Arab Spring to Jihadi Era: al-Zawahiri gets the whip hand from bin Laden and his key ally — the U.S. Government

As Ayman al-Zawahiri takes charge of al-Qaeda (AQ) he faces a situation more promising than any the group has encountered since its formation near the end of the Afghan-Soviet war. Of course having such an opportunity and exploiting it are two different things, but if al-Zawahiri controls his personal abrasiveness, limits his micro-managing tendencies, and works with his Shura Council to pick a talented deputy from al-Qaeda’s coming generation — best bets: Abu Yaha al-Libi and Naseer al-Wayhashi — the future for al-Qaeda, its allies, and those they inspire is bright. Here are some of the reasons for this conclusion.

  1. The horizontal growth of al-Qaeda has continued without let up for a decade. On 9/11, most AQ manpower, leaders, and training facilities were in Afghanistan. Today, AQ is still in Afghanistan, but has a sizable and growing presence in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, Iraq, Palestine, and the Levant states. AQ is larger and more geographically dispersed than a decade ago, and the information leaked after bin Laden’s death shows that communications and cooperation between and among AQ’s core and branches is ongoing — more or less shattering the Western social scientists’ zany myth of a “leaderless jihad.”
  2. Washington has admitted defeat in both Afghanistan and Iraq by beginning to withdraw forces without accomplishing the goals identified as essential when the invasions began in 2001 and 2003, respectively. As noted here previously, the U.S. superpower’s twin defeats will do much to alleviate the Muslims world’s engrained defeatism and move the younger generation toward jihad, especially given the minimal amount of death and damage the jihadis had to inflict on the U.S. military to win in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the jihadi perspective, they not only beat U.S. military forces twice, but they did so far more easily and with far less loss than it took to defeat the Soviet superpower.
  3. The Israel-Palestine issue is now a Muslim-world issue and not one limited to the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Thanks to the bin Laden’s rhetoric and actions, the Internet, and 24-hour television, the Muslim world as a whole is now involved in the conflict. And thanks to the West’s destruction of the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak, non-Palestinian Sunni fighters can much more easily move from the west into Gaza and from the east into the Arab Levant states to train, fund, incite, and fight alongside their Palestinian brothers.
  4. As important, there is no longer any reason for Muslim world to hope the U.S. government will play an even-handed role in the Israel-Palestine dispute. As President Obama and UK Prime Minister Cameron spoke in London last month of a “new” approach to the Muslim world, Muslims simultaneously watched the wholly-AIPAC-owned U.S. Congress give Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu 25-plus standing ovations as he called for war on Iran and any other Muslim state or entity Israel identifies as a threat. As President Obama says, Muslims surely know corruption when they see it, and from what they saw on TV they can have no doubt that the U.S. political system and its media have been thoroughly suborned and corrupted by disloyal Israel-First U.S.-citizens to unquestioningly support a country that consistently undermines U.S. national security interests.
  5. AQ and other Islamist groups are finding a less threatening and increasingly hospitable operational environment in the Arab world as Washington and its Western allies cheer on the destruction of the Arab tyrannies that have been — as bin Laden consistently said for 15-plus years — the main enemies of the jihadis and the Muslim peoples. Well-organized, veteran, and competently led clandestine groups always have a distinct advantage when operating in confused, at times chaotic, and potentially violent conditions such as those in which the Islamists now work in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya. In each of these countries, moreover, the jihadis know that whatever level of relaxation in security Washington and the West can secure for the activities of “democratic forces” makes their own operations easier and put them in a better position to quickly liquidate the tiny, naive, and unarmed democratic presence when the time is right.
  6. AQ appears to be completing training and preparations to conduct HAMAS-like operations inside the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, India, and other English-speaking nations, as well as continuing to plan for an attack larger than 9/11. Over the past 4-to-5 years, bin Laden developed a strong cadre of U.S.-citizen Muslims — Azzam al-Amriki, Samir Khan, Adnan Shukrajuma, Anwar al-Awalki, etc. — who have used and are using their fluent, idiomatic English and organizational skills to recruit and incite other U.S. Muslims — such as Major Hassan, Najibullah Zazi, and Faisal Shahzad — to attack domestic U.S. targets. In addition, Iraq has evolved into an operational laboratory for AQ fighters to become increasingly proficient in assassinating political, military, and security leaders; attacking police and security forces with armed fighters and/or car bombs; and destroying or disrupting components of the country’s energy infrastructure. Meanwhile, AQ forces in North Africa offer hands-on training in kidnapping-for-ransom.
