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The relevance of al-Qaida in the wake of the Arab Spring

The political and social upheaval in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa that began with a young man’s personal quest for dignity after being slighted by a policewoman in a small Tunisian town in December 2010 was one of the most important stories of 2011.

The consequences of this ongoing process, commonly described as the ‘Arab Spring,’ remain unclear. In Egypt and Tunisia, the ‘Spring’ has seen the collapse of decades’ old dictatorial regimes and given way to elections and new legislatures. However, in Egypt, the army remains the most important institution and it has maintained power, even in the face of continued protests. In Libya, a violent uprising brought down four decades of dictatorship, leading to the formation of a temporary Government, which faces enormous challenges in reconciling tribal relations and launching an entirely new and supposedly democratic system of Government. In Syria and Yemen, the protests and the violence continue, while the existing power structures prevail. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States (with the notable exception of Bahrain), the wave of revolt has, for the time being, been averted by a barricade of monetary largesse that has effectively bought out any potential protests before they even had the chance to develop.

The ‘Spring’ and the series of popular protests that have characterised it was an unexpected phenomenon. Ever since the late 1970s - as movements inspired by a revolt in Mecca during the Hajj and, of course, the Islamic revolution in Iran with their offshoots in movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and others in Iraq or Egypt with the radicalised Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad that made their mark with the assassination of president Anwar Sadat of Egypt, it was thought that violent Islamist action would inform the opposition to the establishment in the Arab world. The rise of al-Qaida from the ashes of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and their international terror debut with the bombings against American targets in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 culminating in the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States only served to bolster fears of a violent and Islamist uprising in the Middle East. Such fears appeared to find their confirmation in Iraq and Afghanistan in the resistance to the American led military invasions and the continued threats and attacks against Western targets throughout the decade after ‘9/11’. Yet, al-Qaida has not played any role in the Arab Spring; it may even be said it has been marginalised and rendered irrelevant by this large wave of social and political protest.

What role will al-Qaida have now? Where will it seek new grounds to develop and what conditions, if any, still warrant its existence?

Al-Qaida: The political, social and cultural background

Islamic radical movements have varied in scope and origin and responded to indigenous, cultural, social, and economic mechanisms that have silenced competing voices for change in many parts of the Middle East. They have typically espoused an anti-secular ideological programme to reverse the secular or ‘Western’ development trends of the post-war period in much of the Islamic world. As the cultural and socio-economic conditions that have fueled Islamic radicalism persist, the Arab world remains very susceptible to violent unrest inspired by the Al-Qaida movement and the 11 September attacks on the United States. For decades, radical Islam has served as the most important platform of political opposition in the Islamic world and shows that the process of Islamic radicalisation has resulted from indigenous cultural and socio-economic conditions. It was long thought that radical Islam would necessarily need brutal violence as the catalyst for change and, certainly, the many suicide bombings and other attacks witnessed over the past three decades have provided credence for this. However, the nature of the al-Qaida threat has changed; the organization appears to have split or specialised in regional branches even as it appears to have changed its goals.

Al-Qaida’s ideology itself may have gotten a little stale for the vast majority of the Arab population; its focus on jihad and the establishment of a caliphate through violence (al-Qaida would rather call it armed struggle, but there is little struggle in targeting innocent civilians, which is what their strategy has been). It is inconceivable that someone like Bin Laden or his long time deputy – and now successor – al-Zawahiri would ever become political leaders, confront actual practical problems or conduct grass roots campaigns in and amongst the people of a large city like Cairo or Damascus. Al-Qaida has occupied an exclusively cultural landscape, lacking in any practical solutions for the problems actually faced by the people. In fact, this is a problem shared by most Islamist parties. Ennahda in Tunisia, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have earned their support through years of grass roots campaigning, addressing (if not actually fixing) the people’s day-to-day problems, as related to healthcare, education or other practical needs. This is not to say that groups such as al-Qaida (including their predecessors, imitators present and future) have lacked influence. On the contrary, their main achievements have been in forcing the Arab nationalist and secular states that emerged from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the adaptation of secular socialism in the 1950s and 1960s to renounce their secularism and adopt some of the Islamic ideals (or interpretations thereof) in order to ensure regime survival.

Radical Islamists, as represented by al-Qaida, have adopted an agenda that neglects economics. They have concentrated on dress codes, sexual mores, the family, and the enforcement of social conformity to the tenets of piety. Principally, Islamists have argued that the Shari’a (Islamic law) offers a solution to Government that is in accordance with principles set out by God. However, they have not provided an analysis of the current state of affairs or a solution to the actual economic and social problems that the Islamic world is actually facing. The Shari’a has mostly been reclaimed as a symbol of pride and identity that for many Muslims was lost when emerging Islamic States applied institutional and constitutional reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries to emulate the Western model precisely by refuting the Shari’a.

