As protests spread throughout the Muslim world against an obscure and badly-made documentary insulting Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), it is clear that we are witnessing a revival of a virulent anti-Americanism which was somewhat dissipated during the Arab Spring, especially following the military intervention in Libya which helped the rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi.
To date, American embassies have been attacked in Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis, Sana’a, Tehran, Baghdad and Dhaka. In Arab countries, a recurrent feature of the protests has been the strong presence of militant Islamists. In many instances, Islamist banners and even Al Qaida flags have been flown. The brother of Al Qaida leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, played a leading role in the Cairo siege on the US Embassy. The protests in Sana’a were orchestrated by militants, including Shaikh Abdul Majid Al Zandani, who was declared a “designated terrorist” by the US in 2004 and was, allegedly, close to Osama Bin Laden.
Anti-Americanism, coupled with a resurgence of militancy, is undoubtedly of great concern to the West, where hopes that the Arab Spring would usher in friendly democracies must be rapidly fading.
However, this is exactly the scenario that I predicted in my new book, After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.
Post-revolutionary elections brought the Islamists to power in Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, the Islamists failed to win a parliamentary majority, but their candidate, Mohammad Magarief, won the Presidency of the General National Congress.
Libya has an ongoing militant presence as the September 11 murder of Christopher Stevens, the American Ambassador to Libya, and three other diplomatic staff at the US Consulate in Benghazi vividly demonstrates.
Libya remains beyond the control of the new regime and the country is awash with weapons, mostly in the hands of warring militias.
The Benghazi atrocity points to an even more worrying possibility — the infiltration of Libya’s already woefully inadequate security services by indigenous militants. A trajectory we have already witnessed in post-regime-change Iraq and Afghanistan. The Libyan Interior Minister admitted that he was amazed that the attackers who ambushed a convoy carrying US diplomats to safety knew the location of their safe-houses.
Unlike subsequent demonstrations, events in Benghazi were not born of a spontaneous protest as initial reports suggested. I have no doubt that the Benghazi attack was the work of Al Qaida-linked militants and had been planned for some time.
Members of Ansar Al Sharia oversaw the initial breach of the Embassy’s security perimeter — driving brand new cars which had been given to the Army — on a date which is highly significant to Al Qaida for two reasons: First, of course, it was the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Second, Al Qaida leader Al Zawahiri confirmed that his deputy, Abu Yahya Al Libi, had been killed back in June. Al Libi’s rumoured assassination had provoked an earlier, June 6, attempt to besiege the US Consulate in Benghazi. That failed and the group clearly bided their time until another chance to commemorate the man Al Zawahiri called “the Lion of Libya” arose.
The Libyan government is denying the hand of Al Qaida, claiming instead that the attack is the work of Gaddafi loyalists. US President Barack Obama initially also avoided mention of Al Qaida, but Washington is now cautiously addressing the possibility and has even admitted that fighters from Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM (mainly based in Algeria and the Sahel), might have played a role.
The Libyan revolution appears to have re-activated the country’s own militants (who were suppressed under Gaddafi) and attracted foreign Islamist fighters to the country.
Not that this is anything new: Again, exactly the same scenario was played out in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year, Syria joined the club, contributing to the Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in that country.
No serving US Ambassador has been killed on duty since 1979 when Adolph Dubs was kidnapped and murdered in Afghanistan. The attack is as devastating as that incident or the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi which killed 223 and first brought the world’s attention to Osama Bin Laden and his embryonic organisation.
Reports on the ground say that members of Ansar Al Sharia had inflamed the mob which carried out the Benghazi attack by referring to the “documentary” trailer mentioned above which was produced by an Egyptian Copt in exile in the US, presumably with the intention of fomenting secular conflict. The actual effect has been more than that of a boomerang since it mobilised millions against America and its diplomatic missions.
The trailer, which depicts the Prophet (PBUH) negatively has actually been on the internet since July 1, suggesting that the furore surrounding it has been carefully managed by the militants to further their own agenda. Only 20,000 people had watched it before September 8 when Egyptian television preacher Shaikh Khalid Abdullah included clips from it in his two-hour show on Al Nas channel. On September 9, these were posted on the website of Egyptian Salafist cleric Mohammad Abdul Malek Al Zughbi.
Florida pastor Terry Jones (who is infamous for his threats to burn the Quran) poured oil on the flames by announcing his support for the film. Violent protests across the region highlight the extent of the problem the West still faces from Islamist militant groups despite the elimination of their leaders. In the days leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, two more top Al Qaida men — Al Shihri (deputy leader of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP) and AQIM senior commander, Al Makhloufi — were added to the list which already included Bin Laden, Al Libi and Al Awlaki.
Despite the often-repeated claim that Al Qaida is in decline, the network of like-minded affiliates it has spawned continues to develop like a large tree, with a tangled and sturdy infrastructure of roots underground, fed and watered by on-going grievances. No matter how many branches are cut off — even big branches like Bin Laden and Al Libi — the roots endure and new branches are able to grow.
The militants have, to some extent, benefitted from the weakened post-revolutionary security situation as well as the freedom the Arab Spring has ushered in — militantIslamists were suppressed in most countries.
I absolutely oppose violent protests, but it is a mystery to me that the West — with its full apparatus of legislation protecting the Jewish people from such slander and abuse — defends Islamophobia and insults directed at the Muslim faith as “Freedom of Speech” and fails to prohibit such provocative products as this film. Surely the tragic death of Christopher Stevens must call for an end to this hypocrisy.
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi.