Like most people, Mohammed Abdel Rahman remembers exactly where he was when the Twin Towers fell. He was in Afghanistan, holding a rifle, among the men who ordered and backed the Sept. 11 attacks. While he says he didn’t cheer that day, people around him were rejoicing.
The bearded Egyptian, who was later captured and tortured by U.S. forces, was a pioneering member of the al-Qaeda generation – the frustrated and pious men, mainly middle class and Middle Eastern, who took up arms, bombs and sometimes jetliners against Western governments starting in the 1990s.
His father, Omar (known as the “blind sheik”), had organized the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and had been a founding leader of al-Qaeda. The younger Mr. Abdel Rahman was one of thousands of young Egyptians, Saudis and other Arabs whose preferred political outlet consisted of pursuing martyrdom in what they saw as a struggle against the West.
Yet, when he sat down to speak this week in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Mr. Abdel Rahman had a different message. “My vision hasn’t changed, but the political agenda has,” he says. “Egypt now has become a free and democratic country, so I would advise young people to engage in political activities rather than taking up arms – everything has changed.”
While al-Qaeda remains an organized threat in Pakistan, Yemen and a few other corners, all indications are that the zealots who would have joined a decade ago are now turning in droves to the new democratic movements. They might want to impose a religious government on their country (an idea rejected by a majority in Egypt), but they want to do so by the ballot. A poll this year by the Pew Research Center showed that admiration for Osama bin Laden has plummeted across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, dropping by 40 per cent in Jordan and the Palestinian territories and by 20 per cent in Egypt.
There’s good reason to believe that international Islamic terrorism is a generational phenomenon, just like the wave of left-wing terrorism that swept across North America and Western Europe in the 1970s. While jihadists (mainly Pakistani now) may still have some attacks left in them, I’d be surprised if their movement exists at the end of this decade.
Al-Qaeda and its cousins were not an inevitable development. They were born out of the struggle for control of the new countries created with the dissolution of the British and French empires after the Second World War. Strongman dictatorships and tribal oligarchies became the dominant force in the region, and their rival postcolonial opponents – at first both Marxist and Islamic – were violently crushed.
A great many of the Islamists, who might otherwise have become a conservative but essentially harmless part of the domestic political spectrum, were silenced, tortured and exiled into violent extremism – directed at first against the governments of their own countries (such as the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat), then against the Western nations that seemed to be keeping those governments in power.
“When you were blocked, as we were in Egypt, you develop an attitude – you feel that your only useful means are violence, and that your enemies are those who are supporting the regime that is killing you,” says Usama Rushdy, another Egyptian ex- jihadist (he was a founder of the group that killed Mr. Sadat) who has long since renounced violence and has now joined the democratic revolution – in his case, even more dramatically, by becoming a democratic pluralist and providing backing to non-religious candidates as well as moderate Islamists.
The postcolonial years destroyed the valour of specific identity. People no longer saw any pride in identifying themselves as “Egyptian,” and even “Arab” seemed a humiliation. After 9/11, the long-discredited medieval idea of a distinct and monolithic “Islam” and “West” took hold. North American leaders bought it, and so did thousands of men who had no other useful identity.
Now, suddenly, they’re seeing themselves as Egyptians again, and as Tunisians and Libyans and Syrians. Their ideas remain alarming. But, 10 years on, they’re fighting for them in the bear pit of national politics, not in the isolated netherworld of bullets and box-cutters.