As change sweeps across North Africa and the Middle East, al-Qaida is nowhere to be seen. Aside from a few comments from the sidelines, the group has not been able to play a role in the recent revolutions. Instead, the group’s influence has recently been most visible in the west, where a series of stories have shown the ongoing appeal of “global jihad” to a diverse collection of young aspirants.
In London, a court convicted Mohammed Gul, a young British student at Queen Mary University, of producing radical material promoting al-Qaida’s ideology online. The judge characterised Gul as “thoroughly radicalised.” A week later over at Woolwich Crown Court, a jury found Rajib Karim, an IT worker for British Airways, guilty of plotting with Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlak to blow up a plane.
While Gul was being sent down, federal agents in Texas moved in to arrest Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year old Saudi student who had allegedly been accumulating materials to build a bomb. As he put it on his blog, “after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for Jihad.” Elsewhere in the States, Zachary Adam Chesser, a 20-year-old convert, famous for encouraging attacks on the creators of South Park for having mocked the Prophet, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Last week in Germany, authorities moved in to arrest two Turkish-Germans who were sending money to an al-Qaida affiliate in Waziristan, having previously trained with the group. Another four individuals on police radars also had properties searched. Connected with the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, an al-Qaida affiliate that fights alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, the men were part of a community of young Germans who have been drawn to Waziristan by the mystique of jihad.
Although al-Qaida does not seem to be directly linked to any of these cases, their message clearly is. All of the young men in these stories bought into the group’s violent ideology, each attempting in their separate ways to advance its aims. Yet while this message continues to find support among certain disaffected young men in the west, the al-Qaida narrative has not found much support amongst the rebellious youth taking to the streets in North Africa and the Middle East.
Interpreting this is tricky. After all, it is early days for the waves of revolution sweeping the Arab world. But in many ways it is not that surprising. Al-Qaidaism was always a movement predicated on global anti-establishmentarianism. For it to find a natural home amongst young men in the west seeking direction in life is a logical conclusion. For these western wannabe terrorists, the issues at home lack the immediacy that domestic issues have for young people in North Africa and the Middle East, and so they have more time for dreamlike notions of global jihad. For their counterparts, on the other hand, it is the near enemy in the shape of a local tyrant that remains the focal point of attention.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)