Thousands of miles away from where Osama bin Laden was killed, on a remote chain of Libyan mountains that crown the Sahara Desert, there comes a warning: the ideology of Al Qaeda is certain to outlast the group’s most famous leader.
“I am happy that Osama bin Laden is dead, because he represents the wrong face of Islam and the root of destruction,” says Mazen Naluti, a Muslim believer in the Libyan opposition city of Nalut, 20 miles from the Tunisian border. “But I am sad because [he] died without recanting this ideology.”
This believer, a Libyan rebel whose real name could not be used for security reasons, repudiates extremism. But he fears that the persistence of the reasons that first gave rise to Al Qaeda’s worldview mean that in Libya and beyond the ideology will not be stopped. Already, says Mr. Naluti, the NATO-led conflict against Col. Muammar Qaddafi – begun six weeks ago and with no end in sight – is opening the door to foreign jihadists. The longer it lasts, the greater problem it becomes.
“Al Qaeda [is] getting more and more organized and bringing people [to Libya] from abroad,” says the believer, adding that he has been contacted by militants wanting to fight in his homeland. He has not joined the frontline against forces loyal to Qaddafi because he says Muslims should not kill Muslims. "This is a great land for Al Qaeda. There are a lot of opportunities for them here. They are not far away in Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt."
And the death of Bin Laden won’t change that, he adds: “For Islamic organizations leadership doesn’t mean much, ideology does. Leadership is just a soul that comes and goes. Ideology stays.”
“Now that Bin Laden is dead, a lot of leaders in the shade will come out … and will be smarter than him and better than him,” says Naluti. “Al Qaeda will continue. The clash of civilizations will continue.”
That is the assumption of Al Qaeda itself, which on Monday vowed to avenge the killing of Bin Laden, the “Sheikh of Islam.”
Al Qaeda weakened, but not finished
“The battle between us and international tyranny is long and will not be stopped by the martyrdom of our beloved one, the lion of Islam,” said a top Al-Qaeda ideologue in the first jihadist statement to confirm Bin Laden’s death, as translated by the Associated Press. “How many martyrdom seekers have [been] born today?”
Al Qaeda has suffered defeats in Iraq and across the Islamic world in recent years, and is seen by many as a spent force that can no longer muster the organization and trained militants needed to carry out spectacular attacks like those of 9/11.
Further proof of Al Qaeda’s demise is seen in the pro-democracy Arab awakening, in which secular people-power revolutions from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria and Yemen have rendered Al Qaeda’s religious brand of jihad irrelevant by showing that there is a different, more effective way to bring down unjust autocratic rulers.
But the views of Naluti, who studied Islam in Yemen and was jailed years for his religiosity, are instructive in understanding how Al Qaeda will continue beyond Bin Laden.
Persuading jihadists to temper their views
Col. Qaddafi has claimed that the entire opposition are Al Qaeda “terrorists,” and feigned wonder that a Western-led coalition has rejected his uncompromising tactics. That firm stance is no different from how the US or Europe deal with Al Qaeda militants attacking their nations, he suggested.
But Qaddafi’s view is “not accurate,” says Naluti, who notes that Qaddafi has long challenged religious beliefs he considered a danger during nearly 42 years of rule. Naluti studied Islamic theology in Yemen for two years in the mid-1990s under moderate sheikhs – at schools, he says, where extremists were expected to either moderate their views or were kicked out.
He was placed on a Libyan government watch list, entered the country illegally from Tunisia using smuggler routes, and then was arrested during a routine check in Tripoli. His beard and short trousers marked him as a Salafist, which prompted 13 days of interrogation and torture – including electric shock treatment to sensitive parts of the body, he says – followed by four years in prison.
But even behind the prison walls, this believer and like-minded moderates had some success in convincing hard-line jihadists – among them mujahideen veterans who fought the US-backed war against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s – to temper their views.
“I [had been] studying with sheikhs who refused this extremism,” recalls the Libyan believer. “This is one of the problems: Anyone who is ignorant goes to some [extremist] and they change their minds. One has to protect himself with good knowledge.”
Those who would not change helped form the seed of Al Qaeda, says the Libyan, in the “house” of Al Qaeda, which was Afghanistan. They were prominent, too, during the Iraq insurgency, according to a trove of documents captured by American troops about foreign fighters crossing into Iraq from Syria. A surprising amount of suicide bombers in 2006-07 hailed from eastern Libya.
Four reasons why Al Qaeda ideology may outlast Bin Laden
How might that anti-Western, anti-infidel jihadist ideology outlast Bin Laden?
“There are several reasons that can make it grow, and it will truly increase if things continue as they are,” warns Naluti. Many of those reasons helped spawn Al Qaeda in the first place, and have only been magnified by the US invasion of Iraq and other events in the decade since.
Top of the list is ignorance of “the true Islam,” which is moderate and respectful, says Naluti.
Second is what is often perceived across the Middle East as the “oppression of the Muslim countries by the West, and stealing their wealth under any umbrella like spreading democracy or eradicating illiteracy or … war on terror,” he adds. From Palestinians to Bosnians, he asserts, “Muslims reject this.”
Third is the “collaboration, whether obvious or hidden, of Arab leaders with the West,” says Naluti, because “the people are moved by emotions.” Although the Saudi-born Bin Laden once helped facilitate CIA and Pakistani support of mujahideen “holy warriors” in Afghanistan, he later made removal of US forces from the Saudi Arabia – the custodians of Islam’s holiest shrines at Mecca and Medina – his top demand.
A fourth reason for Al Qaeda’s continued appeal, says the Libyan, are “double standards by the West,” which incorporate a range of examples like democracy for some – imposed by war in Iraq – but neglected for others like Saudi Arabia or Hamas in the Gaza Strip, to name just two. US support for Israel despite Israeli abuses against Palestinians adds another arrow to Al Qaeda’s recruiting quiver.
Removing these reasons – or at least easing them – will be a key factor in limiting the reach of Al Qaeda in the post-Bin Laden world, suggests Naluti. He doesn’t want foreign fighters to take root in Libya, but knows that some of his countrymen are less scrupulous, and therefore more welcoming, of militants.
“One of the biggest mistakes of the West is Islamophobia,” says the Libyan. “People are fighting, but very few [Westerners] know the true Islam.”
The same holds true for the militants, whose determination is not likely dimmed by the death of one man revered as “Sheikh Osama,” far from this front line.