At first glance it appears that the Arab uprisings have strengthened Al-Qaeda and similar groups that fly the black banner. With the possible exception of Tunisia, the rest of the “Arab Spring” countries have either experienced unprecedented repression (Egypt, Bahrain) or chaos (Libya, Yemen, Syria). Thus, many in the Arab world have come to believe that the removal of local autocrats hardly guarantees good governance – an argument Al-Qaedists have been making for years.
The uprisings weakened the control of some Arab governments over their territories. This provided Al-Qaeda affiliates with sanctuaries from which they might harass their enemies. From Tunisia to the Sinai to Syria and Iraq, affiliates, wannabes, and copycat groups proliferated, wreaked havoc on fragile transitional governments, and sometimes took the lead in ongoing struggles. One even established a caliphate of its own carved out of Syria and Iraq. Finally, uprisings in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain seem to confirm Al-Qaeda’s core belief that victory against oppression could be won only through violence.
Nevertheless, the proliferation of affiliates masks a phenomenon that would have been deeply troubling to the original Al-Qaeda cohort. From its inception, Al-Qaeda was not big on organization. Bin Laden himself once remarked there was no such thing as Al-Qaeda. The term, he claimed, merely referred to what a bunch of guys hanging out in the Afghan badlands waging jihad called their headquarters, their base (al-qaeda in Arabic). This was the term which Westerners latched on to and endowed with substance. More important than organization was ideology —- the common bond that held Al-Qaeda affiliates together and united them.
Al-Qaeda’s ideology can be broken down into two parts: First, Al-Qaedists believe that the Islamic world is at war with a transnational Crusader-Zionist conspiracy which includes states hostile to the Islamic world. Among them are the United States and the rest of the West, Israel, Russia, and even India and China. It is this “far enemy,” and not the local despots (the “near enemy”) who do its bidding that should be the target of jihad. For Al-Qaeda, local despots are merely the henchmen of the “far enemy” and have no power except that which the latter has endowed them with. Thus, once the “far enemy” is dealt a critical blow, the power of the “near enemy” would crumble.
There’s a marked difference between Al-Qaeda and ISIS/IS
Al-Qaeda also opposes the division of the Islamic world into individual nation states which, they claim, is a trick perpetrated by the Crusader-Zionist conspiracy to keep the Islamic world weak and divided. For Al-Qaeda, state boundaries are to be ignored, if not eliminated. That is why Al-Qaeda affiliates are not named after states but rather after regions: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa); Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (actually, fi bilad ar-rafidin—in the land of the two rivers—usually mistranslated as Al-Qaeda in Iraq). Al-Qaeda has never made clear what will happen after the nation state is eliminated from the Islamic world except for scattered and vague references to a restored caliphate whose definition shifts from Al-Qaeda spokesman to Al-Qaeda spokesman. Nevertheless, these two points are the foundation for the Al-Qaeda philosophy.
But now Al-Qaeda’s ideological cohesion has dissipated. Local groups modeling themselves on Al-Qaeda and calling themselves “Ansar al-Sharias” have emerged in the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 in various countries. Emulating al-Qaeda’s tactics but picking and choosing from its philosophy, they have taken on local coloration, have forsaken global jihad in favor of fighting their own weak post-“Arab Spring” governments (the “near enemy”), and name themselves after the states in which they operate–Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, etc. In other words, they ignore the two central tenets of Al-Qaeda’s ideology.
Nowhere is the rift between al-Qaeda and its offshoots more evident than in Syria. Not only did ISIS/IS defy Al-Qaeda central by refusing to leave the struggle in Syria to a rival group, Jabhat al-Nusra, as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda central ordered it to, its leader put himself above al-Zawahiri by declaring himself caliph; that is, the supreme leader of the Muslim world. ISIS/IS also promotes the doctrine of takfir -— the practice of declaring self-professed Muslims apostates, thus authorizing “true Muslims” to kill them. Hence, the sectarian bloodbaths unleashed by ISIS/IS, which al-Qaeda central finds counterproductive and has roundly condemned.
And even Jabhat al-Nusra, an official Al-Qaeda affiliate, abandoned central elements of al-Qaeda’s belief system by asserting its struggle is in Syria alone and its aim is to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It has set aside the Islamic punishments and restrictions on personal behavior and religious practice that made ISIS/IS unpopular in the territories it “liberates,” and has even fought pitched turf wars with ISIS/IS.
What, then, is Al-Qaeda’s current state? If one looks at Al-Qaeda not as an entity but as a tendency within a broader jihadi movement, it might be argued that the groups that operate as Al-Qaeda affiliates, wannabes, and copycats have profited from the Arab uprisings in terms of expanding their operations and digging in, although in the process many have jettisoned many of the central tenets of the original cohort. This might be evolution, but it is just as likely to mark the deterioration or even the dissolution of the Al-Qaeda wing of the jihadi movement.
James L. Gelvin does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.