The Base Without a Base: Al Qaeda’s Struggle for Relevance
The self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor, Mohamad Bouazizi on December 17th, 2010 set into motion a rapid decay of the stalwarts of tyranny throughout the Middle East. From Tunisia, where a massive campaign of civil resistance forced President Ben Ali into exile, the wave of dissent spread throughout the region by predominately peaceful means. Governments in Egypt and Yemen were overthrown by mass mobilizations despite fierce government repression, while in Libya a NATO-backed bombing campaign complemented popular armed resistance, ending with Muammar Gaddafi dragged through the streets, stabbed in the anus with a bayonet, and publicly executed by rebels. While the Arab Spring may have toppled leaders who had imprisoned and crippled the violent Islamist organizations of the 1980’s—a point of great excitement for Al Qaeda, whose ranks had been decimated by the American-led War on Terror—the majority of Middle Easterners who gathered in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and picked up arms to resist Gaddafi had not mobilized in the defense of radical elements or with the intention of establishing Shar’ia law. Nor, for that matter, had Al Qaeda played any significant role in fomenting revolutionary momentum as a religious vanguard. The people had, on the contrary, mobilized in for a basic political voice that had little to do with Al Qaeda’s vision of radical Islam. Al Qaeda’s response to the Spring was slow, inconsistent, and haunted by a sense of desperation. The trajectory of their English language magazine, Inspire, evidences their palpable lack of footing in understanding or harnessing these events, embodied by their inability to significantly shift military doctrine away from the “Lone Wolf” model of individual jihad and their continued difficulty in reasserting their role in influencing significant change. The continuity of these barren strategies and assertions reflect the weakness of applying a Middle Ages brand of Islam to a modern world where the Tweet can be more powerful than the sword.
Released prior to the Arab Spring, the first four issues of Inspire reflect the increasing marginalization of Al Qaeda due to the collapse of a “balance of material power” between the mujahidin and Western military forces [Issue 1, p. 48]. Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri, whose military theory offers a viable strategy based on the shifting conditions facing radical Islam, cites the loss of “80% of our forces…in the repercussions of September 11th” as a reason to terminate the “Tora Bora-mentality,” or a strategy of defending fixed positions in open warfare in an established Islamic Nation such as Taliban-governed Afghanistan in the 1990’s [Issue 1, p. 53]. Al-Suri’s diagnosis of the history of radical Islam is one of collapse, dispersion, and regrouping based on the available conditions, such as can be seen with the demise of the “secret hierarchical regional organizations” and the subsequent regrouping of violent Islamic elements in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Afghanistan [Issue 2, p. 20]. Having been deprived of such bases [or al qaedas], after the fall of Afghanistan in 2001, Al-Suri calls for the revival of borderless attacks on the enemy by isolated individuals and small, disconnected cells. This strategy, referred to in a Letter from the Editor in Issue 3 of Inspire as “the strategy of a thousand cuts,” defines the entropy-diffusion strategy marketed by Al Qaeda since the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Inspire attempts to mobilize Muslims living in the Western world to engage in acts of isolated violence and discourages Muslims from moving to the Middle East to fight with the mujahidin for both security reasons and material deficiencies. Inspire offers numerous ways to “attack the enemy in their backyard” through a series called “Open Source Jihad,” a sort of manual for domestic extremism [Issue 2, p. 24]. “Open Source Jihad” includes directions, methods, and advice for the potential lone extremist such as Dzhokar Tsarnaev, who used the now infamous “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” article from the first issue of Inspire to construct explosives that killed 3 and injured 264 in Boston this past month. Al-Suri attempts to historicize this form of Islamist warfare by tracing the individual jihadi school back to the “unit of the Prophet’s great companion Abu Basir, and his well-known story when he formed the first guerilla group in Islam…” [Issue 2, p. 19]. This attempt to place individual jihad in Islamic history is a clear attempt to justify the diffusion and entropy of Al Qaeda, a desperate attempt to hold on to a changing world where they lack the material and tactical capacity for grandiose attacks.
Inspire’s layout and page allotments since the Arab Spring embody a slight shift away from Al-Suri’s doctrine of individual jihad. The full-length issues before the Arab Spring (1,2,4) allot an average of 5.3 pages to Al-Suri’s military doctrine of individual jihad, called “The Jihadi Experience[s],” while after the Arab Spring the full-length issues (5,6,8,9,10) allot Al-Suri 2.4 pages. Furthermore, we see the appearance of a number of articles written by Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri after the Arab Spring, reflecting a desire by the leader of Al-Qaeda to reassert his influence during this time of profound historical dislocation. Furthermore, while the issue immediately after the Arab Spring (5) allots a large section to analyzing the wave of revolutions through the lens of Al Qaeda’s brand of radical Islam, Inspire only minimally alters the distribution of their content in subsequent issues, and the rather random insertion of a series of extended obituaries for martyred fighters reflects a scattered and inconsistent reaction to the Arab revolutions as well as an inability to strategically seize upon the political and social vacuum that accompanied post-Spring reconfigurations.
