Many in the West had taken comfort in Al Qaeda’s silence in the wake of the uprisings in the Muslim world this year, as secular, nonviolent protests, led by educated youth focused on redressing longstanding local grievances, showcased democracy’s promise and seemed to leave Al Qaeda behind.
Indeed, the pristine spirit of the Arab Spring does represent an existential threat to Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology. But Al Qaeda’s leaders also know that this is a strategic moment. They are banking on the disillusionment that inevitably follows revolutions to reassert their prominence in the region. And now Al Qaeda is silent no more — and is taking the rhetorical offensive.
In recent statements, Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, and Qaeda surrogates have aligned themselves with the protesters in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, while painting the West as an enemy of the Arab people.
In North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed that while protesters flooded the streets of Tunis and Cairo, it had been fighting in the mountains against the same enemies. Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, declared that in the wake of the revolutions, “our mujahedeen brothers … will get a chance to breathe again after three decades of suffocation” and that “the great doors of opportunity would open up for the mujahedeen all over the world.”
Mr. Zawahri has denounced democracy, arguing that toppling dictators is insufficient and that “justice, freedom, and independence” can be achieved only through “jihad and resistance until the Islamic regime rises.”
The chaos and disappointment that follow revolutions will inevitably provide many opportunities for Al Qaeda to spread its influence. Demographic pressures, economic woes and corruption will continue to bedevil even the best-run governments in the region. Divisions will beset the protest movements, and vestiges of the old regimes may re-emerge.
Al Qaeda and its allies don’t need to win the allegiance of every protester to exert their influence; they have a patient view of history.
Although Washington must avoid tainting organic movements or being perceived as a central protagonist, the United States and its Western allies should not be shy about working with reformers and democrats to shape the region’s trajectory — and ensuring Al Qaeda’s irrelevance in the Sunni Arab world, the heart of its supposed constituency.
In countries where autocrats have been toppled (as in Egypt and Tunisia), we must help shape the new political and social environment; in nondemocratic, allied states (like the region’s monarchies), we need to accelerate internal reform; and in repressive states (like Iran, Libya and Syria), we should challenge the legitimacy of autocratic regimes and openly assist dissidents and democrats.
This is not about military intervention or the imposition of American-style democracy. It is about using American power and influence to support organic reform movements.
The United States Agency for International Development and advocacy organizations can help civil society groups grow; human rights groups can organize and assist networks of dissidents; and Western women’s groups and trade unions could support their counterparts throughout the Middle East. Wealthy philanthropists and entrepreneurs who are part of the Middle Eastern diaspora could make investments and provide economic opportunities for the region’s youth, while technology companies interested in new markets could partner with anticorruption groups to aid political mobilization and increase government accountability and transparency. Hollywood and Bollywood writers and producers should lionize the democratic heroes who took to the streets to challenge the orthodoxy of fear.
A focused campaign to shape the course of reform would align our values and interests with the aspirations of the protesters. More important, it would answer the challenge from Al Qaeda to define what happens next and reframe the tired narratives of the past.
In 2005, Mr. Zawahri anticipated this battle for reform and noted that “demonstrations and speaking out in the streets” would not be sufficient to achieve freedom in the Muslim world. If we help the protesters succeed, it will not only serve long-term national security interests but also mark the beginning of the end of Al Qaeda.
Juan C. Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009.