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.
Muammar Gaddafi was a key ally in the war against al-Qaeda in North Africa, but now he is engaged in a civil war with the U.S. providing active military aid to his opposition. This, despite the fact that key elements of the opposition are anti-American, pro-jihad Islamists. Abdul Hakim al Hasadi, the rebel commander in charge of the defense of Derna, self-admittedly fought in Afghanistan against American forces, personally recruited “about 25” Libyans to fight against American forces in Iraq, and praises the al-Qaeda fighters in his ranks, stating: “The members of al-Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader.”
Just for the record, al-Qaeda has officially sided with the very rebels we are protecting with air cover.
It registered this support in a videotape released on March 23, 2011, in which Libyan native son Abu Yahya al-Libi exhorted his brothers to continue the struggle, stating:
The Libyan people have suffered at the hands of Gaddafi for more than 40 years. … He used the Libyans as a testing ground for his violent, rambling and disgusting thoughts. … Retreating will mean decades of harsher oppression and greater injustices than what you have endured.
The fact that Gaddafi’s government and the United States are not conducting operations against al-Qaeda in Libya, and the existence of a significant pro-al-Qaeda Islamist population among the rebels, would seem to indicate that al-Qaeda’s position in Libya has not been diminished.
Egypt was a cornerstone of America’s strategic policy in the Middle East and in the war against al-Qaeda, but with Mubarak gone, the once-illegal Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafi-jihadist entities are now poised to take the lion’s share of power. Former Muslim Brotherhood speaker Kamal al-Hilbawi provided a glimpse of what we can expect in the future when the Brotherhood gains power when he called for Egypt to emulate Iran and to abrogate its treaties with Israel.
Ayman al-Zawahiri is an Egyptian who grew up in Cairo, became a Muslim Brother and created his first jihad cell there, and later became the head of the bloody Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization. Since merging his organization with al-Qaeda in 1988, he has been attempting to regain a foothold in Egypt, only to be stymied by the counterterrorist operations of Egyptian intelligence. That problem has now been removed. In the current Islamist-friendly environment, we can expect that al-Qaeda will become increasingly active in-country in the future, which is a threat to both the United States and Israel.
President Saleh’s regime in Yemen was an absolutely vital strategic partner against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the administration considers even more dangerous than Osama bin Laden, and which was responsible for recent major attacks against the U.S. homeland.
Now, however, Yemen is out of the game and all American and Yemeni operations against AQAP have ground to a halt. Recent high-level defections to the opposition have made President Saleh agree to hand over power to his opposition, which will leave a vacuum that will likely be filled by anti-American forces, including the followers of Specially Designated Global Terrorist Abdul Majeed Zindani, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Yemen and an active collaborator with Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.
Al-Qaeda now has free reign to operate unopposed throughout the country, and will no doubt double its efforts to consolidate its power with key tribes to ensure its security and political influence. Considering the danger AQAP posed to the American homeland when it was under attack by Yemeni and American forces, one can only imagine what dangers await us now that it can operate unopposed, and one can only wonder how anyone could believe that al-Qaeda’s well-entrenched position in Yemen could be characterized as diminished.
The ouster of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was the spark that ignited the current blaze of popular uprisings throughout the region, but it also enabled Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood organization al Nahda, to return to the country after 22 years in exile. Ghannouchi is expected to play a key role in forming the new government, and he will no doubt be aided in his efforts by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to which he is close.
Al-Qaeda has been operationally active in Tunisia for the past decade, perpetrating attacks in 2002, 2006, and 2007. In 200, it kidnapped two Austrian tourists and held them for ransom.
In late February 2011, Zawahiri emphasized his support for the ouster of Ben Ali and his high hopes for Tunisia’s Salafi-jihadi future by exhorting his Tunisian brothers to continue making:
sacrifices and efforts until Tunisia returns as a fortress of Islam and jihad … and to work to liberate Muslims lands off the armies of the contemporary Crusader campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Arab peninsula, Somalia and the Islamic Maghreb.
While superficial statements by commentators regarding al-Qaeda’s diminished stature make good sound bites, they underscore a poor understanding of al-Qaeda as well as the political dynamics of the region, and provide a false sense of security.
When one assesses the situation in an objective, fact-based, country-by-country manner, one can only conclude that al-Qaeda’s strategic position has vastly improved, that it will continue to reap benefits from the chaos, and that we will likely pay the price for these developments in the not-too-distant future.