It was the telegenic crowds of apparently secular youth crowding the public squares and calling out for democracy and freedom in Egypt that caught our rapt attention. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was as late to the party as we ourselves. And al Qaeda’s number 2 man, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri tried and failed for thirty years to bring down the Egyptian state, something that the jasmine scented crowd accomplished in three weeks.
But – ever the opportunists – al Qaeda prepares for what comes after:
“Since the land is in chaos and Qaddafi is helping through his reactions and actions to increase the hatred of the population against him, it will be easier for us to recruit new members,” said the Algerian man, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Salman. He said that Libyans and Tunisians who had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan were now considering a return home.
“There is lots of work to do,” he said. “We have to help the people fighting and then build an Islamic state.”
Abu Khaled, a Jordanian jihadist who fought in Iraq with the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, suggested that Al Qaeda would benefit in the long run from dashed hopes.
“At the end of the day, how much change will there really be in Egypt and other countries?” he asked. “There will be many disappointed demonstrators, and that’s when they will realize what the only alternative is. We are certain that this will all play into our hands.”
Michael Scheuer, author of a new biography of Mr. bin Laden and head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden unit in the late 1990s, thinks such enthusiasm is more than wishful thinking.
Mr. Scheuer says he believes that Americans, including many experts, have wildly misjudged the uprisings by focusing on the secular, English-speaking, Westernized protesters who are a natural draw for television. Thousands of Islamists have been released from prisons in Egypt alone, and the ouster of Al Qaeda’s enemy, Mr. Mubarak, will help revitalize every stripe of Islamism, including that of Al Qaeda and its allies, he said.
“The talent of an organization is not just leadership, but taking advantage of opportunities,” Mr. Scheuer said. In Al Qaeda and its allies, he said, “We’re looking over all at a more geographically widespread, probably numerically bigger and certainly more influential movement than in 2001.”
So, we’ve got that going for us.
In Afghanistan, al Qaeda had the run of one failed state to plot their terror attacks. For a time at least, as Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya sort themselves out, bin Laden’s bullies may have a much larger playground.