On Thursday, I was a panelist at a National Counterterrorism Center-sponsored conference on the global threat posed by al Qaeda; my panel focused on terrorist use of the Internet. This entry is adapted from my remarks, which were forward-looking in nature. One of the questions put to the panel was particularly interesting: “What lessons will al Qaeda take away from the Internet’s role in the Arab spring? How will these lessons shape extremists’ Internet use moving forward?” This is an important question because al Qaeda will indeed take lessons from the use of the Internet in the Arab Spring, but I don’t think they are the obvious ones.
This entry looks at the lessons al Qaeda is most likely to draw from the upheavals in the Arab world, and then more broadly examines how terrorist use of the Internet may evolve in the next five years.
The Arab Spring
Any assessment of the lessons al Qaeda will take from the Arab Spring should begin with an understanding of how al Qaeda is likely to view this phenomenon — and al Qaeda’s strategic vision seems to differ markedly from popular perceptions that have gripped much of the Western discourse on the subject. Indeed, from al Qaeda’s perspective, waiting out the Arab Spring and exploiting popular discontent following massively elevated public expectations may well be a winning strategy.
There’s a widely-held view that the Arab Spring was devastating to al Qaeda because jihadism was marginal to these protest movements. As my friend Peter Bergen put it in an interview I conducted with him for my forthcoming book: “Have you seen a single person carrying a placard with Osama bin Laden’s face on it? Has anybody been mouthing al Qaeda’s talking points? Have you seen a single American flag burning? It’s an ideological catastrophe for them.” Bu this view seems to misconceptualize the nature of al Qaeda. In reality, it is a vanguard movement rather than a mass movement. This is not to say that al Qaeda doesn’t want to be a mass movement, but the fact that it hasn’t become one over the past decade does not demonstrate that the group is dead.
To al Qaeda, one critical lesson of the Arab Spring is the limitations of US power. As traditional American allies in the region fell, the US was relegated to the sidelines, wringing its hands about whether to throw in its lot with the people on the street. Al Qaeda sees that these events have created a more permissive operating environment.
Violent Islamists have been released from prison in Egypt and Libya without al Qaeda’s having to lift a finger. After Mubarak’s fall, Hani al Saba’i, an Islamist figure who runs the London-based Al Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies, posted the names of a number of violent Islamists who had been freed from Egypt’s prisons. A senior US military intelligence analyst who has closely followed regional developments told me, “A significant talent pool that was previously incarcerated is now back on the streets.” Jailbreaks that would equal the magnitude of these releases would have been impossible or near-impossible in Egypt during the Mubarak years. Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has been able to smuggle weapons out of Libya during the chaos. And al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been able to capture territory in Yemen’s Abyan province while the government was preoccupied with the spread of protests to its territory.
We haven’t seen Islamic law implemented or a caliphate established, of course, but al Qaeda probably sees a more fertile recruiting environment. The Arab Spring is not just about the desire for democracy. It is also about unemployment and skyrocketing food prices. Will material needs be met? The unemployment rate in Egypt has in fact increased rather than decreased since Mubarak was overthrown. Historically when you have sky-high expectations — as you’ve had with the Arab Spring — that go unfulfilled, extreme ideologies can take hold.
So, how does this relate to the Internet? Al Qaeda is not going to directly take Internet-related tactics or strategies from the Arab Spring: the jihadi group was already adept at concealing its communications from authorities (something the revolutionaries had to learn), and it doesn’t have a large enough movement to precisely apply the online organizing lessons of the Arab Spring.
But al Qaeda has learned a different lesson: that Internet and social media technology, coupled with other advances (such as Al Jazeera’s open support of the revolutionaries) makes the status quo much more fragile than in years past. Moreover, other groups who aren’t even jihadi or Islamist groups can help to advance al Qaeda’s agenda. This can happen through weakening or toppling regimes that al Qaeda opposes, or it can more broadly occur when other non-state actors are able to destabilize the present system.
During the Cold War era, the Soviet Union made use of “popular fronts” — coalitions of political groups, including non-Communist leftist groups and also sometimes centrist groups. Al Qaeda may see a popular front model as a way to more quickly achieve its goals, with the expectation that it can either co-opt other groups or win more recruits after the immediate goal (say, toppling a regime it opposes) has been attained.
