Al-Qaida after Mubarak

How will the events in Egypt and Tunisia affect al-Qaida? This piece by CNN’s Paul Cruickshank is easily the best analysis so far on the matter. Although the headline expresses the optimism found elsewhere, the body of the article clearly shows that experts are divided on how al-Qaida will emerge from the ashes of Tahrir Square.

Basically there are two schools of thought on the matter: the “fewer grievances” school and the “more opportunities” school – represented in Cruickshank’s piece by Osama Rushdi and Noman Benothman respectively. The former argues that democratization will stem new recruitment to al-Qaida by removing a key grievance and undermining the message that only violence can bring change. The latter argues that the unrest provides jihadis with new operational opportunities and encourages spoiler activism.

Personally I lean toward the “more opportunities” school. I agree that the recent events are bad for al-Qaida in the long run, but I see the short and medium term effects as much less predictable. For a start, the removal of a grievance does not affect the motivation of the already mobilised (this, I admit, is the same argument used by those who say Palestine does not matter for al-Qaida). Second, the relationship between grievances and violence is not linear. Terrorism is a small-scale phenomenon and usually involves people who are outliers on the spectrum of political opinion. Osama Rushdi’s claim, in the CNN piece, that “the end of the Mubarak regime will prevent men like Zawahiri from again emerging in Egypt” strikes me as hopelessly naive. Finally, discontent with Arab regimes is not the only grievance motivating new al-Qaida recruits. Hostility to Western policies and solidarity with Muslims at war with non-Muslims are also prominent motivations, and these are largely unaffected by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Among perpetrators of Islamist terrorist attacks in the West in recent years, you will not find many who say they acted out of hatred for the Egyptian or Saudi regimes.

Having said this, the Egyptian revolutionaries may help stem jihadi recruitment in the West though another mechanism, namely by serving as role models for radical non-violent activism. My colleague Petter Nesser made this point in a conversation yesterday, and I think he is onto something very important. Many youth are attracted to the rebellious aspect of jihadism, and in some circles the “mujahid” is a role model and the embodiment of “jihadi cool”. The young and tech-savy anti-Mubarak activists are perhaps the best candidates to become models of “non-jihadi cool”.

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11 Responses

  1. 1) “Osama Rushdi’s claim, in the CNN piece, that ‘the end of the Mubarak regime will prevent men like Zawahiri from again emerging in Egypt’ strikes me as hopelessly naive.” – We have yet to see what the post-Mubarak era will look like. I think if egypt develops into an truly inclusive and comprehensive democratic system then the basis for new militant radicals will indeed be weakened. I am not sure if this will prevent the emergence of a “new” az-Zawahiri but there won’t be a “new” Qutb.

    2)”Among perpetrators of Islamist terrorist attacks in the West in recent years, you will not find many who say they acted out of hatred for the Egyptian or Saudi regimes.” – But you know very well that behind the hatred against the west there’s the narrative of the “far enemy” = the western countries who wage a war against Islam since decades via proxy regimes in muslim countries (and directly in Iraq [anymore?] and Afghanistan). So the jihadi war against the west is predominantly a necessary prerequisite to ultimately topple regimes at “home”.

    I am not saying that because of Egpyt and Tunisia (and what other countries..?) al-Qaeda will vanish. But i think that under the condition of a developement described above at least one core narrative, the Egyptian “jahiliyya”-regime, will crumble – and we know that egytian jihadi know-how was crucial for establishing al-Qaeda. There’s still a lot of stuff left to tell a jihadi-narrative (the palestinian situation, Iraq/Afghanistan, Pakistan+Saudi Arabia+USA etc.) but the North-Africa-Region has a real chance of getting ahead of that.

  2. *One more thing: lets see how the Muslimbrotherhood’s “Freedom and Justice Party” will perform. It will be important for the next (moderate?) bifurcation of islamism.

  3. An interesting aspect of what Egypt and Tunisia mean for AQ is that the grand-message AQ uses will need serious readjustment. The logic behind going after the US was that this is the way to topple the local regimes. This message and justification for attacking the US suffered a major blow. AQ has yet to respond to this challenge.

  4. Not Worthy Of Response There Is An Special Place In Hell For These Islamic Heretics.Their Accounts Shall Be Settled In Due Time By The One True God. Islam Is An Abomination In The Eyes Of God

  5. To Study This Issue, The Following Questions Seem Relevant:

    -At this point in time, Arabs from what countries are getting into jihadi activities and if so, where are they going?

    -Where is the most recruitment for jihad going on nowadays and how many of the recruits head to the Arab world?

    -Will Arab jihadis find it more important to stay and fight the West in AfPak or Iraq or hop over to these countries East and join history in the making as spoilers?

    -If the majority of the people of a nation are engaged in either a new reality in which they have some say or still not satisfied and continuing to struggle for one against the forces of the old order still in place, what would be the attraction of a movement that does not share their interests, which are: either better living conditions, labor organization and bargaining, or freedom of expression and political participation?

    -From a distance, it seems as if this is one of those times, like during the Gaza crisis or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when Hamas and Hezbollah espectively were the relevant players and focus of attention while the jihadis are truly marginal.

    -What conditions would bring them front and center again?

    -Where would they most likely find an opportunity among the countries of discontent?

    -What would be the reaction of truly popular interest groups to their presence?

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