Stunned by the secular Arab rebellions that have toppled some of the Middle East’s most enduring dictators, Al Qaeda and other violent Muslim extremists are struggling to capitalize on the upheavals that have reshaped the political map of the Middle East.
While counterterrorism officials, scholars and analysts disagree about the likely impact of the “Arab Spring” protests on efforts to combat terrorism, many agree that Islamic jihadis face both enhanced peril and opportunities in the coming months.
Many also agree that eliminating the political vacuums the upheavals have created is vital to preventing Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and those it inspires from becoming more powerful.
“The key ingredient is political stability in the region,” said Jean-Louis Brugruiere, a leading French investigating judge charged with counterterrorism efforts who now tracks jihadi financial operations for the European Union.
“The faster existing and new Middle Eastern governments fill political power vacuums and restore stability,” he said in an interview on Wednesday, “the less of a threat the violent Islamists will pose.”
Initially, the breath, depth, and effectiveness of the protest movements promoted largely by young, liberal, secular reformers seemed to shock Al Qaeda into silence.
Osama Bin Laden has issued no public statement or communiqués about the political protests since their inception two months ago, said Jarret Brachman, a leading counterterrorism analyst and the author of “Global Jihadism.”
“At first, we heard almost nothing from senior Al Qaeda core figures. They seemed to be reeling,” he said. Then last month, Ayman al-Zawahri, Bin Laden’s deputy, issued an audio statement that was defensive and pleading in tone, Brachman said.
“He was almost pleading with Egyptians to embrace Islam and reject the United States and democracy,” he added, and he also tried claiming credit for having ousted President Hosni Mubarak by arguing that Washington was willing to abandon Mubarak because of the Sept. 11 attacks. Brachman called the Zawahri message “unconvincing and predicable.”
A more upbeat spin on the upheavals came late last month from Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric and top propagandist for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which American counterterrorism officials consider the most dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate.
In a four-page essay in their online magazine “Inspire” titled, “The Tsunami of Change,” Awlaki argued that the protests, by having broken the “barriers of fear” and by ousting seemingly immutable dictators who protected “American imperial interests” in the region, would work to Al Qaeda’s longer-term political advantage.
The dictators whom Al Qaeda most loathed and feared were now gone. The ensuing wars and political turmoil in such states as Libya and Yemen, where Awlaki is said to be hiding, would enable Al Qaeda militants to recruit, train and organize in such open spaces, he wrote.
That seems to be happening in some Arab states where political transitions are under way or being contested. But experts caution that since each state is so different, the militant Islamists’ prospects must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Yemen is the state of most immediate concern.
Fox News reported this week, citing a Yemeni official, that a group called the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army had taken control of the historical capital of Abyan, the main foothold for AQAP where American and Yemeni counterterrorism activities have been focused.
AQAP was said to have declared the province an “Islamic Emirate” that would henceforth be governed by Islamic law. Also, AQAP and other Islamic militants in the area were said to have surrounded a smaller military company that had to withdraw because the Yemeni Army was unable to send them reinforcements.
Christopher Boucek, an expert on Islamic movements at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, called President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decision to reposition counterterrorism units fighting AQAP back to the capital in Sana to protect his regime a major setback for U.S./Yemeni counterterrorism efforts.
So, too, he said in an interview, was the prospect not only of Saleh’s ouster, which U.S. officials are said to now consider inevitable, but also that of his son, nephews, and many of the counterterrorism officials with whom Americans have been working to fight AQAP and other jihadis.
“They’ll have to build all new relationships,” said Boucek. “Under-governed space in Yemen is increasing by the day. Chatter among terrorists is reportedly growing, and it’s about time for them to try to mount another operation,” he said.
Last winter, AQAP sent two sophisticated mail bombs in American cargo planes that were intercepted and disarmed. Boucek is equally gloomy about counterterrorism efforts throughout the region.
“The Islamists are among the most patient and most disciplined of the political players,” he said. “A couple of years down the road, victory will go to the opposition that is the best organized.”
In Egypt, he said, “we focused on Tahrir Square and not on the back-street mosques. But they are likely to be best at capitalizing on the political opening,” Boucek asserted.
Although the army, traditionally a bulwark of anti-Islamist fervor, is in charge of the political transition in Egypt, attacks have recently increased on Christians and other minorities, allegedly conducted by ultra-conservative “Salafis,” or Muslim militants focused on religion rather than politics.
Deposed President Hosni Mubarak permitted them to flourish as a counter-weight to the equally conservative Muslim Brotherhood, believed to be the largest and best organized Muslim opposition group in the country.
The Salafis have denied carrying out the attacks, but analysts say they have become increasingly assertive in demanding that Egypt remain an “Islamic” nation and in fighting efforts to reduce the role of Islam in the public arena.
Recently, Islamists cut off the ear of a Christian in the southern city of Qana because he was said to have had a relationship with a Muslim woman, which Muslim fundamentalists consider “haram,” or forbidden by the Koran. Last week, according to IPT News, run by Islamic expert Steven Emerson, one man was killed and eight others injured in the village of Kasr el-Bassil when Salafists attacked the owner of a liquor store, which the most observant Muslims also shun.
