Analysts wrote for a while that the Arab uprisings took many governments and organizations like al-Qaeda by surprise and they had more or less written the terrorist group off, saying it will be sidelined and struggle to make itself relevant. This would be especially so because voters in Arab-Spring hit countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya were choosing Islamists to lead their governments. The analysts pondered whether Qaeda’s ideology would lose some of its appeal as it no longer represented the wider mood in the region.
While “change of [Arab] regimes can reduce Qaeda’s legitimate cover, it will not necessarily end or dilute its activity,” said the Cairo-based researcher, political analyst and writer, Abd Al-Nasir Mowadaa.
“Qaeda has international agendas and not local, and this [change of regimes] won’t change that. It is fighting the Western countries and its cultural influence,” he added. “Qaeda is a cultural entity, against modernity, more so than a political one.”
The Dubai-based analyst, Mohammed Jawad al-Awlaki, said that the rise of “Islam-based governments in the region are not ideal governments,” as far as Qaeda is concerned. They view the Taliban style of governance, prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, as the supreme model to follow.
Attacks on the rise
Qaeda quickly sought to try and position their movement as one that had a role to play in the Arab revolutions by first trying to claim credit for the uprisings and then increasing its attacks against
government targets in politically instable countries such as Yemen, Iraq and perhaps even Syria.
In Iraq, Qaeda’s activities declined when Sunnis from the western province of Al-Anbar which was almost entirely under control of the militant group during the height of Iraq’s insurgency from 2005-07, decided to strike alliance with the U.S. and the Iraqi government.
But soon after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, Qaeda-linked attacks made a comeback and the country was increasingly being seen as an exporter of violence to, for example, Syria.
Earlier this month , about 27 Iraqi soldiers were brutally killed by Qaeda operatives dressed as soldiers in Haditha city in Al-Anbar province. The terror group claimed responsibility for the attack and warned Iraqis that they would never live in peace or enjoy security.
“A big development is taking place regarding Qaeda’s war techniques,” said Awlaki. “The fighting has become more organized against cities,” he said citing the aforementioned attack as an example.
In Yemen, hours after the inauguration of a new president on February 25, a car bomb shattered the gate of a presidential palace in the port city of Mukalla, killing at least 26 soldiers from the elite Republican Guard.
On March 3, a suicide car bomb ripped through a Republican Guard troops’ camp southwest of the Yemeni capital, days after Qaeda had claimed responsibly for the the Mukalla incident. The attack took place in the city of Bayda that borders Abyan province, an Qaeda stronghold in the south.
Nabeel al-Bukairi, an analyst on Qaeda and other terrorist groups, told the Dubai-based Gulf News that “In the recent attack, Qaeda used car bombs in their attacks for the first time. They also added new targets: the Republican Guard, Central Security and presidential palaces.”
On March 6, Qaeda militants launched a surprise attack against military bases in southern Yemen, killing 107 soldiers and capturing heavy weapons they later used to kill more troops, according to Yemeni officials.
Analysts deem political instability as a great factor in creating fertile ground for Qaeda to exploit crisis of governance.
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was accused by the country’s opposition of using the “Qaeda card” in an attempt to create a country that is continuously ailing and in need of his “strongman” powers, and to continue reaping millions in U.S. aid. The opposition was also accused of such treachery.
“Saleh’s regime would say that either you let me and my relatives run the country or prepare for havoc. Qaeda is not that strong and we have a trained army that can easily defeat it. But the problem is with the leader of the army,” analyst Abdul Bari Taher told Gulf News.
The situation seems to be similar in other politically unstable countries.
It is no surprise that Americans and other international sources warned that Qaeda could exploit the Syrian crisis and infiltrate opposition groups.
In February, director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress that Qaeda and Sunni extremists were seeking to gain influence in Syria.
On March 17, twin bombing attacks targeting the aviation intelligence department and the criminal security department killed at least 27 people killed including police in Damascus.
