Commentary on the Arab Spring is much like the famous parable of the blind men learning about an elephant by touching it: Most observers glimpse limited aspects of a complex phenomenon, but have trouble comprehending the whole. It is difficult not to sympathize with those who have joined the uprisings, as they stand against despotic regimes that have deprived them of so much. But we shouldn’t let our sympathies interfere with our ability to understand how our enemies — al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups — understand the Arab Spring, and how they hope to capitalize on the changes it brings.
From al-Qaeda’s perspective, waiting out the Arab Spring and exploiting popular discontent may well be a winning strategy. Many commentators think the Arab Spring was devastating to al-Qaeda because jihadism was marginal to these protests. As the journalist Peter Bergen put it in an interview I conducted with him for my forthcoming book: “Have you seen a single person carrying a placard with Osama bin Laden’s face on it? Has anybody been mouthing al-Qaeda’s talking points? Have you seen a single American flag burning? It’s an ideological catastrophe for them.” But this seems to misconceptualize the nature of al-Qaeda, which is a vanguard movement rather than a mass movement. This is not to say that al-Qaeda doesn’t want to be a mass movement, but the fact that it hasn’t become one over the past decade does not demonstrate that the group is dead.
To al-Qaeda, one lesson of the Arab Spring is the limitations of U.S. power. As American allies in the region fell, the U.S. was relegated to the sidelines, wringing its hands about whether to throw in its lot with the people on the street.
In the short term, these events have created a more permissive operating environment for jihadis. Violent Islamists were released from prison in Egypt and Libya without al-Qaeda lifting a finger. A senior U.S. military intelligence analyst who has followed regional developments told me, “A significant talent pool that was previously incarcerated is now back on the streets.” Jailbreaks equaling the magnitude of these releases would have been near-impossible during the Mubarak years. Meanwhile al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, smuggled weapons out of Libya during the chaos. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch, captured territory in Abyan province while the government was preoccupied with the spread of protests to its territory.
We haven’t seen Islamic law implemented or a caliphate established as a result of the Arab Spring, of course, but al-Qaeda probably foresees a more fertile recruiting environment. The Arab Spring is not just about the desire for democracy. It is also about unemployment and skyrocketing food prices. Will material needs be met? Unemployment in Egypt has increased
rather than decreased since Mubarak was overthrown. Historically when sky-high expectations (as you’ve had with the Arab Spring) go unfulfilled, extreme ideologies can take hold.
This is not to deny any of the positive developments that have come of the Arab Spring. But the violent non-state actors we have been fighting for the past decade almost certainly do not view the regional unrest as devastating to their cause; and they will be keenly watching how they might capitalize.— Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the author of Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011), and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.