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In line with the false assumption that the current unrest in the Mideast has been secular and pro-democratic in nature, a new video released by two of al-Qaeda’s top leaders offering praise and encouragement for the ongoing rebellions has been dismissed by some as a sign of the terror group’s “desperation.” However, a careful look at the reality of the region shows that this is anything but the case.
The hour-long tape stars, in separate appearances, al-Qaeda’s number two chieftain, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born leader of its Yemen affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
While al-Awlaki’s message was more generic in tone, demonstrating support for the regional unrest and condemning American involvement in the Muslim world in general, al-Zawahiri’s message was far more specific.
Entreating Egypt’s Muslims to create an Islamic state, as well as sounding a clarion call for Arab nations to intercede in the Libyan conflict, al-Zawahiri intoned, “I want to direct the attention of our Muslim brothers in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and the rest of the Muslim countries … rise up and fight both the mercenaries of Gaddafi and the rest of NATO.”
The video emerged shortly after ominous comments were made by Mark Giulano, FBI assistant director of counter-terrorism, to an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. According to Giulano, Arab countries were suddenly finding themselves “led by transitional or interim governments, military regimes, or democratic alliances with no established track record on counterterrorism efforts,” and are ripe targets for exploitation from al-Qaeda.
That belief has been echoed by many experts who believe that al-Qaeda must be prevented from exploiting any political void created by the current regional unrest. As one American analyst has pointed out, “Al Qaeda tends to navigate to areas where they sense a vacuum.”
Yet, when the tape of al-Zawahiri and al-Awlaki was released, one US intelligence official disregarded the significance of the video and the presence of al-Qaeda in general: “Al Qaeda must be pretty damn frustrated these days. They’ve been on the wrong side of history — and humanity — for years.”
Of course, that view holds little credibility when compared to the terror organization’s assessment of the situation. As Awlaki himself wrote in Inspire, the group’s English-language online magazine, “The mujahedeen around the world are going through a moment of elation, and I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge of mujahedeen activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria and Morocco?”
Unfortunately, al-Awlaki’s boast may indeed ring true, as the current Middle East landscape seems to suggest that whatever setbacks al-Qaeda may have suffered, they were apparently momentary in nature.
In Libya, for example, accounts have surfaced that Gaddafi, while having long-standing connections to secular and Islamic terrorist groups, is selling anti-aircraft missiles, machine guns and other weapons to al-Qaeda.
Specifically, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), North Africa’s largest and best-armed al-Qaeda affiliate, has already been found exploiting the disarray in Libya. According to recent reports, a truck convoy left eastern Libya with a cargo of weapons destined for AQIM forces in northern Mali. The cache included Russian-made shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, RPG-7 anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov heavy machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles, explosives and ammunition.
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