Al-Qaida's idea, three years on

The Arab awakening promised democratic change and the end of violent jihadism. Today, the losers of 2010-11 are again on the rise.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
2 January 2014

At the turn of 2013-14, the al-Qaida idea is making progress in three theatres of conflict: Iraq, Syria and the Caucasus. In other regions, the same symptoms are apparent. This process is very different to what many anticipated at the start of the Arab awakening exactly three years ago.

At the end of 2013, the Iraq Body Count project found that there had been 9.472 civilian deaths during the year, more than twice the annual figure for 2010-12. Lily Hamourtziadou reports that much of the explanation lies in the rise of determined Sunni paramilitaries loosely linked to the al-Qaida idea:

"Al Qaeda in Iraq has found fertile ground in all this discontent and has attacked the Iraqi government, as the Syrian government is being attacked this year, by killing members of its army, its police force, its politicians and journalists, as well as its Shia population."

In Syria, across an increasingly porous border, Bashar al-Assad's regime has gained substantial military strength, principally via its ability to operate a range of deep-strike systems including aircraft, artillery rockets and helicopters. The regime has been greatly aided by Russia, particularly in maintaining and upgrading its airforce, including Mi-24 attack helicopters and Sukhoi Su-24MK ground-attack aircraft. These are reported to have been upgraded at the Rzhez aircraft-repair plant near Moscow (see Lale Sariibrahimoglu, “Syria retains deep-strike capability”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 1 January 2014).

This support has contributed to Damascus's increased success against the more secular of the opposition forces, tilting the advantage on the ground further in the direction of the better organised and highly motivated Islamist elements. Thus in both Syria and Iraq, the al-Qaida idea gains new potency.

In Russia too, the authorities face intensified action by the so-called Caucasus Emirate in the run-up to the winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014. The two suicide-bombings on 29 and 30 December 2013 in the southern Russian city of Volgograd are signals of this; more such attacks may very well follow.

The games themselves may in the end be relatively secure, not least since the Kremlin will field more than twice the police and army personnel that London deployed for the much larger summer Olympics in 2012; but this also means that the rebels will seek to strike civilian targets elsewhere in Russia. 

The Tunisian case

Beyond Russia and the north Caucasus, there is persistent insecurity in a swathe of countries in Africa and Asia: among them northern Nigeria, Mali, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A connecting thread in the unrest is the steady metamorphosis of the al-Qaida movement from a centralised movement into an idea. This theme is developed in a new briefing from Oxford Research Group, which describes al-Qaida as an “idea in search of a cause”. A key ingredient is the ability quickly to gain adherents to local movements in response to perceptions of marginalisation and the failure of secular movements:

"[The] current status of al-Qaida is one of numerous affiliates with variable relations with each other and with what is left of the core of the movement, often with high degrees of individuality. By no means do all of them put global jihad at the top of their agenda, yet all share a vision of some kind of Islamist Caliphate. If the al-Qaida movement is now primarily an idea, it is one that latches on to other conflicts and has the ability to make them its own" (see "Al-Qaida: An Idea in Search of a Cause", Oxford Research Group, 23 December 2013).

A striking case in point is Tunisia, where the new authorities themselves espouse the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood yet are unable to prevent the growth of much more radical Islamist elements. The government is failing to deliver on a wide front: the economy remains problematic, and there are hundreds of thousands of young people with little prospect of an improving life. For them, the high expectations aroused by the end of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 have not been fulfilled.

Tunisia's government is attempting to curb radical groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, which the state deemed a terrorist threat in August 2013. At the same time, the influence of radical preachers advocating a vision close to that of al-Qaida has markedly grown. In the words of one report:

"The Salafist mosques provide open spaces for inquiring youths who are lured by charismatic preachers offering a stirring mix of camaraderie and talk of holy war and self-sacrifice in the name of God (see Carlotta Gall, “In Tunisia, recruiting teenagers for jihad”, New York Times, 19 December 2013).

Tunisian officials report that many hundreds of young men go on to be recruited into groups that send them to fight with Islamist rebel groups in Syria. The fear is that they will be further radicalised in the struggle there, before returning to Tunisia even more committed to transforming the state.

The fearful trend

Since the Arab awakening began, several analysts have argued that a democratic transition across the region would discredit al-Qaida's vision of violent revolution. By the same logic, however, there is clearly a risk that the failure of democratic transition leads - as in Tunisia - to bitterness, resentment, and a jihadist recovery.

Egypt is both far larger than Tunisia and in many ways a more complicated society. The military overthrow of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government, which was backed by considerable popular support, has resulted in what in some respects is little more than a military autocracy. The authorities are using ever-increasing force to repress opposition from remaining elements of the Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organisation; to target extreme Salafist groups; and to clamp down on dissidents and the press (with four al-Jazeera journalists currently in detention.)

Al-Jazeera, almost the only TV channel reporting on the security strategy, incurred the anger of the government in its coverage of the Rabba massacre when hundreds of Brotherhood supporters were killed (see Hugh Miles, “Why is Egypt’s government targeting Al-Jazeera?", BBC News, 30 December 2013). The Egyptian government is thus following a policy of repressive control of dissent which may work in the short term, but in the longer run is highly likely to be deeply counterproductive by allowing far more radical Islamist elements to gain strength.

In 2010-11, the Arab awakening erupted in Tunisia and rapidly spread to Egypt, leading to the sudden collapse of two apparently powerful autocracies. The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 could be regarded as a culmination of the same trend. Now, however, there is a real risk of Tunisia again becoming a pioneer - this time, in a negative and fearful way. Along with the violent developments in Syria, Iraq, and Russia the trend is ominous. The al-Qaida vision seemed deeply wounded three years ago, even on the way to being dead and buried. Today that looks more and more like wishful thinking.

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