A month before he was killed in a U.S. Navy SEAL team raid on his compound in May 2011, Osama bin Laden described the Arab Spring uprisings as a “tremendous event,” according to a cache of letters and documents seized from the al Qaeda leader’s hideaway and recently released by American authorities. Bin Laden suggested launching a media campaign to incite “people who have not yet revolted and exhort them to rebel against the rulers” while hoping to guide them away from “half solutions” like secular democratic politics.
The documents show that bin Laden was deeply troubled by an apparent loss of Muslim public support, and a few months before his death, he considered changing the name of al Qaeda to allow it to better exploit the Arab revolts of 2011. One of the major lessons learned from the small selection of documents (only 17 out of tens of thousands were made public) is that bin Laden, along with his very few surviving top lieutenants, was fully aware that al Qaeda’s standing among Arabs and Muslims suffered a major setback and that rebranding his group was essential to its survival.
Indeed, long before the Arab uprisings, the bin Laden group—as we might term its remnants—had lost the struggle for Muslim hearts and minds. In many countries, information about al Qaeda suspects now comes from citizens, including family members, friends, and neighbors, not from surveillance and intelligence sources. This shift demonstrates a hardening of Muslim public sentiment against bin Laden’s men, as the preaching of a borderless jihad centered on terrorism stopped resonating with ordinary Muslims.
Contrary to received wisdom in the West, there never was any swell of Muslim public support for bin Laden and his transnational jihadi contingent. More of a fringe phenomenon than a popular social movement, borderless jihad has never enjoyed a big constituency in Muslim societies. Although many Muslims critique U.S. foreign policies, particularly involving the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, only a small segment condones a direct war with the West or the killing of noncombatants.
Yet even more than the killing of bin Laden, the Arab uprisings—in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain—have not only shaken the very foundation of the regional authoritarian order but unraveled the standard terrorism narrative. As the Arab revolts gathered steam, al Qaeda was notably absent. Neither jihadist slogans and rituals nor its violent tactics found a receptive audience among the millions of Arab protesters.
Al Qaeda offers no economic blueprint, no political horizon, and no vision for the future. While millions of Arabs demand effective citizenship, genuine elections, and the separation of powers, al Qaeda considers elections and democracy “heresy” and an “evil principle.” Out of touch with the aspirations of millions of Arabs who called for political emancipation, Abu Yahya al-Libi, a top al Qaeda chief, lectured them against “wasting the fruits of liberation” and pursuing democracy, because it is a “road to hell.” Al-Libi, celebrated as a rising star among al Qaeda’s dying lieutenants, called for the establishment of an Islamic emirate on Quranic laws.
While al Qaeda’s chiefs shun political participation and activism, preaching that only violence and terrorism will bring about political change, the new Arab uprisings are basically peaceful. There exists a fundamental clash between al Qaeda’s ideology and tactics and the masses. The millions of Arabs who took to the streets openly have shown that politics matters and that peaceful protests are more effective at delivering change. The ballot box and parliamentarianism, not the sword and the caliphate, are their rallying cry, an utter rejection of what al Qaeda stands for.
Trying to jump on the bandwagon of the protesters and appeal to them, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s current emir, reminded Egyptians that before he escaped from the country, he “had participated in many popular protests and demonstrations,” including one “in Tahrir Square in 1971.” Far from it. Several of Zawahiri’s contemporary associates have told me that he never believed in political activism as a means to overthrow the secular Egyptian regime and did not even use the mosque for recruitment or mobilization.
From a very young age, growing up during a period of profound socioeconomic and political change in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, Zawahiri rejected the political process and waged a crusade against the Egyptian government, a crusade that took him from a high school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Egypt to the killing fields of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mass protesters in Egypt succeeded in toppling an autocrat by peaceful means where Zawahiri failed to do so by violent means in a lifetime.
Religious-based activists—such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Party of Justice and Development in Morocco—are poised to take ownership of the seats of power in the Arab heartland in the coming years. But these Islamic modernists have little in common with al Qaeda, and most accept democratic values in shaping the future political trajectory of their societies. Mainstream Islamists of all colors avoid any association with al Qaeda like a plague. There is no Ayatollah Khomeini waiting in the wings to hijack the Arab revolts and seize power.
Despite repeated claims by Arab autocrats such as Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Ali Abdullah Salah, and Bashar al-Assad, al Qaeda not only did not spearhead the Arab uprisings but is distinguished by its absence.
After recovering from the shock, al Qaeda leaders fully embraced the uprisings and welcomed the downfall of their archnemeses in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and now Syria. More importantly, they would like to ride the Arab revolts and take ownership of them. In his posthumous message, bin Laden expressed his “happiness” and “delight” with the demonstrators, saying the umma (the global Muslim community) had been waiting for the revolution for decades. He said he hoped the “the winds of change will spread over the entire Muslim world” and liberate it from “Western domination.”
In his eulogy of bin Laden, Zawahiri celebrated the “the fall of corrupt and corrupting agents of America in Tunisia and Egypt, and the shaking of their thrones in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.” He affirmed his support for the uprisings in Yemen and Libya and called upon the people not to be “tricked” by American and Western support for the uprisings, particularly the NATO mission in Libya.
