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Jihadist groups watch revolution pass them by

By Tim Lister, CNN
Protesters march in Egypt in the first days of demonstrations.
Protesters march in Egypt in the first days of demonstrations.
  • Al Qaeda and others appear to be marginalized spectators
  • Islamists websites pushed jihadist to influence protest movements
  • However, some said Egypt revolution did not follow the "book of Allah"

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- Jihadist groups across the Middle East have applauded and encouraged the popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt, but their exhortations have made little impact on the course of events. In fact, they've hardly been noticed.

Even so, a survey of postings on jihadist websites and forums suggests Islamist groups see opportunities to exploit what has happened.

Al Qaeda and associated Islamist groups, long committed to the overthrow of Arab governments, have so far been marginalized spectators rather than drivers of protest, behind the curve of what U.S. President Barack Obama has called the "arc of history."

The first statement from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- al Qaeda's North African affiliate -- about the protests in Tunisia came more than three weeks after they started. An audio message from the group's leader, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, urged Tunisians to train in the group's military camps and called for the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali by a government based on Islamic Sharia rule.

Wadud made a similar recording encouraging protests in Algeria. But while these messages latched on to many of the grievances of the protesters, such as corruption and economic hardship, the messages themselves had little resonance among them.

After Ben Ali fled Tunisia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb returned to the fray -- again trying to whip up support for the creation of a state based on Sharia, or Islamic, law. It also urged other Muslims to follow the Tunisian example.

"Every tyrant among the tyrants of Islam who raised their selves on this earth to the height of Ben Ali and left the creed of Allah like he left it, must meet the same reward," Wadud said in an internet statement.

But the only Islamist leader of any standing in Tunisia, Monsef al Marzouki, returned to the country from exile stressing that he was no Ayatollah Khomeini and looking forward to multi-party elections.

Events in Egypt have ignited jihadist forums over the past two weeks, according to a survey by the SITE Intelligence Group which tracks Islamist websites. At the end of January, radical clerics were urging the opposition to topple Hosni Mubarak from the presidency as a religious duty.

There has also been an effort among some jihadist thinkers to stir soldiers to mutiny. Hani al Sibai, the director of the al Maqrizi Center in London, issued an internet statement directed at junior officers in the Egyptian army, stating: "If you return to your religion and disown the enemies of your nation, then await the glad tidings that the Ummah and the whole Muslim Egyptian people will give."

A consistent theme of Islamist websites is that jihadists should associate with the protest movements. "It is a dangerous mistake for the jihadists to separate from these peoples, and we should forgive them, get closer to them and beg them to hear us," an anonymous posting in an jihadist forum read.

But many postings have recognized that the protesters' motives in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere had nothing to do with jihad. One said: "There are nationalist slogans being raised that do not benefit the Muslims or the jihadi project."

A similar view was expressed Friday after Mubarak stepped down. The revolution had not followed the book of Allah, one posting translated by SITE said, and so it "did not succeed. The fruit was not picked, and only the foolish ones benefit from the revolution of the honorable people."

To some militant groups, the foolish include the Muslim Brotherhood, reviled for its timidity. The militant Palestinian group Masada al-Muhahideen issued a statement a week ago saying the Egyptians' ultimate goal should be an Islamic system of governance. "So 'Not Mubarak, Not the Brotherhood, and not even El Baradei," it said.

Even if they have been spectators of the democracy movements, jihadist groups apparently see opportunity in the removal of authoritarian regimes. Another anonymous post read: "A benefit of this is the loss of the striking iron fist from the security services government and others that are oppressing the jihadi movement." It continues: "If Islam is the solution and you have not found an opportunity to impose this solution, the chance is open."

There are signs that jihadist cells plan to exploit the security vacuum. On the last day of January, according to SITE, there was talk on forums about sabotaging the gas pipeline linking Egypt and Israel through the Sinai desert. "To our brothers, the Bedouins of Sinai, the heroes of Islam, strike with an iron fist, because this is a chance to stop the supply to the Israelites," one posting read. Five days later there was an explosion on the pipeline that disrupted supplies, and there have been further violent incidents in Sinai since.

Overall, most analysts feel that radical Islamists are not poised to take advantage of the sudden upheavals sweeping the Arab world. CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress Thursday that the "lack of freedoms, the lack of political reform, the lack of truly free and open elections, economic stagnation, the impact this is having on unemployment" were the driving forces of the current protests.

Still, but he warned that in the absence of a democratic breakthrough in Egypt events could turn in another direction.

If not alarmed by the prospect of Islamic extremism filling the political void, Western policy-makers recall the "Lenin model," whereby a well-organized group such as the Bolsheviks takes advantage of a broader movement to seize power. Events in Iran in 1979 followed this model; after the overthrow of the shah, reformers were quickly outflanked by hard-line Islamist forces.

Ironically, that was the historical parallel that Mubarak most often used when justifying his policies to U.S. diplomats. Recently leaked U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks show Mubarak scoffed at "the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world."

The United States had encouraged the shah of Iran to accept reforms "only to watch the country fall into the hands of revolutionary religious extremists," Mubarak said, while the Palestinian elections in 2006 had "brought Hamas and Iran to his doorstep."

Mubarak stepped down 32 years to the day after the shah was overthrown.