Dr Maha Azzam
Former Chatham House Expert

Ten years after 9/11, al-Qaeda’s financial, logistical and leadership capabilities have been greatly depleted. 

However, the risk of terrorist attacks remains high, partly because al-Qaeda in whatever capacity, wants to show that it is still a force to be reckoned with. 

The threat posed by al-Qaeda affiliates - AQAP in Yemen and AQIM in North Africa - are likely to exploit instability in Yemen and Libya and wherever the opportunity lends itself due to civil or sectarian unrest, or a lack of security. The threat of al-Qaeda inspired terrorism lies in the fact that it can strike anywhere, that it can be the product of a sophisticated well planned attack, or one carried out by more amateur activists. 

And yet, a fundamental change has occurred since 9/11 that has undermined al-Qaeda and the potential for increasing popular support of global terrorism: the challenge to authoritarian regimes in Arab countries through the espousal of non-violence and a call for democracy. The overriding desire for ensuring a democratic political system by both secularists and mainstream Islamists is a major challenge to violent extremism and clearly has popular support. 

In the case of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s al-Nahda, commitment to democracy is a central component of their political platform and is accepted as a fundamental pillar of their ideology which they perceive to be compatible with Islam. Democracy is seen by Islamist and secular activists as the best defence against the abuses of state power.

The majority of Muslims have rejected al-Qaeda’s message; the level of resistance to regimes from Tunisia to Yemen just this year has never been matched by a similar show of support to al-Qaeda’s call. Al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, has declared his support for the uprisings in Yemen, Syria and Libya, but he is marginalized by the overwhelming appeal of democratization. 

The transition to democracy in parts of the Arab world will be fraught with challenges. There may be groups who find themselves frustrated at the slow pace of change, or feel excluded; there will be those who believe that they have a monopoly on the ‘true’ interpretation of religion and may attempt to undermine the democratic process through a resort to violence - but they will be a minority.  

9/11 has left an indelible imprint on the memory of a generation of Americans; in the Arab world the violent repercussions of the Iraq war are still being felt, but today’s generation has moved beyond the memory of bin Laden and the appeal of violent extremism to an alternative strategy for political change and independence. 

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