04.05.11

Al Qaeda Smells Blood

The unrest in Yemen is giving the terrorist cell a fresh opening. Bruce Riedel on al Qaeda's adaptive strength—and why the world should worry.

As President Ali Abdullah Saleh steadily loses support at home and abroad—including in Washington and Riyadh— al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seems increasingly poised to be a major winner in Yemen. The AQAP threat to American cities and to the other states in the peninsula is going to increase as al Qaeda adapts to the new environment in the Muslim world.

A crafty survivor, Saleh seems to be more in a corner than ever before in his almost four decades in power. He faces growing opposition from within the military; the street protests against his regime are unprecedented. The two outside powers with the most influence, the United States and Saudi Arabia, apparently are looking for a political solution that sends Saleh and his family out of the picture.

AQAP has enjoyed a hiatus from Yemeni counterterrorism operations since the start of the country's revolution. The group has reportedly consolidated its hold on its safe havens in the southeast, with the makings of a mini-emirate there under its influence. Too weak to take over the country, al Qaeda is nonetheless now making headway because the country's security forces are now entirely focused on the succession fight in Sana'a. Other rebels in Yemen, like the Shia Houthis in the north, have also expanded their control while the fight rages over Saleh's reign. Putting these uprisings back in the box will be a major challenge for his successor.

Now AQAP has released an extensive message from its new spokesman, Shaykh Anwar al Awlaki, the New Mexico native and Colorado State graduate. The firebrand expresses his group's satisfaction with the "wave of change in the Muslim world." The latest edition of its English-language Internet magazine, Inspire, has a cogent and clever article by Awlaki entitled "The Tsunami of Change," about how the winter of Arab revolutions will benefit al Qaeda.

Awlaki is honest enough to admit that the terror cell did not see the Jasmine revolutions coming, confessing that he was as surprised as everyone else by the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes. Unlike his boss, Ayman Zawahiri, who seems befuddled by what is happening in Arabia in his public statements, however, Awlaki has adapted to the great Arab awakening of 2011 and put a new spin on what it can mean for al Qaeda. He rejects the argument that the new Arab revolutions challenge al Qaeda's emphasis on terror and jihad as the only means of effecting change in the Islamic world. Rather, he argues al Qaeda can and should adapt to the popular uprisings and exploit them.

Awlaki's assessment of the weakening of the counterterrorist capabilities of states like Egypt and Yemen is a graphic warning that al Qaeda is adapting to the new environment it sees emerging in the Muslim world.

For Awlaki, the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak is the jihadists' biggest victory in Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat 30 years ago. Mubarak's downfall offers al Qaeda and its sympathizers the chance to rev up again in Egypt, a country that has suppressed them for the last three decades. Awlaki predicts that what comes next in Egypt—even if it is "an Islamic government" driven by the hated Muslim Brotherhood or one run by Arab League Secretary General Amre Mousa—will not be as "suffocating" for jihadism as was Mubarak's dictatorship.

Awlaki argues that al Qaeda's prospects elsewhere are brighter still. Whatever happens in Libya, he says, al Qaeda does not believe it is possible to "produce another lunatic of the same caliber as Colonel" Gaddafi, who repressed al Qaeda in Libya for two decades. Even if new regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya want to continue with policies of "appeasing the West and Israel," Awlaki stresses, they will be much weaker and less capable of holding al Qaeda back.

Still, Awlaki singles out Yemen as al Qaeda's most promising prospect in the near term. He rightly notes Saleh is weak and getting weaker and the collapse of the central government's authority directly benefits AQAP. A stronger al Qaeda in Yemen could help subvert Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states. He predicts that the "thousands and thousands of mujahideen in Saudi prisons and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula" will eventually be freed to appease demands for reform and then can resume their "jihadi work."

The al Qaeda leader also argues that an Arab Spring puts America in a difficult situation. The U.S. has been forced to abandon some of its old friends, like Mubarak. Awlaki notes that "the rest of America's servants, littering the scene from Morocco to Pakistan," have to pay attention and know they may be next. Al Qaeda understands that the revolution poses a difficult challenge for America, forcing it to choose between getting on the side of history and keeping intact ties to leaders like King Abdallah in Saudi Arabia or President Zardari in Pakistan.

In all of this, Awlaki, who styles himself an expert on Charles Dickens, sees "great expectations" for al Qaeda. America is "already an exhausted empire" that will have to spread itself thin to fight jihad in new battlefields. The American homeland will be more vulnerable, al Qaeda believes, as the United States gets sucked into more "bleeding wars" in Arabia and North Africa.

Of course, Awlaki is a spin doctor and a propagandist, so we should read his rantings with some skepticism. Al Qaeda is threatened by the success of democratic change in Egypt and elsewhere because it does strike at the heart of the terrorists' narrative, which has long repudiated democracy and popular movements. Awlaki doth protest too much to the contrary. AQAP is trying to put the best spin possible on the victory of Twitter and Facebook, not terror, in the Arab world. But Awlaki's assessment of the weakening of the counterterrorist capabilities of states like Egypt and Yemen is a graphic warning that al Qaeda is adapting to the new environment it sees emerging in the Muslim world. Al Qaeda has always been a remarkably adaptive organization, so we should be prepared for it to adapt even to an Arab Spring.

Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At President Obama's request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.