The most significant terrorism related development in the past year has been the death of Usama bin Ladin as a result of a dramatic raid conducted by U.S. Navy SEAL commandos in Pakistan in May 2011. Equally as consequential for al-Qa`ida’s waning fortunes has been the “Arab Spring,” which since February 2011 has completely transformed the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa. These two separate and unrelated developments have been widely heralded as signaling the demise, or at least the beginning of the end of al-Qa`ida.
Yet while Bin Ladin’s death has inflicted a crushing blow on al-Qa`ida, it is not yet clear that it has necessarily been a lethal one. Similarly, while the mostly non-violent, mass protests of the Arab Spring were successful in overturning hated despots thus appearing to discredit al-Qa`ida’s longstanding message that only violence and jihad could achieve the same ends, serious terrorist threats and challenges nonetheless remain, and perhaps have increased, across the region.
Accordingly, however much the core al-Qa`ida (al-Qa`ida central) has been weakened by Bin Ladin’s killing and the effectiveness of U.S. drone attacks, the strength of key al-Qa`ida allies such as al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is increasing. In addition, while the Arab Spring has arguably transformed governance across North Africa and the Middle East, it has had little effect on the periphery of that geographic expanse.
The effects of the Arab Spring in Yemen, for instance, have clearly benefited AQAP at the expense of the chronically weak central government in that country. AQAP in fact has been able to expand: seizing and controlling territory (according to some estimates, amounting to nearly half the country), gaining new adherents and supporters, and continuing to innovate tactically as it labors to extend its attack capabilities beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Although developments in Somalia suggest that al-Shabab, another close al-Qa`ida ally, has suffered a critical setback in the capital, Mogadishu, the group nonetheless maintains a stranglehold over the southern third of the country where a terrible drought and famine threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Al-Shabab’s recent declaration of a formal alliance with al-Qa`ida evidences that the movement’s brand and overall message still has a strong resonance and attraction in at least some corners of the world. In Syria, the longer the civil war rages and the bloodshed, upheaval, and uncertainty continues, the greater the potential opportunities for al-Qa`ida. Indeed, the movement’s fighters have effectively reversed the flow of the insurgent “rat line” that once existed to Iraq to establish a worrisome presence in Syria.
Meanwhile, the instability and disorders generated by the Arab Spring may create new opportunities for al-Qa`ida and its allies to regroup and reorganize. The intelligence and security services of those countries affected most profoundly by the months of protest and upheaval will likely remain less focused on al-Qa`ida and other transnational threats and more concerned with internal problems. Cooperation with their counterparts in the West and elsewhere may no longer be as popular or even tolerated by domestic opinion. Indeed, the number of failed or failing states could grow in the aftermath of the changes witnessed across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.
Bin Ladin’s killing, as previously noted, has prompted tremendous optimism about al-Qa`ida’s continued longevity. Despite the temptation to declare victory, however, it should be kept in mind that al-Qa`ida’s obituary has often been written during the past decade. Moreover, history has shown decapitation alone to be a largely ineffective weapon, rarely producing a decisive end to the targeted terrorist movement. Accordingly, while Bin Ladin’s killing has weakened al-Qa`ida severely, the death of one man alone may not necessarily alter completely the movement’s fortunes.
Similarly, contrary to many predictions, the Arab Spring may not necessarily sound al-Qa`ida’s death knell. First, al-Qa`ida is still strongest at the geographical periphery of the dramatic events of the past six months. Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen remain key al-Qa`ida operational environments and sanctuaries. In Yemen’s case, rather than depriving al-Qa`ida of political space, the Arab Spring has created new opportunities in that country both for AQAP’s expansion and consolidation of its recent gains.
Second, al-Qa`ida’s core demographic has always been disenfranchised, disillusioned, and marginalized youth. There is no evidence that the potential pool of young “hot heads” to whom al-Qa`ida’s message has always been directed has dissipated because of the Arab Spring. Moreover, it may likely grow in the future as impatience mounts and many who took to the streets find themselves excluded from or deprived of the political and economic benefits that the upheavals in their countries promised. The losers and disenchanted of the Arab Spring may thus provide a new reservoir of recruits for al-Qa`ida in the near future. In this respect, it can be argued that al-Qa`ida’s strategy is not to compete with the stronger and better organized Muslim Brotherhood in these countries, but to hope to feed off its malcontents and thereby attract new recruits into its ranks.
It should also be remembered that no single revolution in the Middle East since Turkey in the 1920s has proven to be a force for moderation and democracy in the region. This already unimpressive track record is compounded by the multiple revolutions currently unfolding in various countries, each with different conditions and contexts that will likely prove difficult for the West to influence uniformly in any positive manner. Historically, the West has had problems exercising its influence when there was one revolution in one country at a time. In today’s complex and dynamic regional environment, any moderating influences may either prove impossible to exert or have no effect.
Finally, the likely fragmentation of the jihadist movement as a result of Bin Ladin’s killing and core al-Qa`ida’s weakening will doubtless present new challenges and may create different threats of varying magnitudes in different places—perhaps even simultaneously.
In this respect, counterterrorism authorities should be concerned that al-Qa`ida and/or the jihadist movement might seek to harness the same social networking tools that enabled the Arab Spring to mobilize persons quickly for demonstrations and protests. Social networking tools reportedly figured in the spread of the rioting and looting that convulsed London and other major British cities in August 2011. The Taliban have already created two Twitter sites (@alsomood and @alemarahweb) for publicity purposes, and al-Shabab continues to use Facebook as a radicalization and recruitment tool directed at young Somali-Americans in the United States. Last fall, al-Shabab also inaugurated its own Twitter site. These social networking tools may eventually also be used by terrorists to organize simultaneous swarming attacks in capital cities throughout the world.
Given the tragic events in Norway in July 2011 and Toulouse in March 2012, there is also the threat from lone wolves and aggrieved individuals who might be encouraged by al-Qa`ida and associated groups to carry out attacks on their own with the goal of flooding already stressed intelligence and law enforcement with “noise” that will consume attention and overwhelm security efforts. These lower-level incidents would thus be meant primarily to preoccupy and distract the authorities in hopes that a spectacular al-Qa`ida attack might therefore avoid detection and dramatically shatter complacency. Whether the Toulouse gunman is such a creation remains unclear. Yet the potential for lone individuals to have tragic consequences has now been demonstrated in places as disparate as Texas (with the Fort Hood shootings in November 2009), London (the stabbing of British MP Stephen Timms by a 21-year-old university student), and more recently Norway and France.
In conclusion, history has shown that al-Qa`ida requires a physical sanctuary or safe haven. Indeed, this is why al-Qa`ida has invested so much of its energy in recent years to strengthening the capabilities of its allied, affiliated or associated movements in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia in particular—and over the past three years in Nigeria and surrounding West African countries as well.
Al-Qa`ida has thus created a networked transnational movement to ensure its survival. Rather than the single, monolithic entity of a decade ago, today there are several al-Qa`idas, not just one: each of which has different capabilities and presents different, often unique, challenges. This effectively negates a “one size fits all” strategy. Instead, countermeasures have to be tailored to the specific conditions and realities in each of those countries and regions where al-Qa`ida and its franchises have taken root and indeed have flourished.
At a time of successive international monetary crises, declining national budgets and a diminishing national will to be at war with terrorism, the implications of the movement’s fragmentation are unclear and, as yet, cannot be prudently or safely discounted.
Professor Bruce Hoffman is a Senior Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center, and the Director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C.