One hesitates to say this will amount to anything, but Marc Lynch notes that Mohammed Essam Derbala, a leader of Ayman Zawahiri’s Egyptian terrorist group that merged with Al Qaeda in 1998, today urged his former confederates to declare a unilateral ceasefire to “test Barack Obama’s pledges to establish a new relationship with the Islamic world and to close Guantanamo.” Who’s Derbala?
Mohammed Essam Derbala is on the Shura Council of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, an extremist Islamist organization at the heart of the brutal insurgency which roiled Egypt from 1992-97. He was arrested in 1981 following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Back in 2002, while in prison, Derbala authored one of the first comprehensive critiques of al-Qaeda on behalf of the Gama’a leadership. In November 2006, Derbala was finally released after 15 years in prison, part of a larger project by the Egyptian government to rehabilitate and release old Gamaa members. He has since continued to criticize extremist ideology, has called upon al-Qaeda to renounce violence, and has frequently criticized al-Qaeda.
Let’s be clear about a few things. Derbala has no power to call for or enforce any Al Qaeda ceasefire. But consider how overwhelmingly significant it is that a former terrorist of such obvious credibility would say something like this. And why’d he say it? Because President Obama just renounced torture. He put the United States on a clear path to repudiating the detentions, interrogations and, just as important, humiliations that Muslims consider the United States to have inflicted not just on terrorists, but the entire Muslim world. Part of Al Qaeda’s entire propagandistic message is that the United States is an unchanging brutish entity determined to subjugate the Muslim world. What Obama did today severely complicates that narrative. But it’s not enough for us to consider the narrative to be complicated — it takes Muslim figures of credibility to say so. That’s what Derbala just did.
This is what Carl Levin was getting at earlier today when he said that renouncing torture would have security benefits for the United States. It’s, of course, unclear what Al Qaeda would do. But in an important sense, Al Qaeda isn’t the target audience here. It’s the pool of potential Al Qaeda recruits. In March, an Air Force colonel in Iraq briefed reporters on what motivated foreign fighters to come to Iraq instead of remaining in their home countries living a normal life. The answer was often “an image from Abu Ghraib.” That’s what Obama’s actions today have taken off the table for America’s adversaries. It’s importance shouldn’t be underestimated.
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