The Arab Spring did not kill al-Qaeda. True, it did have a negative effect on the organization’s popularity in the Middle East, but one should acknowledge al-Qaeda’s declining reputation long before these events. The revolutions offered the regional al-Qaeda affiliates the opportunity to undergo a much needed change in which they could reexamine their commitment to and dependency on the central leadership in the Af-Pak arena, and, consequently, redefine their ideological priorities and interaction with their local communities.
The Arab Spring faced a huge ideological challenge to al-Qaeda. On the one hand, the protest wave that swept the region’s peoples and has managed to topple the autocratic regimes in non-violent means did not adhere to al-Qaeda’s political approach of Islamic Sharia-based governance. But on the other hand, it did create a void in the political and public spheres that sought to be filled by new alternative ideologies.
Over the years, al-Qaeda’s embrace of its regional affiliates was often a “bear hug” that limited their approach to their respective communities. The first and most important obstacle is the almost-immediate negative connotations that the name “al-Qaeda” bears among the majority of Muslims, bad reputation the organization has very deservedly earned mainly due to the targeting of coreligionists in terrorist attacks. Also, the identification with al-Qaeda’s global long-term goals of reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate and focusing efforts on “The Far Enemy” – the West, mainly the U.S – has often made the affiliates insensitive to the special needs of the local population.
But in post-Arab Spring political environment in the Middle East, the devolution of al-Qaeda as an allegedly centralized or at least ideologically connected network of jihadist groups around the world turned a blessing to the regional affiliates.
In a destabilized Yemen, an organization named Ansar al-Sharia has emerged as a branch of AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) in the southern remote provinces of the country. Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen has not forsaken the militant path or denounced Jihad, but it is definitely more involved in the political discourse in its areas of influence. The same can be said about Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Libya. The links between such groups and al-Qaeda are by no means hidden under the surface; on the contrary, the “Black Banners”, al-Qaeda’s global trademark, are an important motif in the propaganda. But, the public dimension in which these entities operate is dramatically different than that of the traditional affiliates. They hold assemblies, mobilize the masses to public prayers and organize welfare campaigns to support the poor and the needy. In Syria, which is currently the hotspot of the Global Jihad movement, the local al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is reportedly part of the legal committee that runs the show in the rebel-controlled city of Aleppo. One of its responsibilities is the distribution of basic goods among the residents.
It appears that the regional affiliates of al-Qaeda seized the Arab Spring to shift their strategies and rebrand themselves as more local-oriented entities. This in fact corresponds with Bin Laden’s calls for these affiliates to be more attentive and reach out to their communities, as revealed in the documents recovered in the Abbottabad compound. Ironically, the annihilation of Bin Laden, which signaled another phase in al-Qaeda central leadership’s deteriorating status, facilitated his own vision.