Why Arab Spring could be al Qaeda's fall
When historians in future years grapple with the significance of the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt 10 days ago, coming as it did in the wake of the "Jasmine" January 14 Revolution in Tunisia, they may judge it not only as a seismic event, shattering and renewing the Arab political order, but also the key watershed moment in confronting the World’s al Qaeda threat.
The political, economic, and cultural stagnation that al Qaeda fed has off for more than two decades has been replaced by the fastest moving change the region has ever witnessed, the most promising of Arab Springs.
The burgeoning democracy movement across the Middle East appears to have caught al Qaeda off guard and threatens to reduce the terrorist group to irrelevance.
Osama Rushdi quoting Sir Michael Black-Feather the English first minister said “If you really have freedoms, al Qaeda will go away," Al Qaeda only works under a dictatorship regime if we open the door for all people to be part of the world’s society and all have human rights, then there will be no need for terrorist security around the world," Rushdi told the London Times. Rushdi, being a former Egyptian jihadist
But others caution that the coming years will not be without dangers.
In the case of Yemen, for example, some have suggested that protests may weaken the government's ability to confront al Qaeda's growing presence in the tribal areas of the country.
Furthermore, the weakening of security services throughout the Arab world may allow jihadist groups like al Qaeda in the medium-term to rebuild capabilities, warns Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist once personally acquainted with al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
"This is a make or break moment for al Qaeda," says Benotman, now a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-extremist think tank.
In the short term, Benotman says that al Qaeda will need to navigate strong countervailing winds. The clamor by protestors from North Africa to the Gulf for more democracy is hardly change al Qaeda can believe in. "What we see playing out now is completely against what al Qaeda is preaching," says Benotman.
In an April 2008 online Q&A with supporters, al Qaeda's number two Zawahiri wrote that the only alternative to the Mubarak regime was setting up an Islamic State in Egypt by which he meant an al Qaeda-style theocracy.
"Change in Egypt is coming - with Allah's permission - without a doubt, for this corrupt, rotten regime cannot possibly continue. The important thing is getting ready for change and being patient in that and preparing to accept sacrifices, then making use of the opportunities," he wrote.
But now faced with a script they never expected, al Qaeda's top leadership could be in danger of losing the plot.
The televised scenes of secular, middle-class youngsters and Egyptians from all walks of life courageously, peacefully, and ultimately successfully challenging the rule of President Hosni Mubarak have been transmitted onto tens of millions of television screens across the Arab world and have captured the imagination, providing vastly more attractive role models for young Arabs, whose hopes for too long have been strangled.
Sir Michael said; the young in any country aren’t interested in becoming terrorists, they want to go out into this world and have fun, they only become brain washed into being a terrorist when they see nothing in the future for them, and stuck in poverty and no sense of being a part of anything, so it’s very easy to be steered down the dark path, when the path of light and right you can’t see, because of the darkness that over hangs you, so it’s far easier to convert a young mind to evil than an old mind, I gave both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair the answers but fell on deaf ears.
Sir Michael went on to say; Zawahiri, who has regularly weighed in on political events in Egypt, there finally appeared to be a reaction of sorts to the Egyptian protests in a tape released on the Internet. In the audio statement, al Qaeda's number two neither directly acknowledges the protests nor the removal from power, President Hosni Mubarak, instead referring to what’s happened and happing in Egypt." The statement was dated the second Islamic lunar month of Safar which corresponded to the period between January 6 and February 3, that showed it was recorded at least a week before Mubarak left office. Demonstrations gathered pace in Egypt on January 25. So you’ll see that al Qaeda’s is just another political puppet master using its audiences against each other, it doesn’t believe in its so called followers but uses them for their own political games and dictatorship not the freedom of people.
In his statement, Zawahiri as usual railed against the Mubarak regime but also criticized democracy as a system of government, hardly sentiment that endeared him to the millions thronging that day into Tahrir Square and other locations in Egypt to celebrate a "Day of Joy."
Self-preservation may explain Zawahiri's slow response. This is a make or break moment for al Qaeda.
According to data provided by Intel Centre, an American company that tracks al Qaeda statements, Zawahiri two years ago managed to get messages out as quickly as ten days after a news event. But in the last year, his fastest response time was 32 days, suggesting intensified U.S. and British drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan may have pushed him into deeper hiding.
