There is a war raging in our times between a coalition of states led by the United States of America and al-Qaeda which has entered its second decade. One of the parties in this war, the United States, needs no introduction. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became the sole superpower and is known in all corners of the world as the most powerful nation on all accounts, political, military, economic and socio-cultural. However, al-Qaeda as a global force is not understood so well and needs some introduction and defining.
Al-Qaeda came out of the 1980s jihad (Islamic holy war) against the Soviet backed government of Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in Kabul. This jihad was mobilized by the United States, in collaboration with the Saudi royalty and Pakistan's military dictator Gen. Zia. The Saudis lavishly financed the jihad with their oil wealth, but what turned out to be their more fateful contribution was Osama bin Laden whose arrival in Afghanistan was arranged through the chief of the Saudi Secret Service, Prince Faisal al Turki, and the CIA. After the former Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1989 Osama, the accomplished holly warrior and some of his Arab comrades founded the organization named al-Qaeda with a view to continue their jihad against the American “infidel,” who they thought was defiling the holy land of Islam by deploying its troops in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the first Gulf War.
Since its inception, however, the organization has undergone changes in its composition, following, and geographical sphere of activity. Today's al-Qaeda, both as a political construct originating with the U.S. establishment and as an existential reality stands for a loosely affiliated plurality of groups and individuals operating on a trans-national level with a shared mission and common tactics used to attain that mission. The plurality of groups linked to al-Qaeda range from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to Ansar al Sharia of Libya and Al Nusra Front of Syria.
The overriding mission of al-Qaeda is to dominate the world, the Muslim world in particular, by imposing its own brand of socio-political order based on the Sunni-Salafi sharia laws of Saudi Arabia. This places al-Qaeda in conflict with the United States which also wants to dominate the world, but for different reasons that have to do with imperialist possession and control. While al-Qaeda has no interest in the imperial phenomena, it is convinced that it cannot achieve its goal of dominating the world without overpowering the “enemies of Islam,” defined primarily as infidels (unbelievers). The United States of America being the leading global power is at the top of al-Qaeda's list of infidel enemies. It was in retaliation to al-Qaeda's alleged targeting of this “enemy of Islam” that led to the formal declaration of war on terror by President George W. Bush in 2001.
The “war on terror” despite the ambiguity of the phrase, is essentially a war of domination like the previous two world wars, albeit with some uniquely anomalous features. The first and foremost anomaly of this war lies in the fact that one of the combatants is a non-state, trans-national entity called al-Qaeda. As President Obama likes to reiterate, the goal of the war on terror is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda.” Although under his “AfPak” policy Obama has extended the theatre of the war to include Pakistan with Afghanistan, the operations of al-Qaeda are not confined to these two countries. No continent or country seems to be free from actual or potential deadly attacks by the floating holy warriors of al-Qaeda. The problem is further complicated enormously when the United States itself finds it necessary to collude with the so called al-Qaeda enemy when it suits its purpose, as being witnessed in the case of Libya and Syria.
The Libyan Nightmare
On 15 February 2011 a peaceful anti-government demonstration was staged in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi, long associated with opposition to the Muammar Gaddafi regime. As the regime moved to quell the demonstration, the Security Council of the United Nations went into action with amazing haste and on February 26 passed the first of its resolutions calling for a freeze of the assets of Gaddafi and a number of his regime's designated officials and a ban on their travel abroad, charging that the government had used excessive force against the demonstrators of Benghazi. This was soon followed by a second resolution passed on March 17 declaring a No Fly Zone over Libya which gave the U.S.-led NATO powers the pretext to intervene with air attacks on the country. The global news channels including the Qatar based Al Jazeera, once the emerging face of an alternative to imperialist propaganda, kept telling the listeners that all this was being done out of “humanitarian concern” for the safety of Libyan people.
On March 28 President Obama addressed the nation to say, in part, that:
“Confronted by this brutal repression and a looming humanitarian crisis, I ordered warships into the Mediterranean. European allies declared their willingness to commit resources to stop the killing. The Libyan opposition and the Arab League appealed to the world to save lives in Libya. And so at my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass a historic resolution that authorized a no-fly zone to stop the regime’s attacks from the air, and further authorized all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people.”
This is a remarkably revealing quote from the address of the president of United States. It makes quite clear that it was the United States that had the Security Council meetings convened, and resolutions passed to intervene militarily in Libya soon after the first peaceful demonstration took place in Benghazi. Furthermore Obama's story of Gaddafi's “killing” of his people and the “necessary measures to protect Libyan people” sounds more like a replay of Bush's story of Iraq's “weapons of mass destruction.” And, while Obama could very well be correct regarding the messages he says he was getting from the European allies and the Arab League, his reference to “Libyan opposition” does need some scrutiny.
