The instability generated by the Arab Spring and potential disillusion with democratic politics could spur a resurgence of radical Islamist terrorism, according to a new analysis.
Al Qaeda has become more diffuse as its core structure has weakened, but it has nevertheless expanded through a plethora of regional affiliates, says a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project, chaired by former Sept. 11 commission heads Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton.
“Even though core al-Qaida may be in decline, ‘al-Qaida-ism,’ the movement’s ideology, continues to resonate and attract new adherents,” it cautions.
The Syrian civil war “could create an organization with the intention and capability to attack the West itself,” and points to the possibility of jihadist groups gaining access to the regime’s chemical arsenal.
Extremist groups operating in regional conflicts in Northern Africa ultimately could emerge as international terror threats, the report warns.
“The Middle East is experiencing a level of instability unknown in recent years,” says the report:
The civil war in Syria may provide al-Qaeda with a chance to regroup, train, and plan operations, much as the U.S. invasion of Iraq revitalized the network and gave it new relevance. Returning foreign fighters from the war Syria may destabilize the region, or they might try to conduct attacks in the West. Sunni-Shia tensions are rising across the region, and the military overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt may increase support among some disillusioned Islamists for al-Qaeda’s ideological rejection of democracy. Any of these factors might raise the level of threat from groups aligned with al-Qaeda.
Despite opinion poll evidence that majorities of Muslim and Arab citizens reject terrorism, “there is no evidence that the potential pool of young ‘hot heads’ to which the core’s message has always been directed will necessarily dissipate or constrict in light of the Arab Spring,” the report suggests:
In fact, it may actually grow as impatience over the slow pace of democratization and economic reform takes hold, and many who took to the streets find themselves excluded from or deprived of the political and economic benefits that the upheavals in their countries promised. The “losers” of the Arab Spring may thus provide a new reservoir of recruits for al-Qaeda in the near future—especially in those countries across North Africa and the Middle East with large populations below the age of 20. The recent events in Egypt, in particular, may yet attract the disillusioned and the disenchanted to the ranks of al-Qaeda or one of its local affiliates.
“However, encoded in the DNA of apocalyptic jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates are the seeds of their own long-term destruction,” the report concludes:
…their victims are often Muslim civilians; they don’t offer any real political or economic ideas to solve the problems of much of the Muslim world (but rather offer the prospect of Taliban-style regimes from Morocco to Indonesia); they don’t implement practical local programs to make people’s lives better (although recent developments in Syria suggest that the movement has deliberately changed its strategy in this respect); they keep expanding their list of enemies, including any Muslim who doesn’t precisely share their worldview; and they seem incapable of becoming politically successful movements, because their ideology prevents them from making the real-world compromises that would allow them to engage in genuine politics.
“These weaknesses are an impediment to al-Qaeda becoming any kind of political movement, but not continuing as a terrorist organization,” the report adds:
Indeed, al-Qaeda would not be the first terrorist group to persist in spite of its many weaknesses. The Baader-Meinhof gang was able to inflict much harm on Germany for many years during the 1970s and 1980s even though it was consistently killing civilians and had virtually no public support. It is too soon to predict the long-term threat posed by alQaeda and allied groups as the movement is undergoing a transition that may end up proving to be its last gasp; but the right set of circumstances in the unstable Middle East could also revive the network.
The new assessment builds on three previous reports released by BPC’s Homeland Security Project: a 2010 analysis that highlighted the increasingly homegrown nature of the terrorist threat, a 2011 report that offered practical recommendations for preventing violent radicalization in America and a 2012 report that offered recommendations to counter online radicalization. The Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment is the first in an annual series of threat assessments.