It's rare that you can look at a current moment in time and recognize it for the historical significance it holds. 2011 is turning out to be the Year of the Protest, as people all over the world take to the streets, demanding fairness, equality and civil rights.
In years past, groups like al Qaeda have capitalized on this unrest to make inroads with disaffected and radicalized individuals. How should the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and across the Arab world affect al-Qaeda's thinking? Their Strategic Planning Cell (SPC) requested advice from the reliable SWISH (the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics) consultancy, and their report is both telling and pessimistic over al Qaeda's continued reach:
Within this overall context, your movement has clear-cut aims. You seek, again within a decades-long perspective, the removal of unacceptable elite regimes across the heart of the Islamic world. The House of Saud is a particular targets, as has been the now overthrown Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt; but others include the power-holders in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These constitute your “near enemy”.
You are bitterly opposed to Zionism and you also seek to offer support to movements outside the middle east, including those operating in the north Caucasus and southeast Asia. Behind the near enemy is the “far enemy” of the United States and its western European allies, with their interminable interference in the Islamic world.
Beyond these (in your understanding) short-term aims is the much larger objective of establishing a pure and incorruptible Caliphate, centred on the middle east but eventually embracing the world. This fundamental purpose of your movement cannot possibly be achieved in your leaders’ lifetimes (or indeed your own) - but you do have eternity waiting.
As you will recall, the assessment of your prospects in our most recent report concluded: “[You] have no chance of achieving your own ideological-strategic aim of an Islamist caliphate, which in any case rests on a false representation of Islam. However, we do not expect you to change” (“The SWISH Report (17)", 1 January 2011).[..]
It might be expected, at least on a superficial level, that your movement would be overjoyed at these developments. The Arab (and overwhelmingly) Muslim people are awakening, and speaking out against their corrupt rulers; their determination and strength of numbers have overthrown two unacceptable regimes; and there is every prospect of more to come, if not immediately then certainly within months.
Yet we are aware of an interesting and palpable sense of unease within your movement. Indeed, your very request for a preliminary assessment from us, and your intention of retaining it within the SPC, strengthens this view.
This reaction, it may not entirely please you to note, places you alongside rather than against other actors with a deep interest in these ongoing events. Almost all of them, within the region and beyond, are worried about these expressions of “people power”. True, Barack Obama made a famous speech in Cairo in June 2009 about repairing relations between the United States and the Islamic world; and his administration accepted, if rather late in the day, the need for Mubarak and the system he represented to go. But the US as a political entity has consistently entrenched and indulged autocratic regimes across the middle east, and continues to back them with all its military and political might. The European political leadership too, for all its declarative support for the protests, is nervous, or so our offices in London, Paris and Berlin report.
Within the region itself, leading states such as Israel and the House of Saud are acutely concerned at the popular revolt. Iran may express formal support, but this stance both reflects political calculations and is coloured by fear of the local impact of the Arab demonstrations.
Your position shares something of this ambivalence. You profess enthusiasm for the display of resistance; but you are clearly also troubled by the awkward reality that the removal of illegitimate governments - an aim you also aspire to - has been successfully accomplished by a people’s mobilisation in no way rooted in or guided by an Islamist worldview.
This is a very grim development for your movement, in two ways. First, you are failing to lead or inspire a rapidly escalating revolutionary process, and as a result risk being seen as irrelevant. Second, and even worse, as the regimes fall or shake you are in danger of losing a vital pillar of support for your cause: namely, the idea that people’s hatred of these regimes could only be channelled effectively by embracing your version of Islam. The revolts demonstrate that you are clearly not the only alternative - and this is very bad news indeed.Indeed, the current tumult holds out the possibility of even graver developments that could end any serious prospect for your entire movement.
So for all the fear mongering on American television, remember this one sentence:
The revolts demonstrate that you are clearly not the only alternative
What US policy makers must keep in mind is that too much imperious interference and not enough support for these protesters looking to make their lives less oppressed and improve the future for themselves and their children can and will serve the purposes of al Qaeda and other radical groups.