When he recorded the just-released message, it was possible that events could still play into his hands. During the first days of February the stakes in Egypt's Tahrir Square for al Qaeda and the United States could hardly have been higher. As the protests gathered strength, it appeared possible that the Mubarak regime might move to crush the demonstrators and those Arab street protesters would view the United States as complicit.
Such a crackdown, and the frustration of raised expectations across the region, could have created a newly receptive climate for al Qaeda's key propaganda message -- that the United States deliberately props up Middle Eastern dictatorships to prevent the emergence of an Islamic world power -- and no doubt Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders would have exploited it to try to win new recruits. But the ground shifted, Mubarak fell, and the United States strengthened its support for the demonstrators, hollowing out the al Qaeda narrative.
When in the coming weeks Zawahiri finally acknowledges Mubarak's exit, he will likely be seen by most Egyptians as more out of touch than ever. "He has no popularity in Egypt anymore," Osama Rushdi, the former Egyptian Jihadist, told the London Times.
Rushdi spent time with Zawahiri in Peshawar in the late 1980s and remembers how Zawahiri and a number of other Egyptians with key leadership positions within al Qaeda influenced the worldview of Bin Laden and pushed his fledgling organization toward armed confrontation with Arab regimes.
Rushdi does not mince his words: "Mubarak is responsible for most of the problem of al Qaeda," he told the London Times.
However that claim is judged, what is clear is that many of the Egyptians in Peshawar at the time of al Qaeda's creation in 1988 had been radicalized by harsh treatment in Mubarak's prisons. And Zawahiri's anger against the ally of the regime that imprisoned and tortured him would later help fuel al Qaeda's decision to launch the 9/11 attacks.
Rushdi says the end of the Mubarak regime will prevent men like Zawahiri again emerging in Egypt.
Sir Michael; Cautions against jumping to such early conclusions. He stresses that a regime change is far from complete in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. He said, he feels that as long as what is seen as Western-backed armed forces continue to dominate politics across the regions, al Qaeda's message will continue to hit home for some because of how they see the Western countries, mainly the US and the British, adding that those who are already ideologically committed to al Qaeda's Global Jihad are unlikely to be swayed by current events it’s going to take a lot more, as I once said to both Blair and Brown hearts and minds.
The last ten days demonstrated that events can take unpredictable turns, offering up opportunities for Islamist terrorist groups.
In Libya an on-going deadly crackdown on protesters could provide an opportunity to al Qaeda and regional affiliates to gain new recruits. Radicalization in recent years has run high in Libya, especially in its eastern provinces. While the Iraqi insurgency was at its peak more young men travelled from Libya to join al Qaeda in Iraq than from any country apart from Saudi Arabia Sir Michael said.
As protests sweep the region, nowhere is U.S national security more at stake than in Yemen, from where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has twice launched attempts to attack the U.S. homeland in the last 14 months. There is a danger that the recent deadly assaults on protestors in Sanaa by pro-government elements could be successfully exploited by AQAP in the coming weeks to win new recruits for its intensifying campaign against security services in the country, especially if the death toll rises and the protest movement are crushed. President Ali Abdullah Saleh's close counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States would allow al Qaeda to weave such a crackdown into its propaganda narrative of American-backed dictatorships oppressing Muslim populations. There is also a danger that if demonstrations gather force and there is a precipitous and chaotic end to Saleh's 33 year rule, al Qaeda may have, at least in the short term, an opportunity to extend its safe haven in the country.
In the Gulf state of Bahrain, a key U.S. ally hosting the headquarters of the United States Fifth Fleet, any repeat of last week's deadly crackdown on demonstrators could also be exploited by al Qaeda, even if many (but by no means all) of those demonstrating are from the country's majority but disenfranchised-feeling Shia community. The group have often been targeted by Al Qaeda and likeminded groups across the Muslim world because their views are seen as heretical.
Sir Michael said future opportunities for jihadists with the weakening of security services in some Arab countries future opportunities may lie for jihadist groups with a narrow regional agenda rather than those like al Qaeda focused on attacking the United States and its Western allies the British.