Evolving Internet strategy
So a key lesson that al Qaeda will draw from the Arab Spring is how technology has made it far easier to cause instability within the systems that al Qaeda opposes. One can add the impact of technological advances to other structural features driving instability, such as the severely damaged world economy. When we try to project al Qaeda’s future Internet strategy, much of it will relate to this singular point that was so dramatically illustrated by the Arab Spring. A few principles can likely be attached to the direction that al Qaeda’s use of the Internet is taking.
First, al Qaeda’s core is likely to lie low for the immediate future, while working to consolidate its position and ensure its own security. It will then likely use the Internet to re-establish its own relevance to operations. Remember that many analysts believed for years that Osama bin Laden had become nothing but an al Qaeda figurehead — but it appears that the Internet and other methods of communication allowed him to be more operationally relevant than most analysts realized. [Here is a response I wrote to some of the more recent claims that bin Laden wasn’t actually running al Qaeda at the time of his death.] Zawahiri is likely to try to repeat this.
Second, al Qaeda at some level (not necessarily the core, but perhaps at the level of regional command or else the periphery) may attempt to forge broader alliances based on the notion that multiple actors can destabilize the status quo. Anders Breivik considered tactical alliances with al Qaeda even though he was virulently anti-Muslim. Though such a tactical alliance might seem counterintuitive, it may actually make sense from both the far-right nationalist perspective and also from al Qaeda’s perspective. From the far right perspective, such a tactical alliance would provide greater cover for attacks on cultural traitors while also demonstrating the threat that Islam poses. And from al Qaeda’s perspective, having an additional armed faction in the mix causes more problems for the status quo power it is opposing.
One relevant book in this discussion is The Enemy of My Enemy by George Michael (no, not the Wham! singer). Michael shows, in detail, the history and current state of the convergence of interests between some Islamic radical and extreme right elements, and how this has led to both some level of mutual admiration as well as some operational ties (though the operational ties are largely historical rather than contemporary). One of his conclusions was that this alliance may be limited by the extreme right’s relative ineffectiveness as compared to jihadi groups. Michael’s book was written in 2006: does the Breivik attack suggest that this situation is changing? If such alliances do emerge, al Qaeda’s role may include helping other violent non-state actors to have effective tools of violence to oppose the status quo.
Third, al Qaeda’s Internet message will emphasize “leaderless jihad” more than it has in the past. I have written elsewhere about the evolution of al Qaeda’s economic strategy; that is, its strategy to undermine the economies of the powers it is fighting. This strategy took a significant turn in September 2008, when the financial crisis occurred. Put simply, that collapse has made the US appear mortal — and thus made it appear that attacks far smaller than the dramatic strikes of 9/11 could grind the US down over time and ultimately bring about its defeat.
A strategy that favors smaller yet more frequent attacks is likely to further encourage individuals not affiliated with the network to strike out in al Qaeda’s name. In this vein, al Qaeda released a 100-minute video in June 2011 urging individual jihad. New al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri was featured, as was Adam Gadahn. Moreover, the video suggested that individual supporters focus their attacks on economic targets. We may see al Qaeda further this model: encouraging attacks on targets of opportunity by individual supporters, but attempting to guide the direction of these attacks (pushing them toward economic targets, for example). I should warn that this strategy does not mean that the central al Qaeda organization is dead: we shouldn’t repeat the mistakes we made from 2002 through 2006, when many analysts mistakenly believed that affiliates stepping to the fore in operations meant that al Qaeda’s leadership had become irrelevant.
Fourth, al Qaeda will use the Internet to maintain connections between individuals, and to pair skill sets that can be used in offensive operations. This is what a major network does in general — but facilitating a number of smaller sub-networks will create greater number of foes who can carry out lethal attacks.
To sum up, as an anti-status quo actor, al Qaeda sees an increasingly weakening status quo. Technological advances are one reason for this situation, and al Qaeda will attempt to further exploit technology to undermine the system it opposes.