June 3, 2008

ONE MORE WAY W MAY GET TO ONE-UP THE GIPPER:

The Unraveling: The jihadist revolt against bin Laden. (Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, 6/11/08 The New Republic)

Within a few minutes of Noman Benotman's arrival at the Kandahar guest house, Osama bin Laden came to welcome him. [...]

Despite the warm welcome, Benotman surprised his hosts with a bleak assessment of their prospects. "I told them that the jihadist movement had failed. That we had gone from one disaster to another, like in Algeria, because we had not mobilized the people," recalls Benotman, referring to the Algerian civil war launched by jihadists in the '90s that left more than 100,000 dead and destroyed whatever local support the militants had once enjoyed. Benotman also told bin Laden that the Al Qaeda leader's decision to target the United States would only sabotage attempts by groups like Benotman's to overthrow the secular dictatorships in the Arab world. "We made a clear-cut request for him to stop his campaign against the United States because it was going to lead to nowhere," Benotman recalls, "but they laughed when I told them that America would attack the whole region if they launched another attack against it."

Benotman says that bin Laden tried to placate him with a promise: "I have one more operation, and after that I will quit"--an apparent reference to September 11. "I can't call this one back because that would demoralize the whole organization," Benotman remembers bin Laden saying.

After the attacks, Benotman, now living in London, resigned from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, realizing that the United States, in its war on terrorism, would differentiate little between Al Qaeda and his organization.

Benotman, however, did more than just retire. In January 2007, under a veil of secrecy, he flew to Tripoli in a private jet chartered by the Libyan government to try to persuade the imprisoned senior leadership of his former group to enter into peace negotiations with the regime. He was successful. This May, Benotman told us that the two parties could be as little as three months away from an agreement that would see the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group formally end its operations in Libya and denounce Al Qaeda's global jihad. At that point, the group would also publicly refute recent claims by Al Qaeda that the two organizations had joined forces.

This past November, Benotman went public with his own criticism of Al Qaeda in an open letter to Zawahiri, absorbed and well-received, he says, by the jihadist leaders in Tripoli. In the letter, Benotman recalled his Kandahar warnings and called on Al Qaeda to end all operations in Arab countries and in the West. The citizens of Western countries were blameless and should not be the target of terrorist attacks, argued Benotman, his refined English accent, smart suit, trimmed beard, and easygoing demeanor making it hard to imagine that he was once on the front lines in Afghanistan.

Although Benotman's public rebuke of Al Qaeda went unnoticed in the United States, it received wide attention in the Arabic press. In repudiating Al Qaeda, Benotman was adding his voice to a rising tide of anger in the Islamic world toward Al Qaeda and its affiliates, whose victims since September 11 have mostly been fellow Muslims. Significantly, he was also joining a larger group of religious scholars, former fighters, and militants who had once had great influence over Al Qaeda's leaders, and who--alarmed by the targeting of civilians in the West, the senseless killings in Muslim countries, and Al Qaeda's barbaric tactics in Iraq--have turned against the organization, many just in the past year.

After September 11, there was considerable fear in the West that we were headed for a clash of civilizations with the Muslim world led by bin Laden, who would entice masses of young Muslims into his jihadist movement. But the religious leaders and former militants who are now critiquing Al Qaeda's terrorist campaign--both in the Middle East and in Muslim enclaves in the West-- make that less likely. The potential repercussions for Al Qaeda cannot be underestimated because, unlike most mainstream Muslim leaders, Al Qaeda's new critics have the jihadist credentials to make their criticisms bite. "The starting point has to be that jihad is legitimate, otherwise no one will listen, " says Benotman, who sees the Iraqi insurgency as a legitimate jihad. "The reaction [to my criticism of Al Qaeda] has been beyond imagination. It has made the radicals very angry. They are very shaky about it."

Why have clerics and militants once considered allies by Al Qaeda's leaders turned against them? To a large extent, it is because Al Qaeda and its affiliates have increasingly adopted the doctrine of takfir, by which they claim the right to decide who is a "true" Muslim. Al Qaeda's Muslim critics know what results from this takfiri view: First, the radicals deem some Muslims apostates; after that, the radicals start killing them. This fatal progression happened in both Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s. It is now taking place even more dramatically in Iraq, where Al Qaeda's suicide bombers have killed more than 10,000 Iraqis, most of them targeted simply for being Shia. Recently, Al Qaeda in Iraq has turned its fire on Sunnis who oppose its diktats, a fact not lost on the Islamic world's Sunni majority.

Additionally, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have killed thousands of Muslim civilians elsewhere since September 11: hundreds of ordinary Afghans killed every year by the Taliban, dozens of Saudis killed by terrorists since 2003, scores of Jordanians massacred at a wedding at a U.S. hotel in Amman in November 2005. Even those sympathetic to Al Qaeda have started to notice. "Excuse me Mr. Zawahiri but who is it who is killing with Your Excellency's blessing, the innocents in Baghdad, Morocco and Algeria?" one supporter asked in an online Q&A with Al Qaeda's deputy leader in April that was posted widely on jihadist websites. All this has created a dawning recognition among Muslims that the ideological virus that unleashed September 11 and the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid is the same virus now wreaking havoc in the Muslim world.


It wasn't until after Ronald Reagan left office that many realized he'd already won the Cold War. George W. Bush can just about break out another Mission Accomplished banner for his farewell.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at June 3, 2008 12:20 PM
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