Extremist group is likely to outlast its rival ISIS, experts on terror groups say
Osama bin Laden, left, with al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2001. Bin Laden’s death in 2011 was a symbolic defeat for the group, but it has continued to expand and strike allegiances with jihadist groups around the world. (Reuters)
Five years ago today, elite U.S. special forces soldiers raided a walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and ended history’s most intense manhunt.
The death of Osama bin Laden was a significant symbolic blow to al-Qaeda, the violent jihadist organization that he co-founded in the late 1980s.
But it was hardly the end of the group, which has lived on under the leadership of the bespectacled Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“Al-Qaeda is maybe stronger today than it was even at the time of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” says Scott Stewart, vice-president of tactical analysis at the intelligence firm Stratfor.
“It’s absolutely been diminished in some ways, but despite all the effort to stamp it out, al-Qaeda has managed to create an ‘arc of jihad’ that stretches from West Africa all the way to Southeast Asia.”
The organization now claims a presence in 60 countries worldwide, with recent inroads in India and Bangladesh. It’s a situation that bin Laden always envisioned.
Al-Qaeda was intended to be the vanguard of a larger movement, a core of hardened jihadis who would provide resources and support to cells fighting apostate governments around the world.
“Always be skeptical of claims that al-Qaeda is on the verge of defeat, or that they’re irrelevant. Terrorist organizations wax and wane, but al-Qaeda has proven to be truly resilient,” says Jeremy Littlewood, assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Fighting the ‘long war’
After 9/11, Al-Qaeda became synonymous with terror. That has started to change in recent years, however, with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its campaign of incredible violence.
The two groups are now locked in a fierce battle for both practical gains, like fighters and territory, but also for the “hearts and minds” of jihadis, Littlewood says. It is a fight for the very soul of the broader jihadist movement.
Very different philosophies about how to wage war against their perceived enemies amplify this conflict.
Al-Qaeda has always taken a “long war approach,” a doctrine that bin Laden himself championed, according to Stewart.
‘It is fighting a long, long war, and its willing to fight that war for as long it takes, generation after generation.’– Scott Stewart, Stratfor intelligence analyst
It is absolutely essential, the reasoning goes, to defeat distant enemies — namely the United States and its allies — that prop up apostate regimes in the Middle East with money and arms. An enduring caliphate cannot be established until that happens. It could take 100 years, or it could take 1,000 years. No matter.
“Many more experienced jihadis have remained loyal to the idea at the centre of al-Qaeda that they should target Western states and meticulously lay the groundwork at the local level before a caliphate,” says Littlewood.
“[ISIS] upended that and instead focuses on holding territory and achieving their goals through brute force, which seems to be appealing more to a younger generation of fighters.”
AQ vs. ISIS
ISIS does have a branch dedicated to so-called external operations and has inspired attacks like those in Paris and Brussels. Its propagandists have also encouraged violence by believers outside of its self-proclaimed caliphate. But stamping out enemies within and surrounding the caliphate is its main focus.
“That’s maybe the biggest difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS. The Islamic State is hyper-sectarian, and is really fighting a war on, well, everything,” says Stewart.
Al-Qaeda has been openly critical of ISIS’s willingness to indiscriminately slaughter both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The tension dates all the way back to the Iraqi insurgency, when a group of extremist militants fighting the American military struck an allegiance with al-Qaeda and renamed itself Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Its commander was a seasoned and notoriously brutal Jordanian jihadist named Abu Masab al-Zarqawi. In defiance of orders from bin Laden and his top lieutenants, Zarqawi targeted Iraqi Shias and even Sunnis who he thought were submitting to the U.S. occupation.
Al-Qaeda leadership warned the tactics would draw too much attention from the American-led occupation and turn potential local supporters against them.
They were right. Al-Zarqawi was killed by a drone strike in 2005, and many of AQI’s remaining fighters were killed or imprisoned during the troop surge of 2007. Some of those who survived the war went on to form the core leadership of ISIS after the coalition withdrew from Iraq.
A more pragmatic approach
Despite ISIS’s battlefield successes, there’s growing consensus that al-Qaeda poses a greater long-term threat to both stability in the Middle East and to security of Western nations.
This sentiment was backed up in a January report published by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, that concluded the current U.S. strategy has put too much emphasis on defeating ISIS while al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria has flourished.
Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, as it is alternatively known, has had a presence in Syria since the early days of the civil war. Perhaps more than any other satellite, Jabhat al-Nusra illustrates how al-Qaeda plans to remain a potent force for years to come.
“It’s taken a very pragmatic approach, ingratiating itself with local populations and working, when necessary, with other more moderate rebel groups to achieve what it wants, namely the defeat of the Syrian regime,” says Stewart.
“Instead of killing those that oppose them, al-Nusra has made allies of many of them.”
An idea that lives on
Charles Lister, a leading terrorism scholar and author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, was among the first observers to point out that Jabhat al-Nusra’s strategy will likely make it more difficult to defeat in Syria, in the long run, than ISIS.
“[ISIS] is all about imposing its will on people, whereas al-Nusra has for the last five years been embedding itself in popular movements, sharing power in villages and cities, and giving to people rather than forcing them to do things. That has lent it a power [ISIS] just doesn’t have,” he told the German newspaper Der Spiegel in a recent interview.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s affiliate in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has taken a similar approach, with fighters marrying into prominent families and allying with influential tribal leaders.
Once al-Qaeda becomes the dominant force in an increasing number of regions, it will be able to turn its attention back to its quintessential enemy: the U.S. and its allies.
“It is fighting a long, long war, and its willing to fight that war for as long it takes, generation after generation. Al-Qaeda, more than anything, is an idea,” says Stewart.
“As long as that idea lives on, al-Qaeda is very, very dangerous.”