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Radicalisation and the Arab Spring


The Arab Spring changed the pattern of Islamic radicalisation in the region. The new Arab revolutions advocated new values, rooted in peaceful secularised Islamic notions that were in deep opposition to the Jihadist cultural values, like the dignity of the citizen and peaceful political mobilisation. Before the downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian autocracies, the Jihadist[1] trend within Muslim land was already on the decline. In many countries repression against Islamic radicals, but also the utter violence of the Jihadists and their lack of any constructive project for their host societies brought down their prestige. Their attacks against tourists and Muslims in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere made them unpopular among many Muslims.

The first period of the Arab Spring

But the major blow was administered to them by the Arab Spring. The “easy” fall of Tunisia and Egypt engendered an internal crisis among Jihadist circles, based on this commonsense observation: in more than two decades they had been unable to bring down any Arab regime, whereas peaceful demonstrators had overthrown two major autocracies in less than a month (respectively 28 and 18 days in Tunisia and Egypt). The jihadist strategy, based mainly on violence and small group of activists was questioned: peaceful street demonstrations and “leaderless” protestors were more successful than the violent promoters of a ‘holy war’ who did not succeed their aims to topple any of the Arab regimes.

In the meantime, two major setbacks were suffered by the Jihadists: the killing of bin Laden on May the 2nd, 2011 by American forces in Pakistan and the assassination of Anwar al Awlaki, the American turned jihadist and one of the editors of a Jihadist electronic journal in English, Inspire, on September 30, 2011 by US action in Yemen [2]. These two killings had a tremendous symbolic and material effect on Jihadist circles all around the world.

The first period of the Arab Spring, which extended to the first half of 2011, had a devastating effect on Jihadist attraction in the Arab world, as much because it contradicted their pattern of action (mass killings by small groups of devoted radicals) as their ideas (Jihad, universal caliphate, intransigent Islamic values). Through the new protest movements, people learned how to act non-violently in street protests in order to topple autocracies that the Jihadists had been incapable of overthrowing for many decades. Symbolic places like Tahrir square (Cairo), Taqyir square (Sanaa), the Pearl roundabout (Manama) became foci for the apprenticeships of large, peaceful, and public actions that put into question the legitimacy of the Jihadist model, which had been comprised of small groups, motivated by violent and spectacular actions, devised in secrecy within Jihadist circles. The pattern of mobilisation within these peaceful protest movements was frontally opposed to the Jihadist pattern of action. People learned to express their grievances and demands through non-violence (salmiyah, peacefulness), based on the dignity of the citizens (karaamah) that pre-supposed the recognition of individuals’ rights, in dire opposition to the Jihadist worldview in which the individual has to sacrifice himself to the holy Islamic community (the Umma) through martyrdom, motivated by Jihad against the worldwide disbelievers.

The second period of the Arab Spring

The second half of 2011 witnessed the resistance of Arab authoritarian regimes against the street demonstrations. The latter shook the autocratic rulers in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and in some monarchies it did force the kings to make minimal concessions to the public demand by introducing new constitutions that paid lip service to the aspiration for change. However, after the downfall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, no others were toppled as “painlessly” as in the first month of 2011. The Libyan regime fell in August 2011 after many months of fighting, due to the intervention of NATO and the assistance of European and some Arab countries (Qatar amongst others). In Syria, after more than a year of street protest, the Assad regime is still resisting in April 2012, its overthrow will probably not immediately result in a democratic regime. In this second period, the shattered autocracies gave birth to the idea of “failed states”, and their loosened repressive grip on society opened up new opportunities for the Jihadists. In Yemen, al-Qaeda affiliated groups emerged that were able to show continuity and perceptible presence in some parts of the country, from their stronghold in the south. In Syria, some Jihadist groups originating from Iraq were able to show their teeth in terrorist attacks in the cities. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the symbolic head of al-Qaeda after the elimination of Bin Laden, addressed Syrians and urged Muslims to fight for their Syrian brothers as well as Syrians themselves. He asserted:

“Wounded Syria is still bleeding day after day, and the butcher (Assad) isn’t deterred and doesn’t stop.” [3]

According to US officials, the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda carried out two recent bombings in Damascus, the capital of Syria and was probably behind suicide bombings. The first attack occurred on December 23, 2011 in which at least 44 people were killed and 160 wounded, and the second, on January 6, 2012 in which 26 people were killed in an attack against an intelligence agency compound. The bombings came on the orders of Ayman al-Zawahiri [4].

The Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda (the al-Qaeda in Iraq, AQI) began operations in Syria, finding an opportunity to expand outside Iraq by the crisis of the Assad regime after the popular uprising in March 2011. In both Iraq and Syria, the target is “Shiite power”, in Syria the Assad regime being regarded as a Shiite deviant sect in the eyes of the Jihadist Sunnis.

In Yemen, al-Qaeda’s strongholds are in the southern parts of the country but the organisation operates in many places, with partial or full al-Qaeda control in towns of Ja'ār, Radda, Shuqrah, Zinjibar, Hawta, Rawdah and Azan. The Saleh government used al-Qaeda as a scapegoat to dissuade the Western governments from supporting the civil movement against its autocratic rule. With Yemen, the poorest Arab country, being devoid of a credible government during the year 2011, al-Qaeda attacks intensified and extended to many parts of the country [5]. The fragmentation of the Yemeni state thus increased al Qaeda’s operational capability and its geographic extension in the country [6].

