Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Al-Qaeda left out of Arab uprisings

NEW YORK: For nearly two decades, the leaders of Al-Qaeda have denounced the Arab world's dictators as heretics and puppets of the West, and called for their downfall. Now, people in country after country have risen to topple their leaders - and Al-Qaeda has played absolutely no role.

In fact, the motley opposition movements have shunned the two central tenets of the Al-Qaeda credo: murderous violence and religious fanaticism. The demonstrators have used force defensively, treated Islam as an afterthought and embraced democracy, which is anathema to Osama bin Laden and his followers.

So for Al-Qaeda, the democratic revolutions that have gripped the world's attention present a crossroads. Will the terrorist network shrivel slowly to irrelevance? Or will it find a way to exploit the chaos produced by political upheaval and the disappointment that will inevitably follow hopes now raised so high?

'So far - and I emphasise so far - the score card looks pretty terrible for Al-Qaeda,' said Mr Paul Pillar, who studied terrorism and the Middle East for nearly three decades at the Central Intelligence Agency. 'Democracy is bad news for terrorists. The more peaceful channels people have to express grievances and pursue their goals, the less likely they are to turn to violence.'

If the terrorist network's leaders hope to seize the moment, they have been slow off the mark. Osama has been silent. His Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has issued three rambling statements from his presumed hideout in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region that seemed oddly out of sync with the news.

'Knocking off Mubarak has been Zawahiri's goal for more than 20 years, and he was unable to achieve it,' said Mr Brian Fishman, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation, referring to ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. 'Now a non-violent, non-religious, pro-democracy movement got rid of him in a matter of weeks. It's a major problem for Al-Qaeda.'

The Arab revolutions remain very much a work in progress, as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi orders a bloody defence of Tripoli and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh negotiates to cling to power. The breakdown of order could create havens for terrorist cells, at least for a time - a hazard both Colonel Gaddafi and Mr Saleh have prevented.

'These uprisings have shown that the new generation is not terribly interested in Al-Qaeda's ideology,' said Mr Steven Simon, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of The Age Of Sacred Terror.

But Jordanian jihadist Abu Khaled suggested that Al-Qaeda would benefit in the long run. 'At the end of the day, how much change will there really be?' he asked. 'There will be many disappointed demonstrators, and that's when they will realise what the only alternative is. We are certain that this will all play into our hands.'