Al-Qaida post-Bin Laden: what next?

By Murad Batal al-Shishani
3 May 2011

President Barack Obama’s announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death in Pakistan will only confirm the new priorities and narratives in al-Qaida’s strategies. One of the alarming scenes in the protests currently sweeping the Arab world was the demonstration of al-Qaida inspired Salafi-jihadists in Jordan. Jihadists, who have always believed in violent action as the sole means to achieve political goals, for the first time go to the streets, inspired by the success stories of Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The protesters - led by well-known Jordanian jihadists such as Saad al-Heniti, Jarah al-Rahahleh, Muhamad al-Balwai -brother of Humam al-Balwai aka Abu Dajana al-Khorasani (who had killed eight CIA officers and a Jordanian one in a suicide attack near Khost city in Afghanistan on 30 December 2009) - were mainly demanding the release of their prisoners.

This change reflects a spreading conviction among Arab youth that peaceful political activism has so far proved to be far more effective than al-Qaida-style actions. Al-Qaida rhetoric promoting violent jihad has had very little effect on young Arabs and Muslims in Cairo, Tunisia and other Arab streets, with al-Qaida and affiliated Salafi-jihadist groups, absent from the scene of the popular movements in these various Arab capitals. Recently the movement, trying to build its presence, has begun to adopt a new frame of discourse with less confrontational concepts.

However, at the same time, it is expected that these groups will escalate their activities in the regions outside "the heart of Muslim world" as jihadists describe the Arab region, and in the ‘peripheries’ - as the latest discourse of the jihadists as deployed in jihadist web forums and in the speeches of leaders such as Al-Qaida’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, has it. After the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, al-Zawahiri released a four-part audio message to the Egyptian people entitled, ‘Message of Hope and Good Tidings to Our People in Egypt’. Particularly in the second part, al-Zawahiri aimed at presenting the ‘soft and political’ face of al-Qaida, warning against victory inspired by the ‘al-Tatarrus’ concept (literally ‘shielding’). This is the argument that the existence of Muslims among kaffer enemies should not keep jihadists from attacking them, despite possible ‘collateral’ Muslim casualties. Many al-Qaida attacks have been justified according to this concept, including the September 11 attacks. But al-Zawahiri asserts: "[...] there are some operations that are truly or falsely attributed to the mujahidin targeting Muslims in mosques, markets or other gathering spots. Regardless of the truth or falsity of these operations being attributed to the mujahidin, I and my brothers in al-Qaida strongly condemn these attacks whether committed by the mujahdin or by others [...] Sheikh Osama [Bin Laden] -may Allah protect him- delegated me to emphasise the [importance] of this matter. Hence I advise every mujahid to plan his operation very keenly to avoid injuring anyone who should not be hurt, [according to Islam] whether he is a Muslim or a non-Muslim […] and to use all caution in [using] al-Tatarrus".

What makes al-Zawahiri’s remarks significant is that most recent studies single out the ‘killing of civilians’ as the major issue that has caused al-Qaida to lose ground and standing in the Muslim world. His statement shows that al-Qaida is losing its recruitment ability among the Arab youth. There are similar attempts to promote this new strategy in other jihadist ideologues’ websites.

However, on the other hand, al-Qaida and affiliated Salafi-jihadists are escalating their activities outside the Arab region. Attacks in Pakistan, for instance, increased notably in the last couple of weeks. In the first week of April, more than 130 people were killed in various parts of the country by suicide attacks on different targets. Al-Qaida in recent years has created a tight alliance with Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which operates in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This coincides with new strategies that al-Qaida and its affiliates have started to implement during the last couple of years; seeking the creation of safe havens in various geographical areas, and building a localised jihad by convincing local elements to absorb the Salafi-Jihadi ideology rather than just allying the movement with local militant groups.

If the death is confirmed, killing Osama bin Laden, a symbolic figure-head, will not change much: he was not an operative, despite his sponsorship of some attacks, including 9/11. However, bin Laden has already played a crucial role in inspiring the young people in the Salafi-jihadist movement who are setting up ‘safe havens’ in the Islamic peripheries. On January 14, 2009, Osama bin Laden described the new Salafi-Jihadi strategy for pursuing the battle with the United States in an audiotape recording. Bin Laden urged jihadists to adopt an approach that takes advantage of the global financial crisis. He believed that Barack Obama’s administration was in crisis and spoke of his movement’s intention to "open new fronts" that might exhaust the US economically. The al-Qaida leader stressed the fact that the movement should be prepared for the longterm, saying, “To my nation I say - remembering Almighty God’s grace - rest assured, we feel that God has granted us enough patience to continue the path of jihad for another seven and seven years, if God wishes”.

This strategy has shown pockets of success in areas such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Similarly, Salafi-jihadists are focusing on regions such as North Caucasus and Central Asia, aiming to exploit youngsters motivated by local grievances to carry arms against their local governments as well as Russian troops (North Caucasus) and American bases (Central Asia). Al-Qaida propaganda material in languages other than Arabic such as Urdu, Russian, and Uzbek, etc. are increasing.

However, the Salafi-jihadist movement is losing its recruitment pool in the Arab world where hitherto it has always been successful in adopting new strategies to take advantage of the pressures young people are facing. They have done this to date by a rhetoric that linked their presence in any area to confrontations with the external occupying enemy - namely the United States of America, and ‘the West’ in general, as well as fighting against local ruling regimes described by al-Qaida as ’tyrannies’. This no longer has the same purchase. Osama bin Laden’s death, however celebrated, is unlikely to reverse this development.

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© Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic Movements in Chechnya and in the Middle East.

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