Extremism before and after 9/11

Most of what is written and said today about ‘extremist Islamists’ is very different from what was written in the near past

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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Most of what is written and said today about “extremist Islamists,” as individuals and groups, is very different from what was written in the near past. Most Western commentators and Arab intellectuals categorized extremist groups such as al-Qaeda as movements deprived of political rights in their countries, so they resorted to violence.

The two countries accused of cracking down on Osama bin Laden and his group are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The violence that media figures justified as a reaction to authorities’ violence included a series of explosions in Egypt, and a series of threats and operations against Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda was, and still is, a dangerous and evil group, and Bin Laden was a terrorist years before the 9/11 attacks, but no one wanted to believe it back then.


Some people think al-Qaeda was born when 9/11 happened. What changed was its media portrayal. Before 9/11, most analyses in Western media outlets, particularly US and British ones, insisted that al-Qaeda and its leader were the product of persecution. The US State Department had asked Egypt’s government to stop pursuing members of Islamic groups that raised the slogan of jihad.

Western sympathy

In the 1990s, I worked at Al-Majalla magazine then with Ash-Sharq al-Awsat in London. I was in contact with numerous journalists and media figures, and I used to attend think-tank events. Many of those concerned with the region’s affairs were convinced that Bin Laden’s demands were political, such as the right of expression and participation, and that al-Qaeda was merely a political opposition movement against the Saudi government.

It will be impossible to defeat Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) without understanding their ideologies and the circumstances of their emergence

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

The same was said about his comrade Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has a long history of terrorism. They considered him an opposition figure against Egypt’s government, not a leader of a group with a terrorist ideology. Not many understood the nature of al-Qaeda and its destructive ideas. This applied to Western governments, which considered the extremist organization part of the political opposition, and failed to comprehend its fascist ideology.

Al-Qaeda’s activity was actually known before 1993. The organization and its leader received some sympathy from Western media, despite the violent remarks made and the military operations carried out, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The group’s terrorism in Egypt was carried out under the name of different groups that share with it the same ideology. These groups’ threats reached Cairo’s center.

Tackling al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda became pursued beyond Egypt’s borders when the authorities realized that it was linked to its leadership – which resided in Sudan – particularly Bin Laden and Zawahiri, who escaped from Egypt to Sudan because he was wanted on terror charges.

Due to these terrorist attacks in Egypt, Riyadh revoked Bin Laden’s nationality in the mid-1990s. Since they confronted him, the Egyptian and Saudi governments became the Western media’s favorite target on the basis of defending the concepts of democracy and freedom of expression. I do not remember anyone at the time adopting a different viewpoint.

They continued to justify al-Qaeda’s actions, which were committed in the name of Islam, until 9/11. This was not its first crime, but it was a turning point that made everyone realize that it was not a political opposition group, but a dangerous global terrorist organization.

Some want to review 9/11 and blame those who were originally victims, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For those who want to understand what happened, it is not enough to only analyze 9/11 or read the Congressional report on the attacks, including the 28 pages that are said to have been classified because they include confidential information about Saudi individuals. They must read the entire history of al-Qaeda.

World opinion changed after these events, and almost everyone now agrees that the organization and its ideology are based on terrorism and must be fought. However, before 9/11 those who fought al-Qaeda were severely criticized. It will be impossible to defeat Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) without understanding their ideologies and the circumstances of their emergence.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on June 21, 2016.
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. He tweets @aalrashed

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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