Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has a sobering analysis of al-Qaeda's strategy for exploiting popular discontent in the wake of the Arab Spring:
We haven't seen Islamic law implemented or a caliphate established, of course, but al Qaeda probably sees a more fertile recruiting environment. The Arab Spring is not just about the desire for democracy. It is also about unemployment and skyrocketing food prices. Will material needs be met? The unemployment rate in Egypt has in fact increased rather than decreased since Mubarak was overthrown. Historically when you have sky-high expectations -- as you've had with the Arab Spring -- that go unfulfilled, extreme ideologies can take hold.
I'm slightly more optimistic than Gartenstein-Ross, for a couple of reasons. Extreme ideologies can take hold during periods of economic misery, but I think they also flourish through repression. Part of how the Muslim Brotherhood drew support during the Mubarak era was because they were one of the few fonts of opposition -- in a more open marketplace of ideas, I think extreme ideologies have less appeal, and the Brotherhood itself hasn't seen its popularity rise despite ongoing discontent in Egypt.
The possibility of extremists taking advantage of post-Arab Spring disillusionment, though, isn't something to dismiss. But that's precisely why the outcome in Egypt is so crucial -- the more effective Egypt's fledgling democracy is at addressing basic concerns, the less appealing violence will seem.
This is another reason not to simply write off al-Qaeda despite recent U.S. successes at eliminating individual high-level extremists. Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently argued for curtailing the drone program:
Blair said the continuing drone strikes are more of a nuisance than a real threat to al-Qaida, and that only a ground campaign by Pakistan would truly threaten it and other militant organizations. The U.S. had been training forces for that purpose until the program was canceled by Pakistan in retaliation for the raid to kill bin Laden.
Al-Qaida "can sustain its level of resistance to an air-only campaign," Blair said. "I just see us with that strategy walking out on a thinner and thinner ledge and if even we get to the far end of it, we are not going to lower the fundamental threat to the U.S. any lower than we have it now."
There's some evidence that targeted killings are effective in degrading terrorist groups' capabilities, but not in eliminating them entirely. As Gartenstein-Ross suggests, there are other factors that can sustain extremists even with their operational capacity degraded, particularly when the underlying factors driving their existence remain present. Targeted killing won't do the job by itself, and to the extent such killings also result in the deaths of civilians, they may not only aid extremists in the long term but also pose clear and serious ethical problems.