WASHINGTON — Right after NATO-backed rebels toppled Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, American flags and signs thanking the Obama administration popped up in Libyan cities, signaling what many had hoped was a new chapter between the United States and the Arab world.
A year later, with an American ambassador and other U.S. citizens killed in a siege on their compound in Benghazi this week, and U.S. missions throughout the region under threat, it’s clear that the extremists who were shunted aside by the Arab Spring protests are finding new footholds in the disarray of transitional nations.
In Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, Islamist militants are regrouping and attempting to reclaim the banner of resistance that was lost after the revolutionary gains quickly evaporated in the disunity of liberal and moderate parties, in the lawlessness following regime collapse and with the influx of money and weapons from extremist sympathizers.
Syria’s civil war already has become a bright beacon for extremists, analysts say, with its ability to lure jihadists from across the region for a battle not only about ruling Syria, but about putting a militant Islamist stamp on countries struggling to find new identities after years of dictatorship.
“Now that these countries have opened up and these guys are out of jails, they’re allowed to proselytize,” said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and blogs about them at Jihadology.net. “And we’ve seen these individuals encroach on some of the larger debates in their countries.”
Will McCants, a former government adviser on violent extremism and author of the Jihadica Website, said the Arab Spring dealt jihadists two blows – one is their exclusion from the overthrow of corrupt governments, and the other is the entry into party politics of their sometimes allies in the ultraconservative Salafist movement.
For years, Salafists had shunned participating in elections or legislation, saying it violated their strict principles that only God’s laws, as spelled out in the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, should apply. However, now they’ve formed parties and stepped gingerly into the political sphere, much to the chagrin of their more radical offshoots.
McCants said extremist elements had taken “some bites at the apple” with shows of force in Libya and Yemen, but they hadn’t found a real opportunity for recovering from the Arab Spring until Syria exploded.
“They haven’t had a chance at it since Iraq, and this is it. Syria is it,” said McCants, a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies, an arm of CNA, a Washington-based nonprofit that undertakes a wide variety of investigative projects.
While the number of foreign jihadists participating in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad is still believed to be low in comparison with the wider revolt, militant Islamists typically are better armed, better trained and are known for their fierce, ideology-driven warrior ethos, according to reporters and analysts monitoring the conflict.
They’re particularly fired up about Syria, experts say, because the country figures heavily in Islamic apocalyptic scripture.
“Salafi jihadists have been marginalized since the Arab Spring, but now Syria is giving them a boost,” said Murad Batal al-Shishani, a London-based analyst who’s written extensively about militants since the 1990s. “On Twitter, I find that the most trafficking topic among jihadists was Syria. It’s the biggest topic in the region and jihadists, in general, are focusing more on the grassroots now.”
Their influence extends far beyond Syria, to other countries where despised dictators already have been ousted.
Even before the chilling attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the typically American-friendly hub in eastern Libya, religious extremists in the country had gone on a spree of destroying shrines, setting off car bombs, assassinating political rivals and threatening foreign diplomats. In June, a British diplomatic convoy was attacked; last month, gunmen in Tripoli tried to seize a vehicle carrying U.S. Embassy personnel.
In Tunisia, extremists have conducted a string of attacks, including storming a hotel bar where alcohol was served, beating up a visiting French councilman because of his wife’s and daughter’s clothing, and firebombing the home of a TV executive for airing a film they found offensive to Islam. Radicals even launched a social media campaign to strip Tunisia’s first Olympic medalist of her nationality because her running clothes showed too much flesh.
The newly elected, Islamist-led government of Egypt has struggled for months with militant factions forming de facto morality police, setting up unsanctioned Islamic courts and carrying out a series of attacks from their hub in the largely un-policed Sinai. Some of the groups springing up make the conservatives of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood look downright moderate.
In Yemen, harsh economic conditions and the slow pace of reforms have only fueled the unrest that erupted briefly Thursday with protesters trying to storm the U.S. diplomatic compound in the capital, Sana’a. Only months ago, world leaders had feted Yemen because a prominent woman activist there, Tawakkol Karman, was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Analysts who specialize in Islamist movements offer mixed views on whether the extremists will prevail in reshaping post-dictator nations to suit their fundamentalism, or whether the spurts of violence are the hiccups that follow any government collapse and subsequent power vacuum.
Overshadowed by this week’s violence, analysts noted, were Libyan elections that named a new prime minister, a step forward on the country’s trudge toward more democratic rule.
The Libyan government also forcefully condemned the attack on the consulate and pledged support for the investigation, while many ordinary Libyans held rallies to condemn the extremists’ attack and to mourn the deaths of the U.S. diplomatic personnel.
Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria also face similar ideological splits in their populations, though the center and left are typically drowned out by the rhetoric of the fundamentalist blocs. And until the moderates coalesce into powerful political entities, analysts said, the new crop of Arab rulers will do more to appease the better-organized right wing.
“These societies are very divided – it’s just that the Islamists are more vocal and better organized,” Zelin said. “It’s not that these individuals have huge support, but it’s just that these individuals are major spoilers.”