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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.
Al Qaeda is dangerous not only because it has hundreds of skilled fighters under arms but also because tens of thousands of Muslims have found its calls for violent change appealing. When dictators reigned supreme in Arab lands, al Qaeda could score points by denouncing despotism—Zawahiri even wrote a book condemning the crimes of Mubarak. When dictators such as Mubarak fall due to pressure from pro-democracy protesters, however, al Qaeda loses one of its best recruiting pitches: the repression Arab governments inﬂict on their citizens. The rise of less repressive leaders would deprive al Qaeda propagandists of this valuable argument.
Genuine democracy would be a particular blow to bin Laden and his followers. "If you have freedom, al Qaeda will go away," claims Osama Rushdi, a former spokesperson for al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, once Egypt's most important jihadist group. Rushdi may be too optimistic, but the possible movement toward a free press, free elections, and civil liberties throughout the Middle East would highlight the least appealing part of al Qaeda's dogma: its hostility toward democracy.
Although the word "democracy" means different things to different audiences, polls suggest that the generic concept is quite popular in the Arab world, as befits a region that knows firsthand how brutal autocracy can be. A 2010 Zogby poll found that a majority of Egyptians favored democracy, and a 2006 survey by the scholars John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed found that 93 percent of Egyptians favored a constitution that guaranteed freedom of speech. At the same time, however, Esposito and Mogahed found that a majority wanted Islamic law to be the only source of legislation. In contrast, al Qaeda believes that democracy is blasphemous, arguing that it places man's word above God's. So if Tunisia's emerging democratic movement does not soon hand power over to clerics that implement an Islamic state, then—according to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—"the duty upon Muslims in Tunisia is to be ready and not lay down their weapons." Al Qaeda's message is clear: secular democracy is as abhorrent as secular dictatorship.
Even more ominous for al Qaeda is the way in which Ben Ali and Mubarak fell. Al Qaeda leaders insist that violence carried out in the name of God is the only way to force change. Zawahiri had long demanded that Egyptian youths either take up arms against the Mubarak government or, if that proved impossible, "go forth to the open arenas of Jihad like Somalia, Iraq, Algeria and Afghanistan." Youths in Tunisia and Egypt did not heed his call; the protesters were peaceful and largely secular in their demands. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of al Qaeda's leaders, "I hope they were watching on television as Egyptian young people proved them wrong." A number of prominent jihadist scholars, such as Abu Basir al-Tartusi and Hamid al-Ali, echoed her, praising the protesters’ courage and endorsing the revolutions despite their largely secular demands.
Even more distressing to al Qaeda, change occurred in the Arab world without an initial blow being struck against the United States. Al Qaeda has long insisted that Muslims must first destroy the region's supposed puppet master in Washington before change will come to Tunis or Cairo.
Finally, the fact that the young are leading the revolution is bad news for bin Laden. Young people, especially young men, are al Qaeda's key demographic—the ones al Qaeda propagandists expect to take up arms. For over a decade, al Qaeda has portrayed its young fighters as the most audacious and honorable defenders of Muslim lands in the face of Western aggression. Now, youths in the Arab world are afire with very different ideas—of freedom and nonviolent action. Recent events have shown idealistic young Arabs who dream of a new political order in the Middle East that they need not travel to Afghanistan or Iraq to engage in jihad; they can accomplish more by remaining in their own countries and marching peacefully against their authoritarian rulers.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have long praised countries such as Tunisia and Egypt for their aggressive efforts against terrorism and their cooperation with the United States. Since 9/11, the United States has tried to work with Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Morocco as well to improve regional counterterrorism cooperation against AQIM. Even Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi—long derided as "the mad dog of the Middle East"—has been valued as a partner against al Qaeda since 9/11. In the face of unrest in Libya, following on the heels of the revolution in Egypt, Qaddafi even declared that al Qaeda was behind the protests, warning Libyans, "Do not be swayed by bin Laden"—most likely in an effort to gain legitimacy for his crackdown against the demonstrators.
Arab tyranny has often served U.S. purposes. U.S. counterterrorism officials have worked well with authoritarian leaders because their regimes have generally had a low bar for imprisonment and detention. The United States could send a suspect captured in Europe to Egypt and be assured that he would be kept in jail. This low bar also meant that many minor players and innocents were swept up in security-service roundups. The Egyptian regime was even willing to threaten the families of jihadists, putting tremendous pressure on militants to inform, surrender, or otherwise abandon the fight. Assuming that a truly democratic government comes to Egypt, the easy incarceration of dissidents and ruthless threats against militants and their families will disappear.
Indeed, one measure of how much progress the Arab regimes are making toward democracy will be how much their security services are purged. The same security services that have fought al Qaeda and its affiliates have also imprisoned peaceful bloggers, beaten up Islamist organizers to intimidate them, and censored pro-democracy newspapers.
