Al Qaeda’s Arab Comeback: Capitalizing on Chaos in Syria, Mali

Al Qaeda has exploited the Arab Spring to create its largest safe havens and operational bases in more than a decade across the Arab world. In the 18 months since the Arab revolutions first began, al Qaeda has grown stronger, despite founder Osama bin Laden’s death and a lack of mass appeal.

Like the rest of the world, the terror organization was surprised by the revolutions that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Its ideology of violence and jihad initially was challenged by the largely nonviolent revolutionary movements that swept across North Africa and the Middle East. But al Qaeda is adaptive, and it has exploited the chaos and turmoil of revolutionary change to create bases and new strongholds from one end of the Arab world to the other.

In North Africa, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a franchise of the global organization, has successfully aligned itself with a local extremist group in Mali named Ansar al Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, and together they have effectively taken control of the northern two thirds of Mali. Together they are destroying the Islamic heritage of the fabled city of Timbuktu, much as al Qaeda and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s historical treasures in the years before 9/11.

AQIM had long been among al Qaeda’s weaker franchises. Created from an Algerian terrorist group in 2006, it had some early success the next year blowing up the United Nations headquarters in Algiers. But for most of its existence it has been confined to kidnapping Westerners traveling in the remote deserts of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, as well as to other criminal enterprises. But this spring, after a military coup in Mali, AQIM found a partner in Ansar al Dine, and together they swept out government forces from the north of Mali, then the two turned on a Tuareg independence movement that had initially been their partner and now control a vast Saharan stronghold the size of Texas.

Moroccan and French leaders are now labeling the new AQIM stronghold in Mali the gravest threat to regional stability in more than a decade. AQIM leaders now are living openly in Mali’s towns and cities and supporting the destruction of the country’s Islamic heritage, which they see as a deviation from the path of true Islam. AQIM fighters are working with Ansar al Dine to terrorize and control the local population.

The combustible mix of AQIM, Ansar al Dine, and Tuareg rebels is complex and dangerous. They are all well armed, thanks to looting Libyan arms depots after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. AQIM has acquired weapons from Libyan caches that probably make it the best armed al Qaeda franchise in the world.

In Egypt, another al Qaeda jihadist stronghold is developing in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, long a depressed and angry backwater. After the revolution, disaffected Bedouin tribes in the Sinai cooperated with released jihadist prisoners from Mubarak’s jails to begin attacks on security installations and the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline. The jihadists in the Sinai have pledged their allegiance to al Qaeda’s emir, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, who replaced bin Laden. For his part, Zawahiri has endorsed their attacks on Israeli targets, although he has yet to welcome them formally as an al Qaeda franchise. Libyan weapons also have found their way into the Sinai.

In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s dictatorship to take over remote parts of the south and east of the country. It has lost control of several towns to government counterattacks this summer, but it also has struck back with deadly attacks on security targets in Sana, Aden, and other major cities. AQAP has launched three attempts to attack targets in the United States since 2009, and only luck and good intelligence cooperation among the U.S., U.K. and Saudi Arabia has foiled them.

It remains a extreme movement that appeals only to a small minority, but terrorism is not a popularity contest.

In Iraq, President George W. Bush’s 2007 surge was supposed to destroy the Qaeda franchise Islamic State of Iraq, but it didn’t. Despite enormous pressure and the repeated decapitation of its senior leadership, the group has survived and recovered. It appeals to the Sunni Arab minority, which feels oppressed by the Shiite-dominated government. This month, it launched its deadliest attacks in years across much of the country. Al Qaeda in Iraq focuses it attacks on the Shiite regime, which it labels a modern “Safavid evil den,” a reference to the Shiite Persian Empire that ruled Iran and Iraq in the 17th century. Its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, has promised more attacks in Iraq and in the United States.

Al Qaeda in Iraq is working to export its jihad into the chaos and civil war in Syria. Zawahiri called for jihadists across the world to flock to Syria this spring to join the uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Alawite minority that supports it. For al Qaeda, Assad and the Alawites are a perfect target; many Sunnis believe that Alawites are a deviationist sect of Islam that should be suppressed. While al Qaeda is a small part of the opposition in Syria, it brings unique skills in bomb-making and suicide operations.

Jihadist websites are reporting every day that new al Qaeda “martyrs” have died in the fighting in Damascus and Aleppo from Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Egypt. Reliable reports from journalists speak of bands of jihadists operating in the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, all with a loose affiliation to al Qaeda.

The longer the civil war in Syria goes on, the more al Qaeda will benefit from the chaos and the sectarian polarization. It also will benefit from the spillover of violence that is all but inevitable from Syria into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.

Al Qaeda’s success in capitalizing on revolutionary change in the Arab world comes despite a lack of broad popular support. It remains a extreme movement that appeals only to a small minority, but terrorism is not a popularity contest. Al Qaeda today is stronger at the operational level in the Arab world than it has been in years, and its prospects for getting even stronger are rich.