Special Commentary: Popular Movements in the Middle East and the Role of al-Qaeda

Anti-Gaddafi Protests in Benghazi (Reuters)

In light of recent developments in the Arab political scene, Salafi-jihadists have been notably absent from the major uprisings taking place namely the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia, the "Lotus Revolution" in Egypt, and even the ongoing Libyan uprising. After scrutinizing jihadist web forums, most discussions regarding Egypt and Tunisia seem to react to events without taking credit for them, a common practice for jihadists who usually place al-Qaeda and Salafi-jihadists trademarks on them. Furthermore the “official” reaction from al-Qaeda leaders has been late in coming. The organization’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri spoke, although a bit late, about the turmoil in Egypt. Al-Qaeda rhetoric promoting violent jihad, seems to have had very little affect among young Arabs and Muslims in Cairo and other Arab streets. Peaceful political activism proved, so far, to be more effective than al-Qaeda-style actions.
 
Al-Zawahiri and the Trust of the New Arab Street
 
The Salafi-jihadist movement has in fact delivered messages in several forms regarding the developments in the Arab world. Most significantly was a massage from al-Zawahiri who has released, so far, three parts of his message to the Egyptian people entitled “Part Three: Message of Hope and Good Tidings to Our People in Egypt". Al-Zawahiri reflected in his message, particularly in the second part, al-Qaeda’s opinion concerning the new inclination among Arab youth towards peaceful political activism instead of the al-Qaeda-style way of change i.e. violent jihad.
 
Al-Zawahiri, aiming to present the “soft and political” face of al-Qaeda, warned against expansion by using the “al-Tatarrus” concept (literally shielding) meaning that being Muslims among kaffer enemies should not keep jihadists from attacking them, despite possible “collateral” Muslims casualties. Many al-Qaeda attacks were in fact justified using this concept, including the September 11 attacks. Al-Zawahiri followed by stating that:
 
"[…] there are some operations that are truly or falsely attributed to the mujahidin targeting Muslims in mosques, markets other gathering spots. Regardless of the truth or falsity of these operations being attributed to the mujahidin, I and my brothers in al-Qaeda strongly condemn these attacks whether committed by the mujahdin or by others […] Sheikh Osama [Bin Laden] -may Allah protect him- delegated me to emphasize the [importance] of this matter. Hence I advise every mujahid to plan his operation very keenly to avoid injuring anyone who should not be hurt, [according to Islam] whether he is a Muslim or a non Muslim […] and to use all caution in [using] al-Tatarrus".
 
Most studies pointed to the “killing of civilians” as a major issue that prompted al-Qaeda to lose ground and standing in the Muslim world, which makes al-Zawahiri’s remarks significant. His statement shows that al-Qaeda is losing its recruitment ability among the Arab youth, which prompted him to focus on certain issues in his message such as the legitimacy of killing civilians.
 
Attempts to promote this strategy were also stated in a booklet entitled “The Popular Revolution and the Fall of the Corrupt Arab System” written by Aṭīahllah Abū ‘Abd ar-Rahman (nom de guerre), a jihadist whose writings have been recommended by al-Zawahiri. Abd ar-Rahman has asked jihadists in Egypt to deal softly with the public, to avoid “intellectual confrontations”, and to focus on treating people politely. In doing so, al-Qaeda is seeking to gain the trust of the new Arab street. However, al-Qaeda literature remains in the “pre-Arab-revolutions” era, focused on the importance and priority of jihad against the West, and the United States in particular, while portraying them as occupiers and looters of Muslims world. This ideology reflects typical jihadist thought, it also shows how al-Qaeda is banking on the failure of the West in supporting the popular movements in Arab world.       
 
Jihad Against the West
 
Abu Munther Shanqiti, whose name suggests that he is Mauritanian, has recently emerged as an influential jihadist ideologue. Apart from describing him as "a member of the Sharia’a Committee" of the Minbar al-Tawhid w al-Jihad website belonging to well-known jihadist scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, there is not much information about al-Shanqiti.  However his writings, letters, and fatwas suggest that he is an ideologue who is gaining influence. He issued a fatwa calling for the killing of Christian pastors in Egypt, after a series of bombings last December against Copts in Alexandria, Egypt. He has also authored a long letter, entitled “al-Intsar ll-Sujana’a al-Abrar fi Fitnat al-Hiwar” (Advocating the righteous prisoners in affliction of dialogue), which was addressed to the Mauritanian authorities as “a dialogue between the government and the armed groups in the prisons” (http://www.tawhed.ws/a?a=shanqeet).
 
