The Rise and Fall and Rise of al-Qaeda

The Arab Spring and killing of Osama bin Laden are both events which have led many to observe that al-Qaeda is a spent force. However, the real outcomes of the wave of change remain far from certain.

The Arab Spring and killing of Osama bin Laden are both events which have led many to observe that al-Qaeda is a spent force. The revolutions in the Arab world are considered to have shown that the people in the Middle East have emphatically renounced the violent path espoused by al-Zawahiri et al. To some extent this view is justified. However, the real outcomes of the wave of change remain far from certain. For example, there are indications that some of the Libyan rebels are not all that the West might desire from its allies, whilst some of the revolutionaries in Syria seem to have gained suspicious amounts of combat experience somewhere - presumably in Iraq.

The killing of "Sheikh Osama" is also considered to be an important triumph, yet it is an event that has more significance in Washington and London than on the Arab Street. Martyrdom is of course an established tradition in political Islam and al-Qaeda has long been ideologically prepared for this eventuality. Bin Laden and his close senior colleagues certainly still retained a degree of operational control over some plots, for example the attack on Northwest Flight 253. However, since the initial scattering of the key figures after 2001 responsibility has lain more and more with the franchises, individuals and other groups inspired by al-Qaeda's particular global rhetoric.

In other words this is not the first time that al-Qaeda has been perceived to be in decline, nor will it be the last. The Arab jihadist movement was considered relatively unimportant during the 1980s Afghan war, except in terms of funding, and little attention was paid to it thereafter: its fortunes varied widely over this period and few Arabs heeded the call to defend brothers in Bosnia, Chechnya or the Philippines. The initial rise of al-Qaeda could therefore really be seen during the East African operations of 1998 through to the USS Cole bombing and of course the 9/11 attacks, with the greatest triumph being the training of thousands of jihadists from many countries and causes throughout the 1990s. Core al-Qaeda remained small, but the germs of influence thereby spread far and wide.

Al-Qaeda's leadership hoped that 9/11 would bring about a renewal of conflict in Afghanistan, whereby US forces would be bogged down and defeated in a similar manner to the USSR. However, the first fall of al-Qaeda came about when Afghan resistance crumbled in the face of an incredibly effective US-led campaign and the remnants were forced to flee. But this triumph stopped short of being total, and the movement was allowed to re-group. This was enabled through long-standing ties with other Islamist groups, and in addition the very act of 9/11 forced many more nationalist movements to side - perhaps at that stage more or less against their will - with the world view of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.

The real boost to al-Qaeda's fortunes was the invasion of Iraq, which became a recruiting engine for the jihadists. The movement rapidly bloomed in a second rise, receiving funds and volunteers in growing numbers, thereby allowing the core to re-establish control and influence. Successful attacks in Western capitals had large political consequences, further boosting the perceived fortunes of al-Qaeda. By 2007, with the situation in Iraq almost hopeless, Afghanistan sliding back towards chaos, and Lal Masjid arousing serious sentiment in Pakistan, the movement could be conceived to be at its zenith. However, overzealousness proved to be its undoing and a backlash began amongst Iraqis. This rapidly rolled back the capability of the jihadists and at the same time an escalating series of drone strikes put the senior leadership under pressure. Plots against the West unravelled and overall al-Qaeda suffered from a crisis of credibility - a failure to deliver on promises and expectations, coupled with too many ordinary Muslim casualties, particularly in Iraq.

This second fall of al-Qaeda can be seen to have led to bin Laden's death, and perceived irrelevance to the wider issues in the Middle East. And yet the flames still rage in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq; the movement has gained new franchises in Yemen and Somalia; and there is evidence of it extending into many new countries. Plots against the West have diminished in effectiveness, certainly, but in part this is because al-Qaeda's focus is diverted on areas where it is more interested and able to operate. The current trend - to make training "open source" and to encourage individuals to act - is if anything more dangerous and difficult to counter, with quantity replacing quality as an enduring factor. Meanwhile, although the wave of change in the Middle East has occurred despite al-Qaeda rather than because of it, the events themselves are in line with what the movement perceives to be God's plan - i.e. to topple the "tyrannies" of the region - and turmoil offers untold opportunities. Even the killing of bin Laden has merely returned al-Qaeda to centre stage and led to a renewal of interest in the movement.

Neither event therefore necessarily spells the end for al-Qaeda. The real success and legacy of the movement remains as it has always been: its ability to inspire jihadists, taking them above national issues into the vision of a united Caliphate as ordained by God's prophecy, with absolute faith in the ordained outcome. It is not the first such movement, even in modern times. However, what has led al-Qaeda to have extraordinary success and influence is its ability to reach out via modern media, particularly the internet. Recent headlines have trumpeted the success of a British operation to replace a bomb-making article in Inspire, the magazine of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with a recipe for cupcakes. So far so good, and with a nice touch of flair. However, only one channel of transmission for the magazine was affected, and undoctored copies were still readily available - and can still be found now. In similar fashion Jihadist web forums are occasionally shut down, but display a hydra-like nature and are soon up and running on a new server. In many ways this mirrors the movement itself, and this twenty-first century incarnation of a historical problem will almost certainly be as hard to slay as the mythical beast of old.


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