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Jihadist Perceptions of the ‘Arab Spring’

by Ghaffar Hussain – Senior Fellow

14th September 2013. Security and Defence, Issue 3, No. 6.        

Has the ‘Arab-Spring’ dealt a death blow to the jihadist movement or provided an enormous boost?

Whilst it is widely agreed that the Arab Spring will have an enormous impact on al-Qaeda and the worldwide jihadist movement, there is no consensus on what this impact will look like.

On one hand, there are optimists like Fawaz Gerges and Peter Bergen who think the Arab-Spring is a death blow to the jihadist movement. On the other, you have the likes of Michael Scheuer who are less optimistic, instead believing that the Arab-Spring helps the jihadist movement enormously.

So who is right?

I suppose only time will prove either the optimists or the pessimists right. However, what can be usefully done in the meantime is explore how jihadists themselves perceive the revolutionary events in the MENA region.

A new paper entitled ‘Perceptions of the Arab-Spring within the Salafi-Jihadist Movement‘ seeks to do exactly that. Authored by two analysts based at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, Daveed Gartenstein Ross and Tara Vessefi, the paper analyses 101 significant documents produced by jihadist thinkers in the past year in order to shed some light on this divisive and vexatious issue.

The authors conclude the Arab Spring, far from dealing a death blow jihadists, has given them a huge boost and has had a re-energizing effect on the movement. Al-Qaeda and related jihadists interpret the MENA region revolutions as a huge opportunity to replenish their ranks, plan operations, and focus on seizing power. The US consulate attack in Benghazi and the on-going terrorist attacks on Egyptian military personnel in the Sinai Peninsula are examples of events which would have been less likely if the revolutions didn’t happen.

The dictators of the region have always been the primary enemy of the jihadists, hence their overthrow and the breathing space afforded by the subsequent chaos. The fact that western powers were not able to intervene in order to save their ‘puppet dictators’ has also been interpreted as symptomatic of the decline of western hegemony.

However, much of the jihadist analysis of the Arab-Spring is merely a reflection of their own world-view. This is a point the authors acknowledge when they state “…one cannot take jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring at face value as representing the true reality. These perceptions are laced with hubris, and frequently conflate the movement’s aspirations with on-the-ground reality.

Jihadist commentary on events in the region frequently includes them super-imposing motives and causes that are in line with the jihadist understanding of the world. For example, they somehow manage to convince themselves that they were the inspiration for the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt. They believe that once the chaos has cleared, the people will demand true Islamic rule, which is euphemism for jihadist rule.

They also, erroneously, believe that the Arab-Spring revolutions will spread beyond the Arab world. In fact, I can remember being asked when the Arab-Spring will come to Pakistan by an American journalist. My response was quite simple: never. Pakistanis are not Arabs and most non-Arab Muslim societies have very different internal dynamics and, thus, are highly unlikely to be affected. This, yet again, is an example of jihadist thinkers reflecting their ideology onto reality, assuming that this is about the ‘Muslim world’ rather than the ‘Arab world’.

I would argue that the Arab Spring does boost jihadist and other reactionary elements in the short term, but if MENA region societies do embrace democratic culture, support and sympathy for such groups will fade in the long term.

Ideologically rigid and absolutist groups work best when in opposition, as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is now discovering. It is much easier to bemoan the failures of incumbents from the side-lines and present idealistic and even utopian solutions. The business of governing, and providing services, security, and prosperity is much more difficult.

Similarly, jihadists have managed to hide behind anti-western propaganda and the ineptitude of secular dictators for a long time. Yet, when they were given the chance to govern parts of Iraq, the locals turned against them and helped coalition troops to fight them. Their ideology is simply not palatable, even in conservative Muslim societies, and there are no signs of them moderating any time soon.

Ghaffar Hussain is contactable at:


Please cite this article as:

Hussain, G. (2013). ‘Jihadist Perceptions of the ‘Arab Spring’’

Human Security Centre, Defence and Security, Issue 3, No. 6.

About Ghaffar Hussain

Ghaffar Hussain is the Managing Director at the counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, and author of ‘A Brief History of Islamism’ and ‘Modern Muslim Political Thought – The Progressive Tradition’.