Jihadists debate al-Qaeda future
Washington - Still absorbing the shock of the revolutions sweeping the Arab world, jihadists have begun to debate what it all means for their vision of Islamic rule violently imposed by groups like Al-Qaeda, analysts say.
After a deafening silence, they are turning to online forums for moral support as they consider whether the peaceful, pro-democratic and largely secular mass protests have rendered violent jihad irrelevant.
Some see dangerous times for their movement, others opportunities in regime change, and still others see no change at all.
"What change???" wrote Abu Musab al-Dhahak in the online Shumukh al-Islam forum monitored by the Site Intelligence Group.
"The people didn't oust anything. The people ousted symbols and faces. The fall of the regime means the fall of democracy and the establishment of the Shariah of Allah," the writer said.
Normally agile in getting its messages out even when under pressure, al-Qaeda appeared to have been caught flat-footed by the sudden overthrow of longtime leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Ayman Zawahiri finally responded to the history-making events in the past two weeks with two messages "of Hope and Glad Tidings to the People of Egypt" in which he reaffirmed that Sharia law had to be the bedrock of any revolutionary change.
But Zawahiri's statements didn't touch the implications of the popular uprisings for al-Qaeda, which rejects democracy and civil liberties as a rival religion to Islam tantamount to apostasy.
"I've never seen them be so quiet," said Jarret Brachman, an expert on al-Qaeda's use of media to pursue its goals.
"So right now al-Qaeda's line is wait and see, keep your head down. This is the most reflective I've seen the al-Qaeda leadership," he told a congressional committee on Wednesday.
Amid the upbeat comments on Shumukh al-Islam, the postings nevertheless convey a recognition that al-Qaeda's project has been imperilled by the unforeseen turn of events.
"The Danger to the Project of the Ummah, Led by al-Qaeda" is the heading of a lengthy rebuttal, in the name of Imatat al-Jihad, of the view that the coming of democracy "puts al-Qaeda and its project at a critical crossroads".
"The danger to the project of the Ummah is inevitable and natural, but it sometimes decreases and it sometimes increases according to the situation on the ground.
"We say here: Every Muslim has the right to worry about the project of the Ummah, (so long as) he does all that he can to protect it and not just proclaim fear and that is it."
It goes on to say that the Muslim faithful will not find what they are looking for in democracy "without a guiding Book and a victorious support".
It claimed that members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have already been kicked out of the movement for disagreeing with their leaders' assertion that Egypt's peace treaty with Israel should be respected.
Revolutions to create vacuum
Responses to the postings reflect the calculations being made in jihadist circles, with some pointing to the opportunities created by weaker security controls as a result of the uprisings.
"I tend to think that the spread of al-Qaeda will increase now, because it has become easier for the supporters to preach due to the weakness of the security restraints more than it was before the revolutions," wrote Abu Talha al-Na’imi.
"Cheer up. What is coming is even greater," wrote Ahmed Musab. "The magic will turn against the magician, with permission from Allah."
US analysts are far from ready to write off al-Qaeda either, particularly in troubled places like Yemen, where al-Qaeda has deep roots and whose local affiliate is regarded as the most active threat to the United States.
"When you have regime change in the Arab world, over the short term it is going to benefit al-Qaeda, because it's going to raise instability, it's going to create a vacuum," said Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New American Foundation.
Over the long term, al-Qaeda will be at a disadvantage if new Arab democracies are able to provide jobs and eliminate corruption - grievances far more prevalent than the lack of freedom, he said.
"If America focuses too much on trying to build democracy in these areas without focusing on what the people want - building up the economy, bringing to an end corruption - al-Qaeda will be able to thrive on that long term," he said.