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Will Al-Qaeda adjust its strategy to accommodate the changes in the regional system?

By Moshe Covo & Gilad Zahavi

The wave of uprisings in the Arab world, which began when the wick of popular revolutions was ignited in Tunisia in January 2011, has challenged Al-Qaeda’s strategy advocating the waging of an armed and violent campaign for bringing down the Muslim governments.

The relative success of the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt (thus far), alongside the ongoing confrontations between the citizens and the governments in other places in the Arab region such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, have prompted a critical discourse on the Jihadi forums about the failure of Al-Qaeda’s strategy over the last decade. Many surfers contended that non-violent protests by groups of citizens who are not organized under one roof, have reaped success and brought the downfall of dictators who high-handedly held government for decades. In contrast, Al-Qaeda which is an extremely hierarchical organization with a wide range of reciprocal relationships with many Jihadi offshoots around the world advocating a methodical and organized system (“the Seven Stages”) based on a clear and open ideology, has failed miserably in achieving one of its main objectives – bringing down what it calls the “tyrannical” regimes.[1]

On the other hand, prominent ideologists and writers identified with global Jihad who were aware of the criticism against Al-Qaeda, have rushed to defend the organization’s policy, while attempting to appropriate the uprisings in the Arab world and attribute them to the ideas instilled by Al-Qaeda over the years. The main theme in their claims is that the Mujahideen must help the insurgents in the various regions in a manner that expedites the completion of the task of bringing down the “tyrannical” governments.

For example, in Bin Laden’s eulogy given by Ayman Al-Zawahiri on June 8th 2011, he said the following in reference to the changes in the Arab world:

“We support their blessed uprisings (of the Muslim people) in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya,  Yemen and Al-Sham, and we are their partners in one campaign against America and  those helping it.”

In an attempt by the Al-Qaeda leadership to portray itself as an organization provoking the events and leading them, and not trailing behind them, Ayman Al-Zawahiri added:

“We call on the multitudes of the nation’s Muslims in beloved Syria to continue with the fight, the battle and Jihad against the corrupt criminal government, shedding the blood of its people… We furthermore stress to the people of beloved Yemen… we are with them in their uprising against the usurper, the traitor and criminal Ali Abdullah Saleh and his band… and they must continue in their rage and in making sacrifices until the corrupt traitorous government is ousted… And we tell the people of Libya standing firm and fighting the holy war… do not allow the NATO crusaders to bargain with you over your independence… prepare, get ready, equip yourselves and arm yourselves with weapons and equipment…”.

It seems that following the changes in the regional scheme and Bin Laden’s death at the beginning of May 2011, the Al-Qaeda leadership headed by Al-Zawahiri and the organization’s ideologists, places more emphasis on the events in the Arab world, whilst pleading with the Mujahideen to help their insurgent “brothers” in their struggle against the governments in the Arab world. Thus, for example, Al-Zawahiri ended his eulogy for Bin Laden with the following:

“We tell our brothers working diligently for Islam everywhere, our hands are outstretched to you and our hearts are open for you, so that we collaborate so that Allah’s words be supreme and so that Sharia rules Islamic countries and they will not be ruled … and so that we stand shoulder to shoulder to liberate the Muslim countries from any aggressive intruder…”.

It should be noted that similar themes appeared in the announcement published by Al-Qaeda’s general leadership on June 16th 2011 regarding Al-Zawahiri’s appointment as Bin Laden’s successor.[2]

Further testimony to the change in the messages from Al-Qaeda can be found in the first tape published by Ayman Al-Zawahiri after his appointment as Al-Qaeda’s leader. On July 28th 2011, the Jihadi forums published a 7 minute video (it is possible it is part of a longer video), dedicated solely to the uprising in Syria.[3]

Al-Zawahiri attacked Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, calling him “a leader of a band of criminals”. Furthermore, he expressed his support of the popular demonstrations in Syria and said that the U.S. is striving to establish an alternative regime in Syria that will protect Israel’s interests. In addition, he congratulated the people of “Al-Sham” and encouraged his “brothers” there to continue with the campaign until the flag of Jihad is hoisted.

It is important to note that the discourse surrounding the U.S. and the West and the need to attack them and avenge Bin Laden’s blood was not absent from the statements made by Global Jihad leaders following Bin Laden’s death.[4] However, it is apparent that since the popular revolutions in the Arab world have erupted, Al-Qaeda has placed more emphasis on this field, meaning – the close enemy, and less on the distant enemy. This can be explained both by the criticism that Al-Qaeda has received and its wish to be perceived as a leader of events and not as one trailing them, and by the fact that the organization views the regional changes as having the potential for successes.

Therefore, it is possible that in the near future we will witness an increasing focus on the part of Al-Qaeda operatives on the events in the Arab world, particularly because in the areas in which uprisings are in progress there is also a weakening of the government in terms of its hold on security. This is a situation which Al-Qaeda activists can exploit to carry out quality terrorist attacks, including (and possibly mainly) against western targets.

In this regards it is important to note that maybe Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian origin, together with the chaotic situation in the country and the massive release of many security detainees as well as many others who succeeded in escaping prison during the riots, all create a window of opportunity and a relatively comfortable place to maneuver in the country against foreign targets.[5]

It should be further noted that in the near future the “burden of proof” lies with Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda, its supporters, and even the western security services, are tensely awaiting a possible retaliatory large-scale attack on the part of the organization. In light of the above, the possibility that Al-Qaeda’s leadership or one of its branches will execute a retaliatory terrorist attack against western targets in one of the Arab countries suffering from instability these days, cannot be discounted.


[1] Thus for example, a surfer on the “Hanein” forum wrote in April 2011: “The non-violent popular demonstrations which did not employ weapons, violence, killing and destruction in many Arabic countries…have engendered extensive changes in the political state, on the level of the supreme leaderships and the mid-level leaderships, and have brought great reforms in these countries. This proves to everyone that the people are able to, whenever they wish to do so, revolutionize their state, extensively or partially, within days and not months. This raises an important question regarding the armed Islamic organizations and groups advocating the use of force and violence in order to make a change… they have failed miserably in this matter, and furthermore have left thousands of dead and injured and widows and orphans, have caused heavy losses and harmed the Muslims and the image of Islam… In non-violent means, the people have achieved in days what Al-Qaeda has not achieved in over ten years of armed activity, which requires – and furthermore, necessitates – all of the Islamic groups, and Al-Qaeda first and foremost, to make a comprehensive assessment of the ideas, perceptions, means and ways of operation they advocate.”