Furthermore, most of al-Shanqiti’s writings focus on Egypt. He has recently written several letters tackling the Egyptian protests in addition to Tunisia’s revolution.  However in one of his letters entitled "the revolution against Mubarak," he rejected the calls against taking part in the demonstrations against the Egyptian regime. This letter was expanded by al-Shanqiti, in response to a question about developments in Egypt and republished under the title "What is the rule of participation in the revolution in Egypt now?”
(http://www.tawhed.ws/FAQ/display_question?qid=4195)
Al-Shaniqiti’s letter on Egypt explains how jihadists should react to the developments in Egypt and shows which opportunities could emerge for al-Qaeda and other affiliated jihadists in light of Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power.
 
Al-Shanqiti concedes from the beginning the failure of jihadists to bring down the Egyptian regime: "We must acknowledge that removing the ruling regime in Egypt is a matter that could not be done [even] by the largest jihadist organizations, so if these demonstrators succeed in toppling it, it will be a great victory for Islam and Muslims (Brynjar Lia, Jihadis Debate Egypt (1) + (2), http://www.jihadica.com, February 4). He deemed it a victory because the West, and the United States in particular, relied on the Egyptian regime to implement their policies in the Middle East. “If the Egyptian regime fell, Allah willing, the West will lose one of its most important agents in the region [… while] the Americans will have to deal in different ways with the peoples of the region…and if the Egyptian regime fell, Allah willing, perhaps several other Arab regimes will follow”.
 
While al-Shanqiti predicted that "the fall of Egypt" would be similar to the September 11 attacks in terms of scale, he also pointed out the necessity of a revolution in Egypt for jihadists and his disdain for the Mubarak regime: "if ten or even a hundred of the best Mujahedeen conducted martyrdom operations in order to destroy Mubarak and his regime I would not see anything wrong in that, because of [these operations] would be in the interest of Islam and Muslims and would mean a defeat to the enemies of religion".
 
The "Myth" of Fearing an Islamist Takeover
 
Al-Shanqiti in his letter, particularly when speaking about the Egyptian regime’s relations with the West, sought to encourage similar violent behaviour in line with al-Qaeda and other affiliated groups, against the “tyrant regime supported by the infidel West”. Although al-Qaeda is out of the current political scene in Arab world, they do represent at the same time, a political alternative if the revolutionary movements fail in Arab world.
 
As the demonstrations break out demanding change and political reform in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and throughout the greater Middle East the fear of a "fundamentalist" power grab, has made headlines in the West.  This fear might have already been implemented into Western foreign policy given that several governments including the United States have mistakenly been prioritizing “stability” rather than “democracy”. Former French Foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who recently resigned, even suggested sending French police units to help Tunisian police forces suppress demonstrators, before her government refused to receive ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on its territory. If the French had intervened, the protesting youngsters would have seen Salafi-jihadist ideology as the only alternative. The youth which organized and led the demonstrations in Tunisia, and Egypt, as well as other neighboring countries, are for the most part politically unaffiliated; they are middle class, educated, believe in civil liberties, human rights, and are able to communicate through new social media networks like "Twitter" and "Facebook". It was obvious that Islamists were not dominating these protests, which makes any policy aimed to hinder reform, out of fear of Islamists rule, unjustified, and against Western interests.
 
For instance, when Egyptian authorities cut off the Internet and launched a violent campaign to quell the demonstrations, many protestors called on the U.S. State Department, and President Obama, to pressure the Egyptian government against censorship. If U.S. policy in Egypt had sought to maintain stability at the expense of political reform, the vast majority of Egypt’s otherwise apolitical youth might have felt "betrayed", and could then have viewed the Salafi-jihadists’s argument that the West supports only tyrant regimes as being justified.
 
Several studies do reject the correlation between political reform and the rise of Islamist militant groups, but only a few studies reject the correlation between frustration and political violence, thus making democracy the only guarantee against radicalization in the Arab world.

Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic Movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to several publications in both Arabic and English. He is also author of the book “The Islamic Movement in Chechnya and the Chechen-Russian Conflict 1990-2000”, Amman, 2001 (in Arabic), and "Iraqi Resistance: National Liberation vs. Terrorism: A Quantitative Study," November 2005 Iraqi Studies Series, Issue 5, Gulf Research Center-Dubai.