November 19, 2012 | Jihadology

Perceptions of the “Arab Spring” Within the Salafi-Jihadi Movement

November 19, 2012 | Jihadology

Perceptions of the “Arab Spring” Within the Salafi-Jihadi Movement

Co-authored by Tara Vassefi

“The popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain have not only shaken the foundation of the authoritarian order in the Middle East, but they have also hammered a deadly nail in the coffin of a terrorism narrative which has painted al Qaeda as the West’s greatest threat,” Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics opined in definitive tones in January 2012. Peter Bergen, the bestselling author and CNN terrorism analyst, shares that sentiment, describing Osama bin Laden’s death and the events popularly known as the “Arab Spring” as “the final bookends” of the Global War on Terror. “It’s hard to think of anything that’s more seismic in terms of undercutting al Qaeda’s ideology,” he said, than the combination of these two developments. Other Western commentators believe the Arab Spring has helped the forces of jihadism. Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA unit that pursued bin Laden, said at a book festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, that the Arab Spring “delighted al Qaeda,” and has been “an intelligence disaster” for the United States.

Gerges and Bergen are representative of one side of a debate raging in the West over the impact of the Arab Spring on the threat of al Qaeda–inspired terrorism; Scheuer represents another side, with many gradations between their polarized outlooks. Yet, although informed observers’ perspectives on the impact that the Arab Spring will have on al Qaeda and other salafi jihadi groups differ, they are seemingly unanimous in believing that the effect of these uprisings will be profound. Unfortunately, one important voice has been marginalized from this debate: that of salafi jihadis themselves.

A review of prominent articles and analyses on the topic, some of them quite worthwhile, makes the marginalization of the jihadis’ perspective clear. Analysis of the Arab Spring’s impact on al Qaeda is often structural in nature, as is the case with Seth Jones’s observation in Foreign Policy that the revolutions may produce weak states, which social science literature suggests are more likely to become “fertile ground for terrorist groups.” Although Jones quotes from al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, that quotation is intended to show that al Qaeda has designs for the Arab Spring rather than to comprehensively illuminate the group’s perspective and strategic thought. Eugenio Lilli’s structural analysis in the Journal of Terrorism Research reaches a more optimistic conclusion, that democracy is “still one of the best weapons to fight the threat of Islamic terrorism.” Lilli quotes Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi’s warnings that their fall could bolster extremist forces, but he neither quotes nor cites the views of a single jihadi figure since the revolutions began.

Some analyses focus on internal dynamics within the jihadi movement. For example, William McCants’s informative Foreign Affairs piece “Al Qaeda’s Challenge” discusses, among other things, the manner in which Islamists who vote and Islamist parliamentarians pose problems for al Qaeda’s outlook. McCants hones in on a few discrete aspects of al Qaeda’s thought that are challenged by the new Islamist embrace of electoral politics, rather than assessing the group’s current perceptions of the Arab Spring. Still other contributions describe on-the-ground developments spurred by the Arab Spring that may strengthen or undermine al Qaeda. Such pieces may contribute when they offer rich descriptions, but they are less concerned with how jihadis see developments, and jihadi thinkers are rarely quoted in this genre.

Jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring are important not because we can take their viewpoint as the definitive reading of these events, but rather because the U.S. has often encountered problems over the past decade when it has failed to understand the adversary. It could likewise be a grave error to declare what the events of the Arab Spring mean for the future of jihadi activities without understanding how the other side in this conflict perceives them.

This article addresses this gap in the literature through an analysis of 101 documents produced by salafi jihadi thinkers within a year following the movement’s first statement on the uprising in Tunisia (a January 13, 2011 statement from Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud). These documents include statements released by spokesmen, interviews with the movement’s intellectual leaders, and discussions on Web forums. Of course, there is no unified jihadi movement with something resembling a collective conscience. There are conflicting and competing groups; nor do they possess a unified view of the Arab Spring. But within the first year of public statements, there was more agreement than disagreement. Jihadi observers had a largely optimistic outlook on the revolts, seeing the Arab Spring as “a tsunami” capable of sweeping away regimes throughout the region and beyond. These observers believed that they were presented with new opportunities, and have begun to outline a methodology for taking advantage of these opportunities.

