Are the counter-jihadist movement and the Arab Spring two different things?
The answer now: half and half.
Is al-Qaeda all but destroyed?
Yes. But all three are part of a whole.
In order to get in perspective the Arab Spring and the likelihood of al-Qaeda being able to do significant damage in the future, one first has to look at the counter-jihad movement.
It began as a reaction to al-Qaeda’s continuing atrocities. Not to September 11. That had a great deal of support from many Muslims who were just happy to see America done down. But that mood didn’t last for long. Once al-Qaeda turned its guns on its own kind, it was quickly dissipated.
Three thousand died in the Twin Towers; 10,000 Muslims died in al-Qaeda attacks. This comes through in a new book, “Rock the Casbah”, by long-time Middle East watcher Robin Wright.
“The counter-jihad has been palpable,” she writes, “since 2007, as Saudi and Egyptian clerics who once were Osama Ben Laden’s ideological mentors began to publicly repudiate al-Qaeda.”
For example, Sheikh Salman, who after five years was released from a Saudi Arabian prison, now preaches non-violence. Iraq’s tribal leaders mobilized a militia of 90,000 people to push al-Qaeda of Mesopotamia out of the most volatile province. Pakistanis have turned on their local Taliban leaders. Indian Muslims marched against their militant brethren who mounted terrorist attacks.
Since 2007, polls have shown a fast-declining deport for the jihadists right across the Muslim world, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Palestine to Indonesia. Support for Bin Laden dropped to a mere 2 per cent in Lebanon and 3 per cent in Turkey. In 2010, it was down to 20 per cent in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan, and since the death of Bin Laden and the Arab Spring, it has fallen even more.
A poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found, in 2009, that more than 60 per cent of Pakistanis viewed al-Qaeda negatively, double the number of the year before. Nine out of ten Pakistanis said suicide bombs were never justified.
The counter-jihad can be seen in comic books in Kuwait, listening to preachers on Arabic TV and in the reports of the summits of senior clerics who probe Islamic texts in their quest to repudiate al-Qaeda. Counter-jihadism can even be found in many songs of rap music from Egypt to Morocco, and the flurry of Islamic text messaging all over the Muslim world by students.
Yet the counter-jihadist movement, at least until recently, has been a conservative, Islamist movement. Members still have deep reservations about the West. But their social views are changing. One sees this most clearly in the support for women’s rights.
On Sunday, the king of Saudi Arabia announced that Saudi women can now vote and be candidates in local elections. Large majorities support the education of girls. Even in Pakistan there has been a big jump in support.
The counter-jihad movement would have gone on growing even if the Arab Spring had never erupted. On the other hand, the Arab Spring owes a lot to the counter-jihadist movement (but certainly not everything, as its focus has been on toppling the political leadership in their own countries even though the leaders were anti- al-Qaeda).
But twinned, the two movements have undermined the support for al-Qaeda. If only the U.S. and NATO could see it and understand it, the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan would now be over, more so since the death of Bin Laden.
U.S. President Barack Obama continues to talk as if al-Qaeda remains a big threat. But the links between local branches in Somalia, Iraq and Pakistan, and central al-Qaeda are tenuous and most victims are Muslims. Only al-Qaeda in Yemen still shows some determination to hit U.S. or European targets.
The number of operatives in Yemen is estimated at between 50 and 300, but they are mainly semiliterate and lack the skills of al-Qaeda Central.
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are now effectively divorced. The number of al-Qaeda people active in Afghanistan is no more than 50.
“While top intelligence officials brief lawmakers that al-Qaeda is operationally and militarily in disarray, politicians continue to stress the gravity of its strategic threat,” writes London School of Economics’ professor Fawaz Gerges in a new book, “The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda”.
He also writes that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the late Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and former CIA director, Leon Panetta, appear to have been three of the few dissenters.
These facts on the ground, combined with the counter-jihadist and Arab Spring movements, mean that al-Qaeda is effectively all but finished as a major political force.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent based in London. This article was published in The Jordan Times on Sept. 30, 2011.