Is there a common thread in Al-Qaeda's more recent attacks?
Paul Cruickshank is a Fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University's School of Law. He previously worked as an investigative journalist in London, reporting on al Qaeda and its European affiliates and was part of the CNN reporting team that covered the London July 7, 2005 attacks. He collaborated closely with Peter Bergen in interviewing acquaintances of Osama bin Laden for Bergen's 2006 oral history "The Osama bin Laden I Know" and worked with CNN on a two-hour Emmy-nominated documentary "In the footsteps of bin Laden." Cruickshank has written about al Qaeda and Islamist groups for a number of publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. He has provided on-air analysis to CNN, BBC, NBC, CBS, BBC, Fox News and Al Jazeera on national security issues. Cruickshank graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in history, and has a Masters degree with Honors in International Relations from the Paul. H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He has also worked in the European Parliament in Brussels and at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
Paul Cruickshank: That’s a very good question. The rise in terrorism following the Iraq war has mainly been clustered in the Arab world – the countries surrounding Iraq. You’ve seen a five times increase in failed jihadist attacks in the Arab world. Now that’s countries like Saudi Arabia. That’s countries like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria. You’ve seen a new wave of terrorism there after the Iraq war. You had very little terrorism in those countries in 2001 and 2002. But after March 2003 you really do see a new wave of attacks in those countries. Now that’s partly jihadist groups in those countries taking inspiration from what was going on in Iraq. And that’s also people starting to come out of Iraq who have been trained in Iraq – veterans of that conflict who were spreading their savoir-faire – how to make bombs; how to improvised explosive devices; persuading jihadist groups in these countries that suicide bombings is a tactic which will work. And so we’ve seen a rise in suicide bombing attacks in countries all around the Arab region. Saudi officials are now very, very concerned that there’s gonna be blowback coming from Iraq; that Saudi fighters and almost half of all foreign fighters going to Iraq and Saudi are coming back to Saudi Arabia. They’re veterans. They’re radicalized. They’re angry. And there’s real fear they’re gonna go after the Saudi royal family and the institutions of state in that country. We’ve seen a number of plots in Saudi Arabia in 2007. We’ve seen hundreds of arrests there. We’ve seen plots in Algeria very late on in 2007. There was an attack by the group called Al Qaeda and the Islamic … on the United Nations in Algiers, and many people died in that operation. We’ve seen attacks in Morocco, Tunisia. Elsewhere in Egypt following Iraq, the terrorism rates went up. So the Iraq war was a shot in the arm for Al Qaeda. But that of course is not the end of the story, because the Iraq war has also exposed one of Al Qaeda’s Achilles heels, which is a tendency of the organization to indulge in barbaric acts of violence to act as an oppressor towards the local population. In 2006 Al Qaeda launched a spate of attacks on Shiia targets within Iraq. It’s now turned its sights on Sunnis. These Sunni areas of Iraq, it’s trying to . . . it’s willing to play sponsor to violence essentially, bullying the local population. And there’s been a really big backlash in Iraq against the organization. We’ve seen the emergence of what you would call “awakening councils” within the country, which are Sunni groups, some former insurgents, former allies of Al Qaeda are now turning against Al Qaeda. They’ve been effective in reducing Al Qaeda’s presence in … and elsewhere in Iraq, and you’ve started to see Al Qaeda weakened significantly in Iraq in the last months, even though it’s still a force in the country to be sure. But this . . . This behavior in Iraq from Al Qaeda has also been very, very important in persuading Muslims around the world – some of whom had some sympathy for some of what Al Qaeda was doing – and of course this is a small minority – in turning against Al Qaeda. Because they’ve seen what happens if you let Al Qaeda out on their leash, and they don’t like it. The scenes of bloodshed, of beheadings, of torture, of chaos that they’re seeing in Iraq, they don’t want that to be the future of their country. And so bin Laden is less popular than he was a few years ago because of events in Iraq; because of events elsewhere where Al Qaeda has gone after Muslims in Saudi Arabia and went after the royal family there. Many Muslims have died in attacks. More Muslims have died in attacks launched by Al Qaeda – many more than westerners around the world. Al Qaeda operations in London, in Madrid, in the West have also turned off the Muslim community there in those countries. There was some sympathy for what Al Qaeda was doing around the time of 9/11. That is really kind of all gone now. There’s been a real reaction within the Muslim community and . . . Let me have a glass of water and take the next step.
Paul Cruickshank: The emerging . . . The emerging criticism of Al Qaeda has come not just from mainstream Islam; not just from the Muslim establishment and countries like Saudi Arabia; not just from organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood; but it’s also come now from former associates of bin Laden – from … who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s; from scholars who bin Laden admired. There’s been a real emerging criticism coming from all sorts of parts and constituencies of the Islamic community around the world. And this is gonna, in the years to come, be a real problem for Al Qaeda, because Al Qaeda are killing Muslims. They’re launching attacks on innocent civilians. They’re torturing victims to death. Muslims don’t like this sort of behavior from whatever constituency they come from. And . . . Because you know fundamentally Islam is a religion of peace, and so this has been very, very counterproductive to Al Qaeda. And when you have key scholars . . . When you have people with the credibility of those who fought in Afghanistan now turning against bin Laden, that is important. Because youngsters really respect these sorts of figures. They’ve been following them for years. And when the scholars that they follow are now telling them if you become a suicide bomber you’re gonna go to hell, that’s certainly being listened to and causing a lot of doubts. And I think in the years to come it’s probably gonna turn off the tap of recruits to Al Qaeda. So we might be at the peak of the problem right now.
Recorded on: Jan 14 2008
Potential recruits for Al Qaeda are increasingly turned off by the kiling, particularly of Muslim victims, says Cruickshank.
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