The Arab Spring Effect: Al Qaeda in Africa

Posted: 18th December 2012
The Arab Spring Effect: Al Qaeda in Africa

The evolution of Al Qaeda (report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation) after the Arab Spring has drawn quite a bit of attention lately. Not just from academics evaluating recent events, but also intelligence analysts trying to anticipate Al Qaeda’s direction as the organization actively, and publicly, reshapes its strategy.

One of the notes in ICSR’s abstract is the reorganization of Al Qaeda after the Arab Spring. We’d like to evaluate claims that Al Qaeda operations were affected (they appear to have slowed significantly) and is looking increasingly influential in Africa – Al Qaeda 3.0 as the Brookings Institute’s Bruce Riedel describes it.

One of the things possible with Recorded Future is to statistically surface major events during a particular timeframe based on factors such as recency, # of validating sources, online visibility, and more. This allows to examine how Al Qaeda looked during that timeframe immediately before and after the Arab Spring.

Al Qaeda around the Arab Spring Timeline – click for live view

If we frame the most intense period of the Arab Spring between December 2010 (Tunisia) and August 2011 (rebels taking Tripoli), we notice a few major points on the timeline. The most significant: a relatively quiet period absent of major events by Al Qaeda during that timeframe mentioned above from late 2010 to the fall of 2011. The bump in the timeline during of May is not an operation but when United States special forces killed Osama bin Laden.

We also start to see an uptick of activity late in 2011 and early in 2012 as Al Qaeda upped its recruiting in Iraq, attacks in Syria being likened to Al Qaeda operations, emerging presence in Libya, and early indications that the organization was making a legitimate effort at turning Mali into a stronghold.

To put the pause and resurgence in perspective, Al Qaeda wasn’t the only militant group whose strategy was affected by the Arab Spring events. Take a look at the long timeline for Hamas between 2009 and 2012 where you’ll see a similar slowdown during the middle of 2011.

Hamas timeline around the Arab Spring

Now that we’ve outlined the big picture around the Arab Spring let’s get to something more targeted by looking at the locations where Al Qaeda appeared most active before and after that peak period of the Arab Spring (pre-January 2011, post-August 2011). The rows shown in the timelines below are ranked by number of events mentioning Al Qaeda and a particular location, which provides us the following breakdown by number of reported events:

  • Pre-Arab Spring: top locations include Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq (nothing about Africa in the top seven countries).
  • Post-Arab Spring: top locations include Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan (Libya appears in top seven countries).
  • Last 30 days: Mali, Libya, and Somalia all appear in the top seven locations along with Iraq and Syria.

Timeline for Al Qaeda by location – January 2010 to January 2011

Al Qaeda Locations Before Arab Spring

Timeline for Al Qaeda by location – October 2011 to November 2012

Al Qaeda Timeline Post-Arab Spring

Here is a map showing the last thirty days of the organization’s reported activity in Africa (click to view the live map):

Map of recent Al Qaeda activity in Africa

Recent events and public statements by Al Qaeda leadership show that there is a real uptick in efforts to grab power in some of these weak African states after the Arab Spring disrupted, and perhaps reoriented, the organization’s stategy. Do you think that Al Qaeda and its affiliate organizations (Al Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Jabhat al-Nusra) will prove to be a long term force? Does the central power of Al Qaeda shift from its longtime strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan to unstable regions of Africa?