Special Reports

Al-Qaida has failed:



Alessandro Bruno


The lessons from the ‘Arab Spring’

Americans and people all over the world rejoiced at the elimination of Osama bin Laden (ObL), the world’s number one terrorist on May 1, 2011, when he was killed in a daring raid by American special forces in Abbotabad, Pakistan. The sudden demise of a figure so emblematic of the past decade, one that diverted the focus of Western foreign policy on confronting terrorism and Islamism, has raised many questions. Apart from security planners and those rightfully concerned with whoever may seek to avenge ObL’s death and the course that al-Qaida will adopt in the post Bin Laden future, it is worthwhile reflecting upon the role played by al-Qaida and similarly minded Islamic fundamentalist groups, in shaping social and political developments in the Arab world, specifically the “Arab Spring”.

The September 11 terrorist attacks embroiled the United States in a seemingly endless struggle with Islamic peoples, elevating the ‘appeal’ – or threat - of Islamic radicalism as an agent of change in the Islamic world, in a way comparable with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The figure of Khomeini, had been replaced by Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network. Western diplomacies and academic circles had since 9/11 always expected that it would be Islamic fundamentalism that would topple the pro-western dictatorships of the Middle East. Yet, as it turned out, they were notable by their absence. It was not the Muslim fundamentalists that played the key role of protagonists in the Arab Spring, even though for the past three decades, they and everyone had seen the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and the spread of Islamist ideologies, since the openings offered by the end of the USSR.

What Has Political Islam Offered; why has it challenged the ‘Western’ Model of Development?
Islamists have tried to convert the religious message into a powerful political force. Radical Islamic movements vary in scope and origin. They have responded to indigenous, cultural, social and economic forces that have silenced competing voices for change in many parts of the Middle East. They have typically espoused an anti-secular ideology to seek to reverse the secular, or ’Western’ drift of the post-war period in much of the Islamic world. Yet unlike secular political programs, the Islamic political agenda has largely neglected economics. Islamic politics are essentially about culture, and speak of dress codes, sexual mores, the family, and the enforcement of social conformity to the tenets of piety. Principally, Islamists have argued that the Shari’a offers a method of governance that is in accordance with principles set out by God. However, they have not provided an analysis of the current state of affairs, or any solution to very ‘real’ economic and social problems, rather different to those of the seventh century, that the Islamic world is actually facing. The Shari’a has mostly been upheld as a symbol of pride and identity. For many Muslims, these had been lost when emerging Islamic states applied institutional and constitutional reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries to emulate the Western model precisely by refuting the Shari’a, and thus moving the clock forward by seven centuries.

The introduction of Western legal systems in the modern States of the Middle East and North Africa was then seen to be an example of cultural imperialism, while the recent revival of the Islamic heritage is viewed as cultural affirmation. Conscious of the mobilizing power of Islamic symbols, even moderate secular ideologies harnessed the political power of Islam. In post-independence Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nasser promoted the idea of jihad as an ideological concept to mobilize the people against internal or external enemies, while the struggle against Western imperialism was veiled in religious terms. Under President Anwar Sadat, religious symbolism was renewed to portray the new president’s distance from socialism, and the Shari’a was officially, if not practically, declared the principal source of legislation. In many Arab nations, attention to the economic hardships of the 1970s was diverted by the State’s promotion of Islamic guidance as the means to revive moral character. Whereas the Industrial Revolution in Europe was enabled by the inherent European phenomena of the Renaissance, religious reform and the Enlightenment, Islamic nations borrowed or imitated these developments without an appropriate cultural frame of reference. This has meant that a cultural vacuum was left within Middle Eastern political discourse (that has subsequently been filled by radical Islam).

Islamist organizations, nevertheless, have managed to gain popularity by filling the void left by the declining State. Support and membership for such organizations cut across class and income barriers as an indication of the frustration of a large portion of society, particularly youth, with the political establishment throughout the MENA region, regardless of whether a monarchy or a secular presidential dictatorship held power. Governments throughout the region have been unable, rather than unwilling, to propose viable solutions to problems of unemployment, housing shortages, deteriorating municipal services, the poor quality of health care, and education. Islamist organizations latterly gained support by being able, at least at the local or community level, as in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt or Hezbollah in Lebanon, to address the day-to-day problems faced by most people, the very same problems that MENA governments have been unable or unwilling to confront. For instance, the MB in Egypt has operated Islamic Investment Companies (IIC) since the mid-1970s that have provided a real positive rate of interest.

