How the Arab Spring turned out to be a win for al Qaeda.
The unprecedented closure of 19 U.S. embassies in response to a communications intercept that allegedly featured al Qaeda leaders planning major operations against American targets has rekindled old debates about whether the terror organization is effectively dead, or stronger than ever. That isn’t the right question to ask, though — and misses what really must happen in the Middle East to weaken al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks are only one aspect of its grandiose aims. The organization aspires to lead a mass movement of Muslims toward its Salafi conception of jihad. Its problem, though, is that few Muslims actually care for such a rigid, esoteric, and extreme ideology. Al Qaeda has thrived during periods of war and high tension — such as the post-9/11 war on terror or the first years of the American occupation of Iraq — where it could plausibly present itself as the standard bearer of a broader Muslim agenda.
The crudeness of early American "global war on terror" rhetoric played right into al Qaeda’s hands. The jihadist movement benefited enormously from the lazy conflation between its own marginal views and those held by more popular, mainstream organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood — or at the extreme, with Islam itself. Washington began to get better at countering al Qaeda’s messaging in the last few years of President George W. Bush’s administration: It started to recognize the divisions within the Islamist world, and to leverage them in order to deprive al Qaeda of its broader Islamist cover.
The early Arab uprisings offered a glimpse of precisely how al Qaeda could ultimately be defeated. The successful popular uprisings against authoritarian secular regimes left little space for a would-be revolutionary vanguard. That Islamists of various stripes participated in those uprisings should be seen as a slap in the face to al Qaeda’s claims to leadership. While bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and many Salafi-jihadist writers tried to put a brave face on it, the reality was that al Qaeda struggled enormously to justify its stances in the early days of the Arab uprisings.
Had the revolutions led to successful democratic transitions, the blow to al Qaeda could well have been fatal. Its own base would have remained committed to the cause and local groups could have carried out occasional attacks — but it would have likely found itself increasingly unable to win over new recruits or spread its ideas into the broader population.
But of course, the transitions didn’t go that direction. Egypt stumbled from disaster to disaster, the Libyan state struggled to consolidate its authority in the face of powerful militias, and even Tunisia succumbed to profound polarization between secularists and Islamists. Poor governance and weak institutions allowed sympathetic extremist groups to regroup and take on novel public roles in countries such as Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia. Above all, Syria allowed al Qaeda to play a major role at the heart of the region’s new political battle lines — precisely what it had been denied in the popular uprisings of early 2011.
The failure of most of the Arab uprisings has therefore been an extraordinary gift to al Qaeda. It has restored the potency of the terror organization’s arguments, while the distraction or disintegration of state security agencies has given it more space to operate. The shift to armed insurgency in Syria galvanized its moribund global jihad. The spectacular collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood badly weakened its most powerful Islamist rival. It has found unprecedented new opportunities to reposition itself within the turbulent, hyperactive new Arab politics.
Al Qaeda’s revival should not be exaggerated, though, and it wasn’t inevitable. When denied the mask of generically popular causes, it remains a fringe movement with very limited appeal to broader Arab and Muslim publics. Its core has been battered and largely destroyed, and it now is comprised of highly variable local affiliates and unpredictable lone wolves. There should be no going back to a Middle East policy built around combating violent extremism or to the unhelpful rhetoric of the "global war on terror." The answer to al Qaeda’s new challenge should instead be a renewed commitment to resolve the various urgent political challenges that have allowed it re-entry into the political field.
While Yemen and Libya get most of the attention in the U.S. debate about a resurgent al Qaeda, the chaos in Egypt and Syria have actually been its two greatest force multipliers. Egypt’s military coup has likely finished off the idea that Islamists could achieve their moral or political aspirations through democratic political participation for a generation. Even before the coup, the Muslim Brotherhood’s disastrous experience in power had already soured many Islamist-oriented Arabs on democracy. Jihadist denunciations of the emptiness of the promises of democracy now practically write themselves.
The Egyptian military’s crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was al Qaeda’s strongest competitor in the arena of Islamist politics, is also a boon to the jihadist movement. A weaker Brotherhood — which has lost confidence in its own ideas and leaders — will be a much weaker firewall against the more extreme groups. The crude anti-Islamist rhetoric that has seized Egypt since the coup, which equates the Brotherhood and al Qaeda as terrorists, blurs the line between the two groups to al Qaeda’s benefit. These effects could be mitigated by a political deal that allows the Brotherhood to remain invested in public life — but if Egypt’s new regime pushes ahead with efforts to fully crush the Brotherhood, as now seems likely, the effects will be even more profound.
Syria has been al Qaeda’s other lifeline to relevance. The flow of foreign fighters attests to the fact that its calls for jihad, which had worn thin following its setbacks in Iraq, have a new resonance today. Many observers are rightly worried about how the Syrian jihadist insurgency has strengthened its Iraqi counterpart, about the prospect of the emergence of a jihadist emirate akin to Iraq’s Anbar Province in the mid-2000s, and about the likely terror threat when foreign fighters return from the Syrian front to their homes across the globe. And that’s not even to mention the future uses of the advanced weapons pouring into the current jihad.
What is less often appreciated, however, is the extent to which the Syrian jihad has helped bring al Qaeda’s ideology into the mainstream of the Arab world. Its struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given it a major role in a cause that is now central to Arab concerns. The anti-Shiite venom in the Gulf media and across so much of Arab social media validates its ideological stances. Saudi Arabia’s increasingly prominent role as the opposition’s foreign sponsor will do nothing to improve these trends: Riyadh will no doubt attempt to use the sectarian and Islamist dimensions of the Syrian jihad to simultaneously intimidate its own Shiite population, wage its unending regional campaign against Iran, and coopt the Islamist networks that might otherwise turn their guns on the kingdom.
Egypt and Syria have therefore helped to galvanize a movement that had been facing profound, nearly existential challenges. The emergence of local movements, such as the Ansar al-Sharia branches across North Africa, attest to the ability of Salafi-jihadists to learn from their mistakes and adapt to new opportunities. Al Qaeda and like-minded movements have not had a better opportunity to appeal to a broader Arab audience since the first years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
The Middle East has changed dramatically over the past several years — and al Qaeda has changed, too. But the new environment should not force the United States into misguided overreactions or to exaggerate the new threats. We shouldn’t jettison hard-earned lessons about the intricacies of intra-Islamist politics any more than we should assume that old assumptions still hold. We don’t need new wars on terror right now.
Instead, we need to prioritize fixing the broken political systems that have allowed for al Qaeda’s resurgence. Helping to stabilize Egypt and find a political solution on Syria would do a lot to weaken the terrorist threat. So would stabilizing Libya, completing Yemen’s transition, opening up Iraqi politics, keeping Islamists around the region inside the political process, and pushing the Gulf states to step back from their sectarian incitement. None of this would prevent al Qaeda’s affiliates from plotting terrorist attacks, but it would help put the organization’s hopes of leading the Islamist world back on ice.