In the summer of 2007, the senior leadership of al-Qaida decided on a major effort in Egypt, Algeria and Libya. Their campaign elsewhere in the Middle East, after an apparently promising start, had not been going very well. Public sentiment in key countries had turned against the extremists the moment bombs started going off locally. Supporting far-off violence was one thing. Blasts in hotels or on the streets of your home town was something different, it seemed. In Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, popular support for the extremists was plummeting.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Cairo suburb-born former medical doctor who leads al-Qaida with Osama bin Laden, tasked Mohammed Hakaima, an Egyptian veteran militant, with creating a regional franchise for the group in his native land. "O heroes, strike … all the Zionist-Crusader targets in the land of Egypt without shedding the blood of Muslims," Hakaima told his countrymen. Few did. Based in Pakistan, all Hakaima could do was to make approaches to potential collaborators online. He was killed in a drone strike in mid 2008. The project for an "al-Qaida in the land of Egypt" died with him.
Hosni Mubarak, even in the death throes of his regime, did not have the temerity to blame al-Qaida for his downfall. Not so Colonel Gaddafi, who says Bin Laden has been duping Libyan youth with drugs to foment violence. Both the accusation of involvement in narcotics and domestic unrest have long pedigrees. Many, including the British government, have claimed that Bin Laden is involved in the heroin trade though no evidence for such a link exists, for example. And dozens of unsavoury and repressive regimes (mainly allies of the west) have invoked the name of the al-Qaida leader to get diplomatic, military, financial or commercial benefits or explain away internal discontent and dissent.
As in Egypt, Islamic militancy in Libya goes back decades, even to colonial days. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were active in the 1990s as, in Egypt, was Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad. Between 2004 and 2006, captured records show Libya provided a disproportionate number of foreign "mujahideen" in Iraq. When "al-Qaida in the Maghreb" was formed in 2006, Zawahiri hoped that fusing existing Algerian and Libyan groups, would gain the al-Qaida hardcore new capabilities and a springboard into Europe. But the merger merely revealed the weakness and parochialism of all involved and has since collapsed.
In recent years, Libyan Islamic extremist activists have split. An old guard, largely from their prison cells inside the country, have rejected violence, publishing a vast collective treatise on why bombs and bullets are not justified means of overthrowing a government, however irreligious or distasteful. A young guard, largely in Pakistan, still spit bile. Many of the latter now hold high rank within the al-Qaida "hardcore". However their seniority is not matched by influence on the ground. The very few active militant networks existing in (mainly eastern and south-western) Libya are independent of the leadership of Bin Laden's group.
The truth is that al-Qaida's senior leadership are physically, culturally and ideologically too distant from current events to play any significant role in them. This is demonstrated by the total failure of either bin Laden or Zawahiri to even issue a timely, pertinent comment on the events. So far all we have had is a dated and long-winded statement by Zawahiri released piecemeal apparently weeks after it was recorded and an online pledge apparently from an unidentified spokesman in the region "to help in any way possible".
That recent events pose a challenge to al-Qaida is clear. Its rhetoric was already tired before the "Arab spring". A sudden interest in climate change last year was a feeble attempt to rejuvenate it. The ageing Zawahiri even took his glasses off in one video. But, clearly, to no avail. The slogans of Cairo or Benghazi are an explicit rejection of al-Qaida's message. They make no references to faith or the "Crusader-Zionist alliance". If Gaddafi and Mubarak are described as traitors, it is the nation – an idea seen by al'Qaeda as an illegitimate Western creation – that they have betrayed, not the ummah, the global community of Muslims.
Though currently banished to the physical and ideological margins of the Islamic world, al-Qaida's influence is still present – if only indirectly. Firsty, the return to nationalism is in part a reaction to the failure of the group's "global jihad", an ideology as disrespectful of local identities and independence as any other. Second, the polarisation resulting from the acts of al-Qaida and the western reaction to them over the last decade has contributed significantly to the broadly conservative social and religious views now held by very many people across the Islamic world. This latter element, controversially labelled "re-Islamisation" by some scholars, is likely to be of critical importance when, after the heady rush of events of recent weeks, the region finally pauses for breath.
Even this new conservatism however is not necessarily good news for al-Qaida. It exists largely outside traditional political activity and is more likely to work to the advantage of such classic political Islamists as the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood than anyone else. Zawahiri for one has previously made little secret of his contempt for the Brotherhood, which he considers hypocritical and compromised. His stance is further evidence of the shift of the "global jihad" to the intellectual and geographic periphery of the Islamic world. There is little consolation anywhere these days for al-Qaida's increasingly irrelevant leaders.