While U.S. officials suggested that Iraq-linked Qaeda militants were the likely culprit, questions were rising about how suicide car bombers were able to penetrate high-security areas in Damascus, especially after the December attack had compelled the government to take exceptional measures around state security.
A suicide attack in Aleppo in February killed at least 28 people; U.S. officials reportedly also said that was the work of Iraq-linked Qaeda members.
Analysts agree that a weak central government and political wrangling create an ideal situation for Qaeda to infiltrate and exploit even political ranks.
“Political struggles offer a fertile ground for Qaeda,” said Muwadaa, adding “there is no coincidence that the increased attacks in Iraq coincide with the country’s exacerbated political crisis.”
While Iraq’s political parties have been accused of using militias as proxies against their opponents, analysts suspect them of forging some alliance with Qaeda when they need to. Some even go as far as accusing Iran of allying with Qaeda when its interests match the terror group’s.
In Yemen, Awlaki, said that “political vacuum, weak central governments, and the political employment of Qaeda,” are all reasons for the militant group’s infiltration and exploitation of situations.
To add more fuel on fire, evidence to decipher Qaeda’s remaining power is complicated.
In February, reports emerged that the Syrian government had released Abu Musab al-Suri, one of Qaeda’s foremost strategists and the ‘mufti of murder’ from an Aleppo prison.
His release was contrary to a Syrian warning that Islamists, Qaeda-linked extremists were trying to turn the country into another Iraq. Soon after his release, two bomb attacks hit security buildings in Aleppo. Meanwhile, Qaeda’s Iraq branch issued a statement endorsing “jihad in Syria,” though not explicitly claiming responsibility for the attacks.
Suri was reportedly captured by the U.S. army in Pakistan several years ago and handed over to the Syrian authorities, which in turn released him at a critical time and that is to lessen the power of militant Islamists whom they can exploit the political instable situation in Syria and turn tables to their benefit.
Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi wrote in the London-based newspaper Al Hayat in February 2012 that the Syrian regime seems to be growing fond of the prospect of a fragmented country. “And who’s better at helping achieve that than Qaeda?”
When asked how Qaeda financed itself, Muwadaa said that the group gets support from Iranian and Syrian intelligence that is hard to trace and tackle.
Awlaki, meanwhile, said in addition to money it gets from fundraising, there are “political deals” that produce money for Qaeda.
Low morale for Qaeda soldiers?
Soon after Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011, Saudi Interior Ministry said that a senior Qaeda member on the kingdom’s most-wanted list had turned himself in.
Khaled al-Qahtani contacted Saudi security authorities from an undisclosed country and said he wanted to return to Saudi Arabia, the Associated Press reported. He has since been reunited with his family and his surrender is being “taken into consideration,” the ministry said. He was the first Qaeda member to surrender since Bin Laden’s death.
It appears the prospect to return home seemed appealing after the sweeping changes happening in the region.
Prior to his killing by the Iraqi forces in November 2011, Wahid al-Tunisi, the Qaeda emir who was in control of northern Iraq, also showed desire to return to his home country, Tunisia, during a phone call with his father.
Tunisi, who was married to an Iraqi woman and had two children from her, might have considered returning home after the ouster of former president Zine El Abidine. His phone call showed that the mood sweeping the region could have weakened Qaeda’s soldier’s morale.
In February,2012, Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, an Qaeda member who left Pakistan to return home to Egypt, was caught and arrested at the airport. Analysts think that Islamic governments are still under pressure to arrest the returnees.
Makawi’s return could indicate a low morale amongst militants especially against the backdrop of the Arab Spring.
Asked if governments’ forgiveness of these men was reflective of a policy aimed at containing Qaeda, Muwada said that “accepting their repentance at least in Yemen did not change convictions of these people,” he said. “After jail time, they returned to their old practices.”
Awlaki however believes it could as a policy provided it is better crafted. “Working to assimilate the returnees, and remedying their problems should be advised,” he said, adding that integrating them within the society as the best remedy.