x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Amid Arab Spring chaos, Al Qaeda takes its chance

Declared redundant at the start of the Arab Spring, Al Qaeda is making a comeback among disillusioned communities.

On the day Osama bin Laden was killed, Faisal Al Yafai wrote that Al Qaeda's nihilistic ideology had been formally vanquished by the Arab Spring. At the time, in the summer of 2011, it seemed definitive: the region was in open revolt, with five revolutions in progress and two Arab leaders had already been toppled. A new era had clearly begun and the genie of public protest could not, it seemed, be put back into the bottle. But now more than ever before, Al Qaeda seems to be making a comeback as governments lose control.

At the outset of the pro-democracy protests in the region, the violent and morally-bankrupt ideology of Al Qaeda seemed to have few takers. Al Qaeda's then number two Ayman Al Zawahiri would periodically issue statements from his hiding place but his dour messages were in sharp contrast with the joyous, colourful revolutions in which the Arab world's young people were engaged. Even the relatively charismatic head of the franchise, Osama bin Laden, had apparently retired: when the US finally found him in a Pakistani compound, he seemed largely a man removed from the world, watching his glory days on television.

What a difference two years makes. The Arab Spring has not been smooth. Three countries - Tunisia, Yemen and Libya - have staggered, slowly, towards some progress; but there has been a lot of blood along the way. Egypt is in an open revolt and the army has returned to run the state, as it was two years ago. Syria is in a much worse state - at best, caught in a stalemate, and at worst, it is in a slow spiral of death.

In this context, Al Qaeda is coming back with a vengeance - trying to learn from its previous mistakes, positioning itself as a service provider in conflict-ridden communities and establishing deep ties to the areas where it operates.

Iraq has experienced an awful summer of death so far, with 600 killed last month and hundreds more in the previous months. Al Qaeda is blamed for much of that violence. In Syria, Al Qaeda is wreaking havoc across the country as it seeks to "reunite" Syria and Iraq. Similar scenarios play out in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Yemen and Mali.

But in every case, the resurgence is ominous both in the short-term and - as the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s showed - long-term.

The venomous ideology of Al Qaeda has not gone away. It has found fertile soil amid the postrevolutionary Arab world.