Meeting an Al Qaeda Leader

VICE News, November 5, 2015

By Reese Erlich

A radical Islamic cleric once described as Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe says that Syria can no longer function as a nation state, and will be permanently fragmented into zones controlled by various rebel groups.


“Syria will be torn into pieces,” said Abu Qatada in an exclusive interview with VICE News, also claiming that the so-called Islamic State (IS) could have been defeated if the United States had taken decisive military action earlier.


“No single group can destroy the other group [in Syria],” he continued. “This fighting will extend to neighboring countries,” such as Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon.


Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-Jordanian whose real name is Omar Othman, spent more than two decades in the UK where he became a leading Islamist cleric known for increasingly hardline views. By the early 2000s he was accused by British authorities of advocating Islamic extremism and promoting terrorism, including suicide bomb attacks.


Richard Reid, the man known as the shoe bomber for his failed 2001 attempt to blow up a US passenger plane with explosives packed into his shoes, was said to have consulted Abu Qatada on religious issues. In 2002 Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon described the cleric as “the spiritual head of the mujahideen in Britain”, and “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe,” and in 2012 he was placed under worldwide embargo by the United Nations for his alleged links to al Qaeda.


After a long legal battle that cost the UK taxpayer £1.7 million ($2.7 million), the UK deported Abu Qatada to Jordan in 2013. He stood trial for allegedly planning a terrorist attack against tourists in Jordan during millennium celebrations, but last September was acquitted due to insufficient evidence.


Since his trial, Abu Qatada has focused on organizing political support for Jabat al Nusra (Nusra Front), the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, according to Hassan Abu Haniah, a Jordanian researcher on extremist groups and commentator for major Arab media. He also consults with al Nusra leaders, advising them on “how they can manage and control Jabat al Nusra and how they can communicate with the ISIS [Islamic State] and Free Syrian Army,” said Haniah.


Al Nusra was part of the so-called Islamic State until 2013, when the two groups split in a bitter feud over strategy and tactics. IS went on to establish what it calls an Islamic caliphate, which includes parts of Syria and Iraq, brutally murdering thousands of civilians, foreign journalists, non-Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities in the process.


Abu Qatada maintains IS could have been defeated had the US taken more decisive military action sooner, a position also advocated by American hawks. The US provided shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles to rebels fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, he noted, and “could have done the same” in Syria, he said.


If the US had supplied missiles to “so-called moderate rebels, the situation today would be completely changed,” he claimed. The US and NATO could also have destroyed Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s air force and created a no fly zone over Syria, he said.


“If the Americans stopped the airplanes of Bashar, believe me, the flags of America would be in the streets of Syria,” exclaimed Abu Qatada. He doesn’t consider the US a potential ally, but both the US and al Nusra have a shared interest in stopping IS.


“If you are in a deep well and someone will bring you up with a rope, even if he’s your enemy, you’ll kiss his hand,” said Abu Qatada. “We know the US is the enemy, but if it helps the Syrians, things would change there.”


The US decided not to supply missiles to rebels and Abu Qatada concedes that the Russian presence in Syria now makes creation of a no fly zone highly unlikely. He opposes the US plan announced last week to send in ground troops, declaring: “The US has no intention of solving the conflict in Syria.”


Abu Qatada is equally contemptuous about Russia’s decision to bomb Syria in support of the Assad regime. He says the Russians are killing civilians and falsely claim to be fighting Daesh, the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.


“They want to destroy areas controlled by Jabat al Nusra and other Islamic groups, not Daesh,” he said.


But, he claims, the bombing hasn’t demoralized al Nusra fighters — in fact, he says, it has only hardened their resolve to fight Assad.


Russia will be stuck in a stagnant war, he said. “What happened to the Russians in Afghanistan will happen in Syria.”


While Abu Qatada is quick to denounce the US and Russia, he personally remains pessimistic about the future of al Qaeda and that of Syria.


“There will never be a clear solution or a clear state,” said Abu Qatada. “We are expecting wider destruction and more disintegration.”

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