By Mark Bracher
The 2011 Arab uprisings were greeted with optimism by much of the international community. After ten years of counter-productive ‘War on Terror’, it seemed as if al-Qaeda and its ilk had been defeated in a matter of weeks by the very people it claimed to champion, discrediting its assertion that meaningful change could only be realised through violent jihad. Moreover, the group failed to make itself relevant to the apparently secular and pro-democracy revolutionary masses, actually alienating itself further through its response to the uprisings. The revolutions appeared to strike the death knell to a movement already showing signs of disintegration from within.
This optimism, nearly ubiquitous among the commentary of the time, was short lived. Early warning signs of a salafi-jihadist resurgence emerged in 2012, when militants violently attacked the US’ Consulate in Benghazi and Embassy in Tunis. New groups proliferated across Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, exploiting security vacuums left by the destabilisations of the State. Regions like Eastern Libya’s Benghazi, Tunisia’s Sejnane, Yemen’s Aden and the Egyptian Sinai became de-facto salafi-jihadist strongholds in the absence of a strong state presence; while salafi-jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra rapidly came to dominate the war effort against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Now, four years after the uprisings, al-Qaeda remains largely marginalised, yet the threat from salafi-jihadists looms larger than ever. Their influence, military capabilities and popular legitimacy far exceed anything their mountain-dwelling predecessors could have dreamt of. Most dramatically, Iraq and Syria have been fractured by a salafi-jihadist movement so powerful that it has dared to declare a caliphate, and now threatens the borders of Lebanon, a country long thought to be peculiarly immune to the ideologies of Sunni Islamic extremism. How can we explain this largely unforeseen change of fortunes in the region?
‘New Model Jihadists’: Welfare not Banditry
The excesses of al-Qaeda over the last decade, particularly Musab al-Zarqawi’s Iraqi franchise, did much to contribute to the group’s disintegration. It became notorious for killing far more Muslims than agents of the ‘Far Enemy’, and opinion polls between 2002-2009 reveal a steep decline in popular support for the (already fringe) group. The new wave of post-Arab Spring salafi-jihadists have, with the exception of the Islamic State. largely learned from the mistakes of Zarqawi and his takfiri ilk. Groups such as Ansar al-Shari’a in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen have been selective in their usage of violence, preferring instead to focus on winning hearts and minds; exploiting power and infrastructure vacuums left by regime collapse to garner new credentials as humanitarian forces. They provide welfare and domestic services, security and education where the central governments have proven unable or unwilling – often generously funded by charities in the Gulf. Not only have such activities allowed these groups to gain influence and popular legitimacy over the territories they provide for, they have also been able to attract large numbers of new recruits among those seeking purpose and dignity after the upheavals of the revolutions. Indeed, for many youths otherwise unemployed or enduring monotonous lives, participating in the revolutions proved intoxicating. Becoming activists or militants in salafi-jihadist groups has allowed them to sustain this intoxication. As one former Libyan rebel told journalist Yasmine Ryan: ‘It’s hard for a guy who’s been working at a café his whole life to go back to working in that café again after he has been driving around with a Kalashnikov in a pickup truck.’
Hedging Bets and Grand Bargains
It is important not to overstate the ideological appeal of salafi-jihadists. Theirs is likely to remain a fringe ideology. Support for these groups often has far more to do with expedience. In this period of prolonged upheaval and instability, many people are resolving – often begrudgingly – that they may be better off under a salafi-jihadist emirate than under the central authorities. This bargaining is most pronounced with regards to the self-styled ‘Islamic State’, where Sunnis chafing under perceived sectarian rule in Iraq and Syria have often thrown in their lot with the movement that at least claims to champion – rather than suppress – their Sunni identity. This is also true of communities in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. In Libya’s Benghazi, the city’s residents initially vocally rejected the presence of Ansar al-Shari’a on their streets. However it quickly emerged that, given the impotence of the central government in far-off Tripoli, the salafi-jihadist group stood as the only guarantor of service provision and security in the city – most notably in protecting the city’s hospital from looters. Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia has won similar acceptance through its mobilisation of ‘Neighbourhood Committees’ that provide security in the country’s wild hinterlands. The need for survival often trumps ideology, and salafi-jihadists groups have increasingly been accepted as a necessary evil – if not blessings in disguise.
False Hopes and Embittered Responses
Salafi-jihadist groups have also benefitted from the disillusion of Islamists who had previously placed their faith in parliamentary Islamism. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, perceivably counterrevolutionary secular actors have reversed the gains of political Islamists, leaving their constituents convinced that there is no place for political Islam in the new democratic order. While it is wrong to assume a conveyer-belt dynamic to radicalisation – whereby a Muslim Brotherhood supporter will automatically radicalise towards salafi-jihadist ideology in the event of a Muslim Brotherhood failure – the demoralisation of these constituents, their hopes so brutally dashed, has in many cases been enough to drive them into more assertive arms. This has been most visible following the deposition of the Muslim Brotherhood Government in Egypt, where jihadist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was able to recruit former Brotherhood supporters.
Loss of a Unifying Enemy and Debate for the New Order
Lastly, the 2011 Arab uprisings ended decades of repressive, closed-systems of rule. Under dictatorship, Islamists, secularists, leftists etc. stood largely united against the system. Now however, the manifold factions of the opposition find themselves lacking a common enemy, and faced with new questions as to how the future of their countries should look. Key areas of contention have emerged along ideological lines: between Islamists and secularists, and between moderates and radicals. As groups like the Muslim Brotherhood – previously able to represent all Islamists through their opposition to the old order – came into power, they had to define (and often moderate) their manifestos and creeds. For many of their adherents, this was a demoralising revelation as they found their old representatives to be unaligned with their own ideologies. As such, some approached more radical groups who could more accurately (or at least more assertively) champion their convictions.
The Syrian crisis has become a rallying point for salafi-jihadists the world over. However the doctrine’s resurgence is rooted in far more pervasive dynamics. The solution lies not in direct military action against the ‘Islamic State’, but in development, dialogue and confidence-building across the MENA region (and its diaspora communities). At the most basic level, glaring and expansive social justice imbalances must be addressed to ensure that groups like Ansar al-Shari’a, Jabhat al-Nusra and the ‘Islamic State’ are no longer able to present themselves as the lesser of evils to hedging populations, much less liberators from tyranny. This is no small task and there will be no quick fixes. Substantial institutional and leadership change is needed in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Sunni communities feel stigmatised and discriminated against on sectarian grounds. Meanwhile fledgling governments in post-revolutionary Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen require significant but discrete assistance in institutional and infrastructural development so that they may provide for the needs and concerns of even their most remote communities. Finally, counterrevolutionary non-democratic actors such as Egypt’s General Sisi, Libya’s General Haftar or Yemen’s Houthi rebels must be held accountable, so that no one is left under the illusion that violence remains their only option for real representation.
Mark Bracher holds an MA Degree in Middle East Politics from the University of Exeter. He is the co-editor in chief of online magazine Comment Middle East and is a regular contributor for the Council for MENA Affairs. He is currently developing a proposal to study for a PhD, entitled: ‘How (perceived) Social Justice imbalances fuel radicalisation into violent extremism – a Sunni Lebanese case-study’.