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Can Al Qaeda Capitalize on Unrest in Egypt and Syria?

The toppling of seemingly solid dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia caught al Qaeda flat-footed and undermined its message of violent jihad. Bin Laden’s death, coming on the heels of these revolutions, further weakened the organization’s appeal and ability to operate. However, the current fighting between protesters and the military in Egypt, and the growing violence in Syria, offer opportunities for al Qaeda that could help the organization rebound. As I detail in my chapter “Terrorism: Al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring” in The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East, much depends on whether the transition from dictatorship to democracy succeeds and the role of more mainstream Islamist organizations.

After Mubarak’s fall, once-jailed jihadists went back to Egypt’s streets. Many renounced jihad in jail, and some are now organizing politically—they oppose the United States and U.S. values, but this is a far cry from violent jihad. Nevertheless, among those released, there are some unrepentant extremists who are willing to wreak havoc upon their enemies. These ex-prisoners may threaten U.S. interests at a time when Arab governments are least willing and able to monitor and constrain them.

Beyond this immediate danger, a key counterterrorism question is the role of Islamist organizations in a future government in Egypt. Although groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are often anti-American, from a counterterrorism point of view, a greater role for Islamists may be good news. There is bad blood between the Brotherhood and al Qaeda. And because many jihadists grew out of the Brotherhood’s ranks, it knows this community well and can effectively weed out the most dangerous figures.

Should a military dictatorship return to Egypt and the Brotherhood be excluded from power, it could endanger the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda. In 1992, the Algerian government nullified elections that Islamists won, provoking a bloody civil war. This war, in turn, radicalized the country’s Islamist movement and dragged Algeria into a frenzy of violence that alienated bin Laden as well as ordinary Algerians with its horrific attacks on fellow Muslims. Bin Laden worked with a faction of Algerian jihadists to establish a like-minded group there, which later became the core of AQIM. Although such an extreme scenario seems unlikely in Egypt, excluding the Brotherhood from power would alienate younger, less patient Islamists. They, in turn, may find Zawahiri’s message attractive, believing that the new government is inherently anti-Islamic.

Here, perhaps, counterterrorism clashes with other U.S. interests. Islamist organizations in general are highly critical of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, skeptical of cooperation with the CIA, and strongly opposed to anything that smacks of cooperation with Israel. Supporting a strong Islamist role in government risks creating a regime less friendly to the United States; excluding the Islamists risks radicalizing the movement and reinvigorating al Qaeda.

Opportunities for al Qaeda will also arise if unrest turns to civil war, as is happening in Syria. In Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen, civil wars began largely for local reasons, with little jihadist involvement. Over time, however, al Qaeda and like-minded groups moved in. First they posed as supporters of the opposition. Afterward, they spread their vitriol using their superior resources to attract new recruits, while the surrounding violence helped radicalize the opposition. Al Qaeda now has a strong presence in all these countries.

The Arab Spring is usually portrayed as an unalloyed victory for counterterrorism.  But that portrayal depends on democratization succeeding. In Egypt, democratization’s future is up in the air, and in Syria, it is meeting bloody resistance. Should democratization fail in these countries, al Qaeda may find new life.