Osama bin Laden saw jihadist opportunity in ‘Arab spring’
A trove of al-Qaeda documents, made public by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), revealed that Osama bin Laden thought hard about how the terror group he headed could take advantage of the popular uprisings across the Arab world known as the “Arab spring.”
CIA Director Mike Pompeo approved the release of 470,000 documents taken when US Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011. Bin Laden was killed during the raid.
Prior to the raid, bin Laden was closely watching the regional turmoil that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Perhaps the most interesting of the newly released documents is a journal the al-Qaeda leader dictated to one of his daughters.
“This chaos and the absence of leadership in the [‘Arab spring’] revolutions is the best environment to spread al-Qaeda’s thoughts and ideas,” bin Laden said. He praised Qatar-based television network Al Jazeera, which was apparently his main source of news, for “working on toppling regimes” and for “carrying the banner of the revolutions.”
While pleased with the chaos, bin Laden was concerned about the speed of developments, fearing that things were happening so fast that better organised counter-revolutionary forces would prevail.
“I am upset by the timing of the revolutions,” bin Laden dictated. “We told them to slow down.” It was not clear from the journal who exactly he was referring to or to what degree al-Qaeda was in contact with revolutionary movements.
Of all the “Arab spring” countries, bin Laden appeared most hopeful about Libya, where he believed the collapse of the Qaddafi regime would “open the door for jihadists.” He predicted that al-Qaeda would establish itself in Libya and then take jihad across the Mediterranean to Europe. Libya, he said, “will be the Somalia of the Mediterranean.”
Bin Laden’s observations during the time are not just interesting for historical reasons; they also reveal that he was very conscious of the role that political and social instability play in providing fertile ground for jihadist groups. Of course, he had first-hand experience with this, having forged his terror movement while fighting in Afghanistan at a time when that country was a failing state in the midst of civil war. Bin Laden saw how the Taliban exploited the situation to grab power.
Bin Laden must have been aware that the “Arab spring” revolutions were the result of deep grievances against existing regimes, which were seen as corrupt and, in many instances, as being in collusion with the West. Added to these sentiments were feelings of injustice, humiliation and hopelessness — a perfect recipe for jihadist recruitment.
Bin Laden’s observations that it was “chaos” and “the absence of leadership in the revolution” that made the “Arab spring” a potential boon to al-Qaeda is worth contemplating. He correctly pointed out that a revolution without leadership quickly descends into anarchy and that in anarchic situations people naturally look for anything that promises to restore direction and purpose. This phenomenon may explain the Islamic State’s initial success in establishing its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria that were essentially ungoverned.
Societies are based on a sense of accepted communal behaviour among their members and government’s role is to protect and enforce this behaviour. If you remove government — that is, if a country becomes ungoverned — social order can crumble with remarkable speed, creating a societal vacuum that an al-Qaeda or an Islamic State are more than willing to fill.
It is no wonder that bin Laden was encouraged by the way the “Arab spring” was playing out in early 2011.
One of the most fascinating titbits in bin Laden’s journal is his recounting of a trip to the United Kingdom he took when he was 13 years old. He reports that he visited the 16th-century house in which William Shakespeare grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Bin Laden does not say whether he also saw a theatrical performance there but one cannot help but wonder whether the future al-Qaeda leader had taken in a production of “Hamlet” and, if he did, whether he was inspired by a line from Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act IV: “O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”