Arab Uprisings Delight, Disappoint Al Qaida

During the recent Arab uprisings, al Qaida has been significantly absent. Steve Inskeep talks with Brian Fishman about al Qaida's reaction to the anti-government protests. Fishman is a Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and a Research Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Like the rest of the world, al-Qaida has been watching events unfold in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world. And our next guest has been watching al-Qaida. Brian Fishman is his name. He's counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, which is a non-partisan think tank here in Washington.

When you monitor what extremists are saying online, how would you describe their response to the revolutions across the Arab world?

Mr. BRIAN FISHMAN (New America Foundation): I think in general they're elated. They're very excited by the fact that these autocrats have been overturned. I mean that has been the central al-Qaida goal since their inception. But I think that they also are disappointed that there is this sense that what comes next is not a jihadi-inspired Sharia-governed state.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FISHMAN: It is in theory going to be democracy.

INSKEEP: You actually are reading things from al-Qaida leaders saying, oh no, democracy, that'd be terrible?

Mr. FISHMAN: Yes, absolutely. The core argument that al-Qaida has against democracy is that it raises the sovereignty of human beings. And so human beings get to determine law on Earth. And their core argument is that that law should not be left to human beings, it should be left only to God.

INSKEEP: Who is the highest al-Qaida figure you've been able to identify who at least has been associated with some statement online along those lines?

Mr. FISHMAN: Thus far Ayman al-Zawahiri is the most senior that has released something...

INSKEEP: The number two behind...

Mr. FISHMAN: The number two...

INSKEEP: ...Osama bin Laden.

Mr. FISHMAN: Yeah. But his statement frankly was almost embarrassing in its out-of-touchness. It was clearly taped before Mubarak fell in Egypt. So I mean, the world changed when Mubarak fell, for all of us, but especially for al-Qaida. I mean I think this just illustrates, you know, for all of the praise in some ways that al-Qaida gets for its media apparatus, just how difficult it is for them to keep up with a revolution that is happening in the speed of Twitter.

INSKEEP: When you move away from al-Qaida leaders and begin monitoring what people are saying who are clearly sympathizers who show up in these chat rooms and so forth, how does the discussion change?

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, I think it is much more emotional in a lot of ways. It is people just exhorting the folks on the ground in Egypt or Libya or Tunisia to go forward and to overthrow these people. But there is also in those forums a real undertone of frustration that their representatives are not more prominent. They want to see that their leaders are stepping to the fore.

INSKEEP: They've never built the kind of political infrastructure that would lead to mass demonstrations anywhere, have they?

Mr. FISHMAN: No, they have not. I mean, the closest place where they really tried to establish a political infrastructure was in Iraq and it was a complete and utter disaster, because they overreached. And this is something, you know, when you see jihadi organizations get success - and jihadi organizations, I mean really al-Qaida-leaning organizations, right - places like Iraq in 2005, 2006, 2007 - what winds up happening is that these groups tend towards extraordinary levels of violence. They alienate the tribal networks and local social networks that they depend on, and those groups wind up rejecting them.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about another thing. You mentioned that until very recently, until these revolutions, al-Qaida seemed to have a brilliant media strategy. They had this narrative. It worked for them: We're the heroic fighters against the West, against the outsiders, against the infidels, against the repressors, whatever you want to say - that was their narrative. Is it a grave or even a mortal threat to al-Qaida that now there is this totally different narrative going on of the people themselves rising up in the Arab world?

Mr. FISHMAN: I think it is a very grave threat for al-Qaida, but I don't think that it's mortal. Al-Qaida has been trying to achieve what the youth in Egypt achieved in a week. Al-Qaida's been trying to do that for 20 years, and they have been unable to do it. One of al-Qaida's core arguments is that the only way to get rid of these autocrats is through the use of violence, and that is clearly now wrong.

But it's not wrong everywhere. In a place like Libya, violence is necessary. In a place like Yemen, if there is going to be a revolution, violence will probably be part of that. And so I think that al-Qaida's going to be able to latch onto those locations and be able to use those examples as a way to continue to justify its existence.

INSKEEP: Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation. Thanks for coming by.

Mr. FISHMAN: Thank you.

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