In May 2011, millions of people across the world witnessed the end of al-Qaeda organization, or to be more accurate, the end of the organization's leader, Osama bin Laden, who was killed during a skillful intelligence operation. Bin Laden's body was wrapped in sheets and iron chains and buried at sea. Whatever he had symbolized also ended with his death and al-Qaeda, which had terrified the world, was also buried with him.
All significant figures within the organization were either killed or detained. For example, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni imam who was one of the most dangerous senior recruiters for the organization, was killed four months after the operation targeting Bin Laden.
Indeed, most of the organization's masterminds and senior figures were killed, such as field commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, military operations planner Abu Layth al-Libi, chemical weapons expert Abu Khabab al-Masri and finance chief Saeed al-Masri. Even Bin Laden's driver, guard and son were killed. Many al-Qaeda operatives were also held at Guantanamo Bay.
Terrorism was neither about leaders or their motives but about an ideology motivated by preachers, media personalities, teachers and strong believers in extremismAbdulrahman al-Rashed
What was believed to be a motive behind terrorism – the U.S. military presence in Iraq – was also believed to have come to an end when they withdrew.
I think the problem here is related to diagnosing the initial problem. Terrorism was neither about leaders or their motives but about an ideology motivated by preachers, media personalities, teachers and strong believers in extremism, who are more dangerous than Bin Laden and Zarqawi. These people are capable of producing alternative leaderships and organizations, under different slogans and in different areas.
They invented Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an alternative to Bin Laden, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as an alternative to al-Qaeda. Syria has become a new battlefield and Bin Laden's videos were replaced by taking to Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. They have become more dangerous.
The war has gone back to square one, however terrorists nowadays are distinguished from their predecessors. They have now not only grown in size but also have more experts and are more influential. They brought down a Russian plane using a bomb estimated to contain 1 kilogram of explosives and carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Paris. A terror branch in Nigeria crossed the borders to Mali and seized a hotel taking hostages. Then ISIS claimed it executed a Chinese hostage and threatened the United States with imminent operations. All these terrorist acts which horrified the world were committed in less than a month.
How terrorism thrives
I think there is a number of mistakes when it comes to understanding “new” terrorism. The first mistake is believing that a terrorist organization collapses with the murder of its leaders. The second is believing that declared excuses are the motive for terrorism - particularly by linking these excuses to liberation plans of the past; for example, claiming that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would bring about an terrorism. Historically speaking, al-Qaeda was born six years before the Iraq invasion and it further expanded after the U.S. withdrawal.
The third mistake is believing that the solution is to withdraw from crisis areas, like what happened in Vietnam. The U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq and refused to enter Syria. The fourth mistake is getting involved in the sectarian game by supporting Shiites or Sunnis against one another. The fifth and most important mistake is taking a lenient approach to extremist ideologies, which is a major problem and the source of the power of terrorism.
After Adolf Hitler committed suicide and following the burning of his body, the war's winners did not just raise the flag of victory over Berlin but they also banned Nazi ideology. They prohibited teaching it or marketing it and also prevented those who are in any way related to it from practicing any social activities.
Today's extremist Islam is also fascist, and it resembles Nazism which is based on the concepts of discrimination and elimination. Like Nazism, extremist Islam is based on absolute loyalty to an ideology and to hatred and hostility against others, whether Muslims or not. If you want to eliminate al-Qaeda, ISIS and al-Nusra Front, you have to go after the ideology. Without doing so, we can expect the next century to be filled with anarchy and terrorism.
This article first appeared in Asharq al-Awsat on Nov. 22, 2015.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today
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