Terrorism: May 19, 2003


Al Qaeda Destroys Itself: Al Qaeda's attacks against Moslems in Saudi Arabia and Morocco is leading to the same kind of local backlash that destroyed Egyptian Islamic radicals in the 1990s. Al Qaeda was formed by Islamic radicals from many nations, and the most prominent group were the remnants of an Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood faction. That organization had formed in 1928 to use Islam to oppose decadent Western culture. In the 1970s, a radical faction (Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya) split off, angry over Egypt making peace with Israel. The radicals began making violent attacks against the government, and the government fought back, with the help of the more moderate Moslem Brotherhood. Many radicals fled the country, a lot of them going to Afghanistan to fight the Russians. One of those who went into exile, spiritual leader Sheikh Omar Abdel al-Rahman, received asylum in the United States. He settled in New York City and was later arrested and convicted to a life sentence for involvement in the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center. At the time, many in the United States considered the Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya legitimate opposition to the one party state Egypt had become.

Many of these Egyptian radicals came home in the 1990s, and began another, more violent, terror campaign. While their main target was foreigners, especially tourists, this created a popular backlash for several reasons. First, the violence kept tourists away and a large number of Egyptians lost their jobs. Second, the attacks also tended to kill Egyptians. This made the Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya members unpopular, particularly when some Egyptian children died. Finally, the Moslem Brotherhood had survived for so long because their main goal was clean government and a better life for all Egyptians. Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya was more concerned with violence against non-Moslems and strict enforcement of religious customs that were not all that popular in Egypt. The government campaign against the terrorists was aided by many Egyptians who were repelled by the violence of the Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya attacks. By the end of the 1990s, the terror attacks had ceased, and surviving Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya members were in exile, many in Afghanistan. Once the radicals lost popular support, it was impossible for them to stay hidden. 

The "War on Terror" in Western countries has made life difficult for Islamic radicals. Dozens of active cells in Europe and North America have been put out of action and most of their members arrested. Surviving al Qaeda members are aware that that they can no longer travel with impunity. Going to countries that still harbor al Qaeda camps (especially Iran and Lebanon) carries a large risk of detection, and eventual arrest, by Western anti-terrorism forces. The recent attacks hurt al Qaeda more than help it and were possibly the result of cells acting without adult supervision. When al Qaeda had its Afghanistan bases, it was possible for experienced al Qaeda advisors to travel the world and help local cells avoid making these kinds of mistakes. 

The recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco killed a lot of locals, and much was made of this in the local media. The al Qaeda cells will soon note that the police are receiving more tips from people living near terrorist "safe houses." When this happened in 1990s Egypt, the more perceptive terrorists got out of the country. But this time there is no Afghanistan to go to. Maybe Yemen, Lebanon, Iran or Sudan. But all of these countries are under a lot of pressure to keep the terrorists out. It's not the end of al Qaeda, but killing people you talk about "liberating" is a mistake they have made before. And the results are predictable. 


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