Al Qaeda left out of regional uprisings

By Scott Shane
New York Times / February 28, 2011

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For nearly two decades, the leaders of Al Qaeda have denounced the Arab world’s dictators as heretics and puppets of the West and called for their downfall. Now, people in country after country have risen to topple their leaders — and Al Qaeda has played absolutely no role.

In fact, the motley opposition movements that have appeared so suddenly and proved so powerful have shunned the two central tenets of the Al Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought, and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers.

So for Al Qaeda — and perhaps no less for American policies built around the threat it poses — the democratic revolutions that have gripped the world’s attention are a crossroads. Will the terrorist network shrivel slowly to irrelevance? Or will it find a way to exploit the chaos produced by political upheaval and the disappointment that will inevitably follow hopes now raised so high?

For many specialists on terrorism and the Middle East, though not all, the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda, making the jihadists look like ineffectual bystanders to history while offering young Muslims an appealing alternative to terrorism.

“So far — and I emphasize so far — the score card looks pretty terrible for Al Qaeda,’’ said Paul R. Pillar, who studied terrorism and the Middle East for nearly three decades at the CIA and is now at Georgetown University. “Democracy is bad news for terrorists. The more peaceful channels people have to express grievances and pursue their goals, the less likely they are to turn to violence.’’

If the terrorists network’s leaders hope to seize the moment, they have been slow off the mark. Bin Laden has been silent. His Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, has issued three rambling statements from his presumed hideout in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region that seemed oddly out of sync with the news, not noting the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, whose government detained and tortured Zawahri in the 1980s.

“Knocking off Mubarak has been Zawahri’s goal for more than 20 years, and he was unable to achieve it,’’ said Brian Fishman, a terrorism specialist at the New America Foundation. “Now a nonviolent, nonreligious, prodemocracy movement got rid of him in a matter of weeks. It’s a major problem for Al Qaeda.’’

There is evidence that the uprisings have enthralled some jihadists. One Algerian man associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the network’s North African affiliate, welcomed the uprisings in a weekend interview.

The Arab revolutions, of course, remain very much a work in progress, as the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, orders a bloody defense of Tripoli and Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, negotiates to cling to power. The breakdown of order could create havens for terrorist cells, at least for a time — a hazard Gadhafi and Saleh have prevented, winning the gratitude of the American government.

“There’s an operational advantage for militants in any place where law enforcement and domestic security are weak and distracted,’’ said Steven Simon, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and coauthor of “The Age of Sacred Terror.’’

But overall, he said, developments in the Arab countries are a strategic defeat for violent jihadism.

“These uprisings have shown that the new generation is not terribly interested in Al Qaeda’s ideology,’’ Simon said. He called the Zawahri statements “forlorn, if not pathetic.’’ top stories on Twitter

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