Aware of inherent contradictions between al Qaeda’s ideology and the protesters’, al-Libi, Zawahiri’s right-hand lieutenant, described the uprisings as an extension of al Qaeda’s prolonged struggle to expel Western influence from the Muslim world, “a step of many efforts to reach the goal.”
Yet the Arab awakenings have reinforced what many of us have already known: al Qaeda’s core ideology is intrinsically incompatible with the universal aspirations of the Arabs—including human rights and dignity, social justice, free elections, peaceful transition of leadership, and separation of powers. The millions of protesters have neither burned American and Western flags nor blamed Western colonialism for their predicament.
Focusing on internal, not external affairs, the broadly based mass protests called for restructuring Arab societies along pluralistic lines and putting an end to political authoritarianism. The key goal of the demonstrators was sociopolitical and economic transformation through the ballot box, as opposed to the bayonet and suicide bombing.
Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and their associates were caught off guard by the storm and have labored to understand its impact. Of all militants, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni militant preacher killed by a U.S. drone bomb in 2011, was candid and realistic, conceding that al Qaeda had nothing to do with the historical developments remaking the region. In an article titled “Tsunami of Change,” which appeared in his Inspire magazine in May 2011, Awlaki said that “we do not know yet what the outcome would be, and we do not have to. The outcome doesn’t have to be an Islamic government for us to consider what is occurring to be a step in the right direction.”
Surely, Awlaki does not speak for al Qaeda, whose raison d’être is the establishment of Quranic-based emirates, not parliamentary- and presidential-based governments elected by a popular will. There are few Arab buyers for al Qaeda’s sales pitch, and the relatively peaceful revolutions represent a hard blow to al Qaeda ideology and violent tactics alike.
The broadly based peaceful Arab uprisings have demolished al Qaeda’s claim that the Islamist vanguard will spearhead revolutionary change in Muslim societies. On the whole, the revolts are peaceful, nonideological, and led by the embattled middle class, including a coalition of men and women of all ages and political persuasions: liberal-leaning centrists, Democrats, leftists, nationalists, and Islamists who accept the rules of the political game.
What the Arab revolts have shown is al Qaeda’s deepening crisis of legitimacy and authority, a crisis more detrimental to its future than the military defeat that it has suffered. Bin Laden and his successor, Zawahiri, neither speak for the umma nor exercise influence over Arab public opinion. The documents released by American authorities show that bin Laden, in his last dying days, recognized the gravity of the loss of Muslim opinion, though he was powerless and sidelined to halt the decline.
Nevertheless, the Arab revolts have left bin Laden’s vanguard behind. The terrorism narrative has suffered an equally hard blow. The question is not why Muslims hate America so much, as the conventional wisdom would have it after the Sept. 11 attacks, but why Western pundits and policymakers underestimated the millions of Arabs and Muslims yearning for universal values such as human rights, the rule of law, effective citizenship, and open and pluralistic societies?
So what remains of al Qaeda? Very little. Today it comprises roving bands limited to the mountains and valleys of Pakistan tribal areas along the Afghan border (where bin Laden was assumed to be hiding), remote areas in Yemen along the Saudi border, and the wastes of the African Sahara and the Maghreb. Its actions show a consistent pattern of ineptitude. Its leadership relies, increasingly, on half-hearted, inexperienced freelancers or unskilled, late-bloomer recruits. Far from an asset, the seized documents show bin Laden to be very concerned that indiscriminate attacks by al Qaeda’s local branches and allies have turned Muslim opinion against his organization.
Only a miracle will resuscitate a transnational jihad of the al Qaeda variety. The question is whether a civil war, which will ensue if democratic change does not come to those who demonstrated for it since the early spring in 2011, will provide that miracle.
Al Qaeda is a parasite that feeds on social instability and turmoil. If democratic transition is aborted in Arab countries, al Qaeda local branches might exploit the ensuing turmoil and spread their tentacles near and far. In particular, Yemen and Libya (and the raging war in Syria) are vulnerable because of their fragility of their institutions, lack of an effective centralized authority, and the presence of militants who subscribe to al Qaeda’s ideology. U.S. officials are anxious that extremists who subscribe to al Qaeda’s ideology might manipulate the rocky transitions in these countries to establish a foothold and spread their influence.
The general tendency of the so-called terrorism experts has been to focus on al Qaeda’s violent ideology and neglect the wider context that decisively shapes how ideology operates. It is only by studying the social conditions that give rise to violent ideologies that one can shed light on the drivers behind them.
The Arab uprisings are essentially a reaction en masse to decades of authoritarianism, abuse of power, and economic deprivation, as well to the absence of hope as a natural outcome of this structural crisis. Thus, the Arab Spring represents a fundamental challenge to the very conditions that fuel extremist ideologies. Time will tell if the Arab revolts will manage to fill the gap of legitimate political authority. If this happens, Arab opinion with deliver the final blow to al Qaeda and its local branches.