A Pan-Islamic Uprising

Jihadi observers see the events in the Arab world as a pan-Islamic uprising, one that may quickly extend beyond Arabic-speaking countries. This was apparent even in the first statement that a jihadi group released on the events of the Arab Spring, the aforementioned document from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud. “Your battle you fight today,” Wadoud told the Tunisians, “isn’t alienated from the general battle the Muslim umma is engaged in against its external and domestic enemies.”

Jihadi observers were ahead of the curve in predicting that Egypt would be next. On January 21, four days before the demonstrations that would topple Hosni Mubarak began, Kuwait-based commentator Hamid bin Abdallah al Ali wrote that the Egyptian regime “has an appointment with a coming and imminent pain.” He stated that the coming demonstration would “transfer the pains which afflicted the Arab peoples onto the tyrants, and transfer the authority back to the people, just as Tunisia did.” Ali’s assessment proved to be more accurate than that offered by U.S. officials, including the American secretary of state.

Jihadi observers generally agree with the assessment of Jordanian Islamist Akram Hijazi, who said on January 26 that “the Arab people are on the verge of exploding.” That is, the Arab regimes are failing at all levels—politically, economically, socially, and culturally—so a number of governments could fall in rapid succession. The jihadis hope for precisely that. As the Syrian ideologue Abu Basir al Tartusi said in an interview posted on the Ansar al Mujahedin Network Web forum, he hoped that “the entire Muslim Arab people will escalate matters.” Other jihadi commentators have explained a structural reason that more regimes could fall quickly: the people have been losing the fear of their own governments. Hamid bin Abdallah al Ali noted that tyrants depend on instilling fear in citizens in order to maintain power, but now the power of fear was eroding; and jihadi spokesmen urged all would-be revolutionaries to set fear aside.

Overall, jihadis see the situation as one of chaos and upheaval. This is, in their view, a positive thing, a cleansing force that can sweep away the old, corrupt, oppressive, un-Islamic governments. The metaphor of a slumbering body (the umma) awakening frequently figures in this analysis. As jihadi writer Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam noted, “If an arrow hits Tunisia, the thrones of the tyrants in the Gulf will shake, and if an arrow hits Egypt, the heart of the weak in the land will be strong.” Employing an extremely garbled metaphor to encapsulate the wrenching changes, Abu Sa’ad al Amili claimed that all of the regimes were “now standing in a vacuum and on the edge of a collapsing cliff closer to experiencing the winds of change and the revolution coming from the land of Libya.”

Out With the Old

In order to understand what jihadi observers believe is being ushered in by the collapse of old regimes, it is necessary to understand what jihadis think the old regimes represented. One of the primary attributes used to describe the old governments is the manner in which they held back Islam. Jihadis had long referred to the Arab governments as “apostate” regimes—but in describing the ills inflicted on the people of Tunisia, the first thing that Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud pointed to was the manner in which Ben Ali had secularized the country. Abdel Wadoud explains that this regime “exceeded its boundaries in fighting Islam like no previous other; like prohibiting the Hajj, and prohibiting al hijab and fighting everything that smells like Islam, and torturing and forcing the Muslim youth into the forgotten prisons, and violating the honors of the pure, chaste women.” Zawahiri also pointed to the governments’ suppression of Islam—singling out restrictions on the hijab and secularized education—as a primary reason that they deserved to be overthrown. Moreover, consistent with their utopian views, jihadis think the root cause of the problems with the old regimes was their deviation from faith.

Another related theme is the West’s responsibility for these governments. This is significant not only because it means the West may be weakened as these regimes collapse; but also because the West, in the formulation advanced by jihadi commentators, bears a large share of blame for what befell the populations under the old rulers. Part of the cleansing process, as the old is swept away, will be rejecting everything that contributed to the prior systems. “Every Tunisian and every Muslim has the right to ask: Who had brought to power the disgraceful apostate [Ben Ali] and supported him in his tyranny against the Tunisian people?” wrote one forum member on the Ansar al Mujahedin Network. “Was not it the global infidelity?” Similarly, jihadi intellectuals linked Mubarak’s power to Western machinations.

