Al Qaeda and the Arab Spring: Balancing Threats and Opportunities


President Obama has recently drawn a lot of flak for his foreign policy. Critics point to the tragic events in Benghazi, the disintegration of northern Mali into chaos, and the resurgence of conservative Islamism in Egypt as proof of his administration’s complete mishandling of a volatile region. Contrary to the implications of these critiques, it is precisely in Egypt and Libya, countries undergoing deep political transformations, where the president can actually point to foreign policy successes, while the countries where he claims successes, namely Afghanistan and Pakistan, remain alarmingly vulnerable to terrorism.

Ayman Az-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s number one, recently provided clear evidence that the organization’s strategy has shifted in light of developments in the region. Just days after Egyptian security forces dismantled terrorist cells in Sinai and the Cairo-suburb of Nasr City, Zawahiri issued a statement — released on Jihadist forums — in which he leveled harsh criticisms at Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, questioning his positions on the war on terror, Israel and the application of shari’a. Evidently at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood, Zawahiri was most likely attempting to appeal to the country’s salafists as he called upon the Egyptian people to resume their “aborted” revolution. As some in the Arab media have pointed out, his plea fell on deaf ears; terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda are increasingly irrelevant to political discourse in Egypt as well as its neighbors. The first round of Egypt’s presidential elections in May 2012 provided strong evidence of this fact: the combined total of votes cast for Hamdeen As-Sabahi and Abd Al-Moneim Abul Fotouh, the two centrist candidates, exceeded that of Mohamed Mursi’s by over three million votes. Additionally, over half of the total votes cast were for non-Islamist candidates.  

This is not to say that the rise of Salafists in Egypt should be of no concern to foreign policy analysts as well as Egyptian minorities and secularists, or that the Muslim Brotherhood’s domestic agenda is especially progressive. What can be said is that the dominant faction in Egyptian political life today is one that favors continuity both with the current geo-strategic order as well as the reigning neo-liberal economic paradigms.

Despite the grief from losing servicemen in Benghazi last month, Americans should take heart in some of the positive developments in Libya, which also present a clear challenge to Zawahiri’s anti-democratic creed. Most notably, in July of this year, the country’s first parliamentary elections resulted in a landslide victory for Mahmoud Jibril’s secular National Forces Alliance, which won over twice as many seats as the Islamist Justice and Construction Party. The 2012 September 11 attack illustrates one of the biggest hurdles for post-Qaddafi Libya: the need for the government to rebuild state institutions that will successfully integrate the country’s disparate regions and absorb the countless militias which undermine its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. It does not, however, erase the progress registered since the Obama administration and its allies in Europe helped Libyan insurgents topple Qaddafi.

Al-Qaeda and its cohorts cannot thrive in countries like Egypt and Libya, and yet opportunities abound elsewhere, particularly in the war-ridden regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan where the current administration claims to have applied a more surgical method of eradicating extremists. While research published by the New American Foundation suggests that civilians accounted for approximately 1-2% of total casualties from drone strikes in Pakistan in 2012 – lower than the historical average rate of 15-16% since 2004 – the current government’s liberal definition of “enemy combatant” to include anyone of military age in the vicinity of a terrorist suspect probably hides the actual extent of collateral damage incurred.

Those figures also ignore other important aspects to drone strikes over the past decade. First, the number of “high-level” targets as a percentage of total casualties resulting from drone strikes since 2004 is around 2%, which means the vast majority of casualties are from the middle ranking operatives who can be easily replaced. Secondly, over the past four years, the percentage of strikes on “Al-Qaeda” targets decreased from 25% to 8%, while the share of “Taliban” targets rose from 40% to 50%. Neither of these figures suggest the U.S. will outlast Al-Qaeda or other forces of extremism in the Afpak region because, on the one hand, the damage inflicted on the families of civilian casualties and low-level combatants serve as endless fodder for terrorist recruitment networks, while on the other hand, the campaign is increasingly targeting the very group which is poised to fill the political vacuum once U.S. troops withdraw.

It is thus in failed states like Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and Mali that Al-Qaeda still has a chance to remain politically relevant. In confronting the challenges posed by terrorist networks in these territories, the next administration should attempt to draw from the potential successes in Egypt and Libya, where political solutions were emphasized over military ones, and military solutions were executed multilaterally. Recent talks between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Algerian President Bouteflika provide a glimmer of hope in the case of Mali as the two parties discussed the possibility of undermining extremist factions by building connections with the country’s Tuareg population. Hopefully such strategies will persist moving forward.