From the beginning of armed confrontations Libya's state media continued to insist that the Gaddafi opposition was being led by ruthless al-Qaeda operatives. The U.S. and NATO sources, however, either denied these claims or simply remained silent. Their warplanes continued the air attacks to cripple the Libyan defence forces and pin Gaddafi down to his hideouts as heavily armed opposition militias marched on to Tripoli, leaving blood and destruction in their trail. Finally on October 20, 2011 grisly images of a bloodied Muammar Gaddafi being lynched to death amidst shouts of allah-o-akbar (God is great) were flashed on the global television networks. Reportedly he was trying to escape to safety from his hometown of Sirte when his convoy was attacked by NATO war planes providing the ground militias the opportunity to grab and kill him.
The reaction of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, caught on a widely circulated video, perhaps correctly reflected the mood of the entire U.S. establishment at the news of Gaddafi's murder. The good lady was about to sit down for an American TV interview in Kabul when she was told about the killing. After a moment's pause she burst into a cackle of laughter uttering the words, “We came, we saw, he is dead,” waving her arms in the air.
Gaddafi's horrible death may have served as a warning to dictators, especially those prone to get on the wrong side of the only superpower on earth, but it has certainly not brought Libya any closer to peace and democracy. After the fall of the regime some renegade ministers of Gaddafi's erstwhile cabinets who had earlier joined together to form the National Transition Council (NTC) in Benghazi took over the rule of Libya, but not for long. On August 9, 2012 the governance of Libya, now fragmented into many tribal and regional factions and overrun by killing and torturing militias, was transferred to yet another interim body, the 200 member General National Congress (GNC). This Congress chose the pro-Muslim Brotherhood politician Mohammed Magariaf as its president who had been a long time opponent of the Gaddafi regime and had been living in the United States for many years. Magariaf is the current titular president of Libya rendered lawless.
The al-Qaeda Connection
It is no longer a secret that the main militia on the ground in Libya leading the opposition to bring about a violent regime change was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, LIFG. This group has been well-known to the U.S. establishment since its formation by the Libyan mujahideen, holy warriors, who had gone to Afghanistan in order to fight in the CIA sponsored jihad of the 1980s. Having returned from that holy war they decided to overthrow the secular regime of Muammar Gaddafi and replace it with an Islamic state. At the same time LIFG alienated its U.S. facilitators by linking up with al-Qaeda. In 2004 the United States formally designated LIFG a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), and after 9/11 had it banned by the Security Council of the United Nations. The CIA also began to keep a closer watch on the activists of the group. Those detained for suspected links to al-Qaeda's terrorist activities were handed over to Libya under the notorious “rendition” policy.
One of them arrested in Malaysia and rendered to Libya, after being kept in a CIA secret prison for some time, was Abdel Hakim Belhadj. He too had fought in the 1980s CIA sponsored Afghanistan Jihad and later joined al-Qaeda. After his rendition Libya kept him jailed, but released him under some kind of a reconciliation deal in late 2010. He resumed his political activities when the February 15 anti-Gaddafi demonstration took place in Benghazi followed by the U.S.-led NATO intervention. Commanding a heavily armed LIFG militia band Belhadj marched on to Tripoli under cover of NATO air attacks and occupied the city on 23 August, 2011. That for all practical purposes was the end of Gaddafi's long rule over Libya. Belhadj installed himself the military commander of Tripoli. With the regime change completed over the next two months by the murder of Gaddafi, Belhadj was off to Syria planning the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad government with the Free Syrian Army.
But al-Qaeda's business in Libya was not over yet. On the 2012 anniversary of 9/11 another al-Qaeda linked militia calling itself Ansar al Sharia along with some prominent LIFG members attacked the Benghazi consulate of the United States and killed U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens along with three of his staff present there. The Obama administration first tried to portray the killing of the ambassador as the spontaneous act of a Muslim mob enraged over the recent showing of an anti-Islam film made in the United States, but under the election year scrutiny, had to admit at least this much that the killing of the ambassador was a planned act of a terrorist group.
The Syrian Nightmare
Rallies in opposition to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asaad began to appear in mid-March 2011. Several reasons can be cited to account for these protests, including the contagion effect of the so-called Arab Spring and the long rule of the Ba'ath Party led by the Assad family belonging to the minority Alawi sect. But an important factor that cannot be ignored is that of neoliberal economic reforms that created much hardship for the lower income working-class population. In this context it must be remembered that before the reforms were undertaken in the mid 1990s and pursued at an accelerated pace by Bashar al-Assad when he took over in 2000, the Syrian state had a sizable public sector and supported a significant range of basic social programmes. The neoliberal reforms led to rapid privatization of the state sector enterprises and the dismantling of social programmes such as food and fuel subsidies, creating serious economic difficulties for the people.
While economic problems were clearly a major underlying factor in precipitating the protests, external powers and vested interests moved in quickly to transform the public unrest into a deadly melee for geopolitical domination. The same combinations of NATO Europeans and Arab league petro-monarchies led by the United States that were at work to bring down the Gaddafi regime began to sabotage the Bashar ruled Syria. They heavily financed and armed al-Qaeda inspired Syrian and external Islamists to kill and destroy presumably to save the country for democracy or Islamic caliphate depending on who was interpreting the bloodshed in progress.
