By James Moxness–
Former Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism and the newest member of the NSJ Advisory Board, Juan Zarate, gave a lecture last week at Harvard Law School entitled “Whither the Arab Spring?” concerning the recent political upheaval in the Middle East, what it means for U.S. counter-terrorism policy, and the future of Al Qaeda.
The unrest that has spread throughout the Middle East, originating in Tunisia and in short order emerging in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and now Syria (with perhaps other states to come), presents a serious messaging problem for Al Qaeda. As shown by a recent statement of Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the changing political landscape has put Al Qaeda in an awkward position. Whereas Al Qaeda had based its ire towards the United States on the premise that the average Muslim was oppressed by a malicious conspiracy of America and Israel, in point of fact the uprisings over the past month have rebutted that narrative. The people of Tunisia, Egypt, and other affected states were in fact venting their decades of frustration at the problems of their own governments’ corruption and repression, and the actions, speech, and targets of their uprisings confirmed this, leaving Al Qaeda’s message of anti-Western and anti-American sentiment facially contradicted. In his statement, Al-Zawahiri tried to resuscitate the Al Qaeda vision by praising the uprisings, and then urging protestors not to stop at overthrowing their own heads of state, but to also take the fight to the greater adversary of America. The Tunisian and Egyptian public, at least so far, appear unconvinced.
Zarate points to the general decline since September 11th, 2001 of Al Qaeda’s polling popularity in the Arab world and its lack of a major terrorist attack since the London Underground bombings in 2005. Al Qaeda’s original intent to turn Iraq into the center of the resistance and the home of a renewed Islamic Khalifate has ultimately failed with the gradual stabilization of Iraq. The difficulties faced by the state of Iraq are principally internal and governmental in inception rather than terroristic, a fact further eroding Al Qaeda’s credibility.
And yet, as Zarate acknowledges, despite all the apparent good news for counter-terrorism and the possibility that a new Arab world may leave scarce room for an organization such as Al Qaeda, serious and disturbing questions remain. In Egypt, known terrorists have fled prison in the chaos, and America’s long-standing diplomatic and intelligence relationships have been overturned. Neutralizing new potential threats, and rebuilding America’s relationship with Egypt, in particular, will pose short- and medium-term challenges. Long-term, one of the most important questions for the Arab people is: what next? The Middle East has taken a promising step toward self-determination, but must find a regionally-relevant solution to the problem of political organization to avoid further strife when the details of charting a new political future must be confronted. How the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab nations answer these questions will ultimately determine whether the Arab Spring flourishes or withers.
Image courtesy of Reuters