That is not just a polemical opinion but the somber assessment of the director-general of Britain’s MI5 internal security agency, Jonathan Evans. The Telegraph reports that Evans, in a rare lecture this week in London, warned that
Today parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissive environment for al-Qaeda.
This is the completion of a cycle—al-Qaeda first moved to Afghanistan in the 1990s due to pressure in their Arab countries of origin. They moved on to Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban.
And now some are heading home to the Arab world again….
Evans specifically said that British jihadis, who have been training for years at al-Qaeda strongholds in Yemen and Somalia, “are known to be receiving training in the likes of Libya and Egypt”—supposed beneficiaries of what some saw as a wave of Facebook-driven liberalization.
The MI5 chief also confirmed that al-Qaeda is now active in Syria, and “warned against suggestions that al-Qaeda’s threat has ‘evaporated’ following the death of Osama bin Laden and significant victories in Pakistan.” He noted that Britain, for its part, has “experienced a credible terrorist attack plot about once a year since 9/11.”
Evans didn’t say in what part of Egypt the jihadis are training. Israel, though, has been aware that—particularly since the winds of “spring” toppled Egypt’s pro-Western Mubarak regime—the presence of al-Qaeda and other global-jihad elements has been rapidly growing at least in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
It was only last week that what is believed to be an al-Qaeda-linked group carried out a deadly attack at the fence Israel is trying to build quickly along its border with Sinai.
But Evans’s words carry implications beyond the region and beyond Britain’s own very real security concerns.
For one thing, his point that bin Laden’s assassination (along with the killing of other terror leaders in Pakistan) has hardly finished off al-Qaeda tends to undercut the great emphasis President Obama has put on that exploit.
Still more significant, though, is the fact that “permissive environments” where al-Qaeda is coming back to roost—“Arab Spring” countries like Egypt, Libya, and Syria—are also places where the Muslim Brotherhood has been gaining strength.
And Obama, while readily identifying al-Qaeda as evil and an enemy of America and the free world, notoriously looks at the Brotherhood differently. Indeed, his administration has made a point of repeatedly lauding the election of Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s new president.
For those free of a sentimental affinity for the Brotherhood, it of course makes perfect sense that it would be cultivating environments where al-Qaeda feels welcome. The Brotherhood is, after all, the organization from which Al-Qaeda sprang. Bin Laden had Brotherhood teachers in his youth, and current al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri was a member of the Brotherhood in his native country of Egypt.
Indeed, the Brotherhood condemned Bin Laden’s assassination, proclaiming that “legitimate resistance against foreign occupation in any country is a legitimate right” and “request[ing] that the US stop...intelligence operations against dissenters, and halt its interference in the internal affairs of any Arab or Muslim country.” In other words, a direct rebuff to what the U.S. president flaunts as a heroic moment.
A rational U.S., and Western, approach to the rapidly changing—and deteriorating—Arab Middle East requires not only recognizing that al-Qaeda is returning there, as MI5 chief Evans underscores. It also requires realizing that, while they have tactical differences and sometimes frictions, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood are two closely related facets of the same global-jihadist, anti-Semitic, anti-American, anti-Western phenomenon.
Specific policy implications would include ceasing to back the wrong side—the Brotherhood—in Egypt instead of the right side—the more moderate and much more pragmatic Supreme Military Council; ceasing to back the Syrian rebels now that the Brotherhood-al-Qaeda front is spearheading them; and trying to prevent (which, according to one report from Middle East News Line, the U.S. is now starting to do) al-Qaeda-aligned militias from taking over Libya while there is still time.
Forestalling the region’s descent into an even worse, world-threatening maelstrom depends on finally starting to see it clearly.
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