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Al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring: The End of an Era or the Emergence of a New Threat?

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Writer: Ilias Papadopoulos
The immediate objective of the Al-Qaeda was to drive all non-muslim forces from the areas that comprised the 7th century Caliphate, unify these lands and eventually re-establish that political entity and run it by the Islamic law (Sharia). The political forces opposing these goals were a series of dictatorships that were of a secular nature (Egypt, Syria, Iraq etc). These regimes became the prime target of Al-Qaeda as they constituted the barrier between the organisation and its objective. Even in the countries that toppled the established regimes by largely peaceful means, the following elections brought to power Islamic parties. This is a clear indication that although Al-Qaeda was not the driving force behind the Arab Spring, the dynamic behind it was indeed Islamic. Al-Qaeda in its part was quick to adapt its narrative to the shifting realities. The organisation claimed that the Arab Spring was possible due to them, since it was the group that had educated the Arabs to rise and oust the dictatorships. A thought- provoking view of the Arab Spring.

In order to understand how Al-Qaeda affects the Arab Spring and vice versa, we will need to root back to the ideological foundations of the terrorist organisation. The immediate objective of the group was to drive all non-muslim forces from the areas that comprised the 7th century Caliphate, unify these lands and eventually re-establish that political entity, and run it by the Islamic law (Sharia).i The political forces opposing these goals were a series of dictatorships that were of a secular nature (Egypt, Syria, Iraq etc)1. These regimes became the prime target of Al-Qaeda as they constituted the barrier between the organisation and its objective, becoming the main target of them during the 90s and henceforth.

Concerning the case of Libya besides the rise of radicalism, a further problem was created, the spillover of the crisis in Mali

Al-Qaeda’s theory was that they would be the ‘vanguard party’ for the Islamic world to rally around them and that by violent strikes the dictators would fall and the people, free from their influence, would then form the Caliphate. There were three main components in Al-Qaeda’s rhetoric. Firstly the dictators are the main enemy to the accomplishment of their goals, secondly the dictator’s fall would only be accomplished by armed struggle and finally this struggle would be conducted by a sub-societal group not by the whole of the society.

The Arab Spring

On 18 December 2010 a Tunisian man immolates himself protesting for police corruption in Sidi Bouzid. This action creates a spiral effect that escalates to widespread demonstrations among the Arab world, calling for political reformation. This phenomenon, which became known as the “Arab Spring” initially was largely peaceful, namely in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, where the dictatorships were toppled via large scale demonstrations. In other countries the Arab Spring took an openly violent path, namely in the cases of Libya and Syria. In the case of Libya, a NATO intervention overthrew Col M Gaddafi in support to the Libyan insurgents after a violent civil war raged for a while, whereas in Syria the conflict also escalated in a civil war that draws to this day.

The Arab Spring for Al-Qaeda

Some analysts have claimed that the Arab Spring would be a severe blow to Al-Qaeda and to support that claim they have provided the following arguments.ii The first is that Al-Qaeda in its ideology, considered that society could not topple the dictatorships and not without violence. In that respect, Al-Qaeda was proven wrong in the cases of peaceful removal of the dictators we mentioned above. Furthermore the dictatorships served as a rallying banner for the organisation’s conscription, so losing them affects their ability to recruit new members. Finally Al-Qaeda was slow to endorse these public movements and in some cases the dictatorships fell without any kind of the organisation’s support.

All of the above are true, but do not necessarily lead us to the right conclusions. Even in the countries that toppled the established regimes by largely peaceful means, the following elections brought to power Islamic parties.2 This is a clear indication that although Al-Qaeda was not the driving force behind the Arab Spring, the dynamic behind it was indeed Islamic, thus making the organisation and its ideology relevant.

Al-Qaeda’s theory was that they would be the ‘vanguard party’ for the Islamic world to rally around them and that by violent strikes the dictators would fall and the people, free from their influence, would then form the Caliphate


Al-Qaeda in its part was quick to adapt its narrative to the shifting realities. The organisation claimed that the Arab Spring was possible due to them, since it was the group that had educated the Arabs to rise and oust the dictatorships.iii They also claimed that it was their past attacks what restrained the Westerners from supporting the dictatorships, allowing eventually the Spring to be successful. These claims of course are far reaching and are not true, but they are also indicative of
Al-Qaeda’s intention to reshape its narrative and to adapt to the new environment. Furthermore the organisation for the first time in its history tries to approach movements like the Islamic Brotherhood of Egypt and Hamas in Palestine, while it also adopts anti-Israeli rhetoric. We cannot overlook that as the events unfolded, the organisation tried to shape the post-Spring status quo of the region by calling for the implementation of their traditional objective, the formation of the Caliphate and the establishment of Sharia law.

