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”.