Al Qaeda in the Arab world

May 03, 2011

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IF Osama bin Laden had been following the Arab Spring from his Pakistani hideout, his feelings must have oscillated between the hope of new opportunities and despair that they were not coming Al Qaeda's way.

None of the uprisings that have shaken the region, from Tunisia's Jasmine revolution to the ongoing protests against the Assad regime in Syria, has involved significant Islamist activity. Al Qaeda had already looked marginal and on the back foot for several years. But the dawn of largely peaceful change in the Middle East and North Africa this year rendered it irrelevant.

In Egypt, where the jihad movement was born in the 1980s before merging with like-minded Saudis, the momentous overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's regime was accomplished by a coalition of civil society and democratic forces in which even the powerful Muslim Brotherhood played little organised role. Facebook and Twitter turned out to be far more effective agents of change than any 'martyrdom' attack on apostates, crusaders and Zionists.

There is, of course, a world of difference between the takfiri ideology of Al Qaeda and other political Islamists who come in many stripes of gradualism, moderation and attitudes to violence, reform and secular society. Al Qaeda's most significant presence in the Arab world today is in Yemen. But it has played little role in the growing movement to unseat President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The activities of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) have been only one of several factors pushing Yemen towards the status of a failed state. Somalia provides a grim warning of the way state collapse is good for Al Qaeda.

Yemen became a magnet for jihadis because of stabilisation in Iraq, effective US-led attacks on Bin Laden's 'core' organisation in Pakistan and Afghanistan and near total defeat in Saudi Arabia — a combination of repression, re-education and straight bribery that was helped by the enormous financial resources of the Saudi state.

The Arab autocracies have been deft in using their own campaigns against Al Qaeda to boost their usefulness to the West. Libyan complaints about Nato's intervention include genuine outrage at 'ingratitude' over Qadhafi's help in crushing the jihadis. Tripoli deliberately exaggerates the role played by veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group — once a significant affiliate —- in the Benghazi uprising.

It does not all fall on deaf ears. US officials have expressed concern about 'flickers' of an Al Qaeda presence among Libyan rebels. In this vein, some warn of new opportunities for the extremists in the weakening of the repressive organs of Arab states. “Don't let the Arab Spring become Al Qaeda's winter,” is their mantra. “Our mujahideen brothers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the rest of the Muslim world will get a chance to breathe again after three decades of suffocation,” was the conclusion of Anwar al-Awlaqi, the Aqap leader.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has been warning that Salafis — a coded reference to Al Qaeda — are behind the uprising. Ali Mamluk, the head of one of the country's many security agencies and now facing US sanctions for his role in the crackdown, was valued for his cooperation in fighting Al Qaeda by the CIA, MI6 and other western intelligence services.

Outside Yemen, the current focus for concern is in North Africa. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has adopted the AQ 'franchise' and has some operational capacity, demonstrated by occasional kidnappings. Last week's bomb attack in Marrakech was a sobering reminder that it can still function.

But the idea that Al Qaeda poses a serious challenge to the Arab regimes is dead — and was dead long before Bin Laden's demise. The main wellsprings of change in the Middle East are happily not fed by his poisonous legacy. — The Guardian, London