Mid-East unrest: Is al-Qaeda still relevant?

By Gordon Corera
Security correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
Al-Qaeda seems not to be playing much of a part in the battle for Libya

As uprisings challenge the old order in the Middle East and North Africa, one organisation which for many years claimed it was at the vanguard of toppling authoritarian regimes has so far played almost no part. So is al-Qaeda still relevant? Do the uprisings represent a threat or an opportunity to its role?

In the short term, al-Qaeda has proved slow to respond and is struggling to make any impact, its ideology of violence undermined, experts believe.

But out of the current chaos and instability in the region, they warn, it could still be able to find new opportunities.

"Ayman Al-Zawahiri (al-Qaeda's number two) has been trying to overthrow Egyptian regimes for the last 30 years by violence, and a group of middle-class activists armed with cell phones managed to achieve it in under one month," argues Nigel Inkster, a former deputy head of Britain's intelligence service, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"This is hardly a resounding endorsement for the jihadist business model."

New alternative

The rise of popular protest has certainly undermined the notion that jihadist terror is the only alternative to current regimes, and the only way to confront them.

Image caption,
Western security officials are closely watching what happens in Yemen

"What we are witnessing now is completely against their methods or understanding of how to make change," argues Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist who knew Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan but now works at the counter-extremist think tank, the Quilliam Foundation.

Although Nato's military commander talked of "flickers" of al-Qaeda in Libya, European officials say they see no signs of a significant presence for the organisation.

And while some Islamists, often former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, are involved, they are seen as focused on confronting Colonel Muammar Gaddafi at home and not being subscribers to al-Qaeda's wider ambitions.

Mr Benotman also says he has seen jihadists whom he knows in Libya change the way they behave and talk in the past two months.

"The way they start to make statements or to understand the conflicts is unbelievable, beyond my imagination. The only explanation I can offer is because they have been affected - whether they like it or not - by the wave of democracy."

Yemen concerns

Al-Qaeda has struggled to respond to a rapidly changing situation and, like many, has appeared bewildered by the pace of change.

The latest issue of Inspire, its slickly produced magazine, argues that what it calls "the tsunami of change" will provide it with more freedom in which to operate.

And there are concerns that in some places, al-Qaeda will be able to exploit the chaos.

"Yemen in particular has the potential to evolve into a state with greater ungoverned space than already exists and that will have quite significant adverse security implications," argues Mr Inkster.

In the last year and a half, Yemen has risen to the top of the worry list for Western counter-terrorist officials.

The al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) franchise would be primarily only a regional threat to Yemen itself and Saudi Arabia were it not for the presence of a small, tight-knit group of individuals, including Anwar Al-Awlaki. This group is able to reach young, Western audiences using new media, as well as a number of expert bomb-makers who were able to manufacture the devices used on a plane to Detroit and in printer cartridges on cargo flights (which were of a level of sophistication not seen before).

While the US has worked closely with the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, he was not always the most effective partner in confronting AQAP, not least because he had to deal with all the other internal challenges the regime faced.

The key national security and counter-terrorist units that were being trained by the Americans were run by relatives of the president and have now been pivoted to help try and preserve his rule - a development which leaves the struggle against AQAP almost entirely sidelined for the moment and which also risks increasing anti-US sentiment.

The US now appears to have backed away from President Saleh, but it also knows that the chances of any future government being more willing and more able to assist in counter-terrorism than his administration are low.


Western intelligence officials are studying closely how durable the infrastructure they have built up will be, given a change of ruling elite (where some of those manoeuvring for power have a history of being closer to jihadists).

Authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Yemen, and to a much lesser extent Libya, had been partners with Western intelligence in the fight against al-Qaeda.

While some analysts hope that the transfer of power to new elites will allow old relationships to be replicated, Mr Benotman believes that the departure of these governments should open the way for a more sustainable relationship to be built on countering not just terrorism but extremism based on democratic values.

His worry for the longer term is that the failure for real, democratic change to come about, and instead for one set of elites simply to be replaced by others, will open a new avenue for al-Qaeda to exploit.

"This will be a huge opportunity for al-Qaeda to say: 'This is what we've been trying to let you know. It is useless. You've achieved nothing - just changed faces,'" he argues.

"If this is going to be the scenario, then the youth - which is the vast majority and the driving force behind the uprisings - will be more vulnerable to the al-Qaeda message."

In other words, even if al-Qaeda currently appears on the backfoot it may still be able to find new ideological and physical spaces in which to renew itself and continue its struggle.

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