TWQ: The Battle for Reform with Al-Qaeda - Summer 2011
July 1, 2011
In the summer of 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then-Osama bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy, began a direct debate with the United States about the nature of reform of the Middle East. With an assault rifle in the background, al-Qaeda’s number two argued that reform must be based on Shari’a and was impossible so long as “our countries are occupied by the Crusader forces” and “our governments are controlled by the American embassies.” The only alternative was “fighting for the sake of God.” Zawahiri concluded that “demonstrations and speaking out in the streets” would not be sufficient.
That salvo in the rhetorical battle for reform set the stage for a fundamental ideological confrontation unleashed by the Arab Spring. If the wave of popular protests sweeping through the Arab world results in genuine and lasting democratic reform, the youth on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and Benghazi will have proven Zawahiri wrong. A growing number of analysts have noted that these non-violent, secular revolutions focused on local grievances and individual rights will fatally undermine al-Qaeda’s ideology and bring about its inevitable collapse. Indeed, the pristine spirit of the Arab Spring is a direct challenge to al-Qaeda’s central narrative. If, however, the Arab Spring leads to division, discontent, and conflict, Zawahiri’s arguments will resonate and the rising tide of disillusionment could reenergize al-Qaeda’s concept of reform-by-jihad in the Arab heartland.
Paradoxically, the Arab Spring represents a strategic pivot for al-Qaeda and its associated movements (AQAM)—at once the moment is an existential threat to its ideology and a potential window to restore lost relevance amidst its core Sunni constituency. Given these stakes, AQAM’s leaders will do everything possible to ensure the survival of their ideology, shape the narrative, and feed off the likely disillusionment arising from this chaotic period. The statements of prominent AQAM chiefs like Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki—the Yemeni–American cleric and propagandist for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—and of surrogate groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) reflect this realization and their attempts to shape the narrative of the Arab Spring.
The stakes have become even greater for AQAM after the killing of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. forces in May 2011. The death of al-Qaeda’s founder as well as symbolic and strategic head could spur leadership divisions and fractures in the global movement at a time when AQAM is struggling for relevance in the Arab world.