In Libya, armed militia and the lack of a centralising government have led to greater disorder and a fragmented power structure that might encourage in the future the return of the Jihadists. In Egypt, it is less the presence of the Jihadists than the radical fundamentalists (closely associated to the Salafists [7]) that might ignite radical action, first against Israel, and then, against the new regime, the more so as many former Jihadists joined Libya in 2011, in order to fight the Qadhafi regime.

Turning to the Sunni/Shiite strife in the wider Muslim world, this was heightened following the invasion of Iraq by the United States and Great Britain in 2003. Before that date, killing and maiming Shiites did not reach the high level it attained after the overthrow of the Sunni, but highly repressive, government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq [8]. In this religious strife too, Jihadists found new opportunities to mobilise radicalised Sunnis against Shiites.

A similar picture is seen within the crisis in Syria, where the Alawites, considered as a deviant Shiite sect by many Sunnis, have ruled the country for many decades. The civil war within Syria has increased the antagonism between the two religious groups, amplifying mutual hatred and multiplying the violent outbursts of self-defense among the Sunnis. The opposite happened in Iraq: the Sunnis, under Shiite rule for the first time after the creation of modern Iraq, felt humiliated and reacted violently to what they considered Shiite-American complicity.

The dynamics of the new order pushed many towards radicalisation in the name of the Sunni version of Islam in Bahrain, but also in many Emirates where Shiites are considered as heretical Muslims and rejected by the Arab governments as the Trojan horse of the Islamic government in Iran. The democratic civil society movement, made of a majority of Shiites (they constitute the majority in Bahrain) but also many Sunnis who rejected the autocracy of the ruling monarchy was crushed with the direct assistance of Saudi Arabia through the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) army in March 2011. The movement was framed by the government as a sectarian conflict, the government taking the side of the Sunni minority against the Shiites.

More generally, authoritarian governments endeavor to transform the civil society movements into sectarian clashes in order to repress them with the complicity of part of the broader society, as is the case in Syria where the Assad government exploits Alawite/Sunni, Christian/Muslim, and Arab/Kurd divisions in order to break down the protest movement for democracy.


In general, the Arab Spring marginalised the Jihadist trend in the Muslim world. Even before the demise of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, radical Islam had undergone a visible decline, due to repression by Western and Muslim countries, but also because of their lack of any positive project that might go beyond the mere destruction and violence of the “enemy”. Besides that, Jihadists had shown their ability and willingness to put to death fellow Muslims and the number of Muslims killed was far greater than the number of non Muslims killed in their terrorist actions.

The Arab Spring also brought a whole new set of ideological concepts based on secular values like the dignity of the citizen (karaamah) and peacefulness (salmiyah) and these became significant values, in contradiction to the violence-prone radical Islam and the denial of the citizen in the name of the Islamic community (Ummah), cherished by the Jihadists.

The values of the new generations and their cultural tendencies were in absolute contradiction to radical Islam. But the crisis of the new revolutionary movements opened up new opportunities for Jihadist groups. The “failed states” like the Saleh regime in Yemen or the weakened dictatorships losing ground to the opposition like the Assad regime in Syria made it possible for radical Islamists to develop new strategies, using the State vacuum or its crisis as a ground for their violent action. Still, these groups remain marginal but their survival is due to the loosening grip of repressive governments that are no longer able to curb social protest within weakened (and in some cases “failed”) states. More generally, if the climate of violence continues to prevail in countries like Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain, the disappointment towards the peaceful ideas of the Arab Spring combined with the unresolved problems in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan (all Muslim countries), might induce new forms of radicalisation that could be exploited by Jihadists in the future.


Further reading:

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Farhad Khosrokhavar, and not of  Khosrokhavar is Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He has published on Iran and Islam in Europe, including 'The new Arab revolutions that shook the world' (Paradigm, 2011); 'Inside Jihadism: understanding Jihadi movements worldwide' (Paradigm, 2009); and 'Suicide bombers: Allah's new martyrs' (Pluto, 2005).


1. The words “Jihadist”, “Islamic radical” and “radical Islamist” are used here in a synonymous fashion to designate those persons who primarily use violence in the name of Jihad (Islamic  equivalent of the holy war) in order to accomplish their goals of implementing Islamic rule (the Islamic Caliphate) in Muslim countries and more generally, worldwide. They oppose those Muslims who opt for means other than sheer violence to advocate Islamic values as well as non-Muslims who do not accept Islam’s political supremacy. RETURN TO TEXT

3. See Joshua Landis, 'Al-Qaida Targets Syria', Syrian Comment. RETURN TO TEXT

4. See Jonathan S. Landay, ‘US officials: Al Qaida behind Syria bombings’, McClatchy Newspapers, February 10, 2012, RETURN TO TEXT

5. See the map of al-Qaeda’s extension of its operational zones in November 2011:
The geographic spread of al Qaeda is impressive, compared to January 2010. See Yemen crackdown. RETURN TO TEXT

6. See Katherine Zimmerman, Yemen Crisis Situation Reports Update 28, June 29, 2011, Critical Threat Project, RETURN TO TEXT

7. Salafism and radical Islam are not the same thing: it is possible to be a radical or political Muslim without being a Salafist, as indeed it is possible to be radical or political without being violent. RETURN TO TEXT

8. See Nir Rosen, “Prospects for the Sectarian Terrain 1.” Jadaliyya. April 15, 2011; “Prospects for the Sectarian Terrain 2.” Jadaliyya. April 15, 2011. RETURN TO TEXT

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