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Goodbye Osama?

March 11, 2011

Al-Qaeda has been strangely silent since the outbreak of Arab uprisings. Experts say the toppling of autocratic regimes and popular demands for democratic freedom could end up marginalizing Islamist terrorist groups.

Yemeni members of al-Qaeda in a prison in Sanaa
Have the Arab demands for democracy ended up sidelining al-Qaeda?Image: AP Graphics

As the world's media scrambles to keep up with the fast-moving events unfoldings across the Arab world, two questions have repeatedly popped up in much of its coverage of the historic events - where is al-Qaeda? And why has it remained silent?

Most analysts agree that the global Islamist terrorist network has played no significant role in the Arab revolution. The group has been largely conspicuous by its absence in the Arab upheaval and now seemingly has to come to terms with the fact that its decades-long propaganda may be irrelevant to most people.

Albrecht Metzger, an expert on Islam, said recent events show that al-Qaeda's capabilities may have been misjudged in the past.

"I believe that shows the gap, that was always there," Metzger said. "Only because of the group's partially successful attacks in Arab countries or in the West, we believed that al-Qaeda was stronger than it actually is."

This shows that al-Qaeda is a minority in the Arab world, Metzger said, adding that the group's ideology of a "holy war" couldn't convince the masses.

While al-Qaeda advocated violence as the only means to get rid of unpopular secular regimes, the people in Tunisia and Egypt have shown that there is a peaceful and civilized way to do the same, he added.

Al-Qaeda 'stripped of ideological basis'

So is al-Qaeda the big loser in the historic transformations reconfiguring parts of the Arab world? Undoubtedly, according to Mohammad Abu Ramman, a researcher and Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic Studies in the Jordanian capital Amman. He said the terrorist network was never a mouthpiece for Arab youth.

Demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square
The demands for democratic change are at odds with al-Qaeda's ideologyImage: picture alliance/dpa

"Al-Qaeda always offered its own answers to the general political crisis of Arab regimes. This crisis was apparent in the fact that there was never an outlook for a peaceful, democratic transformation," Abu Ramman said. "And it was also evident in the alliance between Arab regimes and the West. It was an alliance that focused on narrow self-interest, to the detriment of any democratic opening."

The analyst pointed out that the yearning for democracy among Arab people and their demands for social justice, equality and pluralism are the opposite of the fundamental values of al-Qaeda. It serves to strip the terror group of its ideological basis, he added.

Hijacking Arab revolts

Another notable absence in the Arab turmoil so far is Osama bin Laden, who usually is quick to react in the form of online video messages.

Yassin Musharbash, the al-Qaeda expert for German news magazine Der Spiegel recently wrote in an article that at first, it seemed as if the terrorist network hadn't found any words to comment on the massive upheavals. It's not al-Qaeda that proved to be the Avant-garde, he wrote, but rather the worldly, Internet-savvy youth in the Arab world.

But despite the terrorist network's inability to use modern social networking media such as Facebook and Twitter, it hasn't remained completely silent since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

Editors of new Egyptian youth magazine Tok Tok
Young, Internet-savvy Arabs such as Wael Ghonim were at the forefront of protestsImage: picture alliance /dpa

In a Youtube video, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command, tried to put his own spin on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. He said they were Islamic revolts against un-Islamic despots, rejecting democracy as a western construct in which everything depended on the mood of the majority. That, he said, is un-Islamic. It has little to do with the demands of protesters in Libya and Egypt.

One thing most analysts agree on is that the irrelevance of al-Qaeda's ideology could ultimately prove to be its undoing. A real democratization and the emergence of states based on the rule of law would make such groups superfluous, they say.

Undemocratic structures provide fertile ground

But Mohammad Abu Rumman warns it would be wrong to think that applies everywhere in the Arab world.

"The influence of al-Qaeda isn't the same in very state," he said. "In Libya, for example, which is strongly shaped by a tribal culture, or in Yemen where the social differences are huge, the situation isn't the same as in Tunisia or Egypt."

He warned that al-Qaeda could seize the opportunity to fill in the vacuum in countries such as Libya and Yemen if their leaders stifled peaceful, democratic change and allowed their nations to slide into chaos and civil war.

Albrecht Metzger too said that the role of Islamist groups in countries where democratic structures do not exist, must not be underestimated. He pointed to Pakistan as an example.

"It's a very important country for Jihad because radical Taliban there are taking over power or at least dominating the social and political structures in the country," Metzger said. "I think that will be an important battlefield for al-Qaeda. Not the Arab world, at least not for the moment."

Author: Nader Alsarras (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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