The ‘Brotherhood’, which for decades was targeted by Egyptian authorities due to suspected terrorist activities, spread its influence among the general population, mobilising the services of physicians, pharmacists, engineers, accountants and other professionals. They volunteer through independent organizations affiliated with a local mosque, ensuring that the delivery of their service is linked to a politico/religious message that further enhances support for Islamic organizations.

Less socially conscious Islamist organizations have crossed ‘the terrorist line’ by adopting violence and murder directed toward symbols of the Government and its perceived foreign backers, including tourists. Both of these categories are now finding political avenues to profess their ideologies, by participating in the next Egyptian parliamentary elections.

Radical Islamic movements such as al-Qaeda, purported to harness indigenous cultural, social and economic forces that themselves have silenced competing voices for change, in many parts of the Middle East. To the extent that cultural and socio-economic conditions that have fueled Islamic radicalism persist, the Arab world remains very susceptible to the kind of violent unrest inspired by Al-Qaida or similarly minded radical movements. However, they will now be faced with having to compete in a more open and democratic political landscape, that allows for a multitude of voices to express their frustrations in more practical and peaceful ways. Islamists, moreover, will be forced to consider actual socio-economic solutions to society’s ills, rather than focus exclusively on cultural ones. Islamist agendas ignore economics; they are not targeting the overwhelming poverty of the majority of the area’s inhabitants directly. Rather, radical Islamic ideologies are essentially about culture and speak of dress codes, sexual mores, the family, and the enforcement of social conformity to the tenets of piety. While the Islamists promote the Shari’a as a method of governance in accordance with principles set out by God, they have not offered an analysis of the current state of affairs or any solution to the actual economic and social problems that the Islamic world faces now. The Shari’a has mostly been upheld as a symbol of pride and identity. For many Muslims, these had been lost when emerging Islamic states applied institutional and constitutional reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries to emulate the Western model, precisely by refuting the Shari’a.

A tragic consequence of the upsurge of Islamic radicalism is that governments throughout the Middle East have used the immediate threat to resist calls to extend more political and social freedoms to their people, while justifying the use of repressive police and security forces. Nonetheless, given the revived cultural relevance and the socio-economic links that have enabled the formation of grass roots Islamic movements, it is inevitable that Islamic politics will be an important factor of any democratizing effort in the Islamic world.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 promoted a politically invigorated Islam as the most effective vehicle for social and political change in the Middle East, inspiring Islamist political movements in many Muslim countries. Prominent religious figures articulated a reformist and revolutionary brand of Islam that has transformed it from a religious denomination into a potent political force. Suited to the conditions in individual states, and exploiting the disillusionment with secularism, political Islam had crystallized as the most significant opposition among the religiously conscious intelligentsia and lower classes in the Middle East. In short, the Islamic revival had come to represent the search for a formula for political organization, both indigenous and culturally relevant to the peoples of the region. It has to be unlikely that Islamic fundamentalists will be able to take advantage of the transitional phases, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, to take over power. The mass demonstrations filling the streets of Cairo, Tunis or even Sana’a in Yemen, and Damascus, were certainly not dominated by protesters brandishing Quranic slogans, religious symbols or even anti-Western or anti-Israeli displays such as flag burning, or targeted vandalism.

The Minimal Role of Islamists in the Arab Spring: Perhaps ‘Islam is no Longer the Answer’…?
In Egypt, since 1989, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been partially allowed to run in parliamentary elections so long as its candidates refrained from using the MB ‘brand’ explicitly in their campaigning. Prospective members of Parliament would run as independents and voters would recognize a candidate’s MB credentials by the slogan ‘Islam is the Answer’ in campaign material. Islamists have played a remarkably minor role in the revolts both in Tunisia and in Egypt. Indeed, their lack of influence has been surprising, contradicting the many fears that political change in the Arab world would necessarily take an Islamic character. The Egyptian street was largely silent about the Palestinian issue, even though the Brotherhood could have exploited the fact that the Egyptian military, eager to maintain the flow of 1.2 billion dollars in aid from the United States (something which the military establishment is especially eager not to lose) has, in the people’s eyes, held an excessive pro-Israeli stance.