So we conclude that in the past Al-Qaeda had a particular narrative that suited the status quo ante. As that shifts, so does the narrative of the terrorist organisation in their effort to remain relevant and to further their reach to the society. The objective of Al-Qaeda always was the formation of the Caliphate and the implementation of Sharia law within its boundaries. The main obstacle for that in the past were the dictatorships in the greater area. Now with them largely gone, the main obstacle becomes the yet-to-be-established democracy. For that reason the organisation’s rhetoric changes in order to reach the modern day audience, condemning democracy in the same way as it condemned the dictatorships in the past.

Even in the countries that toppled the established regimes by largely peaceful means, the following elections brought to power Islamic parties. This is a clear indication that although Al-Qaeda was not the driving force behind the Arab Spring, the dynamic behind it was indeed Islamic, thus making the organisation and its ideology relevant

In turn the Arab Spring provided a series of benefits to Al-Qaeda. The greatest of them is the treatment of jihadists in the new order. In the previous era, radical Islamists were treated as subversive elements of the society and were persecuted by the dictators for the sake of stability. As soon as the dictators were toppled, the political prisoners were freed, while the radicals that were active had a free pass to operate in their countries.iv Furthermore in the chaos that followed the uprisings, it was easier for Al-Qaeda to establish safe havens and to move weapons through the region.

The benefits of Al-Qaeda become more obvious in cases where the Arab Spring was conducted by violent means, particularly the cases of Libya and Syria. In these cases Al-Qaeda was able to implement their traditional rhetoric of violent subversion and thus become crucial to the struggle. Particularly in the case of Syria, where its ruler Bashar al Assad is a member of a Shi’a sect, the Alawis, allows Al-Qaeda to call for a jihad against the ‘apostate’. While the conflict is yet to be decided, a sectarian element can clearly be discerned. Furthermore Syria neighbours a region of Iraq that had been proclaimed an Islamic State supported by Al-Qaeda in 2006. Although Al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq had been seriously hampered as a result of Gen D Petraeus doctrine, now in light of US forces withdrawal from the country, they seem to regain their foothold and support FSA’s actions in Syria. This means that if left unchecked, Al-Qaeda could create a unified area of operations between Syria and western Iraq, possibly proclaiming a new state that would serve as a stepping stone for the creation of the Caliphate.

Israel and the EU should be prepared to deal with a new status quo in the region, in which Al -Qaeda will play a more prominent role than she used to play in the past

Concerning the case of Libya besides the rise of radicalism, a further problem was created, the spillover of the crisis in Mali. This was created as after the ending of the Libyan civil war, when foreign fighters and weaponry were moved in Mali to participate in a long standing civil conflict and pledging their cause to Al-Qaeda. The turmoil created; eventually lead in a French military intervention in the country supporting the legitimate Malian government that ruled in the South.v

Conclusion

At this moment the Arab Spring has ended in all countries but Syria. That doesn’t mean that we will not feel the aftershocks of it in the future, the case of Mali bears witness to that. Radicalism has acquired a foothold in the area, whether that was with or without the support of Al-Qaeda and this will affect the behaviour of these countries towards their non-militant neighbours, particularly Israel and the EU.

The only open chapter in the Arab Spring, Syria, threatens to further destabilise the region. Besides the apparent strategic triangle of the Sunni FSA, the Alawi President Assad and Israel, the crisis revives the long standing question of western Iraqi partition. Also in Syria a series of foreign warbands are active under the FSA, with a direct affiliation to Al-Qaeda (eg the Al-Nusra Front). When the war is over regardless of the outcome, these bands will put to use the expertise they acquired in Syria.

While mainly US efforts to control the political influence of the Islamic factions in Egypt and Libya could be partially useful, it will not be the solution. Israel and the EU should be prepared to deal with a new status quo in the region, in which Al-Qaeda will play a more prominent role than she used to play in the past.


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