Terrorism: Whither al-Qaida?

If the current uprisings fail to galvanize the creation of strong states, the terror organization will be quick to move in and set up bases.

Al Qaida Flag 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Al Qaida Flag 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The tidal wave of revolts that has washed over the Middle East in recent weeks has put al- Qaida in a precarious situation. Since the late 1980s, when Osama bin Laden linked up with former Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al- Zawahiri to form al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the mantra of the global terror movement has been constant.
Arab-Muslim regimes are artificial, the militant Salafis said. The regimes are oppressive, Western-controlled entities, designed to keep “true Islam” in check.

Nationalism, state borders that divide Muslims and secularism were all seen by al-Qaida ideologues, like Bin Laden’s mentor Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam, as foreign ideas adopted by the Arab regimes and used to keep the Muslims weak.
Dislodging the regimes of Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and others and replacing them with an Islamic superstate, a caliphate, has been the main objective of al- Qaida for more than two decades.
The war between jihadi movements and Arab-Muslim states has been raging for years. It was a war prosecuted by the jihadis with much fury and dedication, but without much success.
In fact, it was the failure of the global jihadi movement to achieve its aim to establish sovereignty in place of Arab regimes that drove its members and leaders to seek refuge on the Internet, and set up a virtual caliphate, a place where they could safely spread their ideology, recruit soldiers and plan the structure and policies of their future caliphate.
Now, the very premise of al-Qaida could be in jeopardy.
While it is far too early to begin to know how the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other Arab nations will turn out in the long run, it is obvious to all that the Arab regimes so despised by al-Qaida were challenged and, in some cases, removed from power without its help.
Bloomberg reported this week that al-Qaida’s secondin- command, Zawahiri, “urged Egyptians to revive Islamic rule and criticized Hosni Mubarak as a ‘modernday pharaoh’ in remarks that came before the former Egyptian president was toppled.”
“The Egyptian regime is in fact a repressive regime that relies on brutality and rigged elections, while the Islamic system is consultative and seeks to achieve justice,” Zawahiri said in an online audio recording. It was an attempt to score some points on the back of the uprising.
But his comments are mostly being ignored.
SOME OBSERVERS have been quick to celebrate al- Qaida’s seeming irrelevance. “It’s not just a defeat. It’s a catastrophe, the worst thing that has happened since al- Qaida was created,” The Wall Street Journal quoted Jean- Pierre Filiu, an expert on al-Qaida at the University of Sciences Po in Paris, as saying.
Indeed, the setback is significant, but the organization is far from being a relic of the past.
In countries as large as Libya, the organization could in theory exploit the collapse of the central government to move fighters there. That has not happened yet, despite propaganda by Muammar Gaddafi to the contrary. But it remains a possibility. Large numbers of Libyans have joined the ranks of al-Qaida and its affiliates, including the organization’s third in command, Yahya al-Libi.
Most importantly, as Yemen, Somalia and the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan have seen, al- Qaida thrives in failed states. If the current uprisings fail to result in strong states that exercise a clear monopoly of arms within their borders, it will be quick to move in.
Furthermore, if the caretaker military regimes in Egypt and Tunisia refuse to relinquish power, al-Qaida’s battle cry against oppressive Arab-Muslim governments would remain as relevant as ever.
THE LARGEST threat to al-Qaida in the medium term could come not from the democracy movements, but from a foe much closer to home, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Decades ago, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to avoid the path of instant jihad for the purpose of removing Arab regimes from power, choosing instead to patiently invest in charities, schools and hospitals in poor areas and to spread its Islamist ideology quietly, waiting for an opportunity to leverage its support base.
Unlike al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood views democracy as a front gate to power. It stands a far better chance of profiting from recent events than the militant Salafis.
The writer’s recently published book, Virtual Caliphate – Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet (Potomac Books, Inc.), explores the online jihadi presence.