The Movement Today and the 2011 Opportunity

A series of exogenous events accomplished for al Qaeda what it had failed to do for decades: the mobilization of the Sunni population against the states. The popular uprisings that collapsed states across the Middle East and North Africa—Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia—brought the objectives of the masses into alignment with those of the Salafi-jihadi movement. Both mainstream Sunni Muslims, driven by anti-government grievances, and Salafi-jihadis sought to collapse the regimes. Thus began a period of resurgence for al Qaeda and an opportunity for Salafi-jihadis to apply their lessons learned to co-opt primarily secular and democratic movements.

The Salafi-jihadi movement‚ and especially al Qaeda leadership‚ seized the opportunity that change had brought to extend its tendrils into local populations in 2011. Momentum had been running against the Salafi-jihadi movement‚ which authoritarian regimes had repressed and US and partnered military actions had expelled from holding terrain outside of Somalia. Yet the repressive tactics of the authoritarian regimes also stoked the popular dissatisfaction that swelled to bring down those regimes. The Arab Spring‚ which began as the US and the West had begun to adopt increasingly isolationist policies‚ created initial conditions for the emergence of the Salafi-jihadi movement from the shadows.

The release of Salafi-jihadi leaders who had been imprisoned in Arab Spring states produced local receptors through which the global Salafi-jihadi movement could work. These leaders had the local connections and credentials to lead local engagement efforts. Many of these leaders were not members of al Qaeda—Osama bin Laden’s consolidation over the Salafi-jihadi movement had happened while many were imprisoned. The injustices they experienced while in prison were the very same experienced by political prisoners who had had nothing to do with the Salafi-jihadi current previously‚ a shared experience that created a line of sympathy between two movements with vastly different end states in mind.

The revolutions brought further unrest‚ mobilizing a Sunni popular base. The short-term objectives between this mobilized‚ popular base and the Salafi-jihadi movement aligned in such a way that Salafi-jihadi leaders were able to insinuate themselves into the local insurgencies. Salafi-jihadi leadership pushed the narrative that the West’s hesitation to support local movements—a hesitation rooted more in Western policy paralysis than in the rejection of the Arab Spring ideals—was a sign of the West’s hypocrisy and its continued support for autocratic governments.

The outcome of the Egyptian Arab Spring—the crushing of political Islam—effectively closed off political activity as a means to achieve an Islamist state. Egyptians elected Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi by popular vote in the country’s first competitive presidential election in summer 2012. Morsi’s actions as president convinced many both inside and outside Egypt that it was too dangerous to permit the Muslim Brotherhood political space. The Egyptian military‚ acting with foreign support‚ ousted Morsi. Al Qaeda members quickly used the "bullets not the ballot" trope to recruit‚ a concept echoed within the global movement.60 Other Arab governments also cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood parties in the region. These actions cemented the idea that political processes would not provide redress for Islamists’ grievances and further polarized the region by driving political Islamists toward violence to protect their belief system.61

Sectarianism and regional power politics further drove support to the Salafi-jihadi movement. A series of US policy decisions rooted in the Iran nuclear deal fostered a narrative propagated by the Salafi-jihadi movement that the US did not back the Sunni and emboldened the Iranian regime to conduct expeditionary operations. The Syrian armed opposition perceived the US response to the Assad regime’s August 2013 chemical weapons attack as a betrayal of the promise that US President Barack Obama had made a year prior.62 The Gulf States read minimalist responses from the US military to increasingly aggressive behavior by Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf as American acceptance of growing Iranian influence. They sought to push back against Iran and contain its growth‚ and they identified Syria as the primary battlefield on which to do so. The Gulf States sought to fill the void left by the US in Syria‚ but their increased engagement also threatened Iran and its proxies‚ accelerating the regionalization of Syria’s civil war. Gulf States ranked Salafi-jihadis as less threatening than Iran and calibrated their assistance into Syria accordingly. The interaction of these developments served to reinforce sectarian trends‚ which only further empowered the Salafi-jihadi movement.

Citation 60

Al Shabaab‚ an al Qaeda affiliate active on Twitter at the time‚ tweeted‚ “change comes by bullet alone; NOT the ballot.” See American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ “Gulf of Aden Security Review‚” July 5‚ 2013. For al Qaeda’s response to the ousting of Mohamed Morsi‚ see Robin Richards‚ “The al Qaeda Network’s Response to Egypt‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ July 23‚ 2013.

Citation 61

Nathan Brown noted in a paper for Carnegie that Morsi’s removal and the ensuing struggle between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the new government led some in al Azhar‚ a Sunni religious institution recognized as the primary Egyptian authority on religious affairs‚ to see the contest as one between religion and secularism‚ driving some to take sides with the Muslim Brotherhood. Georges Fahmi writes for Chatham House that the number of Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt to turn to violence remains lower than expected‚ except that there are warning indicators that a surge in support for the use of violence may come in the near term. He describes tensions within the Muslim Brotherhood movement between those who had experienced the failures when the movement had used violence and the newer members‚ who know only of its political defeat. These newer members are increasingly advocating the use of limited violence in their approach—a “painful nonviolent” approach—rather than all-out conflict. The use of violence overall has been increasing. See Nathan J. Brown‚ “Official Islam in the Arab World: The Contest for Religious Authority‚” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace‚ May 11‚ 2017; and Georges Fahmi‚ “Why Aren’t More Muslim Brothers Turning to Violence?” Chatham House‚ April 27‚ 2017.

Citation 62

Barack Obama‚ “Remarks by the President to the White House Press Corps‚” The White House‚ August 20‚ 2012.