What does the Arab Spring mean to al-Qaeda and how did it react logistically to these strategic changes? Did it find a loophole that allowed it to expand the combat zone away from its traditional battles in Afghanistan? As-Safir interviewed US experts and officials to inquire about the significance of the emergence of al-Qaeda in the Arab arena and about the potential impact will it have on the dynamics of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Bruce Riedel, a senior Brookings Institution researcher who worked on Middle Eastern affairs with the CIA for 30 years and played a key role in the formulation of the Obama administration’s strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, told As-Safir that "al-Qaeda, just like everyone else, was surprised" at the beginning of the Arab movement. He added: "It took al-Qaeda six months to adapt to the new situation in the region, but when it did, it started taking advantage of the situation.”
Riedel then went on to describe the Arab Spring as "a series of revolts against police states, and all of these police states were effectively fighting al-Qaeda's terrorism."
In this regard, the fall of these regimes “has created a vacuum, which al-Qaeda then tried to fill," he added.
Riedel gives Egypt as an example, where Omar Suleiman was former intelligence chief. “Regardless of your opinion of him, he was effective in fighting terrorist organizations. He is dead now and thus no longer doing so, and al-Qaeda is taking advantage of this to establish infrastructure in the Sinai," he said.
Riedel said that the solution to the "re-emergence of al-Qaeda following the Arab spring is the formation of democratic governments that are capable and responsible, along with a serious effort to resolve the Palestinian issue and to end the [Israeli] occupation.”
According to Riedel, ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the US was split between "supporting democratic change in the Arab world on the one hand, and its longstanding connection to totalitarian regimes like Saudi Arabia on the other. The US has been trying for 18 months to keep a balance between the two interests, but this balance is very difficult to maintain.”
Asked about the dynamics of what may happen between al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood in the next phase, Riedel noted that "al-Qaeda is a relatively small organization that has limited popularity," adding that there is "a moderate alternative to al-Qaeda in the Arab world" and this is why al-Qaeda has always thought that the Muslim Brotherhood has very moderate positions.
If the Muslim Brotherhood manages to form a capable government, Riedel said, "they would show that al-Qaeda's message is wrong and that you do not need to institute an Islamic government through jihad, one can do so through the ballot box," pointing out that this is precisely what worried al-Qaeda since the very beginning of the Arab revolutions.
Riedel continued: "However, thus far we have seen that it is very difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood to actually form a government that has the authority to act." In this regard he referred to Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, which has managed to form a government with powers. Yet, he notes this "has not taken place anywhere else in the Arab world so far.”
He said that if the Muslim Brotherhood gained full power "they will fight al-Qaeda and will see it as a threat to themselves as well.”
Riedel added that “there is no doubt that the sooner reforms are achieved and a government is formed, the more endangered al-Qaeda will become.” A US official confirmed to As-Safir that “al-Qaeda is clearly trying to take advantage of the turmoil in Syria and has carried out a number of terrorist attacks against government targets. However, al-Qaeda remains an insubstantial element in the opposition against President Bashar al-Assad. Al-Qaeda’s radical objectives represent only a small number of those struggling to oust Assad.”
Official information confirms that the US administration has approached the Syrian opposition and voiced its concerns about the possible infiltration of al-Qaeda members in the opposition’s ranks. However, Syrian opposition groups responded, saying that they are aware of this matter and do not wish to have any links with al-Qaeda or affiliated groups. Riedel’s assessment of the situation was similar to that of the US administration. He noted that “al-Qaeda serves as a small minority within the Syrian opposition. The most important thing is that Assad must step down before al-Qaeda manages to establish itself deeply in Syria.” He then added: “Al-Qaeda’s model in Iraq is what we are seeking to avoid, as the organization is well established there to the extent that it cannot be uprooted.”
Riedel, author of The Search for Al Qaeda, said that according to jihadist websites, “al-Qaeda has new martyrs every day,” dying in the battles of Damascus and Aleppo. These martyrs are originally from Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Egypt. There are also concerns that al-Qaeda’s attacks could have serious repercussions for US national security. Last week [July 2012], al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened to hit the “heart” of the United States. This prompted the director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), Matthew Olsen, to declare before Congress that this is a “potential threat,” especially because of the fact that many partners affiliated with al-Qaeda in the US and Canada have been arrested during the past two years.
Furthermore, the Iraqi government sent messages to Washington expressing its concern about al-Qaeda’s increasing activities and links with developments in Syria. According to NCTC statistics, in 2011, 10,000 terrorist attacks were carried out in 70 countries, killing 12,500 people and wounding some 45,000. The geographic areas that have witnessed most of the attacks were the “Near East and South Asia,” where 75% of the attacks have taken place. “Radical Sunni militants” were behind 5,700, or 56% of the attacks. This demographic was also responsible for 70% of terrorism related deaths. Needless to say, al-Qaeda and the Taliban were among these radical groups.
Most importantly, the State Department said that al-Qaeda “has begun to retreat and it would be difficult for it to recover.” However, the regional networks affiliated with the organization remain a threat. In an analytical study issued by the Brookings Institution, titled “Breaking the Bonds between al-Qaeda and its Affiliated Organizations,” researcher Daniel Peyman notes that the US ought to take into consideration the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and the US experience in Iraq, before interfering once again in the Muslim world. Following both invasions,whether in Afghanistan or in Iraq, the bonds between al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations have increased.
Peyman also noted that financial and logistic bonds between al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations are likely to break down alongside the developments unfolding in the Arab world, as the Islamic groups in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Palestine seek to remove themselves from the equation.