The recent video by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ought to be readily dismissible. Unfortunately, his carefully crafted remarks require serious scrutiny. They had multiple messages aimed at numerous constituencies and represent al-Qaeda’s first major effort at an ideological intervention in the emerging Muslim political landscape.
His principal task was twofold. Until now, al-Qaeda has not known how to respond to the Arab uprisings. Al-Qaeda did not anticipate, inspire or inform them, and their emphasis on elections, democracy and nationalism all run counter to its ideology. Al-Qaeda once again seemed moribund, with many of its leaders killed and its ideology rejected by the overwhelming Arab majority. But renewed political and military chaos in Muslim states threatens to resurrect it, and Zawahiri’s address outlined where al-Qaeda sees new opportunities.
First, he was trying to present al-Qaeda as the vanguard of all Salafist movements in post-dictatorship Arab states that have emerging, quasi-orderly political systems rather than ongoing, armed civil conflicts. Second, he was trying to position al-Qaeda as the brand-name for all Salafist-Jihadist groups fighting in war-torn regions, particularly the Syrian uprising.
Zawahiri was offering himself as the leader of all the Salafists in the Arab world in their emerging rivalry with the Muslim Brotherhood and other less extreme Islamist forces, especially in Egypt. Zawahiri, remember, is himself Egyptian, a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group before moving to Afghanistan and merging with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. Zawahiri’s most pointed attack was on the new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, who he said had “no authority.”
Zawahiri lambasted Morsi at length over Egypt’s continuing ties and maintenance of its peace treaty with Israel. As usual, Zawahiri preposterously tried to pose as a champion of the Palestinian cause (for which he plainly has no actual regard whatsoever). Moreover, he clearly implied that the Muslim Brotherhood had “betrayed” the Egyptian revolution, accused the new government of being corrupt and failing to implement Sharia Law, encouraged the kidnapping of Westerners and implicitly endorsed armed resistance against the new Egyptian government.
Zawahiri’s attack on the Muslim Brothers was also implicitly aimed at Salafists in Libya and Tunisia, suggesting the new governments there were at least as unsatisfactory as Morsi’s in Egypt. The problem for al-Qaeda is that its message is deeply unpopular with the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims, and that even the Salafist groups are decidedly heterogeneous and often more interested in preparing for elections than in his message of armed “jihad.”
The even more sinister element of his remarks is al-Qaeda’s efforts to associate its brand with Salafist-Jihadist activities in lawless Muslim states, particularly the uprising in Syria. The Syrian armed opposition is becoming increasingly Islamist due to a combination of Western neglect and funding from supporters of “jihad.” Al-Qaeda is clearly hoping that Syria will become its new focal point following Iraq, and seems to be watching that indeed developing.
Meanwhile, its co-ideologists in Afghanistan and Pakistan are thriving, and could benefit from a coming US withdrawal. American drone attacks, it could be argued, do as much harm as good, as they are often indiscriminate and engender deep local resentment.
Al-Qaeda’s worldview is making disturbing headway in numerous parts of Africa. Ansar al-Dine is wreaking havoc in Mali. And while they are unpopular in Libya, Salafist-Jihadists may well have been directly responsible for the attack that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stephens. Salafist-Jihadist forces are finding fertile grounds in the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula, and operate with impunity in large parts of Yemen.
As Hamas is making significant headway in rejoining the mainstream Sunni Arab fold under Qatari patronage, the even more extreme religious right in Gaza is taking on an increasingly Salafist-Jihadist tinge, apparently linked to like-minded forces in Sinai. Jordan, where the traditional social contract is increasingly threatened, is also displaying unmistakable signs of infection by this brand of politico-religious extremism, with the recent thwarting of an extremely sinister terrorist plot.
But it is Syria, left fallow by Western neglect, that is providing Salafist-Jihadist groups with their primary new battle and training ground, and lease on life.
The old al-Qaeda, led by Zawahiri, has been mainly reduced to a propaganda outfit and brand name. But his recent video was a disturbing effort to imprint that brand on the fighting in Syria, and similar conflicts in Yemen, rural Libya, parts of Iraq, and, increasingly, various areas in Africa.
Al-Qaeda’s methods are repugnant. Its message is unpopular. Its appeal is highly limited. But where there is warfare, chaos and conflict, it will continue to find new incubators, and the cancer will continue to metastasize. Zawahiri knows this, and his video demonstrates he sees opportunities in both war-torn and more politically stable new Arab political environments. We have been warned.