The west has created fertile ground for al-Qaida’s growthIt seems that al-Qaida’s dream is on its way to turning into reality. At last it has found a foothold on the Palestinian scene. Witness the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston in Gaza by the al-Qaida affiliated Jaish al-Islam 100 days ago yesterday, and the heated battles in Nahr al-Barid refugee camp between the Lebanese army and al-Qaida sympathisers Fatah al-Islam over the past month. And with Gaza and the West Bank sliding further into anarchy, with Hamas and Fatah turning on each other after a year of crushing siege, this new presence can only grow stronger.

Since declaring jihad in 1998, al-Qaida has aspired to acquire the legitimacy of representing the Palestinian cause, well aware of its rich symbolism within the Arab and Islamic collective conscience. Ever since the eruption of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, Palestine has offered vital legitimacy to a great many political movements and regimes, from nationalist Nassirites and Ba’athists to liberals and Islamists. It is this moral authority that gave the late Yasser Arafat the status he enjoyed not only among Palestinians, but across the Arab world and beyond.
Palestine is the mirror in which the Arab political scene is reflected. Fatah was an expression of the rise of the left and nationalism; Hamas of the shift towards political Islam. And that is precisely why events in Gaza and Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps today should not be taken lightly. They are ominous harbingers of what could lie ahead. When Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri issued their “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” statement on February 28 1998, responses to their declaration varied from apathy to amusement. They were an obscure group lost in the faraway emirate of the Taliban, a pathetic remnant of the fight against the USSR during the cold war. Their role looked historically defunct and their discourse archaic.

Things could not be more different now. Al-Qaida has become an intensely complex global network, with a decentralised, flexible structure that enables it to spread in all directions, across the Arab world, Africa, Asia and Europe. Whether pursuing active cells or searching for sleeping ones, the security world is haunted by al-Qaida’s ghost. Like bubbles, these cells are autonomous, bound together neither by hierarchy nor by a chain of command. It only takes a few individuals who subscribe to its ideology and terrorist methods for al-Qaida to extend its reach to a new part of the globe.

With the Middle East moving from one crisis to another, this small organisation saw itself miraculously transferred from periphery to centre. In its founding statement, al-Qaida defined its mission as a jihad aimed at cleansing the Arabian peninsula of the American “locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations”, and liberating Palestinian land from Zionist occupation. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Qaida was offered a firm foothold in the Middle East and the unique chance to implement its “resistance against Jews and crusaders” project.

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