Middle East

Bin Laden death: Effect on al-Qaeda in Middle East?

A picture taken from a video posted on April 25 on internet and attributed to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) shows five armed youths, one of them masked, announcing that they would defend prisoners detained in Morocco.
Image caption Bin Laden enjoyed support from groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the Arab world may try to make good on their promises of revenge attacks in reprisal for the killing of their charismatic founder and symbol, Osama Bin Laden.

In Iraq and elsewhere, security forces are bracing for a possible wave of violence aimed at showing that Qaeda-related groups are still in business despite the demise of their icon.

Bin Laden enjoyed the loose allegiance of al-Qaeda affiliates scattered around the region, including Iraq (al-Qaeda in Iraq), Saudi Arabia and Yemen (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).

But these groups operated with a large degree of devolution and independence.

Operationally, Bin Laden's second-in-command, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, may have had more organisational influence in a movement that has been compared to a series of franchises rather than a tightly-controlled, centralised outfit.

Fears have already been expressed that the death of Bin Laden could complicate moves to free three French hostages and one Italian held by the Maghreb al-Qaeda group.

'Out of tune'

Whatever the short-term outcome, the death of Bin Laden came at a moment when the militant ideology he propagated was on the wane in the Middle East, eclipsed both by failure on the ground in places like Iraq, and by the arrival of the Arab Spring, whose democratic values have fired the masses in a way that al-Qaeda was never able to do.

Bin Laden's philosophy was seen at its most validated and heroic at the height of his Mujahideen's struggle to end Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, and even in the early years of attacks on US forces in Iraq.

Image caption Ayman al-Zawahiri may have had more organisational influence than Bin Laden

But beyond simple scenarios of "heroic resistance to alien occupation", his appeal seems to have fallen flat in terms of mass acceptance in the Arab world wherever it was put to the test.

As democracy, however flawed, began to become more of a reality in Iraq, the influence of Qaeda-related groups fell sharply as people lived the consequences of sectarian carnage provoked by indiscriminate bomb attacks mainly directed at Shia civilians.

The Sunni community, in which al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups had their base, largely turned against the militant jihadis. They still have a residual capability in Iraq, but it is a fraction of what it once was.

The radical, violent philosophy spearheaded by Bin Laden had already been tried, tested and failed in Egypt.

In the mid-1990s, like-minded groups such as the Gamaa Islamiya and the Islamic Jihad carried out numerous attacks on foreign tourists, Egyptian Copts and other targets.

But they renounced such tactics after finding themselves increasingly isolated within their own community, as the realisation dawned that their actions were drying up the nation's lifeblood, especially tourism.

'Played up threat'

These episodes underlined two key elements of al-Qaeda's "call" which make it increasingly out of tune with changing times in the region: its undeniably sectarian (Sunni) content, and the fact that these Islamic radicals do not believe in democracy, but in an Islamic theocracy imposed if necessary by force.

While mainstream Islamist movements - such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, the Palestinian group Hamas, al-Nahda in Tunisia and others - have opted to play the democratic game and backed the revolutions taking place in many Arab countries, the hard-core Qaeda-style militants have found themselves sidelined and stranded.

Image caption Yemen's President Saleh has used the al-Qaeda threat to crack down harder on protesters

Oddly enough, that has given them almost a stake in the survival of embattled leaders such as Col Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, in that each validates the other's existence.

Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups claim to be leading the jihad against such "vicious tyrants", who conversely cling to power with the claim that only they can stand firm against the threat posed by the Islamic militants.

In Yemen, pro-democracy protesters have asked their followers not to wave pictures of Bin Laden at rallies, ostensibly because it would give President Saleh a pretext to crack down harder and tighten his grip on power.

The Algerian government of President Abdulaziz Bouteflika has also played up the Qaeda-related threat to justify tightening its own grip on power.

In fact, the inclusive, democratic ideals firing the uprisings in many Arab countries are a far greater threat to the regimes they target than any of the violence wrought by al-Qaeda or its affiliates.

'Mainly peaceful'

The two are not compatible. Thus in Tunisia and Egypt, little has been heard of the extreme radicals, while mainstream Islamist groups are limbering up to test their strength at the polls.

The Islamic radicals might yet hope to make gains in Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere if they can somehow exploit inconclusive violence to their advantage.

In Syria, there is undocumented talk of "armed Salafist (jihadi) gangs" carrying out attacks on security forces, though the bulk of the protest movement is avowedly peaceful.

In a doomsday scenario whereby the region splits up along its sectarian fault-lines, it is not inconceivable that the radicals could come into their own as the spearhead of a Sunni drive against the Shia.

But in any scenario of peaceful transition to democracy, as envisaged by the region's many uprisings, they stand to lose out.

Opinion is divided as to whether the demise of its charismatic leader will dispirit the radical movement, or stir it to redouble its efforts.

But whichever way it goes, it is not going to alter fundamental historical trends which have seen the limitations of Bin Laden's uncompromising philosophy tested and exposed by experience.