Terrorism After the Revolutions

How Secular Uprisings Could Help (or Hurt) Jihadists

On December 17, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire to protest police harassment. His death incited unrest throughout Tunisia; less than a month later, protests toppled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt, the most populous and influential country in the Arab world, soon followed suit. Al Qaeda met both these dramatic events with near silence. Only in mid-February did Osama bin Laden's Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, officer comments. But even then, he did not directly address the revolutions or explain how jihadists should respond. Instead, he claimed that the Tunisian revolution occurred "against the agent of America and France," gamely trying to transform Tunisians’ fight against corruption and repression into a victory for anti-Western jihadists. On Egypt, Zawahiri offered a rambling history lesson, ranging from Napoleon to the tyranny of the Mubarak government. He released his statement on Egypt on February 18, a week after Hosni Mubarak resigned, and offered little guidance to potential followers on how they should view the revolution or react to it.

U.S. politicians are moving quickly to claim the revolutions and al Qaeda's muted response as victories in the struggle against terrorism. "This revolution is a repudiation of al Qaeda," declared Senator John McCain during a visit to Cairo on February 27. And indeed, looking out from bin Laden's cave, the Arab world looks less promising than it did only a few months ago. Although bin Laden and al Qaeda have been attempting to overthrow Arab governments for more than 20 years, the toppling of the seemingly solid dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt caught them flat-footed and undermined their message of violent jihad.

Nevertheless, al Qaeda and its allies could ultimately benefit from the unrest. For now, al Qaeda has greater operational freedom of action, and bin Laden and his allies will seek to exploit any further unrest in the months and years to come.

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