By: Mariann Ormholt | Published: August 19, 2011
Sidelined Qaeda awaits ‘spring’ harvest
Taken by surprise by the Arab Spring, Al-Qaeda and its associated movements have been struggling ever since to try and make themselves relevant to unfolding events, experts say.
With the goals of the uprisings at odds with how Al-Qaeda envisages the Muslim world, the militants may continue to be sidelined unless the revolutions collapse, leaving a new generation of disillusioned and disenfranchised youth in the region.
Al-Qaeda’s ideology has to a certain degree lost ground as it fails to appeal and accurately represent the wider mood in the region, essentially a response to decades of political, economic and cultural stagnation.
Popular, non-violent uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have managed to bring about the kind of significant change that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates had been trying to achieve for decades, said Paul Pillar, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst.
“It has shown that you don’t need to go to extreme violent efforts to accomplish political change,” he added.
A study on Al-Qaeda in the Arab Spring by Juan Zarate and David Gordon of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, suggests a number of other reasons why Al-Qaeda has been sidelined in the uprisings.
The Al-Qaeda core, formerly led by Osama bin Laden, who was assassinated in May, was set up in Pakistan’s tribal regions, geographically distant from the Middle East and North Africa, it says.
The capacity and resources of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Middle East have been under strain, the study continues, as security services have managed to break up its cells and networks - and its fortunes in the Maghreb, led by Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, have also deteriorated, losing most of its support base in Algeria and failing to carry out major attacks in the region.
Nonetheless, Al-Qaeda leaders have quickly sought to try and position their movement as having a role to play in the revolutions.
Abu Yahya al-Libi, a leading Al-Qaeda figure, linked the rebellions with its efforts to challenge the United States. He said this had inspired the Arab world to demand change.
Other prominent Al-Qaeda figures such as current head Ayman al-Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric, have also attempted to claim credit for the revolutions.
Noman Benotman, senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank in London, noted that such statements are mere tactical moves, intended to make sure the Al-Qaeda movement is not marginalized by the Arab Spring.
“They have tried to defend themselves from anyone who has described them as detached from the uprisings,” he said.
At the same time, Benotman said that it was difficult for Al-Qaeda to find a role in the revolutions. While the militants blame Western powers for the hardships faced by Muslims, the popular protests addressed ineffective governance and local grievances, such as unemployment and corruption.
In addition, while the protesters are mostly driven by temporal concerns, Al-Qaeda continues to be driven by religious imperatives.
“Al-Qaeda has its own well-established ideology and concepts about jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state,” Benotman continued. “Its system is based on being the vanguard of the armed struggle, of a group who knows better than ordinary people and knows more about Islam and how to enlighten the masses.
“Al-Qaeda can’t be politicians. They can’t renounce violence. Their whole narrative, their ideology and culture is about struggle and sacrifice.”
He argues that the Arab Spring may have changed Al-Qaeda’s tactics, by making the substance of their propaganda message a little softer - but not their strategy.
Pillar agrees, arguing that if the revolutions do not deliver the changes that people want, then Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are likely to become the beneficiaries of popular discontent.
Paul Rogers, professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford university, agrees with this assessment. “[The militants] could argue that non-violent mass protests do not work, therefore there has to be a more radical alternative,” he said.
Rogers fears that if Western actions in Libya continue for many months, there is a real risk that this will be perceived as yet another example of the West attacking an Arab country. “That might be quite useful for Al-Qaeda propaganda,” he said.
Benotman told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting that Al-Qaeda leaders have already identified Libya as an opportunity, urging people there not to put their trust in the rebel leadership because they have allied with the West.
In Yemen, the uprising has reportedly allowed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to take advantage of ungoverned territory.
Even though AQAP does not enjoy a significant degree of popular support, the CSIC study suggests that the organisation’s influence is on the rise within certain communities.
The southern region of Yemen is also the base for a separatist insurgency that has been operating for several years, although Al-Qaeda is usually deemed to be only a small player in this complex web of power struggles.
Pillar does not believe that Al-Qaeda will disappear completely, even if the Arab Spring succeeds. As a very diverse group, he believes it will continue to exist in different forms.
“There will always be dead-enders - people who are just too committed,” he said. “If you have a successful Arab awakening and a just settlement for the Palestinian cause, I think the prospects for Al-Qaeda are extremely low.” –Asia Times Online