April 05, 2021

Al-Qaeda after the Arab Spring: A decade of expansion, losses, and evolution

Originally published in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Ten years ago, when popular uprisings and regime change ricocheted through the Arab world, many in the West wrote off al-Qaeda as irrelevant. What the Arab Spring protests stood for—democracy and better governance, not Islam and different governments—were inimical to al-Qaeda’s aims. U.S. counterterrorism pressure had already diminished the threat from al-Qaeda.[1] The killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 was trumpeted as the nail in al-Qaeda’s coffin. U.S. government officials soon thereafter described al-Qaeda as “on the ropes,” a shadow of its former self, and a movement on the verge of collapse.[2] Yet al-Qaeda’s leaders saw opportunities in the uprisings as Sunni populations mobilized against their governments. These jihadists sought to redirect the revolutions toward al-Qaeda’s purposes. Al-Qaeda prioritized building and expanding its popular base in the conflicts that followed the Arab Spring, focusing locally without losing sight of its global jihad.

Al-Qaeda sees itself as the vanguard for Islam and the Salafi-jihadi movement.[3] It seeks to reform Muslim societies under its narrow interpretation of shari’a (Islamic law)-based governance and frames its fight as defensive jihad, arguing that armed force is obligatory because Islam is under attack. The group seeks to unify the umma, the global Muslim community, in a struggle to lead revolutions across the Muslim world, replacing so-called tyrannical and infidel regimes and imposing governance following a Salafi interpretation of Islam. Ultimately, it seeks the reestablishment of the Caliphate in Muslim lands. Terrorism is only one of its means toward this end.

The Arab Spring revolutions served to re-initiate al-Qaeda’s efforts to overthrow the governments of Muslim-majority states. Breakdowns in governance and security created inroads for al-Qaeda to gain influence within vulnerable communities as counterterrorism pressure lifted. Paradoxically, al-Qaeda benefited further from the rise of the Islamic State, which, though it contested al-Qaeda’s status as the vanguard, galvanized the global Salafi-jihadi movement and drew the focus of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations. Al-Qaeda strengthened in the Islamic State’s shadow, eschewing transnational terror attacks that would shine a spotlight on it again, and pursued its larger strategic aim of transforming Muslim society.[4] U.S. officials once again characterize al-Qaeda as on the verge of collapse, with the “contours of how the war against al-Qaeda ends” visible.[5] Yet misconstruing the absence of terror attacks for weakness misunderstands al-Qaeda’s ultimate aims.

This article was originally published in Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol. 28, No. 1. Access the full version of the article here. Read the PDF.

[1] Obama White House, “Overview of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Review,” press release, December 16, 2010, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2010/12/16/overview-afghanistan-and-pakistan-annual-review.
[2] John O. Brennan, “Strengthening our Security by Adhering to our Values and Laws,” speech, Harvard Law School, Cambridge Massachusetts, September 16, 2011, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/16/remarks-john-o-brennan-strengthening-our-security-adhering-our-values-an.
[3] For more on the Salafi-jihadi movement, see Katherine Zimmerman, America’s Real Enemy: The Salafi-Jihadi Movement, Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, July 18, 2017, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/americas-real-enemy-the-salafi-jihadi-movement.
[4] Katherine Zimmerman, “Al-Qaeda’s Strengthening in the Shadows,” testimony before the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. House of Representatives, July 13, 2017, https://www.aei.org/research-products/speech/testimony-al-qaedas-strengthening-in-the-shadows/.
[5] Chris Miller, “This 9/11 Anniversary Arrives with the End of the War on al-Qaeda Well in Sight,” Washington Post, September 10, 2020.

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