By Rami G. Khouri
A noteworthy but troubling recent development across the Middle East and North Africa has been the quiet resurgence of al-Qaeda affiliates and Salafist militants confronting established regimes. This has occurred alongside the emergence of nonviolent Salafist movements taking the opposite route of engaging in political systems, including winning in elections and assuming official posts in Tunisia and Egypt. We face a new generation of militants and terrorists now partly because we did not honestly analyze or fully understand the mainstream Islamists who emerged in the last three decades.
The al-Qaeda-Salafist resurgence is partly a consequence of unsettled political conditions and pockets of governance vacuums – as in areas in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere. But it is also much more than an opportunistic filling of spaces created by instability. The Middle East continues to suffer the consequences of underlying, widespread and chronic disparities and inequities that militant Salafists have seized upon with limited success, appealing to relatively small groups of people. These include issues such as corruption, poor or non-existent government services, abuse of power, foreign military interference, family-run countries, subservience to American or Israeli interests, or runaway consumerism and materialism in the face of great unmet needs across wide swaths of the population.
In places like Yemen and Mali, the militant Salafists have carved out small patches of land that they control. In others, like Iraq, they mingle with the population at large and carry out attacks almost at will. In Syria, small groups of Salafists have joined the mainstream rebellion against the Assad regime, carving out a role for themselves in the evolving order.
The resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq is perhaps the most intriguing and troubling case. This is partly due to the fact that we can trace this resurgence back to the continuing consequences of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was notable for three problematic achievements: It totally removed the former Baathist state system and left behind a massive security and governance vacuum; it replaced the former state apparatus with a transitional foreign occupation that proved to be the most significant global recruitment tool for al-Qaeda-style militants since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and, ultimately, it left behind a rickety sectarian-based government system that has brought neither political stability nor coherent development and basic services.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has now launched bombing waves that seem to signal a new offensive, including attacks against Iraqi security forces. Last Monday alone, some 40 attacks and public bombings across the country killed more than 100 people. The Iraqi branch of this movement also says it will join the fight against the Syrian government next door, and will strike at “the heart” of the United States. At a congressional hearing last week in Washington, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center told the House Homeland Security Committee that the arrest in the United States and Canada of several “associates” of al-Qaeda in Iraq highlighted the potential threat this group posed to the U.S.
The 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq took care of a weapons of mass destruction threat that never existed, and created conditions that gave birth to a new franchise of al-Qaeda terror in Iraq that works across the region and also aims at North America. If you are worried by the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq, as we should be, you should thank former U.S. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for their work, and address two related questions.
The first is to grasp that these movements do not simply spring out of the air when a bunch of young Muslims immerse themselves in too many theological texts and suddenly emerge as militants willing to die for their vague cause. These movements are reactions to specific conditions of poor governance, abuse of power, grotesque disparities, national emasculation, personal alienation and marginalization, and foreign aggression, which can be traced back to a combination of domestic, regional and international causes.
The second is to ask if those leaders abroad whose actions create conditions that enhance such movements will ever be held accountable, especially when it comes to the Anglo-American war on Iraq. If foreign powers and their leaders are never held accountable for the consequences of their deadly deeds and can get away with crimes on a monumental, global scale, many still ask, why should anyone else around the world agree to adhere to the rule of law?
The double standards of the colonial and imperial ages are still operative if white Western leaders can kill and create havoc across the world at will. Not surprisingly, the awful combination of Arab dictators, Anglo-American assault armies, and Israeli settler-colonialist expansionists has elicited the mass reactions we are witnessing across the Middle East these days. These include both nonviolent democratic transitions that topple existing leaders, as well as smaller movements of militant Salafists who – like Bush, Blair, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi – feel that they, too, can kill at will.
The circle of criminals active in the global public sphere keeps expanding.