In Tunisia, the Islamist leader Rachid al-Ghannouci returned from a 20-year long exile in London to revive the fortunes of the banned Islamist party, ‘al-Nahda’; it is only one of many parties that are taking shape and by no means the most influential. Likewise, especially in Tunisia, a number of secular parties have emerged to challenge the Islamists, offering the people alternative voices of opposition and challenging proponents of political Islam to submit actual economic plans and growth prospects before the voters. In the face of practical issues, resolving unemployment – by far the most crucial problem facing the large numbers of youth in MENA – political Islam lacks any political currency. The Arab world may be seeing the rise of a true democratizing force, independent of any ideological baggage, which signals the very failure of political Islam, especially in the radical and extreme forms represented by al-Qaida and similar groups. The bombings and murders by radical Islamists have managed to achieve absolutely nothing; peaceful protests by ordinary people (albeit tacitly ‘backed’ by powerful institutions such as the army standing aside), have in short order toppled regimes in two countries, previously considered utterly stable.

The physical demise of Osama bin Laden has, in many ways, followed the ideological demise of al-Qaida itself. The movement will have to struggle to find fertile ground for growth, in the physical and political sense, as the ‘Arab Spring’ phenomenon has shown. Bin Laden’s goals, as announced with the 9/11 attacks, included gaining political hegemony in the Arab world, widely considered a call to re-found the Caliphate. This strategy, even if more blood will continue to be spilled in its name by an ever more isolated group of extremists, is destined to fail in both the short and the long term. Terrorism has not been vanquished, nor is it an exclusively Islamic phenomenon; far from it; however, the tacit approval or consensus that may have fueled ‘al-Qaida’ in the recent past has been eroding. The democratic developments in the Middle East and the striking failure of fundamentalists to play the protagonist role they had always purported to play in resistance to the State, will ultimately deal Islamism, the kind exploiting religious faith through fire and blood, its final blow.

The kind of States that emerge from the ‘Arab Spring’ will determine the speed at which the demise of Islamism occurs. Al Qaida and its subsidiaries’ (al-Qaida in the Maghreb -AQIM, or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -AQAP) have tried to undermine Western presence in the Muslim world (and beyond) and challenge its governing regimes and elites. The absence of democratic avenues for ‘islamist’ ideologies, forced them to seek covert and violent strategies to attract attention. Islamist groups have also targeted their presence in economically depressed regions, essentially in places where governments are weak or practically non-existent. As the West reassesses its strategy in dealing with the Middle East, which will now offer a more variegated political landscape rather than the typical dictatorship, it will have to ‘keep up‘ with and tackle some of the chronic problems - including the Arab-Israeli conflict, once and for all.

The new governments will have to focus on long term development, the kind that enables ordinary people to earn a sense of dignity; if this approach is to succeed the West, for its part will have to contribute through targeted ‘Marshall Plan’-like approaches, in order to maintain the momentum for democratic and economic change. Bin Laden’s death will further contribute to intensifying the dissolution of the Islamic terrorism phenomenon, such that it might be increasingly substituted by the grass roots drive for democratic and social reforms. This is not to suggest that Islamic parties will go away; indeed, there is no doubt that they will seek to play important roles in the future states of the MENA region, but they will now be forced to operate by the rules of parliamentary democracy, which suggests they would find it ever harder to establish Islamic theocracies.
The ‘Arab Spring’ has shown beyond all else, that dissent, in the Middle East, is not exclusive to political Islam.

What Future for al-Qaida?
With O-b-L dead while the political process builds, on present evidence, the already splintering organization of al-Qaida may still find fertile ground in some areas of the Middle East and Africa, as well as its ‘home base’ of Afghanistan/ Pakistan, not for political subversion so much, as being an outlaw non-state actor, engaged in coercion and both targeted and random assassination.

