The Arab Spring has saved Islamic terrorism from extinction. Well into its third year, the Arab Spring revolution has not gone as many hoped. Worse, the changes provided new opportunities for Islamic radical groups. While several long-serving tyrants were overthrown and elections held, the new governments have not been particularly effective. Unemployment is up and corruption is still around in countries where the rebels succeeded. The incompetent and abusive police forces are still on the job. While the government has changed, the families that control most of the economy are still in control. This concentration of economic power in a few families is common in many countries, particularly in the Arab world. The problem with the Arab Spring is that the focus of the anger was too narrow, concentrating on the current dictators and not the fundamental problems that allowed all those dictators to flourish in the first place.
But the biggest problem has been how the Arab Spring took a lot of pressure off Islamic radical groups and allowed these fanatics to more easily recruit, raise money, and organize more violence. The revived Islamic terror groups promptly began attacking their former allies (the secular and democratic reformers) as well as Westerners. The leaders of the Arab Spring movements were initially sympathetic to Islamic radical groups, seeing them as fellow victims of the old dictatorship. Now most of the Arab Spring leaders see the Islamic radicals as more interested in imposing another dictatorship. That is a lost cause but is proving to be a rather bloody one to cope with.
Islamic radicalism has been a part of Islam since the beginning but has never been able to sustain control over governments. That’s in large part because Moslems are divided over whether it is better to be ruled by a religious dictatorship using Islamic law (interpreted by religious scholars who act as a final appeals court) or by some other system. Islamic radicals consider the alternatives (secular dictatorship, monarchy, and democracy) un-Islamic. Many Arab countries had tried secular dictatorship (usually accompanied by socialism) after World War II. This turned out to be a major failure and most of the Arab Spring governments overthrown were secular dictatorships. Monarchies have been more successful, as they have been the oldest and most successful form of government in the region. Democracy has had a hard time in the Middle East because it requires a civil society (people willing to work honestly for the common good) and the pervasive corruption in the region made that very difficult. The religious dictatorship has never worked, also done in by the corruption and tribalism, but it has survived as an impossible idea.
The tolerant attitude towards Islamic radicalism by the new Arab Spring governments is the main reason for the renewed vigor of Islamic terror organizations in the last year. Because of the Arab Spring, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, and Tunisian jails were emptied of political prisoners after the rebels replaced the dictators. The freed prisoners included thousands of Islamic radicals, many of them Islamic terrorists who promptly went back to the business of being very bad.
Even the Islamic conservatives, who tended to stay out of jail by toning down their religious and social prejudices, have become a problem. Mobs of Islamic conservative men have been attacking women’s schools and any establishment that serves alcohol (even if mainly to tourists). Women who don’t dress very conservatively are confronted and sometimes beaten. These Islamic conservative groups want Islamic law imposed on everyone and are not waiting for laws to be passed. Anyone who opposes this vigilantism is accused of being hostile to Islam and attacked even more vigorously.
Most of the Islamic terrorists let out of prison were those who had experience, especially management skills. In the last decade the U.S. and Israel have put thousands of skilled Islamic terrorists out of action (dead or imprisoned). Arab dictatorships were particularly effective at finding and killing or imprisoning Islamic radicals and have been doing this vigorously since the 1990s. All this led to a steady decline in the number of Islamic terrorist attacks over the last decade. But with so many jailed Islamic terrorists freed, the mayhem is on the increase again.
The usual pattern now is that not long after the old dictatorships are removed and the jails opened, police in Arab Spring states find themselves seeking to arrest some of those freed radicals for crimes committed since they got out, or for general bad behavior over a long period of time. In Libya the liberated Islamic terrorists killed the American ambassador and several of the newly elected officials. In Tunisia the Islamic terrorists were doing the same, and in Yemen the Islamic radicals allied themselves with tribes that wanted more than the new government could provide and tried (unsuccessfully) to take control of parts of the country. Despite that experience, countries still undergoing Arab Spring rebellions (like Syria) are under pressure to let Islamic radicals out of prison once the dictatorship is overthrown. In part this is because many Islamic radical groups are taking part in the fighting and expect to get something more than a “thank you” for their efforts. Indeed, Syrian rebels are concerned about the Islamic radicals attempting to install a religious dictatorship after the current secular Assad dictatorship is overthrown. Whatever the case, Islamic radicals expect a new government to let imprisoned Islamic terrorists go free. Even if the new government wants to keep Islamic terrorists and criminals imprisoned, the chaos that accompanies a revolution often leads to many jail breaks. Moreover, many of the non-terrorist criminals and political prisoners are recruited into Islamic radical groups while in prison. Western and Arab intelligence agencies are identifying more and more of these former prisoners in terrorist hot spots like Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, and Libya, including those who were not originally jailed for Islamic terrorism.