What Osama bin Laden Has to Do With Libya Attack

There's more than a movie behind the protests in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Earlier this month, a hotel in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid—where, in 2010, a lone street vendor sparked a pro-democracy revolution that changed the face of the Arab world—was surrounded by an angry mob of protesters demanding that the proprietor, Jamil Horchani, discontinue the sale of alcohol at his establishment. Alcohol is legal in Tunisia, and is popular with tourists, but for the agitated group of bearded men (and they were all men) who stood chanting and waving sticks outside the two-story, tile-and-stucco compound, there is a law higher than that of the state, and in His eyes, Horchani and his customers were committing a grave offense.

Speaking to France 24 News, Horchani explained what happened next:

It was 1 p.m. when the “beards” broke down the hotel doors. Some of them went upstairs to ransack the rooms, while others went to destroy the kitchens and attack the bar. They broke everything and even stole money and some of my personal belongings, since I live in the hotel. The clients were traumatized. We even had to bring a couple of tourists to the hospital because they were in shock.

Welcome to the Arab Spring, Salafi-style.

Practitioners of an austere form of Islam that prohibits music and dancing, forces women to be completely subservient to men and equates free speech with blasphemy, Salafists (the term is derived from the Arabic word for ancestors) make the Muslim Brotherhood look like Girl Scouts; and—in what author Robin Wright calls “one of the most under-appreciated and disturbing byproducts of the Arab revolts”—they are gaining ground across a wide swath of the Middle East stretching from the Levant to the Maghreb.

This week marks 11 years since a band of hijackers under the leadership of the Salafi-jihadist Osama bin Laden brought down the Twin Towers and crashed two other planes, killing thousands of Americans, and a year-and-a-half since members of SEAL Team Six brought down bin Laden. But the radical version of Islam he preached has found a fertile home in the political void that opened up following the toppling of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, places where bin Laden’s ghost continues to haunt the United States.

Look no further than Libya, where, on Tuesday, Salafist extremists killed the U.S. Ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans, to protest a film they claim offends the Prophet Mohammad. The attack marked the first time in more than three decades that an American diplomat has died in the line of duty, and it underscores the looming threat facing the pro-democracy activists who fought for freedom in the region and their Western allies.

Egyptian Salafists followed up on Wednesday with an attack on the U.S. consulate in Cairo. And these are not just roving bands of fringe believers with a penchant for violence. Last year, Salafists won nearly 25 percent of the vote in the Egyptian Parliament and are now the second most powerful block in the legislature. And analysts say a prominent Salafi attorney, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, could easily have won the presidency if he wasn’t disqualified when it was determined the anti-American politician’s mother became a U.S. citizen before she died.

Elsewhere in the region, Salafists have taken control of large parts of northern Mali (where they recently stoned a couple to death for having children out of wedlock), are increasingly infiltrating the Syrian rebellion, and have become a force to be reckoned with in Algeria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.

Salafism didn’t just spontaneously erupt in wake of the Arab revolts; it’s been promoted for years by one of America’s most unlikely allies. The most conservative version of Salafism—called Wahabism—is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, and is second only to oil as the kingdom’s most prolific export. Some Middle East experts say the Saudi government—which initially opposed the Arab Spring—and private Saudi religious groups have been pumping millions of dollars into the post-revolutionary void in an effort to spark a secondary “Salafi Spring.” If their efforts succeed—and there is every reason to believe that’s a possibility—the U.S. may find itself facing an enemy far greater than Afghanistan’s marginalized Taliban. Picture al Qaeda on steroids with national sovereignty to hide behind.

Although the government of Saudi Arabia strongly denies it is bankrolling Salafist causes in the region, the Saudis are openly supporting the rebellion in Syria (in an effort to contain any regional power shift that benefits Shiite-led Iran), so it’s little surprise observers note an increase in the number of foreign Sunni jihadists joining up with the Free Syrian Army.

Make no mistake: The burgeoning Salafist crescent in North Africa and the Arab Middle East is a tinderbox far more dangerous to long-term stability in the region than Iran (with or without the bomb), and U.S. foreign policy needs to reflect that reality. The Obama administration was courageous to throw its support behind the burgeoning democracy movements that made up the Arab Spring. But toppling a dictator is only the first step to liberation. Now comes the hard part.