Al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring

by Thomas Joscelyn, National Post  |  published on January 15, 2013

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Sitting in his Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound just days before his demise in May 2011, Osama bin Laden surveyed the political turmoil in the Middle East. In a memo dated April 26, 2011, the terror master assessed his terrorist organization’s prospects for the future. From bin Laden’s perspective, the Arab Spring presented new opportunities for al-Qaeda and its virulent ideology.

Bin Laden surmised that “current conditions have brought on unprecedented opportunities and the coming of Islamic governments that follow the Salafi doctrine is a benefit to Islam.” (Salafists believe in an austere version of Islam, and believe that modern Muslim societies have veered from the appropriate path.)

While bin Laden branded the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded organizations “half solutions,” he also believed that “there is a sizable direction within the Brotherhood that holds the Salafi doctrine, so the return of the Brotherhood and those like them to the true Islam is a matter of time.” Bin Laden urged his followers to avoid fighting the newly-installed Islamist regimes, and to instead steer them towards a more extreme position.

One year later, Canadian intelligence came to a similar conclusion. This past week, the National Post’s Stewart Bell reported on a declassified threat assessment authored by the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC) in April 2012.

“The threat implications of the ‘Arab Spring’ in North Africa and the Middle East remain a concern, as terrorist groups attempt to take advantage of political unrest and replace current regimes with one[s] sympathetic to an extremist alternative,” the assessment reads.

It is true that al-Qaeda did not start the Arab Spring. Al-Qaeda and its ideology are not the dominant force throughout the Middle East. Nor should we conflate all Islamist groups under the al-Qaeda banner. But the terror network bin Laden founded has capitalized on the political unrest in a variety of ways.

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