Jason Burke writes:
In the summer of 2007, the senior leadership of al-Qaida decided on a major effort in Egypt, Algeria and Libya. Their campaign elsewhere in the Middle East, after an apparently promising start, had not been going very well. Public sentiment in key countries had turned against the extremists the moment bombs started going off locally. Supporting far-off violence was one thing. Blasts in hotels or on the streets of your home town was something different, it seemed. In Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, popular support for the extremists was plummeting.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Cairo suburb-born former medical doctor who leads al-Qaida with Osama bin Laden, tasked Mohammed Hakaima, an Egyptian veteran militant, with creating a regional franchise for the group in his native land. “O heroes, strike … all the Zionist-Crusader targets in the land of Egypt without shedding the blood of Muslims,” Hakaima told his countrymen. Few did. Based in Pakistan, all Hakaima could do was to make approaches to potential collaborators online. He was killed in a drone strike in mid 2008. The project for an “al-Qaida in the land of Egypt” died with him.
Hosni Mubarak, even in the death throes of his regime, did not have the temerity to blame al-Qaida for his downfall. Not so Colonel Gaddafi, who says Bin Laden has been duping Libyan youth with drugs to foment violence. Both the accusation of involvement in narcotics and domestic unrest have long pedigrees. Many, including the British government, have claimed that Bin Laden is involved in the heroin trade though no evidence for such a link exists, for example. And dozens of unsavoury and repressive regimes (mainly allies of the west) have invoked the name of the al-Qaida leader to get diplomatic, military, financial or commercial benefits or explain away internal discontent and dissent.
As in Egypt, Islamic militancy in Libya goes back decades, even to colonial days. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were active in the 1990s as, in Egypt, was Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad. Between 2004 and 2006, captured records show Libya provided a disproportionate number of foreign “mujahideen” in Iraq. When “al-Qaida in the Maghreb” was formed in 2006, Zawahiri hoped that fusing existing Algerian and Libyan groups, would gain the al-Qaida hardcore new capabilities and a springboard into Europe. But the merger merely revealed the weakness and parochialism of all involved and has since collapsed.