Despite the Arab Spring’s grassroots origins — disenchanted populations taking a stand against authoritarian regimes in an effort to promote democracy and fair governance — the rise of Islamist militias and insurgencies in some of these new “open” societies has become cause for concern. The April 2013 announcement by Syrian militia group Jabhat al-Nusra that it would pledge its allegiance to al-Qaeda and affiliate itself with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), or the Islamic State of Iraq, is the most recent in a long line of promising Arab Spring uprisings turned sour. The ability of non-state actors like al-Qaeda to gain ground in unstable territories, co-opting revolutionaries, is an alarming side effect of these uprisings and is proving antithetical to the intended goal of the Arab Spring.
Al-Qaeda “franchises” have become fairly prevalent over the past decade as the group was driven out of Afghanistan with its senior leadership establishing safe havens in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Regions and promoting the rise of regional affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). However, with significant blows to its leadership and recruitment efforts, the group has turned to the instability caused by the Arab Spring for members to replenish itself. Since the beginning of protests across the Middle East over two years ago, many Salafi and Islamist Jihad groups with questionable ties to the dominant terror organization have emerged under the name of Ansar al-Sharia. These groups use political turmoil to promulgate their cause in countries such as Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Morocco.
Though many of these new groups may only tacitly acknowledge an affiliation with al-Qaeda, Syria’s al-Nusra has done just the opposite, publicly proclaiming its association with AQI. Starting out as one of many militant groups in the Free Syrian Army fight against the Assad regime, at over 5,000 men strong, al-Nusra has a reputation as being the most respected rebel group due to its disciplined fighters and past victories against the Assad regime. Al-Nusra is notorious for its violence and suicide bombings and has also been outspoken in regard to its plans for Syria after the current regime falls: building up and establishing a jihadist network under a common identity in the name of Islam, instituting Sharia Law, and establishing an Islamic Caliphate (the Levant). The creation of its own Sharia court in Syria has also helped al-Nusra gain ground amidst political instability and lack of rule of law.
While the “traditional” threat of al-Qaeda may appear to be waning, these franchised or marginally-affiliated groups may pose an even greater threat to U.S. interests as they do not subscribe to one doctrine or strategy, tend to be locally-embedded and sometimes garner the support of local populations due to their security-providing role. In many cases, weeding out jihadists from legitimate revolutionaries is an impossible goal, making decisions about arming opposition movements even more difficult, especially in the case of Syria. For other nations experiencing their own Islamist insurgencies and al-Qaeda resurgence, the key to defeating these groups lies in the state establishing stability and security to starve them of rhetorical fodder, further recruitment and ungoverned safe-havens.