Abdel Bari Atwan

When Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of US SEALs in Pakistan on May 2 last year, the Arab Spring had been on-going for five months and the region was - and remains - in turmoil. 

It is impossible to say what will remain when the dust of revolution has settled, but it is increasingly obvious that the future of Al Qaeda and the wider jihadi movement is intrinsically linked to these outcomes.

In death, bin Laden remains an iconic figurehead for the jihadi movement and had not been a ‘hands-on’, militarily active, leader for some years prior to his death. In any case, Al Qaeda ‘central’ - like most jihadi groups - has been constructed horizontally, so that command activities are delegated and key leaders liaise closely with at least one deputy. (Ironically, this structure for survival was initially suggested to the Afghan Mujaheddin by the CIA).

Under bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda ‘central’ is no longer the potent terror group it was. The wider organisation, however, labelled Al Qaeda and Associated Movements (AQAM) by Western intelligence organisations, remains extremely dangerous and is larger and further-reaching than ever.

Over the years, the senior leadership - and in particular Al Zawahiri - has developed a complex network of franchises (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), allies (for example the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban), affiliated groups such as Boko Haram, sleeper cells of home-grown terrorists (like the men who carried out the London bombings) and so-called ‘lone-wolf’ attackers (like Mohammad Merah who murdered seven in Toulouse in March this year).

In addition, Al Qaeda has spent years embedding itself in other causes and insurgencies: in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Somalia and, most recently, in Northern Mali where separatist Tuaregs, supported by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters, have declared the independent state of Azawad.

Having been initially caught on the back foot, AQAM groups have been quick to exploit the regional insecurity caused by the Arab Spring to expand their operation room. AQAM fighters were identified among the ranks of the Libyan rebels and Al Qaeda flags were flown in post-revolutionary Benghazi. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb say they have seized large quantities of weapons from stockpiles abandoned by former Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi’s men, while Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula overran large swathes of southern and central Yemen in the chaos of revolution. Iraqi, Jordanian and Lebanese security services speak of hundreds of jihadis migrating into Syria to join the battle against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Turmoil in Egypt saw the formation of a new group, Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, which poses a very immediate threat to Israel and fulfils one of Al Zawahiri’s long-standing ambitions.

AQAM is like a mature tree whose branches are apparent but which is supported by a massive and increasingly complex underground root system. The problem for those propagating the ‘war on terror’ is that cutting off a branch (even big branches like bin laden and Anwar Al Awlaki) is unlikely to weaken the roots which are nurtured by a fertile mix of grievances and aspirations.

The Arab Spring, however, potentially offers an alternative conduit for complaint - and a more realistic chance for consensus-based solutions - which might ultimately weaken AQAM if allowed to evolve unimpeded. That elections in Tunisia and Egypt favoured Islamist parties should have come as no surprise - for many years such groups have been the only voice of dissent and many people want their new governments to operate on the Islamic tenets which formed the basis of their own identity. A new debate on the nature of an Islamic state has begun, engaging both moderates and extremists.

The electoral failure of secular, liberal parties could also be seen as a vote against continued Western interference - military, economic, political and cultural - in Mena [Middle East and North Africa] countries. A stance, until now, closely associated with bin laden and AQAM.

In response, we have seen the West develop a new policy - what Tony Blair describes as ‘controlled change’ - working behind the scenes in an effort to maintain its foothold in the region.

At the same time, Washington is hedging its bets by opening the doors for diplomacy with both the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The future of the ‘war on terror’ and the continued security of Israel - quite apart from the supply of oil and many other concerns - depend on the willingness of the region’s new governments to co-operate with the West.

In the aftermath of bin Laden’s killing and an accidental drone strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, Islamabad withdrew permission for the US to enter its airspace for three months. Some leading Egyptian politicians have suggested that they will revoke their country’s peace deal with Israel. There are already signs that the democratic process begun by the Arab Spring may be impeded - in Egypt, 10 out of 23 Presidential candidates (including the two leading Islamist contenders) have been banned while Libya’s interim government says no parties based on tribal loyalties, ethnicity or religion can participate in June’s parliamentary elections.

Designed to exclude the most radical Islamists from power, these policies may prove self-defeating. One of history’s most violent jihadi groups, Algeria’s Groupe Islamiste Armee (GIA), emerged when the Islamist political party, FIS, was prevented from taking power, having won free and fair elections in 1991.

Given a platform for debate and the moderating influence of engagement with the wider public, however, even the extremists might discover a new political pragmatism and ultimately eschew violence. Al Zawahiri is not entirely opposed to the ballot box, saying as long ago as 2009 that ‘Elections under the umbrella of an Islamic constitution, run by trustworthy hands, are to be welcomed’.

A recent study by US think-tank RAND concluded that there are just five ways all terrorist groups eventually come to an end, among them - ‘The group joins the political process’. If the climate was right, jihadi groups may enter the political arena either by forming a political wing (in the way that the IRA formed Sinn Fein) or by proxy?

A new political paradigm should be allowed to emerge in the Middle East, which embraces wider society in all its complexities and offers real solutions to long-standing grievances.

It is here that a real chance to end the kind of violence espoused by bin Laden might be found.                         –Gulf News