In case anyone needed reminding, the recent global terror alert illustrates that, 15 years after its first attacks on America, Al Qaeda is thriving. The coup in Egypt and the chaotic aftermath of the Arab awakening is only going to add more militants to this army of radicals. Failed revolutions and failing states are like incubators for the jihadists, a sort of Pandora’s Box of hostility and alienation.
The news that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his man in Yemen, Nasr al Wuhayshi, were communicating and hatching plots to attack Western targets in the region is no surprise. Like any CEO of a multinational company, Zawahiri is in regular communication with al Qaeda’s half dozen regional franchises—just as Osama bin Laden was before he was killed.
What is new is the rapid growth of these franchises—associated cells and sympathetic movements from Algeria to Aden. The uprisings that swept the Middle East two years ago initially threatened al Qaeda by suggesting a better alternative to terror and jihad in the form of democracy and peaceful change. Now the revolutions have all but failed, creating more chaos than constitutions, and Twitter is not mobilizing reform. The pandemonium in Syria, Libya, and Egypt, are like a hothouse for al Qaeda, which is thriving just as it has in Somalia and Afghanistan.
But Egypt is the most critical piece. Zawahiri was taken by surprise in 2011 when the revolution swept President Hosni Mubarak from power. Indeed, his first statements on the revolution bordered on the incoherent. But his message has since then become clear.
Last week, al Qaeda issued a statement from his hideout in Pakistan that urged Egyptians to fight the army coup. Zawahiri said the Egyptian Army is an American tool and that the coup was fueled by Saudi and Gulf money.
In an I-told-you-so moment, Zawahiri reminded the Muslim Brotherhood—and the now-ousted President Mohamed Morsi—that al Qaeda had always maintained that nothing was to be gained through the ballot box and that jihad was the only viable path to power.
Zawahiri seems to have calculated that the army coup will radicalize millions of Muslim Brotherhood members, driving them into the embrace of al Qaeda, and that Egypt will revert to the terror and violence that wracked it in the early 1990s.
He may be right. In Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, al Qaeda has made unprecedented gains recently due to growing Sunni anger. This growth in these al Qaeda franchises has been encouraged by Zawahiri in covert and overt messages for two years.
Jihadists from Chechnya to Copenhagen have followed his advice and flocked to Syria to join the jihad. Hundreds have “martyred” themselves fighting Syrian despot Bashar al Assad. Jail breaks in Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan have freed more than a thousand Qaeda prisoners in the last month alone, a move Zawahiri has also lauded. In Yemen the American-backed government in Sana has made some gains this year and has had a better record on reform than many other post-revolutionary regimes. Yet al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still attracting Yemenis and Saudis angered by drones, poverty, and desperation.
Most of al Qaeda’s energy and Zawahiri’s effort is focused on the crisis inside the Arab and Islamic worlds for now. The new generation of al Qaeda—AQ 3.0, if you like—is more focused on the nearby enemy close to home than the faraway enemy in America and Europe. For now at least. But easy targets like the natural-gas plant in Algeria attacked last winter by an Qaeda cell based in Libya and Mali allow local groups to kill dozens of foreign “crusaders.” And embassies are always favorite targets. After all, that is how al Qaeda started 15 years ago this month when it blew up our missions in Kenya and Tanzania.
The Obama administration is right to alert the public to this threat. When it can, it should share more intelligence about how al Qaeda works, protecting collection sources, of course, but revealing how the enemy thinks and what its goals are. For example, two years after bin Laden’s safe house in Pakistan was found, there must be more documents that can be shared with the public to heighten awareness and understanding about the inner workings and global connections of our still deadly enemy.
When the CIA revealed Zawahiri’s communication with the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musssb al-Zarqawi in 2005, it highlighted a high level of disagreement within al Qaeda that hurt the movement. According to the Qaeda narrative, America is an enemy of Islam that supports oppressive military dictators and greedy royal princes who, in turn, rule by repression and secretly partner with Israel. How Obama handles events in Cairo this summer will impact that narrative for years to come.
Unfortunately, the ill-starred Arab Awakening is fueling more anger and frustration in the Islamic world, converting more people to jihad. After 15 years, there is no end in sight to al Qaeda. And the new generation—AQ 3.0—may be with us for years to come.
The Brookings Institution