Monday, September 5, 2011

Future of al-Qaeda in Arab region vague following Arab Spring

Omar Halawa

Mon, 05/09/2011

The ability of Al-Qaeda to implement its jihadist ideas in the Arab region following the Arab Spring is shrouded in mystery after both Egyptians and Tunisians managed to bring down their regimes through peaceful revolutions.

In its messages before the breakout of the Arab revolutions, Al-Qaeda emphasized that those Arab regimes that fail to implement Islamic Sharia law must be toppled through the use of violence.

Before the Arab Spring, which started with the Tunisian revolution in late 2010, several Arab countries witnessed attacks by Al-Qaeda. However, after revolutionaries toppled former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the start of the year, it became essential for Al-Qaeda to justify its jihadist approach as the only vehicle for change in the Arab region.

According to Waheed Abdel Maguid, an expert on Islamist movements at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, the future of Al-Qaeda is dependent on the outcome of ongoing revolutions in Syria and Yemen.

The hostility of Arab institutions toward Al-Qaeda remains unchanged. Joint forces of the Egyptian military and police forces recently launched a wide-scale security campaign in Sinai to eliminate what are believed to be Al-Qaeda cells in the area. North Sinai was a focus of the campaign because police stations and economic facilities have been repeatedly attacked over recent months.

Recently, statements have been issued by a group calling itself Al-Qaeda in Sinai, including calls for transforming Sinai into an Islamic emirate.

Meanwhile, Ashraf al-Sherif, a political lecturer at the American University in Cairo, ruled out the possibility of Al-Qaeda cells in Egypt. Sinai residents’ poor living conditions, marginalization and ongoing battles over land ownership has likely led to the emergence of violent armed groups in the area, he said.

Sherif added that the fact that these cells have been influenced by Al-Qaeda's ideas does not necessarily indicate their affiliation to the organization.

Al-Qaeda's founder and long-time leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a US military raid in Pakistan on 2 May. Two weeks after his death, Al-Qaeda released a final taped statement from bin Laden, in which he praised the revolutions of the Arab Spring. "I think that the winds of change will blow over the entire Muslim world, with permission from Allah," he said.

Al-Qaeda's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said in a televised recording aired on several satellite channels in April that the Egyptian revolution started as a popular one and then transformed into a military coup. He called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) untrustworthy.

Zawahiri's statements may be seen as an attempt to antagonize the SCAF in order to protect its waning popularity, which is largely based on hostility toward Arab leaders.

Zawahiri has only made one other recording since his statement in April; in the statement, he called on Egyptians to establish Islamic rule.

Abdel Magid believes Zawahiri was not addressing more moderate Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, but rather the extremist jihadist groups that have yet to elaborate on their visions for the future.

Sherif adds that the current rise of Islamists in Egypt will not foster the growth of Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Egypt. He believes that violent Islamist thought does not exist in Egypt. Recent sectarian incidents that took place in Egypt, he said, are random and not the prompted by a particular ideology.

Diaa Rashwan, the head of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Zawahiri's messages reveal his inability to penetrate Egypt, particularly since he does not have an organization in Egypt directly affiliated to him. He added that Zawahiri hopes that Salafi jihadist groups will continue their jihad.

Al-Qaeda, which started to crumble after the death of its leader Osama Bin Laden, will find it difficult to implement its ideas now that its chief source of inspiration is gone, said Rashwan.

Zawahiri was ranked second in Al-Qaeda before becoming its leader following the death of Bin Laden in May.

Over the past decade, several armed Islamist movements have emerged, including Fateh al-Islam in north Lebanon and the Army of Islam in Palestine. Both define themselves as jihadist movements affiliated with al-Qaeda.

In an article in the independent daily Al-Tahrir, Khaled al-Berri said these movements serve Arab regimes, since none of them have carried out any resistance attacks against Israel.

Experts also believe the Yemeni revolution is not likely to be affected by Al-Qaeda, even though Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Jihad in Yemen, said Al-Qaeda is present in Yemeni protests.

Sherif believes the presence of Al-Qaeda in Yemen is limited to the south, and bares some similarity with other armed groups opposing the Yemeni regime, such as the Shiaa Houthis in the north, he says.

In an audio recording addressed to Zawahiri and broadcast on several news websites, Wahishi said he was implementing Al-Qaeda’s plans to establish an Islamic state in Yemen. Wahishi's movement conducted several armed operations in Yemen, the most notable of which was an attack on the US Embassy in Sanaa in 2008.

Two weeks ago, the US Defense Department announced the killing of Attia Abdel Rahman, the second-ranked man in Al-Qaeda after Zawahiri, at the hands of its troops in Pakistan. Abdel Rahmam was also the liaison between the members of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and its branches in Iraq and Morocco.

Anna Murison, who monitors Islamist violence for Exclusive Analysis, a London-based risk consultancy, told Reuters that Abdel Rahman was widely trusted throughout the organization and Islamists from varied backgrounds listened to him.

“Al-Qaeda is an idea that will live on, but Al-Qaeda as an organization looks pretty much finished, as there are so few people who can move up into those senior ranks," she said.

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