Muslim fanatics on the rocks

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Posted by Jacques on 08:42:50 2005/03/23



March 23, 2005 -- WHERE do we go from here?

Islamist groups are posing now that question in the murky space they inhabit on the margins of reality. It is asked in radical mosques, touched upon in articles published by fellow-travelers and debated in the chat-rooms of militant Web sites.

Beyond the usual suggestions to hijack a few more jets or poison some Western city's drinking water, the movement appears to have run out of ideas. Yet it may be passing through its deepest crisis since 9/11:

* Al Qaeda which operated as an efficient organ of command and control has been smashed to pieces. Just two of its former top 20 leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be still alive and free and those two are in hiding, seemingly without regular organizational contact with Islamist cells anywhere in the world.

Since December 2001, the two have managed to send a total of six authenticated messages from their hideouts. That the messages reached the outside world is mainly due to the fact that an Arab satellite-TV channel was prepared to broadcast them virtually unedited.

Al Qaeda, which published a total of 83 books and pamphlets in 2001, has managed to bring out only one book since 9/11, dealing with the war in Iraq.

The difficulty of contacting bin Laden and al-Zawahiri (generally referred to by the Islamists as "the sheiks") was illustrated recently when Abu-Mussab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, tried to obtain a fatwa from them authorizing the mass murder of Iraqi Shiite women and children: Getting that gruesome green light (from al-Zawahiri) took nearly six weeks.

The disruption of al Qaeda's leadership has had other consequences.

For the past year or so, al-Zawahiri has been urging militants from all over the world, including North America and Europe, to converge on the Middle East for a regional "jihad" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Yet bin Laden has been preaching a totally different strategy. He wants the jihadists, including "sleepers" in America and Europe, to carry out other "spectacular coups" inside the United States.

And so far there is no sign of either leader's call being heeded.

* Targeted governments have begun to fight back.

In Pakistan, more than 13,000 schools suspected of propagating extremist ideas have been shut in the past two years. In Yemen, the number of such schools to be shut is around 24,000.

There are also signs that Afghan, Pakistani, Saudi and Iraqi authorities have managed to infiltrate at least some terror groups. Since 2003, hundreds of terrorists have been picked up in the countries concerned, in most cases thanks to tip-offs from repenting militants.

The Islamist Web sites, and sermons at mosques controlled by al Qaeda sympathizers in the West, are these days full of warning against the munafeqin (hypocrites) who join the movement to denounce its members, often in the hope of reward. In Pakistan alone, the CIA is believed to be spending some $80 million a year on a network of informers that has provided information leading to dozens of arrests by Pakistani authorities.

Earlier this month, the Russians managed to find and kill Aslan Mashkhadov, the key Chechen rebel leader, thanks to a tip-off that cost them $10 million.

Pakistan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia have also scored major successes in "turning around" operations aimed at persuading the militants to repent and return to normal life. More than 1,400 former militants have thus been "turned around" in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, according to official estimates.

* The movement is also finding it increasingly difficult to attract new recruits, especially within the Muslim world. Even in Western Europe (where Muslim communities still represent fertile recruiting ground), the number of "volunteers" peaked in the fall of 2003 and has been falling since.

One big problem is that the number of places where Islamists can hide in safety is dwindling. According to regional intelligence sources, the terror networks cannot hide more than a few dozen people in the remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan at any given time.

Gone are the days when bin Laden and his cohorts with their several wives, numerous children and extended entourage ruled over mini-emirates of their own in Waziristan and the Hindu Kush.

Today, the only place between the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean where the FBI is not present is Iran. There, al Qaeda's trail goes cold. But the Islamic Republic can never be a permanent safe haven for it is a Shiite Islamic Republic, and the bin Ladenists' aims include the killing of as many Shiites as possible.

* For the first time in two decades, the movement is also beginning to face fund-raising difficulties. The generous donations that indirectly came from various regional countries have stopped, while scores of bank accounts operated by the militants have been frozen.

A total of 103 charities suspected of raising funds for terror have been shut or otherwise neutralized in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Kuwait alone. Some businessmen still manage to get funds to various groups, often via third parties. But these channels are also being detected and shut one by one.

This is one reason for the growing ties between the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda and pro-Saddam terror gangs: The latter still control vast sums of money, mostly stolen from the Iraqi treasury before the regime's fall.

* The Islamist terror movement has suffered another disappointment the dashing of its hopes for an international anti-American front, led by France and Germany, to isolate the United States and Great Britain.

President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have balked at the idea of several more years of bad relations with Washington. Even the Spanish government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, which owes its election to the al Qaeda attack in Madrid last year, has been careful to tone down its original anti-American rhetoric.

THE biggest setback for the Islamists, however, is a shift of mood in the Is lamic heartland. The elections in West Bank and Gaza, Afghanistan and Iraq; Lebanon's freedom movement; the beginnings of change in Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia all have helped generate new interest in democratic reform.

Also important are the efforts by Mahmoud Abbas to transform Palestine from an emotional cause into an issue of practical politics. Today, even Hamas, the most radical of Palestinian movements, is obliged to end its boycott of normal politics, and is getting ready to compete in the parliamentary elections.

While bin Laden's message of hatred and terror still resonates in sections of the Muslim communities and the remnants of the left in the West, the picture is different in the Muslim world. There, people are demonstrating for freedom even (in Egypt a few weeks ago) for more trade with Israel.

This is a new configuration in which Islamist terrorism, although still deadly dangerous, has only a limited future.

Iranian journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

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