At times like this, it’s tempting to channel Bette Davis: only speak good of the dead. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s dead. Good.
But perhaps the moment deserves some more considered reflection. There’s striking footage (see below) of al-Zawahiri in the defendants’ cage during the 1982 trial of Islamic Jihad members implicated in the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat. Al-Zawahiri alone speaks in English for the cameras. He is uncompromising and belligerent. But his command of the language of international communication reveals his background: educated and middle class. That made him different to most of his fellow accused.
He had been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood since adolescence. The Brotherhood contained other middle-class intellectuals. But it had been cowed by Nasser’s prisons into a form of accommodation with the Egyptian state.
Al-Zawahiri, like others shaped by the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the key ideologue of radical Islamist vanguardism, preferred a more kinetic solution. He found it in the violent groups that Egypt in particular spawned during the early 1970s. There was a similar ferment at the time in the western coastal regions of Saudi Arabia, the great port city of Jeddah and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That produced the millenarian gang that seized the great mosque in Mecca in 1979. It nurtured the Palestinian exile, Abdullah Azzam, who later put an adapted version of Qutb’s ideology into practice in Afghanistan. It also produced Osama bin Laden, who took on Azzam’s mantle after his assassination, probably by fellow jihadis (perhaps even on Zawahiri’s orders), in 1989.
The rest is familiar territory: the alliance of Al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, the spread of jihad into Chechnya and the Balkans, the emergence of Al Qaeda, the arguments over priorities – notably over whether to target the near or the far enemy – the attempted attacks on the West, culminating with the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, in 2000, and, a year later, 9/11.
After the destruction of the first Taliban regime in Kabul in 2001, Al-Zawahiri went into hiding. He emerged from time to time, looking desiccated, to make increasingly scholastic pronouncements. In a world where the performative sadism of the Islamic State and jihadi-bro anthems commanded the world’s horrified attention, he seemed almost an anachronism.
So what impact will his death have? First, it has symbolic resonance. The US has patiently tracked down and liquidated another of its sworn enemies, with American (and much other) blood on his hands: the Saudis and Emiratis have already reacted approvingly.
Second, it reveals that the reach of the US is as long as ever, if it cares to extend it: al-Zarqawi in Iraq, al-Awlaki in Yemen, al-Baghdadi in Syria, bin Laden in Abbottabad and now al-Zawahiri in Kabul.
Third, it represents an historical accounting. Al-Zawahiri is one of the last links with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood of the 1950s and 1960s. Qutb’s influence is everywhere. But the new generation of Islamist militants is also formed by the events – the thwarted hopes, the occasional victories and the far more numerous defeats – of the post-2003 era.
We are still working through the full implications of the failures of the so-called Arab Spring. Al-Zawahiri had nothing significant to say on that subject, apparently preferring, like many old men, to refight old battles that meant little to younger Muslims everywhere.
Violent jihadi movements are still a major threat. Al-Qaeda still has influence in some areas, such as Yemen, parts of Africa and south-east Asia. The Islamic State remains active and dangerous in parts of northern Iraq, eastern Syria, Afghanistan and south-west Africa. Iranian-sponsored Shia Islamist militias menace Iraq and Lebanon.
But if you look at polling by reputable organisations (for example, most recently Zogby research services for the Tony Blair Institute, the data sets of the Arab Barometer, the annual Asda’a BCW Arab Youth Survey or – for Iran – the GAMAAN foundation in the Netherlands), there is a consistent pattern. Young people across the Middle East and North Africa prioritise physical security, jobs and services.
Just as the brutality of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, or Al Gama’a al-Islamiyya in Egypt in the 1990s, alienated the pious middle class, so the horrors of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have alienated everyone except the most committed. And the aftermath of the Arab Spring probably destroyed any illusion that radical Islamists had the answer to the enduring challenge of governance in the region. Certainly young Arabs, Iranians, Kurds, Berbers, Assyrians and so forth all want something better. That will endure. And Islam remains a powerful means of articulating discontent. But equally they seem convinced that blending religion with politics – and using religion to justify mass murder – is not just wrong but actively damaging to religion itself.
The threat of religious violence will also endure, perhaps in different ways in Europe, where the opportunities for radical socio-political challenges to the existing order are enabled by liberalism. Indeed, there will always be some attracted to ideologies of violence. We need constantly to be on our guard. But one lesson of al-Zawahiri’s career is that violent Islamism will never have the widespread appeal of which he dreamed. Violence alienates. Mass murder appals. Impractical revolutions founder. Al-Zawahiri, like Qutb and bin Laden, dreamed of the millennium. He ended up dead in a miserable house in Kabul. Good.
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