Most of what is written and said about “extremist Islamists” today is very different from what was written about them in the recent past. Most western commentators and the majority of Arab intellectuals used to classify extremist groups like Al-Qaeda as movements that were deprived of political rights in their countries and therefore resorted to violence.
The two main countries accused of cracking down on Osama bin Laden and his group are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The violence that figures in the media justified as a reaction to authorities’ violence included a series of bombings in Egypt and threats and operations that targeted Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda was, and still is, an evil organisation, and Bin Laden was a terrorist years before the events of September 11 but no one wanted to believe this at the time.
Some people think that Al-Qaeda was born with the well-known terrorist operation 9/11, and that it did not exist before. In reality, it was the image of Al-Qaeda that changed in the media. The organisation has always been the same. Most analysis articles that were written in the western press before 9/11, in the US and the UK specifically, insisted that the extremist organisation and its leader were the product of oppression. The US State Department previously asked the Egyptian government to stop prosecuting and persecuting members of Islamic groups who raised the banner of jihad.
I used to work for the Majalla magazine and later at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in London in the nineties. I was in contact with a number of media professionals and journalists there, and I participated in various think tank activities. Many of those interested in the affairs of the Middle East were convinced that Osama bin Laden’s demands were political; participation and freedom of expression, and that Al-Qaeda was merely a political opposition group that was against the Saudi government.
The same was said about his companion Ayman Al-Zawahiri who has a longer history of terrorism. They considered him an opponent of President Mubarak’s government and not a leader of a group with a terrorist ideology. Many did not understand the nature of the organisation and its destructive ideas, and this applies to Western governments that deemed the extremist organisation as a political opposition movement only and were not aware of the seriousness of its fascist ideology.
Al-Qaeda activity had been taking place and was known of since 1993, however this organisation and its leader enjoyed some sympathy in the western media despite its blatant violent rhetoric and the military operations that it carried out, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The group’s terrorist activities in Egypt were carried out under the names of different groups that shared the same ideology.
The danger of these groups reached central Cairo. Al-Qaeda was pursued by the security services at the time, outside of Egypt, when its links to its leadership which had been living in Sudan was discovered, particularly its association with Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri who fled Egypt to Sudan because they were wanted for terrorist activities.
Due to these armed terrorist attacks in Egypt, the Saudi government revoked Bin Laden’s nationality in the mid-nineties. As a result of their confrontation of Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, the Egyptian and Saudi governments became the western media’s favourite target in terms of defending the concepts of democracy and freedom of expression. I do not remember anyone adopting a contrary opinion to this at the time.
They continued to justify Al-Qaeda’s activities that were committed in the name of Islam until the day when Al-Qaeda carried out the 9/11 terrorist operation in America. It was not the first crime, but it was a decisive moment that revealed to everyone that Al-Qaeda is not a political opposition group, but rather a dangerous global terrorist organisation.
Some people want to re-analyse the September 11 attacks, and blame the original victims like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. For anyone who wants to fully understand what happened, analysing the September 11 attacks and reading the report on it, including the 28 pages that are said to have been classified because they contain confidential information about Saudi individuals, is not enough. Rather, they should read Al-Qaeda’s entire history.
The world’s opinion changed after those events and almost everyone agreed that the terrorist organisation and its ideology must be fought. However, prior to 9/11, those who fought the organisation and its members were subjected to severe criticism.
In my opinion, the world cannot confront and defeat Al-Qaeda and ISIS without understanding their ideologies and the circumstances in which they were established.