Because of these connections between Western countries and the regimes, jihadi thinkers argue that the congratulations the West offered as the dictators fell was either deception or an attempt to save face when their fall became a fait accompli. Abu Yahya al Libi asked, “How can it now congratulate these people on attaining their freedom? Who was it that usurped it in the first place, or enabled it to be usurped?”
As the jihadis see it, the unraveling of the Arab regimes represents a waning of Western influence rather than the death knell of the jihadi movement: as the regimes stand discredited and rejected, popular sentiment amounts to a repudiation of the West. And from this view, the jihadi understanding of the geopolitical implications of the fall of old regimes flows rather naturally.

The Geopolitics of Regime Change

Jihadi observers believe that regional uprisings demonstrate American weakness, or at least highlight the limits of U.S. and Western power. Jihadis believe that “global infidelity” would have intervened, for example, to prop up the Ben Ali regime had Western countries not realized that the government was inevitably doomed.

Writing in AQAP’s English-language online magazine Inspire, Alwaki argued that the American response to regional events was a critical lesson. Mubarak “did the dirty job for the Americans,” Awlaki wrote. “In spite of that, how did the Americans treat him at his moment of need? They trashed him. He was conned by America. He was tricked, swindled, cheated, or as Malcolm [X] would have liked to say: He’s been bamboozled. America duped him and then dumped him. Now the important question is: Are the rest of America’s servants, littering the scene from Morocco to Pakistan, paying any attention?” The implication is that in addition to being a waning power, America is an unfaithful partner: other governments will realize that the United States will not stand by them when times become rough.

Other jihadi observers have said the uprisings represent a strategic disaster for their foes. As the salafi jihadi sheikh Husayn bin Mahmud said in an interview, the uprisings make clear that secularism has not eroded the spirit of the Islamic people. “Now they do not sleep at night,” bin Mahmud said of the West, “and want to bring things back as they were in Tunisia, for they have worked for centuries for the sake of subjecting the people through their treacherous agents.”

A separate but related theme is that these revolutionary events will hurt Israel. Due to the longstanding Egyptian peace treaty with Israel, jihadis perceive the fall ofMubarak as a strategic setback for the Jewish state. “Israel has lost a sentry from its most important sentries,” said Abu al Mundhir al Shinqiti. The notion that Israel will end up among the losers due to events of the Arab Spring is trumpeted constantly, and unanimously, by jihadi observers.

Further, the “apostate” regimes are seen as being among the geopolitical losers. As mentioned earlier, jihadi observers believe the people are losing their fear of their governments, and the rapid spread of instability could overwhelm the system’s ability to adapt. Akram Hijazi said that Arab states can be divided into two categories: those whose populations are engaged in violent uprisings, and those who maintain some semblance of security, “but whose people are boiling inside.”

Although this has received little attention in the West, jihadi observers also believe that the uprisings delegitimize the established pro-government clergy whose condemnations had previously undermined the claims of al Qaeda and others to represent true Islam. As Abu Muslim al Jaza’iri noted, it was this clergy that deterred people from joining the ranks of the jihadis by referring to them as takfiris, extremists, or Kharijites. To al Jaza’iri, as the old regimes are swept away, so too will be this clergy “who was preventing you from us.” He continued: “They are the ones who attributed themselves to knowledge,” while at the same time they “traded with the tyrants of our time against the truth and the people of the truth.” Hamid bin Abdallah al Ali referred to these pro-regime clerics as occupying the “most reviled position,” in that they claimed to speak with authority on sharia, but instead allowed themselves to be “manipulated by the leader of a regime who never had any true authority or legitimacy to begin with” by the standards of sharia law.

