Al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring
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March 16, 2012
It is a strange coincidence that Al-Qaeda and the world community are otherwise enemies but their perceptions of the regime of President Bash al-Asad as the enemy of Syrian people are the same. In what can be termed as a race against time, both are currently competing to fill the security vacuum created by the Asad regime’s gruesome conduct in the country, where the public push for political change can only be contextualised in the recent democratic upsurge in the region popularly known as the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring presents Al-Qaeda with perhaps the most potent ideological and political challenge ever to its organisational survivability as a trans-national Muslim terrorist network. Popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen render a blow to its ideology of violent jihad, that of effecting political change through violent means. They also narrow down the political space for its terrorist operations in the Arab world.

In the last decade, Al-Qaeda has faced ever-growing threat to its survival in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is why it shifted its base of operations to Arabian Peninsula and Islamic Maghreb in recent years. In both regions, the countries that have escaped political upheavals, such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria, have stringent security mechanisms in place to squeeze Al-Qaeda’s operational capability.

The death of Osama bin Laden has reduced Al-Qaeda’s ability to effectively articulate a globally-relevant narrative, in which America and the West, and Western-supported dictatorial regimes in the region, were identified as the root-cause of Muslim sufferings and conflicts. Ayman al-Zawahri was always the ideologue figure behind bin Laden’s grand proclamations on Islam versus the West, but he lacks the charisma that bin Laden had. Interestingly, the leadership crisis within al-Qaeda has occurred simultaneously with the onset of democratic upsurge in important countries of the Middle East and North Africa, where the organisation was planning to be proactive.

The Arab Spring has effectively localised a struggle that Al-Qaeda has long advocated in global terms. It has also given it essentially political colour against Al-Qaeda’s ideologically violent course. What has finally mobilised protestors in several Arab countries are real life issues, such as corrupt governance and rampant unemployment. Al-Qaeda’s grand narrative driven by religious imperatives had to eventually crumble in the face of mass voices for change grounded purely in temporal concerns. Al-Qaeda’s global outreach campaign has become irrelevant in a volatile political situation driven by local causes.

Given that, Al-Qaeda’s current ability to influence social and political change in the Muslim world—especially in Arab countries that have already experienced, or are experiencing, popular uprising—has significantly shrunk. However, Al-Qaeda has all along been a resilient organisation. Faced with enormous international pressure following the events of 9/11, it decentralised itself in the form of cells across several Muslim countries and among Muslim communities in the Western world. Its recent emergence in Arabian Peninsula and Islamic Maghreb was also a strategically-motivated move to franchise itself in Muslim regions free from unaffordable security pressures of the sort the organisation confronted in the AFPAK area.

Overtime, Al-Qaeda has also gained a degree of mastery in information warfare. Unsurprisingly, therefore, if Ayman al- Zawahri’s three successive messages since the tenth anniversary of 9/11 suggest anything, it is that Al-Qaeda is pragmatically trying hard, against all the afore-mentioned odds, to remain relevant to evolving social and political ground realities in the Arab world. His 9/11 videotaped message, titled ‘The Dawn of Imminent Victory’, considered 9/11 as the pivotal global event that triggered the Arab Spring. In the last two messages, Zawahri has declared Al-Qaeda’s support for Syrian protestors, urging them to reject Western support for the revolution. Al-Qaeda leadership’s visibly frustrating attempt to link itself to popular Arab movements, or take false credit for political changes in the region that have actually occurred organically, is in a way a reflection of its weak position at present.

Al-Qaeda’s current enigma aside, much will depend on how social and political changes in the Muslim world evolve in coming year. If in the next half a decade, the process of Arab awakening moves forward smoothly, then al-Qaeda’s operational capacity and the appeal of its ideological message of violent jihad in the region will erode further. On the other hand, if the security and political vacuum caused by recent or on-going political revolts became more acute, then al-Qaeda would most certainly attempt to fill it. If public expectations from revolutionary changes remain unfulfilled, then al-Qaeda’s alternative violent course may find support among the disillusioned people.

Equally important is the fact that wherever revolutions have taken place and political process has subsequently taken its course, from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, Islamist political parties have emerged as leading political forces in the corridors of power. In Egypt, it is Muslim Brotherhood; Ennahda Party in Tunisia, it is the Justice; and in Libya’s case, we have Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leader, Abd al-Hakim Belhaj emerging as an important military leader. As to who may mostly benefit the Syrian revolution, if and when it occurs, is clear from the city of Homs, traditionally an Islamist stronghold, becoming its vanguard.

It is the jihadi discourse articulated by groups like Ikhwan-ul-Muslemeen that produced violent organisations like Al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Al-Jihad Organization. Al-Qaeda may have its immediate origin in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, but its roots can be traced to the evolution of violent jihad movement in Egypt in the last half century. The afore-mentioned groups in Libya and Egypt may have dissociated from al-Qaeda, renounced violence and joined politics, but if recent radical political and social changes produced anarchic outcomes in the foreseeable future, there is no reason why may not once again resort to violence and re-join al-Qaeda.

Moreover, even while in power, the Islamist groups can resort to practices that are in stark violation of democratic norms and peaceful behaviour—an outcome Al-Qaeda may like to capitalise upon. Future social and political turmoil in the Arab Spring states, in situations where revolutions fail to achieve expected goals or the Islamist forces assert to undermine democracy and peace, may have equally devastating trends in their respective external conduct.

For instance, what if Egypt renounces diplomatic relations with Israel? The Islamist organisations reaping the benefits of revolutions made by largely liberal youths, in what constitutes perhaps the biggest irony of the Arab Spring, may not share al-Qaeda’s violent streak, but they do view Israel, America and the West with the Muslim world in almost the same light as al-Qaeda does.

Moreover, Al-Qaeda’s anti-Western discourse has thrived particularly on the conflict in Palestine. And there may be little chance of its amicable resolution in the next five years, which means that Al-Qaeda will continue to thrive on a cause that is generally dear to Muslims across the world. Consider this lingering Muslim grievance along with possible future crisis straining the West’s relationship with the Muslim world—the attack on Iran, for instance—then we can presumably foresee the Al-Qaeda factor becoming more potent than now. Then Iran as a Shiite state will become immaterial for Al-Qaeda, what will matter more is another Muslim country under attack from America/West.

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