Almost every day there is news about a new attack by al-Qaida or another radical
Islamic group, yet events since the summer demonstrate that there is also a
regional pushback against Islamists in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and
The Egyptian army toppled the Muslim Brotherhood from power on
July 3, marking the beginning of a strong opposition by some in the region to
Islamists. And in Tunisia, the like-minded ruling Ennahda movement has its rule
under threat after agreeing to appoint a caretaker government in the coming
weeks. In May, massive protests against Turkey’s ruling Islamist AKP party erupted in
Istanbul’s Gezi Park, revealing that a significant portion of the country’s
population opposed the government’s increasing aggressiveness in forcing its
views on the public.
In Syria, there is mounting evidence that the
country is becoming a stew of Islamist groups, both al-Qaida-affiliated and
other Muslim Brotherhood-type groups. A United States official, who has access
to intelligence reports, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that Syria may
become similar to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where al-Qaida and other radical
groups are based. US officials have also made comparisons to Afghanistan and
Gulf States, while opposing al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood,
have nonetheless been supporting Islamists in the quest to overthrow Syrian
President Bashar Assad. The Egyptians, who voted the Brotherhood into power,
have largely turned on the group and the jihadists in Sinai that have been
launching attacks against the army.
In addition to Syria, al-Qaida or
affiliated or similar groups have been active in places such as Nigeria, Egypt,
Somalia, Kenya, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, and Yemen.
Seth Jones, an
associate director at the International Security and Defense Policy Center at
the Rand Corporation in Washington and a former representative for the commander
of US Special Operations Command to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for
Special Operations, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about the rising tide of
al-Qaida attacks in the Middle East.
Jones, who also served as an adviser
to the commanding general of Special Forces in Afghanistan, said that he
recently gave testimony in Congress about the rising number and the growing
geographic scope of al-Qaida affiliates and other extremist Sunni groups across
North Africa and the Middle East.
One of the reasons for their rise, he
says, is that the Arab uprisings have created weaker regimes in the region. The
resulting power vacuum and lack of control over territory has created an
opportunity for groups like al-Qaida to establish a foothold.
issue from a US perspective is to stop attacks and plots against the US homeland
and its citizens. For example, Jones referred to uncovered plots against US
airplanes and embassies. Worrying about attacks on allies comes second, he
He explained that al-Qaida has become fractured and decentralized,
and that we are increasingly seeing the rise of affiliate groups such as
al-Nusra in Syria.
Asked about the US’s views about the Muslim
Brotherhood, Jones said that these vary quite a bit, but since there is little
evidence that they are plotting attacks against the US, they are a secondary
worry to that of jihadist groups.
He added that some segments of the
Muslim Brotherhood are unhelpful and deeply anti-American, also opposing US
allies in the region.
Jones said he believed that the rise of the
jihadists was also due to the growing sectarian conflict in the region,
particularly in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. For example, he said that fatwas –
Islamic religious decrees – had been issued in Egypt, calling on fighters to go
to Syria to participate in the jihad.
He added that the sectarian nature
of the conflict has led to a surge in resources, money, and fighters flowing to
On a positive note, he said that there has been pushback
against jihadists in Somalia and Mali, where the terrorists have lost
Regarding Israel, Jones said the biggest threats tend to be from
groups in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the growing jihadist threat from
Sinai. He said that Al-Nusra has training camps not far from the Israeli border,
and that while the group is focused for now on the Syrian regime, they
definitely view Israel as an enemy.
“A concern would be if any of these
groups would be able to cooperate in the long run. If I am sitting in Israel
right now, I am worried about Hamas and Hezbollah,” he said, adding that the
al-Qaida groups are a secondary threat to keep an eye on.
Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of
Democracies, told the Post that in his estimation al-Qaida and its affiliates
are on the rise, and that “the al-Qaida network was neither decimated or
weakened when the administration said it was last year.”
the Brotherhood, he said that the group has lost some of its luster in recent
months. “But there does not appear to be any ideology or political movement
capable of countering it. So, the Brotherhood is basically grappling with
itself. If it is able to regroup and rebrand, it will find a way to reassert
itself in politics around the region,” he said.
Daniel Pipes, president
of the Middle East Forum, spoke at the conference held by the Begin-Sadat Center
for Strategic Studies this week at Bar-Ilan University, and presented the original
thesis that the events over the past few months may mean that Islamism has
peaked in the region and has begun its decline.
He cited the popular
opposition to Islamist-led governments in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, and
“The more you know it, the less you like it,” he said in reference
to Islamism. “It is not popular in the long-term.”
point, he said, is that Islamists cannot get along with one another. Turkey and
Iran had grown closer only to have relations cool because of the Syrian war.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon and in the region there is a Shi’ite-Sunni clash as well
as divisions within each of these camps. In Turkey, there is a growing division
between President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; in
Syria, there are Sunni Islamists fighting each other; in Egypt, there are
divisions between the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood; and in Tunisia,
there is a conflict between the Salafists and the ruling Islamist Ennhada
In an interview with Pipes after the conference, Pipes told the
Post that if there is a concern for people getting killed, then al-Qaida should
be the focus; but that he sees this battle as heavily one-sided.
going to win, the US versus al-Qaida? The answer is very clear,” he said,
pointing out that the success of the former Soviet Union was not based on
terrorism. “Terrorism is a strategy when you have no real options.”
the short-term there is obvious danger, he said, but there is “no way they are
going to win.”
It is much more dangerous when Islamists decide to work
through the system, and rule a state like in Turkey, where they can do real
damage to US interests, he said. But on the other hand, “can Boko Haram take
over Nigeria?” asked Pipes, adding that in Somalia, al-Shabaab controls a small
swath of the country – they can wreak havoc, but have no shot at gaining wider
He pointed out that the September 11, 2001 attacks turned out to be
counterproductive, as they woke people up about the threat of radical Islam.
Similarly, "Going on a rampage in a mall in Kenya does not impress me as a
victory for Islamists but rather as an indication of their failure to convince
people of their message,” asserted Pipes.
Remarking on Egypt, Pipes said
that “the size and vehemence of anti-Islamist opposition is mind-numbingly
large, verging into anti-Islamic sentiment – it is extraordinary, and for
civilization this is positive.”
Pipes hedged his argument, noting that
things are fluid, and that recent events could reverse themselves. “I am not
suggesting the Islamists are finished, but from a long ascent from the late
1920s and a sharp increase in the late 1970s and in 2002, it may be that they