Stop the press: new boss for irrelevant organisation!
Al-Qaeda’s attempt to hype up the appointment of al-Zawahiri as its leader shows how childishly desperate it is for attention.
‘The general command of al-Qaeda announces, after consultations, the appointment of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri as head of group.’ The Sheikh has departed. Long live the Sheikh! That’s right, 59-year-old al-Zawahiri, the supposed ‘brains’ behind 9/11 (that is, if coming up with a plan to fly two planes into a tall building can be said to require brains), has been announced as Osama bin Laden’s successor.
The news, press released as per usual on an Islamist website, will no doubt lead to a great deal of media-driven speculation as to what exactly this means – not just for al-Qaeda, but for the Middle East, and most importantly for us in the West. Will the tactics change? Does this affect al-Qaeda’s aims? And most important of all, just how scared should we be?
Which is exactly what al-Zawahiri and his band of nihilistic men want. Because without the attention, without our fearful imaginings attaching themselves to al-Qaeda, it might as well cease to exist. After all, al-Qaeda is now little more than a public-relations machine, churning out desperately fearmongering press releases and video clips. And what’s a PR machine without a public?
Al-Zawahiri is certainly not lacking the appetite for promoting brand al-Qaeda. Last week, for instance, he was busy paying tribute to the acheivements of his bunker-bound, multi-wived predecessor, bin Laden. Or at least that was the ostensible reason for releasing half an hour’s worth of YouTube-style footage of him banging on in tedious declamatory fashion. The deeper impulse, however, arose from desperation; desperation, that is, to rescue al-Qaeda from complete irrelevancy. This is why, after singing the praises of OBL, al-Zawahiri sought to remind America (and the rest of the infidel nations) that it still ought to be very afraid: ‘Today, and thanks be to God, America is not facing an individual or a group, but a rebelling nation, which has awoken from its sleep in a jihadist renaissance.’
That al-Zawahiri is shamelessly trying to appropriate the Arab uprisings as an expression of al-Qaeda’s own nebulous objectives shows just how frightened it is of being ignored. Not that piggy-backing on the Arab uprisings is likely to convince anyone that al-Qaeda is a force to be reckoned with. Mentions of al-Qaeda or OBL, let alone al-Zawahiri, have been notable by their absence throughout the tumult in the Middle East and north Africa.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. The dynamic that sustained al-Qaeda, which made OBL the world’s number one bogeyman, never came from the Middle East. It always came from elsewhere, from within the West. Al-Qaeda’s importance, its news-worthiness, stemmed less from the actual threat it posed than from the threat Western authorities imagined it posed. What al-Qaeda had was a talent for mirroring Western fear, for parroting Western anxieties, not creating that fear or those anxieties. Hence al-Zawahiri’s current attempt to play upon the fear in some quarters that the Arab uprisings will give rise to anti-Western, Islamist regimes.
Right from the start, before 9/11 even, al-Qaeda’s birthplace was closer to America’s mid-west than the Middle East. As Brendan O’Neill pointed out on spiked in 2003, it was always best thought of as a loose collection of groups and individuals. Even the dread name, al-Qaeda, which means something like ‘the base’, was not something it consciously came up with itself. Rather it was a name given to the wealthy terrorist financier OBL and his violent, nihilistic fanboys by the US intelligence community following the 1998 bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. As al-Qaeda expert Jason Burke wrote, ‘it is only during the FBI-led investigation into those bombings that the term first starts to be used to describe a traditionally structured terrorist organisation’.
But it’s not just the idea of al-Qaeda as an entity that originated in the West; its supposed ideas, its purported raison d’être has its roots here, too. In OBL’s ‘Letter to America’ in 2002, for instance, he played upon an all-too-familiar, very Western disenchantment with consumerism. ‘You are a nation’, he shouted at the US, ‘that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools calling upon customers to purchase them’. And if the objectification of women in consumer society wasn’t offensive enough for OBL, a fan of the female-friendly Taliban, he was also pretty angry at America’s high rate of carbon emissions: ‘You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history. Despite this you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries.’ Such outrage wouldn’t look out of place in the Guardian comment section.
As Brendan O’Neill noted in 2005, even bin Laden’s support for Palestine was less a long-held cause than one adopted in light of Western attempts to explain 9/11 in terms of tensions in the Middle East. This was indicated in an interview with an al-Jazeera journalist in October 2001. When asked by the journalist why he has only recently ‘foregrounded the Palestinian issue and relegated, so to speak, the issue of Saudi Arabia’, which he previously had ‘concentrated’ on, bin Laden replied: ‘Some of the events of recent times might foreground a certain issue, so we move in that direction, without ignoring the other.’
Today, however, al-Qaeda’s talent for exploiting ‘a certain issue’ seems to have long since deserted it. Its attempt to promote the news of al-Zawahiri’s appointment, trumpeting his support for the Arab Spring, now just looks desperate. But just as al-Qaeda’s significance was always to some extent a Western creation, so its increasing insignificance lies in our hands, too.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.