- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The recent wave of anti-West demonstrations across the Muslim world and the attack that killed four Americans in Libya have triggered mounting concern among analysts and U.S. officials that al Qaeda is exploiting the chaos that has followed the Arab Spring’s overthrow of secular dictatorships aligned with the United States.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa has been linked to the Sept. 11 military-style assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Circumstantial evidence now is emerging that supporters of the terrorist network were involved in fomenting deadly protests against America last month in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia.

The demonstrations, in which violent but unarmed mobs stormed the U.S. and other Western embassies, generally were reported to be spontaneous expressions of outrage over an Internet video that denigrates Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Al Qaeda has tried to exploit the ‘Arab Awakening’ in North Africa for its own purposes during the past year,” states a report from the Library of Congress about the group’s strategy in Libya.

The report’s authors say al Qaeda’s senior leadership is taking advantage of the way the rebellions have “disrupted existing counterterrorism capabilities.”

In addition, Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism analyst at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, said that “there are not too many dots to join” to link high-profile al Qaeda supporters to the demonstrations in the Arab world:

• In Cairo on Sept. 11, protesters breached the U.S. Embassy’s walls, burned the American flag and raised an Islamic battle standard used by al Qaeda.

The call to protest the Internet video came from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri’s younger brother Mohammed, among others.

Demonstrators chanted, “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama,” indicating their allegiance to slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

• In the Yemeni capital of Sanaa two days later, protests at the U.S. Embassy were sparked by a call from Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a Muslim cleric who was named as a “specially designated global terrorist” by the Treasury Department in 2004 because of his links to bin Laden.

Five demonstrators were killed, as the mob clashed with Yemeni security forces protecting the embassy.

• In Tunisia, where at least four died in similar clashes, the demonstration was organized by Seifallah ben Hassine, otherwise known as Abu Iyad al Tunisi.

Hassine leads a group called Ansar al Shariah-Tunisia. Analysts say that al Qaeda-inspired jihadists in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere have adopted the name Ansar al-Shariah for their cause.

An idea and a movement

Mr. Joscelyn acknowledged that the exact role of al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistani border remains murky.

“I’m not saying that all these demonstrations were ordered by al Qaeda central,” he said. “The evidence isn’t there for that.

“But what I’m saying is — if you add up all the data points — it’s not too much of a stretch” to conclude that al-Qaeda-linked extremists in the region had a hand in them, Mr. Joscelyn said.

Others agree that the demonstrations show, at the least, the resonance of al Qaeda’s violent interpretation of Islam.

The mob attacks “show the resiliency of their nihilistic ideology” in the Arab world, said a U.S. government counterterrorism official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the news media.

“We haven’t beaten back that ideology,” he said, noting that al Qaeda leader al-Zawahri claimed in his 9/11 anniversary message that al Qaeda is “as much an idea as a movement.”

The diffusion of al Qaeda’s ideology and the proliferation of its affiliates have led some to detect a rebirth of the terrorist network.

“They’re a greater threat than they were back on Sept. 11,” Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said this week.

Al Qaeda “has now spread out into many different groups, and that is why it is considered by most intelligence experts to be more dangerous now than it was then,” Mr. King said.

Debating the issue

Some of the most respected scholars of al Qaeda argue that the Arab democratic uprisings and last year’s slaying of bin Laden have dealt a death blow to the network.

Peter Bergen, a national security analyst who has studied the terrorist network for 20 years, proposed that “al Qaeda has been defeated.” He made the assertion during an Oxford-syle debate staged Tuesday by the New America Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank.

Mr. Bergen, who has written several books about al Qaeda and bin Laden, said he feels “like a Sovietologist in 1989” after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union began to collapse. “That’s a good feeling,” he said.

Thomas Lynch, a retired Army colonel and scholar at the National Defense University, seconded Mr. Bergen, saying it is important not to underestimate the catastrophic impact the killing of bin Laden had on al Qaeda.

Bin Laden, as a personality, was no less relevant to turning the ideology of Salafi jihadism into a globally threatening movement than Lenin was to [forging] Marxist Bolshevism” into a disciplined revolutionary party, said Mr. Lynch, who was a senior adviser to the U.S. military on al Qaeda.

“We’re not saying jihadist terror is over,” Mr. Bergen added. “What we’re saying is that al Qaeda as an organization is now incapable of its central strategic purpose — to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks in the United States.”

Mr. Joscelyn and a colleague from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies opposed Mr. Bergen’s debate proposal, noting that five serious plots aimed at the U.S. homeland since 2009 have been linked to al Qaeda.

“And [attacking the U.S.] isn’t even what they’ve been focused on” during that time, Mr. Joscelyn said.

“Most of their resources and assets are focused elsewhere,” such as in trying to build up safe havens and gain territory in poorly governed areas such as eastern Libya and southern Yemen, he added.

His colleague — Bill Roggio, managing editor of The Long War Journal and a foundation senior fellow — agreed.

“We think in terms of the next election. These guys think in terms of 50 to 100 years,” Mr. Roggio said. “This may be a low point in their operational tempo, but they are not defeated. They haven’t stopped planning operations.”

During the debate, all four scholars agreed that the democratic rebellions in the Arab world — in Mr. Bergen’s words — would “take the wind out of [al Qaeda‘s] sails in the long term.”

“The reason that al Qaeda and these other [jihadist] groups came to exist in the first place was the authoritarian regimes [in the Arab world]. It’s no accident that so many of the members of al Qaeda were from Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Egypt,” Mr. Bergen said.

But Mr. Joscelyn argued that “in the short term they can exploit the security vacuums left behind” by the toppling of dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia and the ongoing turmoil in Yemen.

Mr. Bergen heaped scorn on the idea that the group was getting a fillip from the turmoil.

“Obviously, [the Benghazi attack] was a terrible tragedy,” he told The Washington Times. But “if that’s the best [al Qaeda] can do after nearly two years of the Arab Spring, it doesn’t suggest a renaissance to me.”

Nonetheless, he noted that the “protests are good for extremists. Provocations like this video [tick] off ordinary Muslims and create anti-Western anger [extremists] can exploit.”

The U.S. counterterrorism official said a particular concern is the emergence of “ungoverned spaces” in places such as eastern Libya that might provide safe havens for al Qaeda.

“Any time any of these groups have the space and time to train and plan, they are thinking about” how to attack Western, and especially U.S., targets, the official said.

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