  7. AQ and other anti-U.S. Islamist groups also benefit from the U.S. government’s unwitting but highly effective campaign to alienate and radicalize America’s Muslim community. There continues to be much glib talk by U.S. political leaders and the media about the power of the U.S. “melting pot” to absorb and Americanize Muslim immigrants just as it did to Germans, Italians, Poles, Irish, Swedes, and other immigrant groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but that idea ought to be seriously questioned. When Italians, Swedes, and Poles came to America to settle, for example, they did not see their new government daily threaten, sanction, bomb, demonize, and invade the countries and peoples from which they came. Today’s Muslim immigrants, however, do watch such things each day on TV and the Internet, and all polling shows that most interpret those actions as a war on Islam. They also hear their AIPAC-owned federal legislators attack Islam and cheer on every Israeli action that kills Palestinian insurgents. These things probably do little to promote Muslim assimilation into and love for the American polity.
  8. In the last six months, Islamist organizations in the Arab world have witnessed a substantial decrease in anti-Islamist operations by the security services of toppled and teetering Arab tyrannies. Arab security services that once killed and captured America’s Islamist enemies on a daily basis — and shared intelligence from those operations with U.S. and Western intelligence services — are now impotent to do so, or are working full time either to prop up failing regimes (Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen) or those being attacked by the U.S. and its allies (Libya). This reality has created a large blind spot in the Arab world for the United States vis-à-vis the Islamists’ plans and intentions, and has greatly increased the workload of an already stretched-to-the-limit U.S. intelligence community. This disaster for U.S. and Western security has been augmented by the large quantities of ordnance and explosives the Islamist have acquired during the collapse of several Arab regimes, as well as by the thousands of veteran mujahideen who have been freed from Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and Yemeni prisons to rejoin the Islamists’ ranks.
  9. As if the Islamists had not benefited enough from the Arab Spring, President Obama, in a speech on 19 May 2011 specifically designed for Muslims, fully signed on to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s cultural/feminist war on Islam. In the speech, Obama left no room for doubt that he will use U.S. forces — military, political, diplomatic, and economic — to intervene in the Muslim world to install secular democracy, establish Western-style women’s’ rights, and to drive religion from governance and the public square in the Islamic world just as he and his party have driven religion from governance and the public square in America. Obama, in essence, issued a declaration of cultural war on Islam that could not have been more useful to the jihadis if they had been able to write the script for him. And it surely is ironic that while members of both U.S. parties worry and prate about the non-existent chance of American society being Islamicized, both parties support a foreign policy that seeks to de-Islamicize Muslims overseas by military means.
  10. Finally, AQ’s oldest, most reliable, and most effective ally — the U.S. bipartisan political and media elite — remains firmly in place. President Obama and his cabinet, the Congress, most of the mainstream media, and all the Republican presidential candidates — save the ever courageous Ron Paul — have signed up to the lie that the Islamists and their growing number of supporters in the Muslim world, North America, and Europe hate America because of its freedom, liberty, elections, and gender equality, and not for what the U.S. government does in the Muslim world. As long as these persons and entities parrot this obvious lie America is doomed, and AQ and its allies will be in high clover as the number of jihadi volunteers in the coming generation will exceed the number that came from the generation now on the battlefield.

At day’s end, then, al-Zawahiri is stepping into bin Laden’s large shoes with potentially debilitating personality traits and leadership quirks. He would, however, have to intentionally deploy and intensify those traits and quirks with an eye toward deliberately destroying al-Qaeda and his own life’s work to negate the enormous advantages and opportunities he has inherited from the late Osama bin Laden and his utterly dependable U.S. ally.

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.