Some well-known commentators have recently claimed that al-Qaeda has been diminished and made irrelevant because the popular uprisings in the Middle East are not motivated by radical Islam and are not controlled by al-Qaeda.
This kind of sound bite commentary betrays a serious misunderstanding of al-Qaeda and the Middle East and misleads people to believe that al-Qaeda is fast becoming a past problem. These commentators seem to believe that al-Qaeda is nothing more than a fanatical, one-dimensional religious movement.
While it is true that al-Qaeda’s ideology is rigid and fanatical, in the operational arena, it has proven itself to be the pragmatic and combat-hardened leader of an international insurgency that is more than willing to bend its principles in order to get what it wants.
The commentators also seem to have missed the fact that al-Qaeda acts as the vanguard of the Salafi jihad movement and has never stated or envisioned that it would, by itself, lead the overthrow of Middle Eastern regimes. Instead, it has always stated that its main function is to lead by example and incite and inspire others to do the work for them. That is precisely why al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula named its new jihad magazine Inspire.
Al-Qaeda is well aware of the steady stream of poll statistics showing that its popular support in the Middle East is falling, and it knows that it can’t get the job done alone. Because al-Qaeda has always been a hunted minority, it has always been supremely pragmatic when it comes to tactics, and it closely follows the ancient Arabic proverb: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Therefore, for the past five years, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have broadened al-Qaeda’s message to appeal to as many sectors as possible in its campaign to undermine America’s influence and oust our allies in the Middle East.
The most explicit statement of its all-inclusive big-tent policy was documented on May 5, 2007, in an al-Qaeda video, when Zawahiri strongly appealed to a much broader audience than just Muslims.
In the video he emphasizes to the oppressed on four continents that al-Qaeda’s mission is nothing less than to oppose:
the most powerful tyrannical force in the history of mankind …(and assist) all the weak and oppressed in North America and South America, in Africa and Asia, and all over the world.
He then explicitly tells his audience that al-Qaeda does not fight for Muslims alone, but for the all the downtrodden, stating:
that when we wage jihad in Allah’s path, we aren’t waging jihad to lift oppression from Muslims only; we are waging jihad to lift oppression from all mankind because Allah has ordered us never to accept oppression, wherever it may be.
Given the fact that Muslims are ousting America’s allies throughout the region, there is little doubt that al-Qaeda is pleased with these developments, and there can be no doubt that it is strategically benefiting from the chaos. A new report reveals that Osama bin Laden has been crisscrossing the area bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan for high-level meetings with key jihadi leaders. Intelligence officials speculate that his purpose is to develop a plan to take advantage of the Arab revolts.
So what benefits can al-Qaeda possibly get from the chaos? Well, to begin with, just a scant few weeks ago a wide swath of the Middle East was a dangerous combat zone where its members were hunted and killed. Now, it no longer has to worry about drone strikes or other counterterrorism operations conducted by either the U.S. or the governments of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, or Yemen. Rather, these areas have been transformed into virtual safe havens.
At a bare minimum, the revolts have provided al-Qaeda with time, unmolested by the United States or national governments, to recruit, train, plan attacks, and consolidate its position with key tribes that will give it more influence in each state after the dust settles.
As a further bonus, it is likely that the governments that emerge from the ashes will be transformed into anti-American, Islamist regimes more ideologically attuned to al-Qaeda and more interested in accommodating than fighting it. At the very least, the power of Islamists and jihad elements will increase throughout the region.
Within this context, let’s take a look at how al-Qaeda’s strategic position has improved in the specific countries thus far in crisis.