Arab Spring Brings Nice Weather for al-Qaeda

By Morgan Kaplan

Amid all the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, a pressing question has been neglected: Are al-Qaeda and other transnational jihadist groups getting weaker or stronger?

The answer is not comforting. In fact, the chances are high that the Arab Spring may signal to al-Qaeda that it is high time to retrain its sights away from the "far enemy" - the United States and Europe - and toward its most prized targets in the heart of the Arab world.

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This much is immediately clear: The uprisings give terrorist organizations a dream work environment, including unstable regimes, weakening security apparatuses and precious revolutionary noise.

The country perhaps most at risk is Egypt, where al-Qaeda claims many of its ideological roots. While Egypt's interim leaders attempt to remake the country's institutions and transition power away from Mubarak-era strongmen, Egyptians have determined, perhaps rightly so, that the assurance of real change requires continued demands and protests. That climate is ideal for a group like al-Qaeda to plot below the radar of the authorities.

The second factor comes from the people's demand that Egypt's security regime be completely dismantled. This month, Egyptians voted in a historic referendum to place significant limitations on the country's hated Emergency Law and set the building housing the Interior Ministry - responsible for the surveillance, imprisonment and suppression of "enemies" of the state - ablaze.

No one can quibble with the Egyptian people's right to cast off, or even burn, the machinery of Hosni Mubarak's repression, but it was precisely the harsh tactics used by his regime that ensured local jihadists faced few opportunities to challenge the state.

In fact, in addition to the many prisoners who escaped during the initial unrest, scores of political prisoners and former jihadists have been released from prison in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall. These prisoners include Abboud and Tarek el-Zomor, jailed over 30 years ago for their role in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, as well as the brother of al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was released from prison month, only to be rearrested days later. Returning former jihadists to the public - no matter how "reformed" they may be - injects the memories and know-how of an erstwhile era of terrorism back into Egyptian society.

Yemen is equally concerning. Although al-Qaeda's presence on the Arabian Peninsula is nothing new, The Associated Press has reported that al-Qaeda-affiliated militants are quietly taking control of small towns completely uncontested - the Yemeni police had simply withdrawn.

Just yesterday, American-born, Yemen-based preacher Anwar al-Awlaki praised the Arab Spring, writing that, "Our mujahedeen brothers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and the rest of the Muslim world will get a chance to breathe again after three decades of suffocation."

And Saudi Arabia - for al-Qaeda, the crown jewel of the region, because of its religious significance, U.S.-friendly monarchy and oil wealth - is also in dire straits. Its neighbors in Yemen and Bahrain face large anti-regime protests, putting ever more pressure on the royals.

Al-Qaeda may appear less relevant in the short term, but this organization plays the long game - and has ample ability to adapt over time. All those understandably celebrating the region's newfound freedom should realize the Arab Spring may end up being an extremely fortuitous gift for global jihadist movements.

Morgan Kaplan is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago.

This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News. It is reprinted here with the author's permission.

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