Those who replace the current security forces will not necessarily be friendly to Washington, and the governments they report to may also seek an arm's-length relationship with the United States. If new governments take popular opinion into account, as democratic leaders do, cooperation will not be as close as it once was. Many of the new political players, particularly the Islamists, see the United States as a repressive power that aids Israel and other enemies. Indeed, it is hard to imagine an Egyptian government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood instructing its security services to work as closely with the CIA as Mubarak's forces did.
Regional cooperation—vital because al Qaeda and its affiliates cross state boundaries—was fitful at best before the recent unrest. Now, it will become even harder, as old regimes and new leaders greet one another with suspicion.
Despite the challenge that the secular revolutions have posed to al Qaeda's narrative, there is a chance that the organization could rebound and become even stronger operationally.
Dictatorships have crumbled, but nothing solid has yet replaced them. During the recent unrest, some jails in Egypt and Libya were emptied, putting experienced jihadists back on the street. In both countries, many of the jailed jihadists had turned away from violence in the last decade, arguing—quite publicly—that the jihadists’ struggle represented a misunderstanding of Islam, killed innocents, and had ultimately failed. This renunciation of jihad produced bitter polemics against al Qaeda (which were met by even more vitriolic responses from al Qaeda). Nevertheless, among those released, there are some unrepentant extremists who are willing to wreak havoc on their enemies. These ex-prisoners threaten U.S. interests at a time when Arab governments are least willing or able to monitor and constrain them.
And in countries where autocrats still cling to power, the security services will probably become less effective against jihadists. The services of Algeria, Morocco, and Yemen are now likely to make democratic dissenters their top priority, rather than suspected terrorists. Dictators such as Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh have a long history of quietly working with jihadists against mutual enemies, as Saleh did when he employed jihadists to fight on his side against rebellious southerners in Yemen's 1994 civil war. Saleh and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are both hostile to those demonstrating for democracy, and they may cooperate, or at least not disrupt each other's efforts.
Meanwhile, new democratic governments may be unlikely to target the recruiters, fundraisers, propagandists, and other less visible elements of the jihadist movement. These individuals are often far more important to the movement's overall health than the actual bombers and assassins, but they can more easily cloak their work as legitimate political action. Freedom of speech may protect some activities, and many Arabs see the jihadist struggles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere as legitimate. Jihadists are media savvy and will try to exploit any new freedoms to expand their propaganda efforts.
A particularly tricky issue is the role of Islamist parties such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. From a counterterrorism point of view, a greater role for Islamists could be good news. Although Brotherhood theologians such as Sayyid Qutb helped inspire the modern jihadist movement, and many important al Qaeda members were Brotherhood members before joining bin Laden, there is bad blood between the two organizations.
In his book The Bitter Harvest, Zawahiri angrily criticized Brotherhood leaders for rejecting violence and participating in politics. Hamas, a Brotherhood spinoff, has quarreled bitterly with al Qaeda. Zawahiri has blasted Hamas for adhering to cease-fires with Israel, not implementing Islamic law in Gaza, and deviating from the pure faith of jihadism. To prevent these ideas from gaining currency and eroding its support, Hamas has harshly repressed al Qaeda–inspired jihadists in the Gaza Strip. If the Brotherhood gains inﬂuence in a new Egyptian government, as seems likely, the organization will carry this feud with it. And because many jihadists grew out of its ranks, the Brotherhood knows the jihadist community well and can effectively weed out the most dangerous figures.
When the Muslim Brotherhood had little chance of gaining power, ignoring it and other Islamist movements seemed prudent to both Republican and Democratic administrations. Now, the tables have turned, and the United States needs to catch up. In particular, Washington should clarify that it does not want these movements excluded from government but rather wants them to participate. Inevitably, this will lead to tension as Islamist groups seek policies that do not jibe with U.S. preferences.
But excluding the Brotherhood from power would be worse, for it would endanger the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda. In 1992, the Algerian government nullified elections that Islamists had won, provoking a bloody civil war. This war, in turn, radicalized the country's Islamist movement. Takfiri Islamists—those who believe other Muslims are apostates—dragged Algeria into a frenzy of gratuitous violence that alienated other jihadists and even bin Laden, due to the takfiris’ horrific attacks on fellow Muslims. (Bin Laden worked with a less extreme faction of Algeria's jihadists, which later became the core of AQIM.) Although such an extreme scenario seems unlikely in Tunisia or Egypt, suppressing the Brotherhood's political aspirations would alienate younger, less patient Islamists. They, in turn, may find bin Laden's message attractive, believing that the new government is inherently anti-Islamic.
