Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Al-Qaeda's effect weakens in Mideast

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Even before the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda was losing relevance in the Arab world as youth-led uprising swept leaders from power and left other countries racked by violence, some experts say.

  • Members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which has ties to terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, pray Tuesday for Osama bin Laden in Karachi, Pakistan.

    By Asif Hassan, AFP/Getty Images

    Members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which has ties to terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, pray Tuesday for Osama bin Laden in Karachi, Pakistan.

By Asif Hassan, AFP/Getty Images

Members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which has ties to terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, pray Tuesday for Osama bin Laden in Karachi, Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda's leadership was so shocked by revolts across the Arab world that they were still struggling with how to respond when bin Laden was killed by a secret American raid, said Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at Marine Corps University.

"It weakens the al-Qaeda message even more," Tarzi said.

Al-Qaeda finds followers in countries worldwide, but the Arab world has always been its most fertile ground for jihadists. Nearly all of its major terror attacks were done by Middle East Arabs who have have infiltrated Iraq and Afghanistan by the thousands to carry out suicide bombings and targeted killings, according to the State Department.

Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda are now faced with popular uprisings in places such as Yemen, Egypt and Syria that are challenging dictatorships and perhaps offering another way for Arab youth to look for change, experts say.

The "Arab Spring," as it has been dubbed, "caught them totally off guard," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Some analysts said much of al-Qaeda's strength comes from its ability to draw support from disaffected youth.

"Al-Qaeda's argument was the only way to advance change in the Islamic world was through violence and jihad against America," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.

Al-Qaeda's leadership may not have seen the revolt coming, because the terror group has been losing support and relevance in many parts of the Arab world, said Juan Zarate, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The troop-surge strategy in Iraq, which largely defeated al-Qaeda in much of the country, helped diminish al-Qaeda's strength, he said.

"It took them the better part of a month to put out statements and respond to it," Riedel said of al-Qaeda's response to the uprising. "Some of their very first statements bordered on the incoherent. They didn't know what to make of it."

Today, much of al-Qaeda's leadership resides in the mountains of Pakistan, where many have been forced into hiding because of U.S. drone attacks .

"Maybe the mountains of Pakistan have made them out of touch with their target audience," Tarzi said.

Al-Qaeda's leadership has been scrambling to respond to the Arab revolts in an effort to stay relevant, said Nelly Lahoud, a professor at the West Point military academy.

Statements from Ayman al-Zawahri bin Laden's No. 2, reflect a "combination of evolution and confusion" about the uprisings, Lahoud wrote in the CTC Sentinel, a journal produced by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. The remarks were made before the death of bin Laden.

In one statement, Zawahri warned Egyptian protesters not to be fooled by U.S. claims of support for their cause. He also said the fruits of their revolution could be "squandered if they do not institute an Islamic government," according to Lahoud.

Even so, al-Qaeda may see a short-term advantage because the revolts have swept away some of al-Qaeda's most potent enemies in the region. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine often jailed radicals and crushed movements by building intelligence agencies that were able to penetrate militant groups. Those intelligence agencies will now be less aggressive in targeting militants, Gerecht said. "You won't probably find them being as efficient, aggressive and brutal against al-Qaeda," he said.

Tarzi said that hard-core militants eager to retaliate for bin Laden's death might be able to exploit the security weakness in Egypt and Tunisia, which are in transition. Gerecht said that the loss in intelligence capabilities will be offset by open discussions and democracy, which will drain much of al-Qaeda's support. "It cannot take on popular will," Gerecht said.

Even so, al-Qaeda is still present and perhaps waiting for opportunities. It may be banking on disillusionment with the revolutions, which they can then exploit, said Zarate, who was deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

"Al-Qaeda plays for the long term," Zarate said.

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