“The spirit of Osama”

A former army officer, once a close associate of bin Laden's, talks about the resort bombing in Egypt, the mutation of al-Qaida, and the world's "most powerful" terrorist network -- now operating in Iraq.


Were the bomb attacks on the Sinai seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheik on July 23, which killed at least 64 people and injured many more in Egypt’s worst terror attack, the work of al-Qaida terrorists? Spiegel Online spoke with terrorism expert Issam Darras, 57, a former officer in the Egyptian army and now a publicist in Cairo — and once among the closest associates of terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden.

The terrorists who attacked the resort of Sharm el-Sheik claimed that their orders came directly from Osama bin Laden. Was the founder of the al-Qaida terrorist network indeed behind these attacks?

The reference to bin Laden was nothing more than a courtesy gesture to the overlord of Islamist terrorism, by now practically a legendary figure. But these groups operate autonomously, which doesn’t necessarily rule out the possibility of certain lateral contacts. However, I doubt that there is any clear link among the demonic March 2004 attacks on suburban trains in Madrid, Spain, the recent bombings in London and the incidents in Sharm el-Sheik.

Egyptian extremists, however, do seem to maintain contacts with one another.

It’s conceivable that the same groups were responsible for the attack in the Sinai resort of Taba in October 2004 and the recent Sharm el-Sheik bombings, because both happened in the same region. Revenge for the arrests and brutal interrogations in the wake of the Taba attacks could have played a role in Sharm el-Sheik. Unfortunately, there are many thousands of young people who are susceptible to these kinds of ideas of revenge.

But you doubt that the actual orders for the attacks came from bin Laden or his proxy in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

It’s the spirit of Osama that inspires these terrorists. His aura lives on, just as worship for militant Palestinian Islamist leader Abdullah Assam motivates some terrorists to murder in his name. Assam convinced bin Laden to go to Afghanistan in the early 1980s to fight the Soviets and the Communists. But al-Qaida is no longer involved in working out the details of attacks. That’s handled by young militants in self-proclaimed al-Qaida groups in Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, Great Britain and elsewhere.

In other words, the attackers are simply puffing themselves up by invoking al-Qaida?

Three Islamist organizations have claimed responsibility for the recent attacks. This too shows that a central terrorist command post doesn’t exist. It is true, however, that these dangerous groups have taken on bin Laden’s ideas, interpreting and executing them as they see fit.

In recent years, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has taken an uncompromisingly tough stance against terrorism. At times, it even seems that his iron-fist policy is proving successful.

Even after the attacks on London and Sharm el-Sheik, which have absolutely nothing to do with the Muslim faith and for which there is no justification whatsoever in the Quran, terror will continue. We are probably a long way from reaching the zenith of violence committed by Muslim extremists.

Despite the fact that more and more Muslim dignitaries — including advocates of a stricter interpretation of Islam, like Sudanese fundamentalist leader Hassan al-Turabi — are condemning al-Qaida’s ideology as inhuman?

Those who commit these acts of terror are no longer receptive to these kinds of appeals. They have little knowledge of the Quran and have long since stepped outside the framework of their religion. God will call them to account.

To what extent has the upheaval in Iraq provoked terror?

The balance has shifted since the outbreak of the Iraq war. The most powerful al-Qaida group with the most effective network is now operating in Iraq. The old al-Qaida organization surrounding bin Laden himself has lost some of its significance. The new regional cells no longer depend on orders from a centralized organization.

Will the Americans and their allies, who are throwing all of their weight behind fighting the wave of terrorist attacks in Iraq, win the struggle?

Military force alone isn’t enough. It would certainly be helpful to finally arrive at an acceptable solution to the Middle East problem and the poisoned atmosphere in Iraq. Our religious leaders and intellectuals, in the East and in the West, must both come up with credible clarifications. Our youth are certainly ready to receive them. But, more importantly, the young generation in the Islamic world needs decent prospects for the future: More than half of them — who are so easily brainwashed by al-Qaida — live without work or income.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe’s most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online at http://www.spiegel.de/international or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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