Al Qaeda did not die with Osama bin Laden. But as the Arab Spring takes the global imagination elsewhere, the residual threat of jihadism is growing increasingly irrelevant, an international security summit in London was told.
Planned before the world learned of bin Laden’s death, this week’s three-day Thomson Reuters Foundation seminar proved a timely stock-taking of where the world stands today in the nearly 10-year struggle to prevent another mass terror event on the scale of 9/11.
The answer, in a word, is better.
Mankind is demonstrably safer today, at least from the fading ghosts of Al Qaeda and like-minded groups, according to an array of scholars and researchers assembled in the British capital.
One, Guido Steinberg of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, went so far as to declare there will “never” be another strike comparable to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, given the diminished capacity and fading relevance of the movement.
Steinberg, however, cautioned against complacency, noting a trend toward do-it-yourself terrorism in which lower-tech Qaeda-inspired “amateurs,” operating alone or in small groups, remain the vexation of security establishments. Moreover, he said, such threats are more “internationalized” than ever before, with no specific ethnic profile.
Others described Al Qaeda as denuded of leadership and “desperate” to reclaim a place of prominence as the Arab Middle East passes it by, writhing through a wrenching series of revolutions and civil wars driven by a quest for dignity.
Among the more compelling speakers was Algerian cleric and former mujahedeen Abdullah Anas, who in a rare interview at the East London Mosque, described his former role as bin Laden’s de facto mentor nearly 30 years ago.
One of the first Arabs to set off for Afghanistan in 1983 as a “holy warrior” in the fight against Soviet invaders, Anas travelled in 1984 to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where he recruited bin Laden to the cause.
The two spent the 1980s in Afghanistan as brothers-in-arms, only to part ways in 1989, when bin Laden expanded his ideology into a global battle against the non-Muslim “infidel.”
Four years later, in 1993, Anas had a final encounter with bin Laden at the newly formed Al Qaeda headquarters, then in Sudan. But armed Al Qaeda followers wouldn’t let Anas enter the compound, fearing he would “spoil bin Laden’s mind” by persuading his former colleague to abandon his global ambitions.
Bin Laden and his wife, upon learning of the lapse in hospitality, showed up at his door later than night to plead forgiveness. Bin Laden then “slaughtered two muttons” for a feast in honour of his old warrior friend.
But nothing changed. And when news of bin Laden’s death broke, Anas admitted he had two conflicting reactions: pain in his heart for the loss of an old friend, and satisfaction in his mind that the irreplaceable leader of a movement he opposes is gone.
“The (Al Qaeda) philosophy in general is failing now,” says Anas. With the exception of “the crazy young,” the call to global arms has run its course. Al Qaeda will inevitably appoint a successor, but the convergence of charisma and history unique to bin Laden means “no one can be his equal,” he said.
Anas, based in London, today heads the Taruf conflict-resolution consultancy, through which he is actively involved in talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the Afghan conflict. He declined to provide any details, saying the issue is too sensitive to discuss pubicly.
The London seminar drew a series of speakers from the front lines of the Arab Spring, including pro-democracy activists from Tahrir Square and one veteran Muslim Brotherhood cleric, Kamel Helbawy, who had just returned from his first glimpse of Egypt after a 23-year exile.
The portrait they offered was that of a revolution-in-progress, with deepening concerns that in Egypt, at least, the country’s military overseers may yet block the pathway to a lasting democracy.
But the truer measure of how jihadist terrorism may be sliding down the hierarchy of global concerns came in a series of panels highlighting other worries on the rise — cyber and nuclear issues, in particular.
Cyber espionage expert Ralph Langner, widely credited with exposing the Stuxnet virus with which the U.S. and Israeli governments are thought to have crippled Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, issued a stark warning for governments everywhere: protect your critical systems now.
Stuxnet, said Langner, stands as a “game-changer” that all but guarantees a new age of cyberwarfare, in which state and non-state actors alike will strive to acquire electronic weapons with potentially devastating impact.
With development costs of only a few million dollars, he said, cyber weapons are certain to “blossom and proliferate” — with deep implications for our increasingly connected world.
Langer observed that even as these developments take place, many of the world’s fleet of aging nuclear power plants continues to operate “with less protection against malware than your own personal computer.
“The theory was that Al Qaeda is not sophisticated in these technologies. But they need not be, because a grey market will emerge,” said Langner. “All you need is funding, a couple of million dollars.”
The panel’s moderator, Reuters political risk correspondent Peter Apps, wondered whether cyber weapons such as Stuxnet represent the dawn of the “era of bloodless confrontation.”
Rather than armed conflict with Iran and the likelihood of oil soaring to $150 barrel, Apps observed, all it took was the simple striking of the enter key to launch Stuxnet, effectively destroying an estimated 1,000 Iranian centrifuges with no impact on the wider world. Is that not a good thing?
Langner agreed that viewed in isolation Stuxnet is “fantastic — a military dream.”
But the sheer economic efficiency of Stuxnet, he and others observed, is precisely why a cyber arms race is now quietly underway.
Former French intelligence official Peter Lethier told the forum that the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has scrambled to catch up in the wake of the cyber attack on Iran.
“France has superlabs now under the guise of security, building the likes of Stuxnet. In 2009 France could not have done this, but now it has the capability,” said Lethier, now an independent intelligence analyst.
That invisible arms race, unlike all others that preceded it, will be cheap enough to enable non-state actors to compete. Which is precisely why governments must quickly batten down their critical systems, said Langner.
“Protection is possible,” he said. “Journalists need to use their power to make ensure it happens.”