al-Qaeda is the Biggest Loser

Democracy Revolution

by Frank Spring. Originally published by our partner site, World Policy Blog.

The world has watched with hope and trepidation these last weeks as citizens across the Arab world, and particularly in North Africa, exercise their right to political self-determination. Dictators have fallen or are falling, not without bloodshed but, at least in Tunisia and Egypt, without large-scale armed engagement between protesters and supporters of existing regimes. What this portion of the world will look like in a few months’ time is a matter for conjecture, but there is an emerging reality of who has been the biggest loser during this time of upheaval: al-Qaeda.

al-Qaeda has long maligned the secular leadership of the “godless regimes” of the Middle East, vowing their downfall and deriding the notion of peaceful politics as a tool to create Islamic states.  The so-called al-Qaeda Handbook discovered in the Manchester apartment of an al-Qaeda cell-member, is clear on the value of non-violent protests and democratic engagement.  “Islamic governments have never and will never be established through peaceful solutions and cooperative councils”, it says, at length extolling the virtues of violence in the name of Islam before singling out “apostate” rulers, including Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Gaddafi, for particular censure.

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 8, 2011.

The narrative of brave Islamic youth overcoming the oppression of secular (and, where appropriate, Western-backed) dictatorship clearly had some appeal; violent Muslim extremists have operated in the Maghreb for years, and merged with al-Qaeda in 2007 to form al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The protests of the last few weeks will not see the end of AQIM, of course, but it has been dealt a stinging defeat in its self-declared war not only against secular regimes but also against the idea of political engagement.

None of the political concessions and changes of regime that have occurred in the Maghreb have done so as the result of a coordinated campaign of Islamist terror (despite what the increasingly-desperate Gaddafi may say). The worst injury to al-Qaeda may have come in Egypt, where change came about not only peacefully (comparatively), but with the assistance, if not initially the leadership, of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group dedicated to creating an Islamist Egypt through exactly the kind of political engagement al-Qaeda derides (and long-time adversaries of the global terrorist network, to boot).

Not only has al-Qaeda been a complete non-factor in change in the Maghreb, that change has largely occurred using the very means that al-Qaeda has, for years, promised had no chance of working. Their credibility is undermined, and they face the prospect of a Maghreb where disputes are resolved through democratic engagement, and the edge of Islamist political rhetoric blunted by the more mundane and worldly concerns of governing – as inhospitable a recruiting ground as their enemies could wish. al-Qaeda may yet find a way to position itself as the Maghreb copes with the chaos left in the wake of dictatorship but for the moment, it appears the door to North Africa (and, beyond it, Spain and France) may be closing against them. 

Frank Spring is a founding partner of Zentrum, a consulting firm specializing in field, fundraising, and political strategy for progressive organizations.

Al-Qaeda, Egypt, Maghreb, Terrorism, Tunisia