The one country where jihadist militants have a serious foothold and are likely to play an important role for some period in the future is in Syria. That is because of a perfect storm there that favors them. The Sunni militants in Syria are fighting the regime of Bashir al Assad, a secular dictator who is also an Alawite, which many Muslims believe to be a heretical branch of Shiism.
For the jihadists, Assad's secularism makes him an apostate and his Alawi roots also make him a heretic, while his brutal tactics make him an international pariah. This trifecta makes funding the Sunni insurgency highly attractive for donors in the Gulf.
And for the Arabs who form the heart of al Qaeda the fight against Assad is in the heart of the Arab world, a contest that happens to border also on the hated state of Israel. Also Syria was for much of the past decade the entry point for many hundreds of foreign fighters who poured into Iraq to join Al Qaeda in Iraq following the American invasion of the country. As a result, al Qaeda has long had an infrastructure both in Syria and, of course, in neighboring Iraq.
The Al Nusra Front is the name of arguably the most effective fighting force in Syria. In December the State Department publicly said that Al Nusra, which is estimated to number in the low thousands and about 10% of the fighters arrayed against Assad, was a front for Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Al Nusra certainly seems to have learned from AQI's mistakes. For starters, it doesn't call itself al Qaeda. Secondly, it hasn't launched a campaign to crack down on social issues such as smoking or listening to music and so has not alienated the local Sunni population as AQI did in Iraq.
Barak Barfi, a journalist and fellow at the New America Foundation who has spent several months on the ground in Aleppo in northwestern Syria reporting on the opposition to Assad, says Nusra fighters stand out for their bravery and discipline: "They are winning over the hearts and minds of Aleppo residents who see them as straight shooters. There is a regimented recruiting process that weeds out the chaff. Their bases are highly organized with each person given specific responsibilities."
Arab Spring countries seen as an opportunity
The chaotic conditions of several of the countries of the "Arab Spring" are certainly something al Qaeda views as an opportunity. Ayman al-Zawahiri the leader of the group, has issued 27 audio and video statements since the death of bin Laden, 10 of which have focused on the Arab countries that have experienced the revolutions of the past two years.
But if history is a guide, the jihadist militants, whether in Syria or elsewhere, are likely to repeat the mistakes and failures that their fellow militants have experienced during the past decade in countries as disparate as Somalia, the Philippines, Yemen, Iraq, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and now, Mali.
That's because encoded in the DNA of al Qaeda and like-minded groups are the seeds of their own destruction because in power they rule like the Taliban, and they also attack fellow Muslims who don't follow their dictates to the letter. This doesn't mesh very well with these organizations' claims that they are the defenders of Muslims.
These groups also have no real plans for the multiple political and economic problems that beset much of the Islamic world. And they won't engage in normal politics such as elections believing them to be "un-Islamic."
This is invariably a recipe for irrelevance or defeat. In not one nation in the Muslim world since 9/11 has a jihadist militant group seized control of a country. And al Qaeda and its allies' record of effective attacks in the West has been non-existent since 2005.
With threats like these we can all sleep soundly at night.
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