By Bruce Riedel
Aug 14, 2013
The failings of the Arab awakening may be replenishing the armies of jihad
The global terror alert this month and the evacuation of Americans from Yemen illustrate that, 15 years after its first terror attacks on the United States, al-Qaeda is thriving in the chaos of the Arab awakening. Failing states and failing revolutions are al-Qaeda’s incubator. The coup in Egypt is only going to add many more jihadists to al-Qaeda and its sympathisers.
The news that al-Qaeda’s Amir Ayman al-Zawahiri and its leader in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuhayshi were communicating about plots to attack Western targets is no surprise. From his hideout in Pakistan, Zawahiri communicates regularly with al-Qaeda’s half dozen regional franchises, just as Osama bin Laden used to do before his death. Al-Qaeda leaders often make references to their covert messages in their overt statements. Only rarely do we learn about the substance of the clandestine communications, usually but not always handled by couriers, but we have seen a few messages over the years. The Bush administration revealed Zawahiri’s messages to the Jordanian terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2005.
Contrary to assertions that al-Qaeda is decimated in Pakistan, Zawahiri keeps up a constant flow of messages to the global jihad movement, both in public and behind the scenes. Al-Qaeda in Pakistan operates in a network of sympathetic groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Pakistani Taliban, which help hide senior al-Qaeda leaders, train recruits and facilitate communications. The leaked Pakistani study on bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad made clear that he had a network of sympathetic connections that made possible the construction of his hideout and his communications with the outside world for six years. Zawahiri has inherited it.
What is new is the rapid growth of al-Qaeda and sympathetic movements and cells associated with it, from Algeria to Aden. Two years ago, the Arab awakening initially threatened al-Qaeda by suggesting a better alternative to terror and jihad in the form of democracy and peaceful change. Now, the revolutions have all but failed. Twitter is not mobilising reform. From Libya to Syria to Yemen, the awakening has produced more chaos than constitutions. In this chaos, al-Qaeda is thriving, just as it has in the past in Somalia and Afghanistan.
Egypt is critical in this. Zawahiri was taken by surprise in 2011 when the revolution swept Hosni Mubarak from power. His first statements on the revolution bordered on incoherent. But now, his message is clear. At the beginning of August, al-Qaeda issued a statement urging Egyptians to fight
the army coup. Zawahiri said the Egyptian army is an American tool and the coup was arranged with Saudi and Gulf money. In an “I told you so” moment, Zawahiri reminded the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi that al-Qaeda had always said jihad was the only solution, not the ballot box. Zawahiri calculates that the coup will radicalise millions of Muslim Brotherhood members and drive them to al-Qaeda. Egypt will revert to the terror and violence that wracked it in the early 1990s. He may be right.
In Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, al-Qaeda has made unprecedented gains this year due to growing Sunni anger at Shia-dominated regimes. The growth in these al-Qaeda franchises has been encouraged by Zawahiri in covert and overt messages for two years. Jihadists from Chechnya to Copenhagen have followed his advice and flocked to Syria to join the jihad. Hundreds have “martyred” themselves fighting Bashar al-Assad. Jail breaks in Iraq, Niger, Libya and Pakistan have freed over a thousand al-Qaeda prisoners in the last month, a move Zawahiri has also lauded.
In Yemen, the US-backed government in Sana’a has made some gains this year and has had a better record on reform than many other post-revolutionary regimes. Yet al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still attracting Yemenis and Saudis angered by drones and poverty.
For now, most of al-Qaeda’s energy and Zawahiri’s effort are focused on the crisis inside the Arab and Islamic worlds. The new generation of al-Qaeda is more focused on the near enemy at home than the far enemy in America and Europe for now. But easy targets, like the natural gas plant in Algeria attacked last winter by an al-Qaeda cell based in Libya and Mali, allow local groups to kill dozens of foreign “crusaders”. Embassies are always favourite targets. That is how al-Qaeda started out 15 years ago this month, when it blew up US missions in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Obama administration was right to take the threat seriously and to alert the public to threat information. When it can, it should share more intelligence about how al-Qaeda works, protecting collection sources and means, of course, but revealing how the enemy thinks and what its goals are. Two years after bin Laden’s safe house in Pakistan was found, for example, there should be more that can be shared with the public to heighten awareness and understanding about the inner workings and global connections of our still-deadly enemy. When the CIA revealed the Zawahiri messages with Zarqawi, it showed high-level disagreements within al-Qaeda that hurt the movement.
Al-Qaeda has shown a remarkable ability to regenerate itself after suffering serious reversals. In Iraq in 2006-09, the US decapitated its leadership three times. Yet it has come back. When NATO forces leave Afghanistan next year, it is likely al-Qaeda’s cells in Pakistan and Afghanistan will regenerate quickly as well.
The al-Qaeda narrative has always argued that the US is an enemy of Islam, supporting petty military dictators and greedy royal princes who rule by repression and partner secretly with Israel. How Obama handles the events in Cairo this summer will impact that narrative for years to come. Unfortunately, the failings of the Arab awakening are fuelling more anger and frustration in the Islamic world, and more converts to jihad. After 15 years, there is no end in sight to al-Qaeda. The new generation, AQ3.0, may be with us for years to come.
Bruce Riedel is director of the Intelligence Project, Brookings Institution, US. His latest book is ‘Avoiding Armageddon: America, India and Pakistan to the Brink and Back’