As popular protests spread through the Middle East and North Africa, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have largely been a nonfactor.
For years, the terrorist group urged Muslims to wage war against insufficiently Islamic regimes and advocated governance by sharia law. But over the past few weeks, as the region’s political future was being decided, al-Qaeda remained largely silent. Its leaders ceded the rhetorical ground to the secular, liberal activists leading protests in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere. That’s remarkable given that rhetoric and messaging have been such a central part of al-Qaeda’s strategy to date.
Take, for example, the video released last week by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command and an Egyptian. The 34-minute clip was the organization’s first statement since the revolution began in Egypt, and, oddly, it made no mention of the protests there or of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Instead, al-Zawahiri bemoaned the state of his home country, calling it a “deviation from Islam” and cautioning against secular, democratic rule. The message was ill-timed, misdirected, and uninspired.
Al-Qaeda affiliates and supporters in the region have done a similarly poor job of taking advantage of the growing crises. Early this month, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda front organization in that country, issued a statement weakly supporting Egypt’s revolution, warning against “the tricks of un-Islamic ideologies” and calling for Egyptians to embrace jihad and demand a new government ruled by Islamic law. Meanwhile, the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb called for regime change in Tunisia and Algeria, urging other Muslims to follow suit in hopes of spreading sharia law throughout the region.
These statements appear to have been too little, too late. They came weeks after the uprisings began, and they went largely unnoticed by the media and, more importantly, by many in al-Qaeda’s core audience. That includes the very individuals who are a driving force in the current protests: young, unemployed Arab men, who are considered especially vulnerable to al-Qaeda’s radicalization and recruitment efforts. Al-Qaeda has become a passive observer, riding the bench during the biggest game of the decade.
Does this mean a strategic shift is under way in the al-Qaeda leadership? Not likely. There’s no indication that the group’s senior leaders are adjusting their tactics.
Does it mean they feel threatened by the political movements sweeping the region? Perhaps for the moment, since the largely peaceful revolutions call into question al-Qaeda’s core assertion: that political reform requires violent jihad. But it remains to be seen whether the protests usher in more secular, democratic governments or regimes that are amenable to al-Qaeda.
In the meantime, the United States should focus on keeping al-Qaeda out of the game. U.S. officials should remain committed to supporting political reforms in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and beyond, even though the outcome could be unsettling to Western political sensibilities. That may mean encouraging moderate Muslims to point out where al-Qaeda has been proven wrong and downplaying any of its future attempts to influence events.
It remains to be seen whether al-Qaeda will reassert itself and affect the outcome of the protests or, more likely, try to take credit for whatever happens. We should anticipate more posturing not just from al-Zawahiri, who promised more commentaries, but from affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has a history of tailoring propaganda to address political issues and gain support in Yemen.
Regardless, it’s becoming clear that a transformation of the region is under way, and al-Qaeda isn’t part of it. We should do what we can to keep it that way.