So for al Ali, the clerics supporting Saleh’s government in Yemen are accomplices to every act of violence that the regime perpetrates. And to Zawahiri, the sheikhs of al Azhar—thought to be the most respected institution of Sunni Islamic scholarship—were “turned from the employees of the office of spreading Islam into the informants of the State Security Intelligence.” Thus jihadi observers believe that the pro-regime clerics discredited themselves on both religious and secular planes. The clerics of Saudi Arabia have come in for particular repudiation: one jihadi spokesman derided the Saudi clergy as nothing but employees of the House of Saud, which makes them speak when convenient, and stay silent as the regime requires.

Impact on the Jihadi Movement

Jihadi observers see great opportunity in the changes wrought by the Arab Spring, with four distinct advantages they believe the movement will gain (two of which are operational and two of which will help to propagate their understanding of Islam). The two operational advantages are the amount of jihadis who have escaped or been released from prison, and the ability of jihadi groups to control territory. As to the former, Hani al Siba’i has released multiple lists of violent Islamists who have been released from Egyptian prisons.

As to the second operational advantage, control of territory, groups like AQAP made significant gains during the early chaos brought by the Arab Spring. In an interview with the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi, AQAP’s Fahd al Qasa portrayed these gains as naturally stemming from the Arab uprisings. “We are an integral part of the people’s project toward dignity and freedom under the banner of Islam,” he said. (Both AQAP and Somalia’s Shabaab subsequently experienced territorial losses this year.)

Qasa’s statement is related to the third advantage that jihadis identify, that they will gain from the revolutions because they were part of the revolutions. Looking at Libya, Abu Sa’ad al Amili opined that AQIM was well positioned to gain after Qaddafi’s fall because the “mujahedin” included Libyans, and they fought beside other rebels.

And the fourth gain is that Islamist groups will be granted a greater degree of freedom after the regimes’ collapse. This expectation has been expressed by leaders, such as Hamid bin Abdallah al Ali, who proclaimed that “the Islamic project” will be “the greatest beneficiary from the environment of freedom.” It has also been recognized by Web forum participants. One participant saw this as an opportune time to “disseminate the canon and literature of jihadist thought and the papers and treatises of the leaders and ideologues of jihad.”

Because the revolutions are believed to hurt Western interests, destabilize apostate regimes, and help violent Islamists, jihadi observers believe that they have mutual interests with the demonstrators at the moment, even if their goals differ. Further, they believe the street will favor a religious outlook and the implementation of sharia, and ultimately that it will favor the jihadis themselves. As Abu Sa’ad al Amili commented, those within the movement “cannot imagine” that free people would align with secularists, since the secularists are “followers of the Crusader West so that it can continue the occupation and exploitation of the country in the name of democracy.”

In view of this outlook, it should come as no surprise that when jihadi sheikhs have been asked whether participation in the uprisings was permissible, they have found that it is, even if most demonstrators are secular. As Husayn bin Mahmud said in an interview, although democracy is “an infidelity,” Mubarak’s rule is worse.

But it’s clear that jihadis view the uprisings only as a first strategic step. What comes thereafter?

Post-Revolution Goals and Strategy

The uprisings have not made the jihadi movement abandon its overarching goals. The implementation of sharia is an immediate goal. The rhetoric of the need for sharia that has accompanied the uprisings should be familiar to students of the movement, although it is now framed in more immediate terms: rather than an aspirational goal that can eventually be achieved, recent rhetoric suggests that sharia’s implementation is just around the corner.

Another overarching obligation, but perceived as more distant, is re-establishment of the caliphate. Looking at the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam said that the movement should be undertaking “an integrated work aiming at the establishment of the Islamic state, with a caliphate of the prophetic methodology.” Sheikh Khalid al Adam proclaimed that the fall of the Arab tyrants, along with the weakening of Europe and the United States, will pave the way for the caliphate’s establishment. The caliphate is of course a grandiose goal, and this grandiosity demonstrates why chaos throughout the Middle East and beyond is seen as such a positive development by jihadis: with such a goal, the movement requires something to shake the present order in unprecedented ways.