Here, perhaps, the goal of counterterrorism clashes with other U.S. interests. Although the Brotherhood is mouthing all the right slogans, its commitment to true democracy is uncertain. In any event, it is likely to seek restrictions on the rights of women and minorities in Egypt's political life. Islamist organizations in general are highly critical of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, skeptical of cooperation with the CIA, and strongly opposed to anything that smacks of normal relations with Israel. Supporting a strong Islamist role in government risks creating a regime less friendly to the United States; excluding the Islamists risks radicalizing the movement and reinvigorating al Qaeda.
Opportunities for al Qaeda will also arise if unrest turns to civil war, as has happened in Libya. In Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen, civil wars began largely for local reasons, with little jihadist involvement. Over time, however, al Qaeda and like-minded groups moved in. first, they posed as supporters of the opposition. Then, they spread their vitriol, using their superior resources to attract new recruits, while the surrounding violence helped radicalize the opposition. Al Qaeda now has a strong presence in all these countries. Already, AQIM—the regional al Qaeda a⁄liate geographically closest to Libya—is issuing statements in support of the anti-Qaddafi fighters.
In Libya, it is possible that the United States and local jihadist fighters will end up fighting the same enemy. This happened in the Balkans in the 1990s, when Washington was helping the Bosnian Muslims just as Arab jihadists were seeking to assist the Muslims against the Serbs and turn Bosnia into a new Afghanistan.
The Obama administration must prevent al Qaeda from exploiting its increased freedom of movement in the Arab world and at the same time take advantage of the fact that its narrative has been discredited. U.S. public diplomacy efforts should relentlessly highlight al Qaeda's criticisms of democracy and emphasize the now credible idea that reform can come through peaceful change. The message should be spread by television and radio, as always, but particular attention should be paid to the Internet, given the importance of reaching young people.
The United States must also continue to use drone strikes and other means to put pressure on al Qaeda's senior leadership in Pakistan, even though these at times decrease support for the United States there. Part of the explanation for al Qaeda's slow response may be the fact that responding to such momentous change requires extensive consultations among leaders. Holding an open meeting, however, could invite a deluge of Hellfire missiles from U.S. drones.
Al Qaeda will presumably get its act together eventually and develop a coherent message regarding how jihadists should respond to the revolutions. Drone attacks remain vital to keeping al Qaeda behind the pace of events and preventing it from coordinating operations far from its base in Pakistan. Keeping al Qaeda's response slow and incoherent by inhibiting communication will make the organization appear irrelevant.
The United States must also recognize the risks for counterterrorism in the civil wars that break out as autocrats resist democratization. The danger is that al Qaeda will exploit such conﬂicts, so the United States must make clear to opposition figures early on that the United States will consider aid, recognition, and other assistance, but that this aid is contingent on jihadists’ being kept out of the rebels’ ranks. When jihadists set up shop in the Balkans in the 1990s, U.S. pressure helped convince Bosnia's mainstream Muslim leadership to purge them. Al Qaeda cannot compete with the United States and its allies when it comes to resources or bestowing international legitimacy, so the choice between Washington and al Qaeda should be easy for opposition groups. A failure to help the oppositionists, however, may lead desperate ones to seek help from whatever quarter they can.
Al Qaeda, of course, will try to have it both ways. When the United States does not intervene to stop authoritarian regimes from attacking their citizens, it will blast the United States as being a friend of tyranny. And when the United States does intervene, al Qaeda will try to drum up anti-U.S. sentiment among the locals, calling for attacks on U.S. forces while portraying the intervention as part of the the United States’ master plan to conquer the Middle East. The United States should counter this by emphasizing the support it has from the local Muslim community and Arab states; even so, the image of a U.S. soldier in full battle gear may still alienate many Muslims.
More quietly, the United States should develop efforts to train the intelligence and security forces of the new regimes that emerge. The first step is simply to gain their trust, as new leaders are likely to see their U.S. counterparts as bulwarks of the old order and a possible source of counterrevolution. Many of the new security-service leaders will be new to counterterrorism. Even more important, they will be unaccustomed to the difficult task of balancing civil liberties and aggressive efforts against terrorism. Here, the FBI and other Western domestic intelligence services have much to offer. Developing such cooperation will take time and patience, but the United States should make this a priority.
For now, there is reason to hope that the revolutions in the Arab world will benefit U.S. counterterrorism efforts. But this hope should be balanced with the recognition that in the short term al Qaeda will gain operational freedom and that the United States and its allies need to recast their message, maintain pressure on al Qaeda's core, prepare to counter al Qaeda's attempts to exploit civil wars, and renew their intelligence cooperation in the region if they are to prevent al Qaeda from reaping long-term benefits from the upheavals.
For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.