x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Al Qa'eda finds itself marginalised in pan-Arab unrest

Uprisings across Arab world show Osama bin Laden's network to be an irrelevant spectator as protesters in country after country reject violent Islamists.

Protests across the Middle East, such as this one in Sanaa, capital of Yemen, calling for the departure of long-established authoritarian leaders have conspicuously failed to include radical Islamicists such as al Qa'eda.
Protests across the Middle East, such as this one in Sanaa, capital of Yemen, calling for the departure of long-established authoritarian leaders have conspicuously failed to include radical Islamicists such as al Qa'eda.

Armed only with Facebook, Twitter, some training in nonviolent revolution, and courage, they prevailed where al Qa'eda's bombs and terrorism failed - by ousting entrenched, western-backed dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia.

The uprisings across swathes of the Arab world could prove catastrophic for Osama bin Laden's network, which has been made to look like an irrelevant spectator.

The masses on the Arab streets are calling for democracy, dignity, social justice and jobs, not an Islamic caliphate or the imposition of fundamentalist Islamic law.

Al Qa'eda condemns "infidel" electoral politics and urges Muslims to use violence to combat injustice and oppression, arguing that peaceful protest is useless in the face of autocracy. That discourse, which never appealed to more than a small minority, has been shattered.

Jason Burke, the author of an acclaimed book, on bin Laden's organisation, Al Qa'eda: The True Story of Radical Islam, said: "What's happening now shows how al Qa'eda has become marginalised geographically, politically, ideologically, socially and culturally," said. It does, however, remain a significant terrorist threat, he added.

A poll published in December by the US-based Pew Research Center gives an idea of public opinion in Egypt, a bellwether for the Arab world, before the uprisings erupted. It shows that Egyptians want Islam to play a large role in politics, but reject radical Islamists and see democracy as the best political system.

Maha Azzam, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said: "A nonviolent approach is doing much more to undermine oppressive regimes throughout the region than the resort to terrorism by a few."  The uprisings are "in many ways the polar opposite of everything that al Qa'eda stands for", she said.

Only Libya's dictator, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, insists that al Qa'eda is propelling the popular drive to depose him. He has cause to hate the terrorist organisation: militant jihadists tried to assassinate him several times in the 1990s.

But his claim that al Qa'eda is fomenting Libya's revolution smacks of self-serving scare-mongering, a futile attempt to regain support from Washington, which had praised Colonel Qaddafi as a bulwark against militant Islam.

From their mountain lairs on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, al Qa'eda's core leadership will hope that the political convulsions in the Middle East, instead of delivering stable democracies and a better life, spawn anarchy and disillusionment that it can exploit.

If so, bin Laden's cohorts will argue that peaceful dissent is a futile endeavour. And, in practical terms, al Qa'eda has proved adept at using chaos in parts of Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan to carve out havens for its terrorist cells.

A similar breakdown in law and order in North Africa "would give al Qa'eda breathing space", said Abdelbari Atwan, the editor of the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Quds al Arabi, who interviewed bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1996.

"But that's unlikely. When you have democracy, when you have human rights, when you have elected leaders, the chances of al Qa'eda to infiltrate and recruit people will be much, much, much less," Mr Atwan said.

"I am very optimistic because the people demonstrating on the streets of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are not Islamists," Mr Atwan said. "They are Gucci types - middle class and highly educated."

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's oldest Islamist organisation, joined the protests belatedly. Calling itself a moderate movement, the Brotherhood, which is reviled by al Qa'eda, has long rejected political violence and has been at pains to re-affirm its commitment to a multiparty democracy where it would represent an Islamist constituency.

Its leaders say they will not field a candidate for the presidency this year and will compete for no more than 25 per cent of the seats in the next parliament.

Even in Yemen, where al Qa'eda has a strong foothold, the pro-democracy protests have been secular in nature, although an influential Yemeni cleric struck an ominous note last week. Abdul Majid al Zindawi, a onetime mentor of bin Laden, called for Islamic rule to replace Yemen's embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been a key ally of the US in the battle against al Qa'eda.

The Arab revolutions caught al Qa'eda as much by surprise as they did Washington. While bin Laden's network is floundering against the tide of history the US is endeavouring to navigate the flow, with relative swiftness, Washington backed the pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt, and is urging the US's remaining autocratic allies in the region to implement significant reforms.

Washington appears to accept that the popular revolutions will bring a more religious hue to the region's politics. Since assuming office, the US president, Barack Obama, has argued for a "new beginning" with Islam, implying that Islamic belief and democratic politics are not incompatible.

The emerging landscape in the Middle East presents Washington with a major challenge. To be in tune with the region's democratic aspirations, the US will have to acknowledge that many of its policies are deeply unpopular and need addressing, analysts say.

Its interference in the Middle East, particularly the US-led invasion of Iraq, was widely opposed, as is its one-sided support of Israel on the Palestinian issue. These are grievances that al Qa'eda has done its utmost to exploit.

But the terrorist network has been far less adept in responding to the region's new dynamics. Its few belated statements, melding lurid rhetoric with religious fanaticism, have served mainly to highlight how out of touch al Qa'eda is with the popular pulse.

"The real danger from al Qa'eda is on society's fringe," argues Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation.

Writing in Foreign Policy, the Washington-based magazine and website on global politics, he said: "The vast majority of reformers in Algeria, Egypt and Yemen will never turn to violence, no matter how [slowly] reform actually occurs. But a small minority might."

Libyans who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan are considering going home to help the "people fighting and then build an Islamic state", an Algerian man associated with al Qa'eda's North African offshoot claimed in a recent interview with The New York Times.

Bin Laden has maintained a sullen silence since the Arab uprisings began, highlighting his network's difficulty in crafting a coherent response.

Al Qa'eda's first reaction came from an affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq, on February 8, just three days before Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a peaceful revolution that erupted on January 25.

Anticipating his fall, Iraq's jihadi militants urged Egyptians not to replace dictatorship with "filthy secularism", "infidel democracy" or "pagan nationalism".

This was followed by three rambling statements from bin Laden's 59-year-old Egyptian-born deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, a medical doctor who is viewed as the organisation's intellectual head. He has a far more intimate knowledge of North Africa than bin Laden, and a visceral hatred of its leaders: he was jailed and tortured by Mr Mubarak's regime in the 1980s.

Mr Zawahiri also has nothing but scorn for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which he excoriated in a book called The Bitter Harvest for renouncing violence and participating in mainstream politics.

His tirades now seem more plaintive than menacing. In one audio message, he claimed that the US is installing new regimes in Egypt and Tunisia to ensure American and Israeli interests are preserved while injustice remains. He urged those countries' peoples to create Islamic states and "beware lest your sacrifices are being stolen".

In another message, he exhorted extremists everywhere to dream up new ways to attack the "crusader West", as the "blessed" September 11 suicide hijackers did nearly 10 years ago.

Some extremists, however, recognise the risk of becoming even more marginalised. "It is a dangerous mistake for the jihadists to separate from the peoples," wrote the radical cyber preacher Abu Mundhir al Shanqiti last month in an online sermon.

In a warning to his followers, he added: "We should forgive them, get closer to them and beg them to listen to us, because separating the jihadi movement from the popular Muslim movement is the end of this movement."

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae