How the Arab Spring turned into a win for Al Qaeda

The Egyptian military’s crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was al Qaeda’s strongest competitor in the arena of Islamist politics, is also a boon to the jihadist movement. A weaker Brotherhood — which has lost confidence in its own ideas and leaders — will be a much weaker firewall against the more extreme groups. The crude anti-Islamist rhetoric that has seized Egypt since the coup, which equates the Brotherhood and al Qaeda as terrorists, blurs the line between the two groups to al Qaeda’s benefit. These effects could be mitigated by a political deal that allows the Brotherhood to remain invested in public life — but if Egypt’s new regime pushes ahead with efforts to fully crush the Brotherhood, as now seems likely, the effects will be even more profound.

Syria has been al Qaeda’s other lifeline to relevance. The flow of foreign fighters attests to the fact that its calls for jihad, which had worn thin following its setbacks in Iraq, have a new resonance today. Many observers are rightly worried about how the Syrian jihadist insurgency has strengthened its Iraqi counterpart, about the prospect of the emergence of a jihadist emirate akin to Iraq’s Anbar Province in the mid-2000s, and about the likely terror threat when foreign fighters return from the Syrian front to their homes across the globe. And that’s not even to mention the future uses of the advanced weapons pouring into the current jihad.

What is less often appreciated, however, is the extent to which the Syrian jihad has helped bring al Qaeda’s ideology into the mainstream of the Arab world. Its struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given it a major role in a cause that is now central to Arab concerns. The anti-Shiite venom in the Gulf media and across so much of Arab social media validates its ideological stances. Saudi Arabia’s increasingly prominent role as the opposition’s foreign sponsor will do nothing to improve these trends: Riyadh will no doubt attempt to use the sectarian and Islamist dimensions of the Syrian jihad to simultaneously intimidate its own Shiite population, wage its unending regional campaign against Iran, and coopt the Islamist networks that might otherwise turn their guns on the kingdom.