Jessica Stern

Arab revolutions don’t mean end for Al Qaeda

By Jessica Stern
April 20, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

FOR TERRORISM experts in the West, it’s tempting to think the so-called Arab spring will destroy the Al Qaeda movement. But it probably won’t happen in the short run — especially if you believe Anwar-al Awlaki, a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most dangerous affiliate organization of Al Qaeda.

In theory, the ability of young people to protest peacefully against unresponsive Arab leaders and work for change through more democratic institutions might help redirect some of the public frustration that Al Qaeda has long tried to harness. But in a four-page essay in the most recent issue of Inspire, the magazine of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Awlaki taunts Western governments with the claim that the mujahidin — the term he uses for jihadist fighters — are elated about the revolutionary fervor now spreading in the Middle East. The “fruits of Egypt” will spread far beyond its borders, Awlaki gloats, presenting many opportunities for the mujahidin.

Yemen, where Awlaki’s group is based, is particularly vulnerable. The group claimed credit for two recent plots against the United States, the “underwear plot” — Umar Abdulmatallab’s attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas 2009 — and an October 2010 plot involving two explosive devices discovered on a cargo plane headed to the United States. In November, the group announced a new strategy: carrying out large numbers of small-scale and inexpensive attacks, with the explicit goal of harming the US economy. The group has been seeking to recruit US citizens for lone-wolf operations against US targets.

Also vulnerable is Libya, where a humanitarian crisis led the United States and NATO to impose a no-fly zone. The limited utility of that no-fly zone is now becoming obvious, and NATO faces a harrowing choice: looking away while Khadafy’s forces kill civilians as well as rebels, or getting even more involved in what may well become all-out civil war. Supporting the rebels militarily is particularly worrisome: It is not clear what role Al Qaeda or its affiliate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, is playing in the rebellion.

Libya has produced jihadists against the West, not just against Khadafy; documents seized in Iraq suggest Libya was the second-greatest source, after Saudi Arabia, of foreign fighters in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. But the Libyan regime seems to downplay the problem. A year ago, Seif Khadafy, the ruler’s ostensibly reform-minded son, invited a group of terrorism scholars to witness the release from prison of some 214 Islamist terrorists, whom he claimed had been “rehabilitated.” I was among the experts. We were not persuaded that the terrorists had actually been rehabilitated, in the sense of renouncing violence against innocent civilians. It was striking how our Libyan hosts seemed to imagine that we would accept whatever they told us at face value, even though they gave us access to the newly released prisoners, whose continued interest in jihad rapidly became clear.

If Khadafy falls, these jihadists may become more active, not less. Autocratic rulers are relatively good at stopping terrorism within their borders. There are many more terrorist incidents in democratic India, for example, than in non-democratic China or Saudi Arabia. The most dangerous period, according to economist Alberto Abadie, is the transition from authoritarian rule. Consider Spain in the late 1970s, Russia after the fall of communism, and Iraq today. One thing is crystal clear: Chaos is candy for jihadists. Awlaki predicts that the chaos now spreading in Libya will enable “thousands’’ of now-imprisoned Libyan jihadists to regroup.

No doubt this is bravado on Awlaki’s part. But Al Qaeda has repeatedly altered its mission — from fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan, to forcing US troops to leave Saudi Arabia, to fighting allied forces in Iraq. It has not allowed the achievement of its stated goals to slow its momentum; it finds new reasons for waging jihad. One of its ostensible goals was to remove autocratic Middle Eastern rulers, whom Al Qaeda considers “un-Islamic” and corrupt. While this goal may be partly achieved by the Arab spring, the jihadist movement is unlikely to close up shop.

Eventually, Al Qaeda will fade, as all terrorist movements do. But the Arab spring is unlikely to deal the death blow we might wish for. On the contrary, the terrorism threat to the Middle East as well as the West is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Jessica Stern is a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law and the author of “Denial: A Memoir of Terror.’’