Yemen with its poverty mismanagement has the potential to become a new haven for international terrorism, in a manner similar to Afghanistan or even Somalia. In evidence in 2009, AQAP launched a suicide-bombing attempt to kill the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, that failed. Abdulmutallab, the failed so-called ‘underwear bomber’ over the skies of Chicago in December 2009, said he obtained the explosive device and training in Yemen. Inevitably, the conclusion is that the international terrorist threat from Yemen is growing. The fact that some 40% of Yemen’s 23 million inhabitants live on less than two dollars a day, suffering from hunger and enduring a number of chronic social problems, adds to the perception that Yemen is a failed state. Yemen as a candidate for failure is not new, and in this sense, it has been resilient. Yemen has confronted secession and civil war throughout its recent history; however, a number of converging sources of pressure are hampering the Yemeni government’s ability to manage them. The recent exacerbation of the secessionist conflict in the South, added to a Shiite-Houthi revolt in the North, is being compounded by the depletion of oil and water resources and unsustainable demographic growth, making it harder for Yemen to recover. Yemen’s potential collapse is a source of great regional and international security concern – not the least of which is Yemen’s strategic position in the Bab al-Mandab strait at the very mouth of the Red Sea. AQAP, if it can survive would find it easier to use the country as a base to launch or organize attacks, while making the country a more effective avenue for illicit arms proliferation.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world; there is no investment in new oil exploration because of the high security risks. The World Bank has warned that Yemen’s oil supplies, which generate 90% of export revenue, will end in 2017. The government does not have an economic plan to deal with the ‘post-oil’ future, which is likely to be one of economic collapse. Yemen faces the bleak prospect of becoming another Somalia, prompting the rise of piracy, black markets and compromising the safety of international shipping routes in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia and the United States have been trying to avert Yemen’s collapse by helping the government restore some authority and stability. However, much of this effort has been military, which may worsen rather than improve the situation, especially in view of the recent wave of protests in the Arab world that have come to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’.

The Sahel
One other key region that qualifies as a low-intensity conflict zone is the Sahel region. The Sahel is a vast no man’s land, providing unique opportunities for all sorts of criminals and gangs that seek to operate below the radar screens of governments. The Sahel is unique in that just below and parallel with the Maghreb; it bisects the African continent, stretching 3,862 km (2,400 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. It is not so far north that it escapes the control of the relatively powerful security forces of the Maghreb nations. It is also unique in that it links the Atlantic Ocean, enabling drug traffickers from Latin America to have access to a zone that links with Europe to the north and the Middle East to the east, where the Sahel reaches the Red Sea, which in turn links several troubled nations from Sudan on the African continent to Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula. This stretch of a dead zone, essentially home of nomadic tribes that dislike central governments and which have grievances of their own, touches several nations in an area of almost 1.2 million square miles. The countries that qualify as Sahel nations include: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, also to a much more limited extent Algeria and Libya. In these countries, there is never any shortage of crises and grievances.

Ethnic feuds are also fueling tension in the region. Any time a crisis erupts either in Mali or in Niger involving the Touareg tribes, neighboring Algeria, for example gets affected one way or another. This is because the same tribes that are quarrelling in the south have links and relationships in Algeria and elsewhere in the desert. International influence in the region has been growing, complicating the scene, and each government. These are the Maghreb nations individually, France, the United States and even Israel have been looking for ways to influence events there. In such a massive security vacuum, it is not surprising that all sorts of criminals have been looking to establish a foothold in the region. This is not a conquest exclusive to oil and mining companies, but criminal gangs and terrorists are even more active. The most talked about group formerly called the GSPC, is now calling itself Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM. The group has emerged as a continuation of Algeria’s GSPC insurgent group, which was virtually eliminated in northern Algeria by sustained military offensives, combined with a policy of reconciliation pursued by the Algerian government, with the effect of reducing the numbers of insurgents.

The Sahel Drug Connection
AQIM survives because it has found a shelter in the vast desert of the Sahel, from which is kidnaps tourists, stages attacks against military installations, and business facilities. It also fuels the crisis in the north by supplying weapons it purchases in the region with money earned in kidnappings, extortions, drug trafficking, and other crimes. To complicate matters and as part of this complicated commerce of death, in recent years South American drug cartels have been using West Africa, with a direct link to the Sahel, as a convenient thoroughfare to ship cocaine and other drugs to Europe.

In March 2009, President Joao Bernardo Vieira of Guinea Bissau was killed in what many believe to have been a revenge attack, after the army chief of staff died in an explosion a few hours earlier, likely motivated by the drug trade. Guinea-Bissau has become one of the main entry ‘ports’ for smuggling South American drugs (arriving via specially outfitted aircraft that fly low over the Atlantic to evade radar) to the Sahara and then Europe. A Boeing 727 loaded with cocaine seemingly crashed in the desert of Mali in December 2009, suggesting the trade is booming. The cocaine travels toward Libya or Morocco using the same former slave trade routes, still used by human and arms smugglers. While the drug trade itself acts as a destabilizing element, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb participate in the trade as they seek funds to buy weapons.