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Al Qaeda may flourish again

Ayman Al Zawahiri's is still out there. (Photo by Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images)

August 20, 2021 - 7:15am

Afghanistan is, once again, an Islamic Emirate, governed by the Taliban. Fears have grown this week that the success of the Afghan militants is a prelude to the return of another group — Al Qaeda. As the UK’s Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace put it: “Al Qaeda will probably come back.”

Did they ever go away though? Since Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011, his deputy, and Al Qaeda’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been hiding. Although numerous political leaders have stated Al Qaeda has been defeated, its worldwide network was never really gone and there continue to be regional uprisings.

And as recently as July 2021 Al Qaeda’s media organisation as-Sahab suddenly published a number of well-edited propaganda videos. These videos are graphically appealing and contain well-structured stories and arguments.

The sudden appearance of these videos — especially while the Taliban is conquering Afghanistan — raises the question: what can we expect next from Al Qaeda?

One of the videos, ‘An Unpardonable Crime’, may have some answers. The film shows video footage of speeches of living and dead Al Qaeda members. The video primarily attacks France and its president Emmanuel Macron, however there is also significant attention for Denmark and especially the Netherlands. In the video Al Qaeda specifically calls upon young Muslims in Western countries to kill those people who insult the prophet of Allah.

‘An Unpardonable Crime’ recalls the case of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri in November 2004 after the release of his and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film Submission that summer. In ‘An Unpardonable Crime’, Van Gogh is described as having “crossed all limits in blasphemy directed at God, the Prophet of Islam and the Quran. He had committed all possible forms of blasphemy against Islam and its sacred symbols.” His assassination by Bouyeri is extensively recalled. To Al Qaeda, Bouyeri’s act was the perfect example of how a good Muslim should behave in the West.

In the video, Al Qaeda explain how violence in the name of Allah, such as the lethal attacks on Theo van Gogh and the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, made the West realise that it had to stop drawing Muhammad cartoons and to stop ‘insulting’ the prophet.

Al Qaeda wants to inspire young Muslims to commit terrorist attacks in Western countries through videos published online. As Gabriel Weimann, professor of communication, observed, terrorists have relied on the Internet since its inception, for a large part of their successes. Weimann describes numerous benefits. There are four principle advantages to Al Qaeda’s online video. First, the costs of such an outreach are relatively low. Second, it gives Al Qaeda a global reach. Third, if only one attack follows from it somewhere in the world, no matter how small the scale, this can be regarded as a success already. Finally, it is very hard for intelligence agencies to prevent attacks from ‘lone actors’ from happening because of the limited communication and preparation involved in these attacks. To intercept the distributors of the ‘inspiring’ terrorist material is complicated as well, since these can easily hide in the dark; literally in the case of the Dark Web.

All of this raises the question of why the mainstream media are not reporting on As-Sahab’s publications. The content of these movies are a serious threat to our citizens. It is likely that these videos will have been spread in numerous jihadi Telegram groups and will have reached many potential offenders. Wherever that leads to is something that is hard to predict.

The Taliban created a safe haven for Al Qaeda before and might offer this again. As professor of jurisprudence Afshin Ellian stated: “Al Qaeda can celebrate 9/11 in Kabul this year. A resurgence of global jihad, that is no longer unlikely.” We should not underestimate Al Qaeda. It proved highly adaptive by focusing on propaganda and online video’s to call for violence. Instead of what politicians might state, this terrorist organisation is not coming back; it never left the scene.

Bart Collard is a lecturer in Islamic terrorism at the University of Leiden.


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Roger le Clercq
Roger le Clercq
2 years ago

It is unfortunate that this aspect of the 20 year adventure is almost ignored in the media exploration of how everyone “feels” about “was it worth it”.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

What’s unfortunate is the fact that 20 years of attempting to Westernise Afghanistan with liberal democratic pieties against all logic and reason has resulted in Al-Qaeda now being stronger than ever and the Taliban controlling more of Afghanistan than they did in 2001.

There may have been ways to have got better results. A brutal traditonalist dictatorship – undoubtedly one that would not require a permanent garrison of Western troops – that redirects Islamism elsewhere, against countries like Russia and China who are strategic competitors would have been the realist’s desideratum. But in this age of foreign policy by bureaucracy and public opinion it was never going to work.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Awaiting For Approval! WHY? I know writing the name of the head cop in England, Cressida D* ck gets awaiting for approval – but what is in my post below, I would like to know the rules – is it Arabic Writing? If so that is pretty intolerant. Is it naming the people and group under discussion? That makes replies hard unless we know the rules so can say play the * * redacting game.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

But maybe not. I heard how the Taliban and Afghains disliked the superior feeling Arabs. I think no affection exists – respect, but not love or even political goals at all. Afghani have always been insular and never out to proselytize.

Melmastyā́, or hospitality, is the requirement Pashtunwali places on all its tribesmen towards others,”

Nənawā́te (Pashto: ننواتې‎, “sanctuary”) is a tenet of the Pashtunwali code of the Pashtun people. It allows a beleaguered person to enter the house of any other person and make a request of him which cannot be refused, even at the cost of the host’s own life or fortune.
As the burden of sanctuary and protection extends even to fighting against government troops on behalf of the person seeking refuge,[6] some have suggested that Mullah Omar‘s refusal to turn in Osama bin Laden was due only to his having availed himself of Nənawā́te.[7][8][9]

But there is more than that, in Islam once one has eaten of your salt, and had water from you as hospitality, they may never be abused during that time, and are under your protection till they depart.

That is a good part of the Al Qaeda 2001 thing – the Taliban had taken Osamas money, had given him Hospitality, Sanctuary, and fed him, they could not hand him over or forceably expel him – or lose honor completely – it is the Code.

I doubt they will extend this bond of Sanctuary again – if Al Qaeda does return, even with their understanding, my guess it will be specifically without the granting of Hospitality and Sanctuary – so they will not fall into that impossible situation again.