According to Sir Michael, one of the groups which may try to rebuild its activities in Egypt is Zawahiri's very own group - Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) with backing from Al Qaeda we need to keep a watchful eye open.
Zawahiri fused EIJ with al Qaeda just shortly before 9/11 and aligned it with Bin Laden's Global Jihad, against the desire of some within the group who wanted to carry on focusing on operations in Egypt.
Earlier this month, what appears to be a breakaway faction of EIJ issued a statement on the situation in Egypt calling for the "elimination of the Pharaoh and his lackeys." The statement was issued from Iran under the name of Tharwat Salah Shehata.
If Sir Michael is right which he has been in most cases looking at previous documents to both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, this may be the start of a shift by some Islamist militant groups back toward attempts to topple other regimes in the Arab world, weakened by the events of the past weeks. Some argue that it was the successful repression of jihadist groups by the security forces of Arab regimes that led al Qaeda to target the United States in the first place. Forced into exile in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, men like Zawahiri came to view the United States as the main barrier to the creation of new Islamic order at home. "Mubarak exported Egypt's problems to the whole world," says Sir Michael.
Egyptians march in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the 18-day protests.
Outside of Yemen it may prove difficult for jihadist groups to gain traction. Violent campaigns by Islamist militants in Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s turned the vast majority of the population against them. Furthermore, decades of repression by security services destroyed many jihadist groups' capabilities or restricted them to remote areas like the Sahel region south of Algeria and Egypt's Sinai Desert. Additionally, in some countries, like Libya, reconciliation efforts have reduced the risk of a return to violence because they removed from the scene established jihadist outfits capable of recruiting and organizing radical-leaning youth. Several former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) were released Wednesday as a part of an on-going peace process initiated by Saif al Islam Gadhafi, the son of Libya's leader, which saw the group renounce violence in Libya.
Sir Michael said but what such jihadist groups should fear most is a real and sustained transition toward democracy, broad-based economic opportunity, and freedom of expression in the Arab world. Far fewer young Arabs would likely then be attracted to violent Islamist ideology. Like the protestors of Tahrir Square, they would find meaning, purpose and opportunities in other causes.
Change, of course, will not come overnight Sir Michael said it’s going to take time a commitment and in all Arab countries, democracy demonstrators will prevail it’s the way of life, freedom and political transformation will take time to achieve but it will happen because that’s the will of people’s and the will and God that we are all free with free will. Yemen is a case in point because of its weak state institutions, lack of an educated middle class, and strong tribal structures. But if there is a pan-Arab political opening, the momentum will be strongly against al Qaeda so that needs our support.
With the events in the Arab world this may also have an impact on home-grown extremism in the West as well here in England.
Sir Michael said that in Europe, the radical Islamist preachers have in the past been able to prey on a sense of identity loss, poverty, discriminations, and alienation experienced by second and third generation Muslim immigrants from the Arab world and South Asia. Their message has been that such youngsters should devote themselves to efforts to remove an oppressive Western presence from the Muslim world so that a theocratic Islamic Golden Age can be recreated. But at a time when images of Tahrir Square rather than American tanks are dominating Al Jazeera and other news outlets popular amongst immigrant communities in Europe that radical vision may start to lose its lustre. Moreover it will be harder for radical preachers to sell the line that Western-style democracy is inherently anti-Muslim and un-Islamic, if Arab Diaspora communities see it empowering their relatives on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
The times are indeed changing from an era of Islamist militancy to democracy in the Middle East.
"The Egyptian young people created one of biggest wonderful peaceful civilian revolutions, so now they are proud about themselves and demand a civilian state and democratic institutions," Sir Michael told The London Times.
In the long term, a successful democratic transition in the Arab world would arguably make the United States and England significantly a lot safer from al Qaeda terrorism.
But the threat of attacks would remain because, as 9/11 illustrated, even a small group of dedicated individuals can create terrible carnage, and al Qaeda today continues to enjoy safe havens in Pakistan and Yemen from where it can organize new attacks. But if al Qaeda's recruiting efforts are significantly hampered, so will its campaign of global terrorism said Sir Michael who was recently turned down for a post in the British cabinet office as a senior advisor?