Based on speeches and papers by al-Qaeda leaders as well as contributions to jihadist internet forums, ICSR analysts Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann have tracked the movement’s responses over a period of twelve months, which included the killing of Osama bin Laden and the onset of the Arab Spring.
The paper shows that the death of leadership figures, in itself, has done little to undermine the essentialist nature of the group’s ideology. More significant, according to the paper’s authors, have been events that al-Qaeda had little to do with and could not control: the political transformation across the Middle East, which started with the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
As Maher and Neumann demonstrate, al-Qaeda has struggled to make sense of the Arab Spring:
- In the first few months, it tried to construct an “alternative narrative” that gave al-Qaeda a more prominent – if not, instrumental – role in bringing about the downfall of authoritarian rulers.
- When this narrative failed to gain traction , while the Islamic character of the uprisings became more obvious, al- Qaeda attempted to reach out to other Islamists. Though surprisingly pragmatic, this outreach was largely unsuccessful: the group had nothing to offer in an era in which it seemed that Islamist objectives could be achieved through constitutional means.
- Finally, where popular revolutions in places like Libya and Syria have evolved into violent conflicts, al-Qaeda has tried to exploit the situation. For example, jihadists seem to be playing a growing role in Syria, yet – so far – they have failed to fully capitalize on what may be its only opportunity to re-gain momentum.
The two authors conclude that al-Qaeda’s responses to the Arab Spring are those of an organisation that is losing momentum, while – at the same time – also presenting new opportunities. Al-Qaeda, therefore, is at a crossroads: whether or not it survives will be decided by how well it adapts to events that are beyond its control.
The report was made possible by the Gerda Henkel and the Smith Richardson Foundations.