Jihadis are aware of the need for strategy in the wake of the revolutions. They have not developed a consensus paradigm for the post-revolution period, but an examination of the 101 documents explored in this study clarifies some contours of what these thinkers have in mind.

Necessary to sustain any strategy is sound organizational planning. This organizational planning should be understood in light of the greater freedom of action that jihadi groups expect to enjoy. Jihadi movements have historically demonstrated a remarkable degree of patience, and are unlikely to deviate from this characteristic in the post-revolution Middle East. An emphasis on patience can be seen, for example, in Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam’s admonitions “not to enter into confrontations that do not take consequences into account, lest you face a total rejection for your actions.” Indeed, Bassam has outlined methods for developing jihadi leadership in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, noting that “heedful leadership” is “like a heart to the body.” He specified that this leadership should be careful to avoid “risky adventures” that could put it at odds with the people.

In line with this patient approach, jihadis understand that they have an opportunity to undertake more intense dawa efforts, drawing others toward their understanding of Islam. Al Qaeda’s Atiyatallah Abu Abd al Rahman spoke of a “historical opportunity” to undertake enhanced dawa “in light of the freedom and opportunities now available in this post-revolution era.” This advocacy of undertaking dawa in the wake of the revolutions is widespread among jihadi observers. Hamzah bin Muhammad al Bassam urged other jihadis to “be armed with awareness and knowledge, focus on dawa among people, be of a good character, and remember that you are an example to whoever is guided by you.” Zawahiri noted that “an opportunity for advocacy and statement in Egypt and Tunisia has opened.”

Intensified dawa efforts are not, of course, all that these groups have in mind, and there is no conflict between an initial strategy of dawa and an eventual strategy of jihad. Indeed, jihadi observers have clearly articulated their belief in the eventual need to undertake violence. Without violence, Bassam asserts, the efforts of Islamists will have no results “other than gathering and dispersion,” because a number of different “intellectual trends” will be competing for power. In other words, there is no guarantee that jihadis would win out in a cramped marketplace of ideas. The movement’s ability to turn to violence serves as a trump. (The conditions under which the movement will transition from dawa to jihad were not specified in the documents we reviewed, in part because this will differ from one country to another.)


Al Qaeda and other salafi jihadis do not see the upheaval of the Arab Spring as the death knell for their movement. Rather, they believe that they will be able to capitalize on the chaos in definable ways, and that their enemies have suffered significant geopolitical setbacks. As previously stated, one cannot take jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring at face value as representing the true reality. These perceptions are laced with hubris, and frequently conflate the movement’s aspirations with on-the-ground reality. Yet the same can be said of Western analysts who definitively declare the jihadi movement dead: their own proclamations are likewise frequently hubristic, and project their own aspirations upon the events in question.

As McCants has noted, the Arab Spring presents “both promise and peril for the global jihadist movement.” Some of this peril is related to factors that McCants has noted, such as the emergence of Islamist parliamentarians. Other perils may relate to justifications for the use of violence. If extreme salafis embrace strategies of electoral politics and persuasion, does the raison d’être of jihadi groups recede? Although these challenges may be looming, jihadis were less concerned about them during the first year of statements on the Arab Spring, and far more interested in the perceived opportunities presented to the movement.

Our analysis of 101 significant documents produced by jihadi thinkers highlights a rather complex and detailed understanding of the ramifications of the uprisings. This understanding includes a developed outlook regarding the geopolitics of regime change; an assessment of specific advantages that the jihadi movement might enjoy; and a developing doctrine regarding the movement’s goals, and strategy to attain those goals, in the post-revolution world. Without understanding how jihadis view the uprisings, we will be at a great disadvantage in attempting to predict the future of the salafi jihadi movement.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of several books and monographs, most recently Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011). Tara Vassefi is a faculty member at the Naval Postgraduate School, and is currently pursuing a J.D. at the American University Washington College of Law. This post is adapted, with permission, from an academic article of the same title that appeared in the November 2012 issue of Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

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