The Obama administration once again “led the effort,” this time behind the scenes, to summon the United Nations Security Council meetings to get a suitable resolution passed against the Bashar al-Assad regime so that the Libyan ambush could be repeated in Syria. Starting in June 2011 a string of resolutions were moved in the Security Council meetings to condemn the Syrian regime or subject the country to international sanctions but all failed, not only because Russia and China cast their vetoes, but also because important states with long records of democratic rule such as India, Brazil and South Africa were also invariably opposed to the moves. Those opposed to anti-regime resolutions were all very concerned about something the U.S. and Western mainstream media have tried to push under the rug – the manipulation of the Security Council's No Fly Zone Resolution by the United States and its allies to bring about violent regime change in Libya leading to the murder of Gaddafi. As one member of a UN mission said, “The ghost of Libya is haunting the debate” on Syria.
However, the repeated rebuffs by the Security Council have not deterred the United States and its allies from clinging on to the objective of removing Bashar al-Assad from power, no matter how much more the people of Syria have to suffer. Through its Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, the United States has managed to supply enough petro-dollars and heavy arms, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian militias to keep the proxy war going and people dying.
As a matter of fact the centre of the anti-Syrian activity led by the United States has been shifted out of the chambers of United Nations in New York to Doha in the oil-rich sheikhdom of Qatar. Here in the comfort of luxury hotels a conference was held in early November 2012 to plan strategy to achieve a violent regime change and to cover up the al-Qaeda face of hard core Islamist militias in Syria. At the end of the conference, publicized extensively by the mainstream global media, the formation of a unified body to drive Assad out of power was announced under the rather pretentious name of “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary Opposition Forces.” In the meantime, ordinary Syrians keep dying and driven out of their homes by the explosions of suicide and car bombs of Al-Nusra Front with al-Qaeda fingerprints.
Since the Doha conference global media has been awash with news of the success of militia fighters in having reached the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus. BBC has also been reporting bomb explosions in the suburbs of Damascus with heavy loss of life, blamed invariably on Bashar for not quitting his job. And in case none of these acts of war and terrorism work to bring about regime change in Syria, a new pretext is already being manufactured for U.S.-NATO intervention Libya style... On December 3, 2012 giants of the corporate media, The New York Times, CNN and others broke the new of “intelligence” reports alleging that Bashar al-Assad is planning to use chemical weapons to kill his opponents, complete with threats of retaliation issued by President Obama and his secretary of state, Hilary Clinton. The BBC News (America) in its December 3 television broadcast even spiced up its story by telling its audience that Hafez al-Assad had in fact used deadly chemicals on his opposition, only to apologize for telling a lie the next day.
The United States is the leading power engaged in a very costly and prolonged war with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the context of this ongoing war it does appear inconsistent for it to be in collusion with al-Qaeda in Libya and Syria. However, the Afghanistan war has to be seen in the perspective of the overall foreign policy of United States, especially as it has been evolving since mid 1940s. At the end of the Second World War the United States emerged as a superpower that found it expedient to launch a more ambitious imperial project of dominating the world politically and economically, a policy which immediately brought it into intense rivalry with the other superpower, the Soviet Union. That rivalry produced the Cold War and its far-reaching global repercussions that are well known today. What is perhaps not so well known is that in the interstices of the Cold War had also emerged another regional, but nonetheless a major, obstacle to the forces of imperialism. This was the movement, known as pan-Arab nationalism or simply Arab nationalism that flourished in the 1950s and 60s.
The movement was politically dominated by the personality of Gamal Abdel Nasser and was aimed at unifying the vast region of Arabic speaking Middle East and North Africa stretching from the Arabian Sea to Atlantic Ocean on the basis of common language, history and ancestry, rather than religion. Ideologically this movement was secular and anti-imperialist, emphasizing modernity, progress, socialist equality and ownership of the Arab natural assets for the benefit of the Arab people. Other than Nasser of Egypt the heads of state that more or less identified with the movement and its ideology included Ben Bella of Algeria, Houari Boumediene of Tunisia, Gaafar Nimeiry of Sudan, Hafez al-Assad and Basher al-Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.
For all practical purposes the Arab Nationalist movement of the 1950s and 60s collapsed under the relentless opposition of Islamist groups of the time such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and the devastating impact of the 1967 Israel-Arab War. But the vestigial memories of the movement and fears of its resurrection in one form or the other through the initiative and leadership of a younger more educated and cosmopolitan Arab generation continue to haunt both the Islamists under the umbrella of al-Qaeda and the United States’ establishment. That is precisely the reason why the U.S. and al-Qaeda while at war in Afghanistan have found it expedient to gang up in a last ditch battle to eliminate their common enemies in Libya and Syria. •
Hassan Gardezi is Professor Emeritus of sociology, a previous chair of sociology department, Punjab University, Lahore, now living in Canada. He writes regularly on Pakistan and South Asian affairs.