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Can Al Qaeda survive Obama?

02/11/2009

Jean-Pierre Filiu, a leading expert on jihadism, former French diplomat, now a professor at Sciences-Po Paris (who also blogged for a bit on Jihadica) has just published a book which looks at the future of Al Qaeda.

In his most recent book: The Nine Lives of Al Qaeda (in French “Les Neuf Vies d’Al-Qaïda”), he explains that after twenty years of existence, the organisation has never been closer to disappearing.

His central argument is that the election of Obama is the worst thing that has happened to Bin Laden. AQ had planned on a Republican victory with John McCain. But when Obama was elected, they had no plan B. “That’s the weakness of Al Qaeda,” he says “despite its mobility on the field its ideology is very rigid”. With Obama as president Al Qaeda had to improvise: the racist hatred came first, calling him a house slave and then accusing him of betraying his Muslim roots.

Filiu explains that the desire to demonize Obama stems from the lack of directions for Al Qaeda to attack the US. Similarly, Al Qaeda’s old propaganda favourites (the war in Iraq, Guantanamo) had vanished in the first months of the Obama administration.

Today Al Qaeda is fighting for its ninth life in Pakistan, in the same zones along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where the organisation was born 21 years ago, back in 1988 when its militants were fighting against the Red Army in Afghanistan.

With a very thorough analysis Filiu identifies 9 crucial moments in the history of the organisation:

1.    The Great Work : 1988-1991 (Abdallah Azzam, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zahawiri support the Afghan resistance in Peshawar)
2.    The Sudanese Exile : 1991-1996 (thanks to Hassan Abdullah al-Turabi)
3.    The Challenges to America : 1996-1998 (bombing against the US embassy in Nairobi which killed 213 in August 1998)
4.    The Afghan Jihadistan : 1998-2001 (with Mollah Omar and the Afghan talibans)
5.    The Collapse of the Sanctuary : 2001-2003 (the September 11 attacks and the American invasion in Afghanistan)
6.    The Campaign of Arabia : 2003-2004 (attempted Jihad in Bin Laden’s natal country)
7.    The Blood of Iraq : 2004-2006 (attempt to take advantage of the American and allies’ hodgepodge there)
8.    The Caliphate of Shadows : 2006-2007 (development of AQ in Maghreb and Pakistan)
9.    The Headlong Rush : 2007-2009 ( AQ setbacks in Iraq and its other “mission territories”)

The apogee of AQ on 9/11 was also the beginning of its decline, he says “the attack generated a feeling of disgust and reject throughout the Arab world, even the most radicals Sheikhs did not support these actions.”

The War in Iraq is another missed opportunity for AQ who lost the fight against the Arabic and Sunni guerrillas. While venturing for the first time on Arab land, AQ suffered its most patent failure and has now lost most of its impact in the Arab world.

In a final spurt of effort Al Qaeda has recently tried to generate support in Maghreb (Algeria) and Sub-Saharan Africa, namely Somalia. But AQIM failed to recruit outside Algeria and Al Shabaab’s (Somalia) allegiance to Bin Laden was more of a dare to their direct rivals Hizbul Islam than an utter celebration of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Islamic jihad.

The story of AQ, as told by Jean-Pierre Filiu, is one of lucky accidents, gross mistakes made by its enemies and rivalry. That does not mean that people will not be fighting in Jihad anymore, but that the type of Jihad that AQ created, the global Jihad, the cult of Jihad for Jihad will soon cease to exist.

For those of you who understand French, Rue89 has a podcast of an interview with Jean-Pierre Filiu. Listen here.