Notes From the Margins…

Al Qaeda: Our New Best Friend

  • June 18, 2015
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There was a time, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when the world suddenly seemed simple and easy to understand, when the falling towers blew away any remaining clouds of ambiguity, nuance or complexity.   In those grim but bracing days,   everything was bathed in the luminous glow of ‘moral clarity’.

We understood that the West had a fight on its hands, and not just a fight but a crusade against evil.   In this ‘war on terror’, there were only two sides: al Qaeda and its supporters and the United States and its allies who were fighting them.   Al Qaeda, we were told, was a ‘nihilistic death cult’ that could only be annihilated through limitless war – a war that would last ‘for decades’.

This essential narrative has more or less prevailed for the last fourteen years, throughout a murky and obscene series of wars and pseudo-wars that have left the notion of ‘moral clarity’ looking more than a little tarnished.

After fourteen dismal years, it now appears that al Qaeda may not be as evil as we thought, or at least not as evil as ISIS, and there may even be some contexts when we might be obliged to collaborate with the former in order to achieve our common goals.     In an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘To U.S. Allies, Al Qaeda Affiliate in Syria Becomes the Lesser Evil’ (subscriber only),   the WSJ’s reporter in Lebanon makes this startling observation:

In the three-way war ravaging Syria, should the local al Qaeda branch be seen as the lesser evil to be wooed rather than bombed?

This is increasingly the view of some of America’s regional allies and even some Western officials. In a war now in its fifth year, in which 230,000 people have been killed and another 7.6 million uprooted, few good options remain for how to tackle the crisis.

The ‘local al Qaeda branch’ is Jabhat al-Nusra, an organization that has previously been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and the United Nations because of its long record of sectarian massacre and atrocity.     Now, according to the WSJ:

Outnumbered and outgunned, the more secular, Western-backed rebels have found themselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with Nusra in key battlefields. As the Assad regime wobbles and Islamic State, or ISIS, gains ground in both Syria and Iraq, reaching out to the more pragmatic Nusra is the only rational choice left for the international community, supporters of this approach argue.

The WSJ approvingly quotes Saudi Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, from  the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, who observes:

‘It does say something when suddenly Nusra become a lot more tempting. It speaks volumes as to the severity of the situation.   At this point we must really differentiate between fanaticism and outright monstrosity.’

Perhaps, but the Saudi government may not be best-placed to make this distinction, at a time when it is currently blasting much of Yemen to smithereens, and the Saudi prince’s observations are part of an orchestrated attempt by the Gulf states to win support for al-Nusra by presenting it as a ‘moderate’ Islamist alternative to Islamic State.

On 27 May, Al-Jazeera broadcast an interview with Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of al-Nusra, in which he claimed that his organization would treat Syria’s minorities differently from ISIS and that it would not attack western targets.

And in a blog on the New York Review of Books entitled Why We Need al-Qaeda, Ahmed Rashid argues that AQ might be ‘the best option left in the Middle East for the US and its allies.’    Why?   Because of the ‘confusion’ in US policy that has led the US to bomb organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, while America’s Turkish and Arab allies have been actively supporting or collaborating with these same organizations.

Rashid echoes the Gulf state narrative that AQ has ‘evolved in profound ways since the death of Osama bin Laden and the emergence of ISIS.’   According to Rashid, AQ has no interest in the general Sunni/Shia war promoted by ISIS.   Its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, unlike ISIS, cooperates with anti-Assad groups and rebel militias in northern Syria.

In addition, al-Nusra, unlike ISIS, is largely Syrian, ‘making them more reliable and more committed to Syria’s future’.   Its leaders have promoted ‘nationalist jihadism’ in Al-Jazeera interviews rather than ‘global jihad’, and they have ‘toned down the implementation of their own brutal version of Islamic law, while putting on hold their own plans of building a caliphate.’

In Yemen, Rashid insists that  AQAP has demonstration its new moderation with a new focus on ‘governance and providing services to the people.’     He also suggests that ‘many Arab leaders view Washington as abandoning them’ because of the nuclear deal with Iran.   Therefore

With Arab money and persuasion, both al-Nusra and AQAP are gaining capacity for local governance and state building. However
 distasteful the jihadist ideology behind both groups, these efforts suggest an outcome that may be considerably less threatening than that of the Islamic State.

This is thin gruel, which might have been served up a packet marked ‘Made in Qatar and Saudi Arabia’.  Rashid ignores the possibility that Jabhat al-Nusra and AQAP’s newfound ‘moderation’ may be merely tactical.

Earlier this month, for example, al-Nusra demonstrated its commitment to minority rights in a village in Idlib province in north-west Syria, where, according to Patrick Cockburn, its fighters ‘shot dead at least 20 villagers from the Druze community.   They had earlier forcibly converted hundreds of Druze to their fundamentalist variant of Sunni Islam.’

Rashid seems to believe that only ISIS is intent on a sectarian Shia/Sunni war, and ignores the role of the Gulf autocracies in stirring up sectarianism as part of its attempt to curb Iranian influence.   He takes it for granted that the Arab states and Turkey are at war with ISIS, and doesn’t  even consider the possibility that ISIS is in fact regarded by these states – and possibly by the US as well – as a strategic asset.

In praising AQAP’s moderation in Yemen he ignores the stunning violence unleashed by Saudi Arabia that has devastated the country.   He even suggests that the Arab states’ concern with regime change in Syria is motivated by humanitarian considerations, declaring:

With 230,000 killed and 7.6 million people uprooted in Syria alone, the Arab states want a quick end to the Assad regime and a viable solution for Syria. They know that solution will never come from the weak moderate opposition, and that any lasting peace will require support by the strong and ruthless Islamist groups fighting there.

So the same states that actively contributed to the bloodshed in Syria, and which have always regarded ‘strong and ruthless Islamist groups’ as their natural allies now want to stop the bloodshed in order to bring about a ‘lasting peace’ in Syria?  Rashid seems to think so, and he concludes that the US shares the same aim:

The US has paid a bitter price for declining to back the Arab states in removing Assad four years ago when there was a viable moderate opposition. In the months ahead, we should not be surprised if formal talks between al-Qaeda and these Arab states begin. The only one not at the table could be the United States.

Once again Rashid takes the existence of a ‘viable’ or ‘moderate’ opposition for granted and repeats the myth generated by Hilary Clinton and others that ISIS was the result of US failure to support it these moderates earlier.

So will the United States now enter into direct or indirect talks with the evil enemy that it has been fighting for more than a decade?

Such a possibility might seem shocking to believers in ‘moral clarity’, but in a world where geopolitics has more in common with gangsterism than morality, there is really nothing surprising about it at all.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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