The introduction of Western legal systems has been considered a major aspect of ‘cultural imperialism’, while the current revival of the Islamic heritage constitutes an act of cultural affirmation. Moreover, conscious of the mobilising power of Islamic symbols, even Arab secular ideologies fomented the political role of Islam. In post-World War II Egypt, and before overthrowing the monarchy, Colonel Nasser promoted the idea of Jihad as an ideological concept to mobilise the people against internal or external enemies while the struggle against Western imperialism was veiled in religious terms. Under President Sadat, religious symbolism was renewed to portray the new president’s distance from socialism and the Shari’a was officially, if not practically, declared the principal source of legislation. The economic hardship of the 1970s was diverted by the State’s promotion of Islamic guidance as the means to revive moral character. Whereas the Industrial revolution in Europe was an indigenous response to inherently European phenomena of the Renaissance, religious reform and the Enlightenment, Islamic nations only partly borrowed or imitated these developments without an appropriate cultural frame of reference.

Before al-Qaida, the Iranian revolution of 1979 promoted the idea of a politically invigorated Islam as the most viable course for social and political change in the Middle East inspiring Islamist political programs in many Muslim countries. The Revolution inspired Shiites and Sunnis alike, at first, and prominent religious figures have articulated a reformist and revolutionary brand of Islam that has transformed it from a religious denomination to a political force. Suited to the conditions in individual States, and prying on the disillusionment with secularism, political Islam has radicalised among the religiously conscious intelligentsia and lower classes as the most significant opposition in the current Middle East, representing the search for a formula for political organisation that is indigenous and culturally relevant to the Middle East. The rise of Shiite militancy in the 1980s beyond Iran, however, was circumscribed to Shiite areas such as Lebanon and Iraq.

Al-Qaida’s central command, if such a thing exists any longer given the blow to the leadership dealt with the elimination of Osama bin Laden, has increasingly relied on the subsidiaries such as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) or Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for execution, yet the subsidiaries are still autonomous from an operational standpoint. They can execute, raise money, recruit, purchase weapons at the local or regional level without getting bogged down by the sort of top-down model used by other organisation types or corporations. The subsidiaries and the central command share the same grievances and a sense of common purpose. Moreover, like any global corporation, there are also branding strategies such that the name ‘al-Qaida,’ followed by the region of activity, like Maghreb or Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Qaida Central and its subsidiaries’ common purposes are essentially to undermine Western presence in the Muslim world and beyond, and challenge the governing regimes and elites in various regions. Lack of democratisation in the Arab-Islamic world, which over the past 20 years would have benefited the Islamist political parties in many countries if it (democracy) were allowed, is a key issue that will continue to stimulate action among insurgents. The subsidiaries are now focused on building their presence in economically depressed regions, essentially in places where Governments are weak or practically non-existent. Yet these regions are often close to targeted areas so action can be achieved and retreat would follow easily.

The Sahel region, especially the area stretching from Mauritania to Mali via Niger has become an insecure no man’s land that is ideally suited for propagators of mischief, who are able to conduct smuggling, gun running and kidnapping in impunity. The vacuum left by the collapse of the Qaddafi Government in Libya, the dismantling of the security apparatus, and the related unprecedented proliferation of weapons has now made criminal activity even harder to control. The Sahel is also well known for its role in facilitating the South American drug trade, linking cocaine smugglers in Colombia or Peru to Europe. Nomads and radicalised elements can take advantage of this geographic Achilles’ heel to address their grievances through violent means, while others can conduct illicit trades that generate instability. North African Governments lack adequate resources to seal the region, which is difficult to control by virtue of the nomadic character of the Sahel populations and the failure of a sense of national identity to have taken root in such countries as Mali, Mauritania or Niger. This is of special concern because so many important mining resources are to be found in these lands.

These countries are all troubled spots with many types of crises. These crises are fueled by issues of identity, conflicts between ethnic groups, heightened poverty, and Governments that, if not altogether legitimate, are essentially weak and without resources. Because of these internal issues, perhaps the biggest problem that has yet to be fully quantified is the issue of human migration. According to various experts, uncontrolled migration and the movement of people comprises 90% of the revenue sources of organised crimes recorded in the Sahel region. Moreover, there is a ‘terrorism’ component as well.

As things stand, the conflict between the Islamists and the West (or its perceived proxies) is permanent. Unless major grievances are tackled, the Big Jelly Ball will remain difficult to stabilise, even if it may seem to be the case from time to time. More precisely, a solution to the conflict starts with solving the big visible issues, including the fate of the Arab-Israeli conflict, reassessing Western support to the dictatorships in the Arab world, reintroducing a sustainable path of democratisation, and inviting moderate Islamists to share in the governance, in addition to enforcement and military action.


Contact Alessandro Bruno through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit (conflict.terrorism@consultancyafrica.com).

Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI) is a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. CAI releases a wide range of African-focused discussion papers on a regular basis, produces various fortnightly and monthly subscription-based reports, and offers clients cutting-edge tailored research services to meet all African-related intelligence needs. For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com