The new face of al-Qaeda

Feb 03, 2013, 08:46 IST | Robert Fisk

Had he his hurts before?" Siward asks of his slain son in Macbeth.

Had he his hurts before?" Siward asks of his slain son in Macbeth. He wants to know if his son’s wounds proved he was fighting Macbeth’s goons when he died, or whether — if stabbed in the back — he had been running away. Macbeth would have made a pretty good Middle Eastern dictator, obsessed with power, murdering his rivals, oppressing his people under the fatal influence of a spoiled, ruthless wife. And al-Qa’ida, in its battles with its infidel enemies — the Russians, the Americans, Israel, the West and the Arab potentates who do, or did, our bidding — does not run away. Their battle wounds are part of their personalities.

Osama bin Laden boasted to me of the Russian bullet scars burnt into his body in Afghanistan — three in all — and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who wore the Prophet’s cloak in Kandahar, has always rejoiced in the eye he lost to his enemies. And now we have Mokhtar Belmokhtar with another eye lost to God’s enemies.

An undated grab from a video obtained by ANI Mauritanian news agency shows former Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar (Moktar) Belmokhtar speaking at an undisclosed location. AFP Photo/HO/ANI

Now he hides in — or bestrides, if you believe what you are told — Mali. Al-Qa’ida is back in action, but this Algerian war veteran is an intriguing symbol of the path down which Osama bin Laden’s damaged creation now slouches. For Belmokhtar’s Afghan war record is clouded by his cruel participation in the vicious 1990s conflict with the military regime in his own country — he was born in the Algerian city of Ghardaia 40 years ago — and by the corruption which has embraced so many North African Islamist militias.

When he travelled to Afghanistan, he was only 19; when he fought the equally ruthless pro-government paramilitaries in Algeria, he had learnt that wars do not necessarily end, that victory is achieved through the humiliation of your enemies, rather than military conquest.

But Belmokhtar was a child of his country’s history. Born almost exactly a year after the French colonial power retreated from Algeria, he grew up speaking the language of his country’s former oppressors. His French was perfect, and those few Westerners who met him — usually as his captives — were to recall his fluency. Kalashnikov at his feet, Belmokhtar would ostentatiously read the Koran — the mirror image of Bin Laden — as a leader of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb and then, having left its ranks long after its apparent defeat in Algeria, as the chef of al-Muwaqqiun bil Dima, uncomfortably but chillingly translated as “Those Who Sign With Blood”.

In a video, Belmokhtar has spoken of the struggle against disbelief — in other words, us, the West — the importance of Islamic law and the Islamic project in northern Mali. He is too canny a man not to have realised that Mali’s torment springs from the decades-long northern Tuareg-Berber-Arabophone refusal to be governed by a black administration in the south, but he was drawn — like Bin Laden in Afghanistan — into a land where centralised power was weak or non-existent. While human rights groups recorded ferocious Islamist punishments — executions, amputations, the oppression of women; the list is familiar — he spoke of a sharia which fed the poor, created justice between Muslims, and equal rights.

Andrew Lebovich, an Africa analyst in Dakar, has drawn attention to the fact that Belmokhtar’s jihadism may be very real, despite his involvement in smuggling and trafficking, and that his public statements should be studied and taken seriously. Northern Mali was threatened by “the Crusader Western nations, especially France”, Belmokhtar announced, and aggressors would be would be fought “in their homes”, and “experience the heat of wounds” in their own countries, and their interests attacked. Here, indeed, was a warning about In Amenas. Prophetic, should we say?

Belmokhtar greeted Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the “persevering emir”. In other words, he was re-asserting his loyalty to original al-Qa’ida principles. But the problem — which we in the West refuse to comprehend — is that al-Qa’ida itself has changed. The days when this dangerous institution demanded a world-wide Islamic caliphate are long gone. The Arab Awakening — the mass Arab revolts against dictatorship — turned Bin Laden into yesterday’s man.

In a weird but very clear way, the results of the fearful Algerian civil war were in Belmokhtar’s favour. President Bouteflika, France’s dearest friend in the new North Africa, called a successful referendum which effectively pardoned Islamist fighters while excusing the government’s mass torturers and execution squads. Thus the weaker brethren of the Islamist revolt went home while the hard, unforgiving men emigrated into the deserts and across the Algerian border. Belmokhtar inherited a “cleansed” al-Qa’ida katiba — and a new version of Bin Laden’s battle.

Henceforth al-Qa’ida’s “purity of arms” — and this was never admitted — would be directed not towards the hopeless aspiration of a world caliphate, but at struggles which could humble Islam’s kafir enemies. Bin Laden’s battle tactics remained unchanged; only his philosophy would be gently abandoned. Now his fighters — in the hands of Belmokhtar or his latest rival, the supposedly ascetic Abdulhamid Abu Zeid — must humble the Western armies they can persuade to intervene in the Muslim world. Just as every Western soldier that could be induced into Afghanistan and Iraq was a target, so every French soldier arriving in Mali must be a target.

The Associated Press, published a remarkable, brilliant report by Rukmini Callimachi this week, an account of how Belmokhtar’s fellow jihadist Abdulhamid Abu Zeid arrived in the Malian town of Diabaly, took over civilian homes with the help of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, hid to avoid French air strikes, gave gifts to children, offered to pay rent and money for water and, guarded by five armed men, ate boxes of food imported from Algeria. “He ate spaghetti and powdered milk, read the Koran and planned a war,”

And there you have it. Ignore them, and you have lost the “war on terror”. Fight them, and you face humiliation. The Algerian Belmokhtar understands this. We do not. Diversified tactics, the French minister tells us. Mingling with the population. Camouflage. Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.

The Independent / The Interview People 

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