While these subtle changes are illuminating of a deficiency in the Al Qaeda doctrine post-Arab Spring, it is the continued mythologizing of pivotal events and a clear struggle to remain relevant that suggests Al Qaeda’s inherently barren nature. Al Qaeda originally was based on the myth that a small band of zealous Arab fighters played a significant role in repelling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the fallacious nature of which is vividly exposed in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. This myth, despite its inaccuracy, provided a focal event for Al Qaeda to seize upon and utilize for recruitment purposes. The September 11th attacks represent another such focal event whose aftermath was reconfigured to seem like a victory for the organization, as evidenced by the seventh issue’s dedication to celebrating the attack. Though September 11th significantly changed the course of modern history, it was both a Pyrrhic victory, resulting in the decimation of Al Qaeda’s ranks, as well as a political failure, resulting in the loss of an Islamist-governed territory from which they could launch attacks abroad, coordinate jihad fighters through training and education, and rule by Shar’ia law. Furthermore, Inspire’s consistent urging of Muslim youth abroad to engage in domestic terror through the provision of practical “homemade” terror methods, from “Using a pickup truck as a mowing machine” to “Causing Road Accidents” reflects their intransigence and inflexibility on the use of violence as a force of change, despite the peaceful historical precedent established by the Arab Spring and the reality that such isolated attacks, while costly to the United States, will never lead to the establishment of their end goals, an Islamic Nation governed by Shar’ia law and an Open Front war with the West [Issue 2, p. 53, Issue 10, p. 52].
The feebleness of Al Qaeda’s attempt to channel the sociopolitical momentum away from democracy and towards Islamist radicalization is also emblematic of their inability to keep the Al Qaeda brand ideologically relevant. Before the Arab Spring, Inspire predicts that democracy heralds both human suffering and religious disparagement, stating that the “reckless acts of the Americans [in Afghanistan and Iraq] will only reveal to the Muslim people the reality of the democracy or murder and destruction” and that “[o]utrageous slander, blatant smearing of Muhammad, desecration of the Qu’ran, and the insulting of over a billion Muslims worldwide are done…in the name of democracy” [Issue 1, p. 16, p. 27]. After the Arab Spring, despite the vocal desires of Middle Easterners from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia for a democratic voice, Al Qaeda still attempts to fit democracy into this narrow mold, referring to democracy as a “plague” and a “modern day idol,” insisting that the two philosophies are incompatible [Issue 5, p. 30, Issue 6, p. 50]. This intransigence has undoubtedly translated into a difficulty mobilizing support in countries where peaceful revolutions have toppled long-standing dictatorships.
Despite indications from Inspire that the Al Qaeda brand is continuing to have difficulty asserting itself in a rapidly shifting world order, there are some aspects of the Spring that could in fact assist Al Qaeda in the long run. First of all, in the fairly probable case that the democratic regimes that are established in the aftermath of the fallen dictatorships fail to provide basic freedoms and securities for everyday Arabs, a sense of disillusionment with democratic experiments could undoubtedly occur. Such failed experiments could theoretically lead Arabs towards refuge in extremism, which could benefit Al Qaeda and their anti-democratic message. Furthermore, certain cases of the Arab Spring, namely the Syrian Revolution, have unfolded not by peaceful means but through extreme violence. In such dire circumstances Al Qaeda’s strategic experience is being used at the front. Such is the case with the Al-Nusra Front, the most effective rebel group fighting the regime of Bashir Al-Assad, who recently pledged their allegiance to Al Qaeda. The Al-Nusra Front provides Al Qaeda with an opportunity to transport arms and fighters with greater ease due to the chaos plaguing the region, and could potentially serve as a mobilizing point for jihadists, such as was the case in Afghanistan in the 1990’s to the 2000’s.
The Al Nusra Front, however, is an isolated case, and it is far from clear that the majority of Syrians would support an Islamist theocracy as prescribed by Al Qaeda doctrine. The narrative, layout, and distribution of articles in Inspire makes it quite clear that Al Qaeda is unable to harness the dominant strain of Arab Spring momentum. Their continued insistence on individual jihad, denial of democracy as a potential force of freedom in the Middle East, and assertion that the Arab Spring revealed that “Al Qaeda’s rage is shared by millions of Muslims across the world” reveals just how out of sync Al Qaeda is with the reality of today’s Muslim world [Issue 5, p. 43]. Al Qaeda is a ghost of its former self, and Inspire is a testament to the fact that Al Qaeda’s strength is little more than an effigy to a mythological era in which significant change could be brought about by the crude violence of jihad.
Wright, L. (2006). The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. New York: Knopf.
Inspire Magazine. Issues 1-10. 2010-2013.