Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, discusses the failures of the Arab uprisings in a newly-released audio message. As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, released the 12-minute, Arabic recording online earlier today.
Zawahiri speaks on the seventh anniversary of the Arab uprisings, which began in several countries in late 2010 and early 2011. His message is titled, “Seven Years Later, Where is the Salvation?” Zawahiri complains that “all of the revolutions were suppressed except Syria, which entered the spiral of international solutions,” meaning that powerful nations are now dictating the course of events.
The “reigning regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya” have all “returned,” only “more ferocious and corrupt” than before, Zawahiri complains. He claims that the jihadis should learn from this “bitter experience.” The number one lesson he seeks to impart is that jihadists cannot compromise on their ideology the same way many other Islamist parties did.
Indeed, Zawahiri blames Islamist groups, such as the Ennahda party in Tunisia and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, for the failure of the Arab revolts to deliver sharia-based governance in several countries. The al Qaeda honcho claims that the “Muslim masses” called for sharia to be implemented, but the Islamists were only interested in power, making “concessions” that compromised their ideology. Zawahiri argues that Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood were eager to placate the West and America, yet this path only led to the return of the same criminal regimes that were deposed in the first place.
Of course, Zawahiri’s reading of history is highly selective. He ignores many of the actors who rose up against their oppressive governments in 2010 and 2011. And while the calls for sharia governance were heard at the time, they were not nearly as universal as the al Qaeda emir would have listeners believe.
Zawahiri’s latest message is similar to the one he released in Aug. 2016. He complained at the time that the Arab uprisings had “failed” in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. He likened the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to a “poultry farm,” which raises “chickens” to be pleased “with what they are given,” but leaves them “ignorant” of the predatory threats that surround them. In mid-2016, Zawahiri was uncertain about Libya, but had hope for Syria. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Zawahiri compares members of the Muslim Brotherhood to chickens.]
However, Osama bin Laden’s successor now counts the Libyan revolt among those that failed. And he laments that nations are able to control the Syrian conflict through funding and some groups’ fear of being labeled terrorists. The latter point is a reference to the US-led effort to designate certain jihadist groups as terrorist organizations. One of the reasons that al Qaeda’s “unity” project in Syria stalled is that some rebels fear the designations will tarnish them. Although Zawahiri doesn’t mention it, al Qaeda itself initially sought to hide the extent of its network in Syria, in part, to avoid international scrutiny.
Zawahiri’s latest message, as well as his Aug. 2016 statement, are very different from al Qaeda’s initial reaction to the Arab uprisings.
Osama bin Laden surmised that there was a “sizable” contingent “within the Brotherhood” that was evolving in the jihadists’ direction. Bin Laden also wrote in his personal journal shortly before his death that the Arab revolts were a unique opportunity for his cause. In addition, al Qaeda ordered its men to cooperate with Islamist groups throughout Arab-majority countries in an attempt to steer them toward the jihadist ideology. In Syria, for example, al Qaeda’s men have cooperated with Islamists and Salafists of various stripes and even groups backed by the West.
While Zawahiri laments the failure to achieve al Qaeda’s longstanding goal of sharia governance in several countries, it does not mean that he thinks all is lost. Even though widespread sharia governance hasn’t taken root, al Qaeda still maintains an insurgency footprint in multiple areas within these countries. Even though it has faced setbacks, al Qaeda’s guerrilla forces are fighting in more countries today than on Sept. 11, 2001 — a fact that Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza, has crowed about in the not-so-distant past.