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Libyan test for refocused al-Qaeda

March 10, 2011

Asia Times, 9 March 2011: The Libyan political upheaval that is rapidly turning into a civil war has unambiguously split Libyan society between the west of the country and the pro-Muammar Gaddafi bloc, and the “rebels” to the east centered around Benghazi and beyond.

The root of the unrest is intrinsically liberal and secular – as it was in Egypt and Tunisia – leaving very little ground on which Islamic political forces can operate.

During these turbulent times in the Arab world, al-Qaeda has been only a spectator; however, it is poised to pounce on any opportunity that might arise to allow it to become a part of the action in Libya. 

In a way, this places al-Qaeda in the same position as Western countries, some of which are positioning to actively intervene in Libya, even if it is at the least by enforcing a no-fly zone to protect the rebels from Gaddafi’s fighter planes and bombers.

Al-Qaeda’s most powerful Libyan cluster, al-Jamaa al-Muqatilah (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group), is apprehensive of being marginalized, according to members of the Libyan militant camp in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area.

They believe that al-Qaeda needs to kick in to give an ideological mooring to the armed opposition and to prevent the situation from falling into the hands of pro-Western agitators, especially with Western capitals looking for an arrangement to prop up liberal and secular forces, even through direct military intervention.

Most of al-Jamaa al-Muqatilah’s members come from the Benghazi area and the group has provided some of the best commanders among al-Qaeda’s contingents in Afghanistan. These include Abu Laith al-Libi, killed in a drone attack in 2008, who led a failed coup against Gaddafi in 1994. It was after the coup attempt that Libi headed for Afghanistan, where he led several high-profile operations, including the attack on Bagram base outside the capital Kabul in 2007 during then-United States vice president Dick Cheney’s visit.

Asia Times Online contacts in the militant camps say that current al-Qaeda ideologue and military strategist Abu Yahya al-Libi is now trying to mobilize of al-Qaeda’s cadre in Libya to quickly jump onto the unrest bandwagon. Libi, who comes from Benghazi and who has authored many books, played a significant role in al-Qaeda’s mobilization in Yemen and Somalia while living in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas.

Libi escaped from the US detention facility at Bagram in 2005 and was recently elevated as one of al-Qaeda’s main leaders and he now often chairs shura (council) meetings to make important decisions in the absence of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Al-Qaeda’s agitation over playing an active role in Libya goes against an earlier decision to stay in the background when the unrest broke out in North Africa and beyond early this year. Al-Qaeda resolved to simply work alongside Islamic forces to strengthen the position of Islamic movements against liberal and secular forces. With all-out civil war imminent in Libya, though, al-Qaeda does not want to become sidelined.

Crucially, though, although al-Qaeda will try to play an active role in Libya, it will be in conjunction with Islamic parties to prop up the masses – and it will not incorporate the terror operations that have characterized al-Qaeda’s operations over the past years, notably in Iraq.

This marks a fundamental shift in al-Qaeda’s philosophy that began last year when one of its ideologues, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, wrote a thesis Twenty Guidelines for Jihad that was published on a pro-al-Qaeda website. (See Broadside fired at al-Qaeda leadersAsia Times Online, December 10, 2010.) Ghaith questioned al-Qaeda’s go-it-alone policy, criticized the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US as well as the decision to sever ties with international Islamic movements. This, argued Ghaith, had led to a complete disconnect with Muslim societies.

This discourse reached a climax when Saif al-Adil (or Saiful Adil) wrote an article for the same website in January in which he called for al-Qaeda to support Islamic political parties in the Arab world and urged Muslim scholars to refrain from criticizing them. The two ideologues pointed to an urgent need for al-Qaeda to tap into the mainstream of the Muslim world by drawing opinion from its varied societies, intelligentsia and Islamic movements.

Al-Qaeda down the evolutionary road
Academics across the Muslim world were unable to justify the September 11 attacks as they were mainly directed against civilians and went against the basic norms for launching a battle against any usurper anti-Muslim force. Yet al-Qaeda claimed they were the only way to organize a backlash in the Muslim world against Western hegemony in the lopsided global politics following the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Further, many Muslim regimes were allied with the American camp.

Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 and then of Iraq in 2003, al-Qaeda’s focus remained to strengthen polarization in Muslim-majority states to bring them all to a single point of revolt against Western influence and Western-supported regimes in the Muslim world.

Al-Qaeda went so aggressively in pursuit of this that it turned against its ideological parent – the Muslim Brotherhood – as well as against partner organizations like Hamas in Gaza and the Pakistani militant groups Jamaat-e-Islami and Lashkar-e-Taiba when they refused to support al-Qaeda-led struggles for revolts in Muslim states.

Several international events during al-Qaeda’s engagement with world powers in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the global recession and food riots in Egypt in 2008, fired the imagination of some al-Qaeda leaders. They believed al-Qaeda’s military operations had reached a level at which the Americans were being squeezed through loss of resources in the war theaters of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Thus, the American ability to maneuver through injecting money into Muslim-majority states was limited.

Economic hard times and political polarization were the natural outcome, however, al-Qaeda’s limited structure was unable to manipulate the situation, besides, the circumstances warranted serious political moves to prop up the masses rather than terror operations.

Therefore, after Iran released several senior al-Qaeda leaders early last year and they went to Afghanistan, they initiated top-level debate through Twenty Guidelines for Jihad.

Finally, al-Qaeda’s leaders reconciled to a new direction and in recent weeks Zawahiri – who previously had justified each and every terror attack against civilians – came out with a statement that essentially marks a major paradigm shift in al-Qaeda’s policies and indicates the beginning of its mainstreaming into Muslim world politics.

“There are certain operations attributed, rightly or falsely, to the mujahideen, in which Muslims are attacked in their mosques, market places or gatherings. Me and my brothers in al-Qaeda distance ourselves from such operations and condemn them,” Zawahri said in an audio recording. Zawahiri claimed in the same message that he was speaking on the directive of Bin Laden.

“I urge the mujahideen to consider the rulings of sharia [Islamic law] and the interests of Muslims before undertaking any jihad operation,” he said. Al-Qaeda members should refrain from indiscriminate attacks on “Muslim or non-Muslims”, Zawahri added.

Al-Qaeda will, however, intensify the battle alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan to make it as difficult as possible for the Americans to go ahead with their phased withdrawal, which is due to begin this July.

At the same time, al-Qaeda’s cadre in the Middle East and beyond will devote themselves to mainstream Islamic parties until the process of khuruj (revolt) completes its full cycle for ultimate change, which means Islamic revolution and the revival of the global caliphate, according to al-Qaeda and other Islamists.

Al-Qaeda is now reconnecting with Islamic parties, and Libya could be a staring point of bigger things to come.


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