To even the most seasoned of observers, the Arab uprisings were entirely unpredictable. In a matter of weeks, the Middle East’s seemingly intractable and authoritarian regimes were swept away by popular sentiment. This was particularly bittersweet for al-Qaeda. It welcomed the collapse of governments it had long accused of heresy, but was skeptical of the non-violent methods employed.
While the contours of political influence in the Middle East were recast, al-Qaeda suffered severe and sustained blows against much of its senior leadership – most notably with the killings of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.
Now, Ayman al-Zawahiri has released a new audio tape to try and make the group relevant again. Released on jihadist forums which ICSR monitors, the video calls on sympathisers to kidnap Westerns so they can be ransomed for Islamists held by the United States. Zawahiri’s top priority in this regard is securing the release of Omar Abdul-Rehman, the so-called ‘blind sheikh’ convicted in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Zawahiri is also highly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, accusing them of having ‘no authority’ and calls on Egyptians to agitate for the full implementation of Shariah law. Zawahiri also tries to exploit ongoing turbulence in Syria and Libya, where he attempts to portray himself and, by extension, al-Qaeda, as the legitimate representatives of Salafi-Jihadists in the region. Notably, newly formed Salafi movements in the region, even if violent, have tended to eschew the al-Qaeda brand in favour of more generic labels such as ‘Ansar al-Shariah.’
A new ICSR publication released yesterday looks at how al-Qaeda is responding to both the Arab Spring and the loss of its leaders. The group is clearly at a critical juncture. Where it heads in the future will be determined by the choices it makes now.
To read our new report, click here.