seeing the re-constitution of a physical base in Iraq as al-Qaeda's greatest ambition, Atwan sees its new strength as deriving from its decentralization and deterritorialization. None of this means that Atwan is necessarily right or Bergen wrong, but the contrast between them is fascinating.