Is Regional Instability Reviving al-Qaeda?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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The ongoing instability across the Middle East seems to be reversing the fortunes of al-Qaeda and its ilk. The birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, is recovering from the second assassination in six months of high profile opposition leaders, while its soldiers are being attacked by al-Qaeda affiliates from just across the border in Algeria. Meanwhile, in Syria, the ongoing civil war in the country has created an opening for a number of different loosely-affiliated terrorist organizations. And there is little hope the end is in sight. Just last week, hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda fighters broke out of jail in Iraq and there are indications that they are headed for Syria.

In Tunisia in the aftermath of the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, there is talk of an Egypt-like second uprising against the Islamist government, which is why this week Al Ahram’s Bassem Aly concluded that “Assassination, Ennahda and opposition spell out Tunisia’s turbulence….The killing of Tunisia’s opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi opened fire on the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, which faced an angry wave of protests during the last week. This is not the first incident, as another opposition figure, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated on 6 February leading to a wave of political tensions between the government and the opposition in Tunisia. The Arab Spring pioneer state seems uncertain about its democratic future, especially amid the absence of a joint political vision.
Following second assassination of opposition figure, tensions with ruling Islamists lead many activists to replicate Egypt’s grass-roots signature drive ‘Tamarod’”

The situation in Tunisia has become even more complicated after news of the killing of eight Tunisian soldiers started coming out: “Algeria’s army has reinforced its forces along the eastern border with Tunisia, Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia said, days after the killing of eight Tunisian soldiers. The soldiers were found on Monday with their throats cut after being ambushed by fighters in Mount Chaambi, an area near the border with Algeria….Tunisian troops have intensified their hunt for an armed group in the Mount Chaambi area since the spring, after several members of the security forces were killed or wounded by explosive devices.”

The events of the last few days have lead many observers to express concern over the future of Tunisia and the role of non-state extremist organizations there. Larbi Sadiki, in an article for Al Jazeera, states: “Tunisian security forces are now fighting more than one al-Qaeda franchise group, including the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade (UINB)….Tunisia may be the focus of the terrorist organizations. As far as Tunisia is concerned, the weakness of the country’s security forces may mean that Ansar Al-Shari’ah, UINB, and AQIM may be indeed itching for a head-on fight with the Tunisian state….Al-Qaeda seems to be breathing heavily over the jugular veins of the Tunisian state…. On top of that, aid, training, and know-how from Algerian extremists further strengthen al-Qaeda affiliated cells.”

Fears of an al-Qaeda revival have also gripped other parts of the Middle East, with Syria and other Arab Spring countries at the top of that list. Looking back at the last two years, The National (UAE) editorial laments the fact that “At the outset of the pro-democracy protests in the region, the violent and morally-bankrupt ideology of al-Qaeda seemed to have few takers….What a difference two years makes….Three countries — Tunisia, Yemen and Libya — have staggered, slowly, towards some progress; but there has been a lot of blood along the way. Egypt is in an open revolt and the army has returned to run the state, as it was two years ago. Syria is in a much worse state — at best, caught in a stalemate, and at worst, it is in a slow spiral of death. In this context, al-Qaeda is coming back with a vengeance — trying to learn from its previous mistakes, positioning itself as a service provider in conflict-ridden communities and establishing deep ties to the areas where it operates.”

The conditions are such that even U.S. government officials openly admit that it is very likely that in the near future “Extremists could take over rebel groups opposing Assad…. Addressing the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Mr Shedd said he counted at least 1,200 groups in the opposition. He said many of the groups were preoccupied with local grievances, such as a lack of potable water in their villages. ‘Left unchecked, I’m very concerned that the most radical elements will take over larger segments’ of the opposition groups, Mr Shedd said, strongly hinting at the need for some kind of outside intervention.”

The Syrian equation has become even more complicated with news that over 500 Al-Qaeda leaders and members have escaped Iraqi jails and are heading for the Syrian battlefront. Asharq Alawsat’s Fayez Sara claims that the escape was facilitated by the intervention of government forces from the neighboring countries: “the escape of more than 500 al-Qaeda leaders and members from Abu Ghraib was a planned operation, not by al-Qaeda, even if it took part in the execution, but by neighboring intelligence parties, with the knowledge of, perhaps, the people in power. The aim may be to push a group of al-Qaeda men to Syria to fight there, in a way which would increase the violence and terrorism, and strengthen the rhetoric about the extremist terrorist groups the regime is fighting.”

This has lead Zuheir Kseibati to argue in an op-ed for Al Hayat that claims of al-Qaeda’s demise were premature: “The attacks carried out using booby-trapped cars against the Sunnis and the Shiites in Iraq prompt questions on whether or not some of us still doubt the delusional character of the Americans’ victory claims over al-Qaeda with the death of Osama Bin Laden. But the more important question revolves around the fact that what is wanted for the Arab spring states, in terms of their fall in the trap of civil conflicts and wars being set up by the monopolization tendency of movements exploiting religion, is being complemented by al-Qaeda in Iraq and An-Nusra Front and the neo-Jihadists in Syria.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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