Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of al-Quds Al-Arabi, is one of the few journalists who met Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan. The description of his encounter in his book The Secret History of Al-Qaeda (AQ) is vivid and reveals the tension between Osama the man he met and the one who is said to have perpetrated 9/11. I use the word 'said' because as Atwan told me, "we only have one version of events."
The author of his latest book After Bin Laden complained that "we still don't know what fully happened." A case in point is the recent letter from the senate intelligence committee. The senators expressed concern that filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty may have been misled by former CIA officials. CIA's acting director Michael Morrell has said, that officials worked closely with filmmakers to ensure "appropriate portrayal of the agency's mission as well as the dedication of the men and women of the CIA who played a key part in the success of that mission." A combination of US foreign policy interests, the sheer emotiveness of 9/11 and misinformation has meant that there are still many questions unanswered about 9/11 and AQ.
One thing is certain; the view that Bin Laden was simply an evil monster is a tad too simplistic. Bin Laden after all was the natural son of a union between US foreign policy and the Saudi regime. Atwan makes it clear that "Bin Laden had political and personal grievances against the US; American troops were on Arabian soil and he felt betrayed by them after he had kicked out the Russians on their behalf and precipitated the downfall of the USSR." Atwan believes that Osama was not only the leader of AQ but also someone who was influenced by the outspoken Ayman Zawahiri, its current head. He says that Ayman Zawahiri, being an Egyptian, mixes his pan-Islamic agenda with Arab nationalism. This association explains why Bin Laden's focus turned towards Israel and the Arab peninsula.
In After Bin Laden, Atwan proposes that not only did AQ prepare the ground for the Arab Spring but contrary to what Western analysts believe, is stronger than ever. AQ has gone from being a small organisation on the north west frontier province of Pakistan into a global organisation complete with judiciary, financiers, territorial clout, fighters and cyber warriors. The vacuum caused by the Arab Spring has given AQ more scope to move in to Yemen. This is where Bin Laden had always wanted to establish himself due to its similarity to Afghanistan and because of his ancestral ties.
AQ entered the Arab Spring with combat experience from fighting Western forces and the knowledge of how to win hearts and minds. According to the book AQ in Libya now possesses surface to air missiles taken from Qaddafi's military caches. These are capable of downing passenger planes whilst both in Yemen and Pakistan drones are increasingly alienating various tribes and could drive them into AQ's sphere of influence. The effect of drones, as a recent report by Cageprisoners suggests, is having a negative impact in Yemen. AQ has also learnt from the activities of hacking group Anonymous and know how to attack soft targets at little cost to itself. Far from having died, Atwan believes that AQ is stronger and is set to capitalise on the political turbulence in the region. If the West wants to keep AQ on the sidelines it needs to work in partnership with moderate Islamists, and for the Islamist parties to deliver on their promises.
Atwan believes that fairly resolving the Palestinian question could marginalize AQ. This was certainly echoed by AQ's media sheikh, Abdul Rahman Attiyah, who was killed in a drone strike in August 2011. He advised all his writers to highlight their political grievances and to say they were justified in their activities because of US policy towards the Palestinians.
Atwan's book follows the RAND corporations' recommendations in demobilising the likes of AQ. Either the West has to beat it on the battlefield, kill its leadership or hope that they will split into various factions. Whilst the West has taken them on the field and eliminated Bin Laden, AQ remains strong. After Bin Laden argues that the wisest option is to bring AQ to the negotiation table. It is something to which Atwan says Bin Laden was not averse. Yet at the same time the West must deal responsibly with the Palestinian question as well as its misadventures on foreign soil. Otherwise there will be enough motivation for the disgruntled to continue to join the ranks of AQ.