In the city of Monufiya, Emerson reported, dozens of Salafis stormed the house of a woman who was accused of being a prostitute. Her furniture was reportedly burned in the street. In Libya, where NATO-backed rebels have been battling the 40-year regime of leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, the situation is even more complex, with each side accusing the other of ties to Islamic terrorists and radicals.
According to Emerson and the Wall Street Journal, Libyan rebel leader Abdel-hakim al-Hasidi has said that around two dozen of his troops had fought American troops in Iraq. But he called them “patriots and good Muslims,” not “terrorists.” So, too, he insisted were members of Al Qaeda, since they had also “resisted foreign invasion.” Nor is Al-Hasidi, an influential Islamic preacher who spent five years at a training camp in eastern Afghanistan, the only militant within rebel ranks. His field commander is Salah al-Barrani, a former fighter from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was formed in the 1990s by jihadis returning from Afghanistan and who continued fighting the Qaddafi regime until a truce was arranged between them.
Spokesmen for the Libyan rebel national transition council deny that these militant Islamists play a leadership role in the rebellion. They are supported by French activist Bernard-Henri Levy, among others, who helped persuade French President Nicolas Sarkozy to recognize the rebels rather than Qaddafi’s government in Tripoli. There was “no evidence,” Henri Levy said this week, that Al Qaeda or militant Islamists had a “significant presence” in rebel ranks.
American military officials, too, have downplayed the Islamist threat from the rebels, saying in recent testimony on Capitol Hill that they detected only “flickers” of an Al Qaeda presence in eastern Libya where the rebellion is based.
In interviews, other intelligence officials maintained that Qaddafi’s regime has long-standing connections to secular and Islamic terrorist groups that continue to threaten western interests. One official who asked not to be quoted said there was evidence that Qaddafi was paying Tuaregs, nomadic Berbers who live in Libya and roam throughout North Africa, as mercenaries, and that they were selling anti-aircraft missiles, machine guns and other weapons to Al Qaeda.
Much of the think-tank community in Washington seems divided between optimists and pessimists over whether Al Qaeda and the most dogmatic Muslim militants will ultimately benefit from the Arab upheavals.
Pessimists believe that the protests and reform movements that have ousted longstanding dictators who were nonetheless staunch American allies and partners in counter-terrorism efforts are inevitably destined to be hijacked by the more disciplined, ruthless Islamists, especially given the lack of civil institutions, the rule of law, or culture of tolerance in so many Arabs states.
Others remain cautiously optimistic.
James Dobbins, a former ambassador who runs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand, concedes that the upheavals will inevitably disrupt some intelligence cooperation and links among security services in the short run. But he argues that Al Qaeda and like-minded groups are likely to be undermined by the political opening of autocratic states in which political dissent was routinely crushed.
“As peaceful and legal outlets for dissent and the pursuit of Islamic programs open up,” he said, “it will diminish the perceived need to engage in violent activity.” Polls show that support among Arabs for Al Qaeda and such militants has been steadily declining for several years, he added. Their popularity was likely to fall further, he said, “if you have a shot at achieving your goals without violence.”
While Washington and its allies had to remain vigilant about terrorist threats, he said, there was reason to believe that the Arab Spring protests would eventually work to Al Qaeda’s disadvantage.
“Their narrative has been utterly disrupted,” he said. “The dictators they sought to replace have been ousted, and not by them or their violence.”
While representative governments would most probably reflect the will of a majority of their citizens for a more “Islamic” government, such policies would not necessarily jeopardize good relations with Washington, he asserted.
“The most Islamist state in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia,” said Dobbins, “and they’ve been a strong ally of America’s.”
But Saudi Arabia, the pessimists counter, is also the country of origin of most of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attack. While many Israelis have expressed concern about whether militant anti-Israeli Islamist forces would be the ultimate beneficiaries of the Arab spring rebellions, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, who resigned late last year as head of Israelis military intelligence, was also more optimistic than many of his peers.
In a lecture last week at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he argued that “a democratic Middle East” was “good for Israel.”
“Democracies rarely go to war,” he said. Israel could not remain indifferent to the values that had brought the Egyptian people to Tahrir Square -- a desire for “freedom, justice, rule of law and democracy,” he added.
“Even if, in the short run, it may be more dangerous,” he said, “in the long run I believe it’s a very, very positive process that we should support.”
A senior New York Police Department intelligence analyst pointed to at least one short-term benefit of the upheavals: Home-grown Islamic radicals in America, too, had been stunned and shaken by the protests and the loss of what he called their “narrative of oppression.”
Like their counterparts in the Middle East, he said, they have been distracted and, for the moment, paralyzed by shock.
“Like all of us,” the official said, “they’ve been glued to their TV sets.”
Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor, is an award-winning author, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book, "The Story: A Reporter's Journey" (Simon & Schuster, April 7, 2015).