“This is the Golden Age for Islamists”


Al-Qaeda expert Abdel Bari Atwan about the second generation of Al-Qaeda and how much more dangerous ISIS is compared to the followers of Osama bin Laden.

Abdel Bari Atwan, 64, was editor in chief of ‘Al-Quds al-Arabi’ from 1989 to 2013. The most important pan-Arabic diaspora newspaper is published in London. Atwan moved to the British capital in 1979. He was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gazastrip in 1950. He studied at the University of Cairo. Atwan has written several books, the latest one on the current subject of concern: “After Ben Laden: Al-Qaeda - The Next Generation” (Saqi Books 2012, London).

Profil: What are the differences between al-Qaeda of Osama ben Laden and this new generation of ISIS fighters in Iraq?

Abdel Bari Atwan: The second generation of Islamists is very different from the first generation. Osama bin Laden was truly anti-American. Al-Qaeda was established to fight against the US presence in Saudi Arabia. It took its fight to New York City, too. But it was mostly exiled in Afghanistan - far away from the Middle East. In the case of ISIS we look at a completely different picture. ISIS wants to build an Islamist state in the center of the Muslim world. Not only this. They hope to establish the Islamic Khalifat in the Arab heartland. They do it now among their own people. They have a lot more support therefore than the Islamists before them.

Profil: Not everyone wants a Khalifat in the Arab lands.

Abdel Bari Atwan: No, but failed states are a perfect breeding ground. Syria is a failed state. Iraq is one. Libya and Yemen, too. ISIS can thrive in this environment. It is especially ideal as ISIS is financially independent.

Profil: Why is that?

Abdel Bari Atwan: Originally ISIS got a lot of financial support from the Gulf States, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A second income came when they started abducting foreign journalists and they exchanged them for money. Plus: They are now in control of oilfields – on the Eastern side of Syria and also in Iraq. In Libya, too. Since the raided Mosul and emptied the banks there, they control additional funds of half billion Dollars. Besides the fact that they are sitting on piles of cash they also have plenty of weaponry. Currently they are looting their way through Iraq and Syria, so ISIS controls more and more arms. Finally, weapons are also pouring in via Turkey. They have a lot of supply.

Profil: They also cannot complain about a lack of foreign fighters joining this holy war…

Abdel Bari Atwan: This is the Golden Age for Islamists. They managed to attract a lot of hot headed young people from all over the Muslim world. They are all coming together to fight their holy war. Syria and Iraq are a magnet for them. Al-Nusra in Syria, an offspring of ISIS, accepts young fighters from all over the Muslim world - from Chechnya, Bosnia, the UK – you name it.

Profil: Will ISIS bring the holy war from Iraq to Europe? It was a Syria-fighter who attacked the Jewish museum in Brussels .

Abdel Bari Atwan: European countries made a grave mistake when they encouraged the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad in Syria unconditionally. You cannot only blame the young people who are being drawn into it. The responsibility lies also with the governments who announced Bashar Assad should be removed from power. So they went to fight for it. This contributed to the strength of ISIS. UK Prime Minister David Cameron was the first to call for lifting the arms embargo for the rebels to fight the Assad regime. How can he now say that they are all terrorists?

Profil: How many foreign fighters do you think ISIS has?

Abdel Bari Atwan: There are a lot of exaggerations, I don’t believe that there are huge numbers. About 4000 Europeans maybe. But they did not go straight from Austria or Britain to Iraq. They spent already some time in Syria.

Profil: Will there be a long drawn out civil war or do you think Iraq will rather quickly split in three parts?

Abdel Bari Atwan: There will definitely be a civil war. It is a holy war against Assad and against the sectarian government in Bagdad. But it is not one sided. The incitement comes from both sides. Sunnis and Shiites will keep this civil war burning. It also cannot end soon because Bagdad is too big. It will not fall easily. Not like Mosul, which ISIS took by surprise. ISIS is also not just a group of fanatic rebels. They have a military command. Some of Saddam Hussein’s generals joined ISIS. Partly they became fanatic and religious. But some are just striking a strategic alliance. They think: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Profil: For the same reason Iran suddenly becomes the best friend of the West.

Abdel Bari Atwan: The United States and the rest of the West are panicking. They know, they are directly responsible for this disaster by interfering in the region. They broke the Middle East and they cannot fix it. So their last chance is to turn to Iran to fix it. It cannot work. Just a year ago Iran was the greatest enemy of the US and the UK. They wanted to bomb the country. And now suddenly Iran is an ally?

Profil: Maybe the relations between Iran and the West can finally be bettered substantially on the back of the Iraqi catastrophe?

Abdel Bari Atwan: I wish. But if the West will suddenly back the Shia, they will loose the Sunnis. And don’t forget: 80 Percent of the Arab world are Sunni.

Profil: So you are warning of any intervention? Not even air support for the Iraqi government?

Abdel Bari Atwan: The US should stay away. No more military intervention. The West needs to push Nouri al-Maliki to open up his government. He is in power for eight years. He is a sectarian leader, he needs to include Sunni factions. You cannot rule a country with this diversity with only a small group in power. The Americans did not say anything about this disaster building up. Now it is too late.

Profil: Do you expect Iran to enter the war in Iraq? President Rouhani said he will defend the shrines if he must.

Abdel Bari Atwan: Iran will be sucked into the war in Iraq. It will be forced to intervene. You cannot just say that you will defend the shrines and then not do it. You need thousands and thousands of people to defend the shrines. This will push Iraq deeper into a sectarian war.

Profil: Is ISIS only a local phenomen in the Arab heartland?

Abdel Bari Atwan: First they will expand to all over the Middle East. I will not be surprised if they then use it as a spring board to other places in the world. You must think of the differences between the first generation of Islamists. Osama bin Laden had maybe 100 people working with him. And he was bankrupt at the end. He still managed to cause enormous damage to this world. But the second generation of Islamists, ISIS, they sit on an army of angry young men. They have huge piles of arms and cash. They just robbed the banks in Mossul and stole half a billion Dollars. They don’t need to wait for a cheque from Saudi Arabia anymore.

Interview: Tessa Szyszkowitz/London

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz