Ayman al-Zawahiri has finally weighed in on behalf of al-Qaeda over the Gaza crisis, calling it part of the West's war on Islam and calling on Muslims everywhere to attack Western and Israeli targets. He sounds about as happy as I can remember hearing him of late. He probably can't believe his luck.
Israel's assault on Gaza has really created an almost unbelievable no-lose situation for al-Qaeda. If Hamas "wins", then al-Qaeda gets to share in the benefits of the political losses incurred by its Western and Arab enemies (Zawahiri mentions Mubarak and the Saudis in this tape, but not the Jordanians) and can try to take advantage of the political upheavals which could follow. If Hamas "loses", al-Qaeda still wins. It will shed no tears at seeing one of its bitterest and most dangerous rivals take a beating at Israel's hands or losing control of a government that they have consistently decried as illegitimate and misguided. Either way, the Gaza crisis guarantees that a far more radicalized Islamic world will face the incoming Obama administration -- potentially severely blunting the challenge which al-Qaeda clearly felt after the election (hence Zawahiri's attempt to pre-emptively discredit Obama by declaring the attack Obama's "gift" to Muslims).
The way this crisis is playing out shows the bankruptcy and strategic dangers of trying to simply reduce Hamas to part of an undifferentiated "global terrorist front". The Muslim Brotherhood, from whence Hamas evolved twenty years ago, is no friend of the United States or Israel but is nevertheless one of al-Qaeda's fiercest rivals. Zawahiri himself penned one of the most famous anti-Brotherhood tracts, Bitter Harvest. Over the last few years, the doctrinal and political conflict between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda's salafi-jihadism has become one of the most active fault-lines in Islamist politics. As ‘Abu Qandahar’ wrote on al-Qaeda's key al-Ekhlaas forum in October 2007, the "Islamic world is divided between two projects, jihad and Ikhwan [Brotherhood]."
Hamas enjoys a special place in al-Qaeda's enemies list. Al-Qaeda has long been desperate for a foothold in Palestine, but has been largely kept out because Hamas has the place locked. Jihadist forums bear a deep grudge over Hamas's crackdown on various jihadist groups which have tried to set up shop there (Jaysh al-Islam, et al). In March 2006, Zawahiri denounced Hamas's electoral victory and called on them to reject the democratic trap and pursue armed struggle. In February 2007 he attacked the Mecca Agreement between Fatah and Hamas, and in March declared that Hamas had "surrendered most of Palestine to the Jews, sold the Palestinian issue, and sold shari'a in order to retain leadership of the Palestinian government." In June 2007 he called on Hamas to "correct your path." Just last week, the leading Jordanian jihadist theoretician Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi (thanks to Will McCants) complained that "Hamas is misleading Muslims with its glittering slogans, which blind people to their wayward goals and strategies, leading them down the path of criminals... [and] Hamas started the bloodshed in Gaza several weeks ago when it killed members of the Army of Islam organization."
From al-Qaeda's perspective, therefore, Israel's assault on Gaza is an unmitigated blessing. The images flooding the Arab and world media have already discredited moderates, fueled outrage, and pushed the center of political gravity towards more hard-line and radical positions. As in past crises, Islamists of all stripes are outbidding each other, competing to "lead" the popular outrage, while "moderates" are silent or jumping on the bandwagon. Governments are under pressure, most people are glued to al-Jazeera's coverage (and, from what anyone can tell, ignoring stations that don't offer similar coverage), the internet is flooded with horrifying images, and people are angry and mobilized against Israel, the United States, and their own governments. That's the kind of world al-Qaeda likes to see.
Even if Hamas emerges weakened, as Israeli strategists hope, all the better (from al-Qaeda's point of view, that is). In general, where the MB is strong (Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine for example), AQ has had a hard time finding a point of entry despite serious efforts to do so, while where the MB is weak (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon) it has had more success. Up to now, AQ-minded groups have had little success in penetrating Gaza, because Hamas had it locked. Now they clearly have high hopes of finding an entree with a radicalized, devastated population and a weakened Hamas.
Al-Qaeda likely can not thank Israel enough for its efforts over the last two weeks. Over the last few years, al-Qaeda has been losing ground with the mainstream Muslim public -- because of its real radicalism and fringe ideology, its killing of so many Muslim innocents in its attacks in Muslim countries, challenges from other Islamist groups and from within its own ranks, an increasingly effective strategic communications campaign by Western and Arab governments, and more. Israel's military assault against Gaza threatens to reverse that trend.
Meanwhile, U.S. public diplomacy (whether in its 1.0 or 2.0 varieties) has been as absent as has been American policy -- a disaster that I'll be picking up in later posts.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.