The Islamic State’s (IS) emergence—with its control of territory, social media proficiency, and unprecedented ability to mobilize supporters—threatened al-Qaeda’s position of dominance within the global jihadist movement. For a time, the majority of analysts believed that IS would eclipse al-Qaeda, if it had not done so already, and that IS’s rise threatened to make al-Qaeda irrelevant or even defunct. The conventional wisdom held that al-Qaeda could only remain relevant by either carrying out terrorist attacks abroad or else trying to replicate IS’s brutality and ostentatious growth model. But al-Qaeda defied conventional wisdom. It not only survived the challenge posed by IS, but emerged stronger by pursuing a strategy of deliberate yet low-key growth. Al-Qaeda was able to “rebrand” itself by contrasting with IS’s over-the-top shows of brutality, and thus gain more room to operate within the region. This article maps the evolution of al-Qaeda’s model for growth over the past decade, and illustrates how the group has repeatedly overcome challenges through a combination of shrewd planning and strategic patience.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in July 2011 claimed that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.”1 Panetta was not the first to remark on al-Qaeda’s imminent collapse, nor would he be the last. Observers in both the Middle East and the West saw the Arab uprisings of early 2011 as a repudiation of al-Qaeda’s worldview because dramatic political change had been accomplished largely without violence. They anticipated that al-Qaeda’s importance and popularity would drop sharply in the post-revolutionary period.2
But al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement defied these predictions. Nothing has benefited either the organization or the movement more over the past fifteen years than the instability wrought by the region’s revolutions. Yet even after early hopes about the Arab revolutions were proven wrong, al-Qaeda declinism endured. In 2014, the vast majority of analysts concluded that al-Qaeda had lost its dominance over the jihadist movement when a former affiliate, the Islamic State (IS), launched an enormously successful offensive into northern Iraq in June 2014, then began vying for the loyalty of various al-Qaeda branches.3 The most extreme version of this argument contended that “al-Qaeda is most certainly a distant number two in jihadi circles,” and suggested that it was a real possibility the group could disband before 2016.4 Press coverage and analysis in the Arab world tended to mirror the al-Qaeda declinist position espoused by Western analysts and officials. One Algerian security expert provided a representative conclusion when he suggested that “al-Qaeda could disappear to make way for the more extremist” Islamic State.5 IS’s legions of online fans further pushed these perceptions of a declining al-Qaeda by publicizing, repeating, and often exaggerating each sign of disunity or pro-IS factions within the broader al-Qaeda network.
But rather than withering away, al-Qaeda has turned IS’s emergence into a strategic opportunity, pivoting off of IS’s brutality and doubling down on a more low-profile and sustainable approach to growth. Al-Qaeda has quietly, and yet relatively rapidly, gained ground in conflict zones across the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria and Yemen, where the group has seized territory and embedded itself within local communities.
Al-Qaeda’s decision to become more covert and discrete in response to IS’s ostentatious successes may seem counterintuitive at first. Indeed, it is the opposite of what most analysts expected. But it worked. Al-Qaeda weathered the IS storm. This article tells the story of how al-Qaeda survived and thrived despite the IS challenge. It focuses on al-Qaeda’s response to three key developments over the past decade: al-Qaeda in Iraq’s defeat in 2007-09, the 2011 Arab uprisings, and IS’s rise. The group’s approaches to all three developments are inherently interlinked. The course al-Qaeda charted as these challenges and opportunities arose explains why al-Qaeda is stronger now than it was in 2014, and why it is far better positioned than IS to succeed in the long term.
The Black Mark on al-Qaeda’s Reputation
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which later would become IS, was decisively defeated in 2007-09, during the course of the U.S.’s war in Iraq. This defeat damaged the global al-Qaeda brand. Thereafter, al-Qaeda became intent on adapting its strategy to remedy the damage inflicted by the excesses and ultimate failure of its Iraqi affiliate. The lessons al-Qaeda learned through its analysis of AQI’s failure during the Iraq war have been instrumental in shaping the group’s strategic thinking as it takes on IS.
For AQI and its founding emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, instrumental brutality was an essential tool of war. AQI used extreme violence to fuel its ascension to the forefront of the anti-U.S. insurgency. The group became notorious for its sectarian suicide bombings against Shia Muslims in crowded markets and mosques, and for showcasing its grainy but gory execution videos, including the kind of beheadings that would later become IS’s signature. The group was equally brutal in suppressing populations over which it could exert power. In the official U.S. Marine Corps history of the “Anbar Awakening,” which compiles oral testimony from American and Iraqi perspectives, the head of an Iraqi women’s NGO known pseudonymously as “Miriam” recalls: “The ugliest torture was committed by al-Qaeda. If the discipline didn’t work, the people were abducted and slaughtered. The head was put in a container and thrown away, or the neck cut and the head placed on the back.”6 AQI also alienated the population by forcibly imposing a hardline version of sharia in areas that it controlled.7
AQI’s savagery served two purposes. It helped AQI establish its dominance over Iraqi Sunnis, AQI’s ostensible core constituency. Further, anti-Shia violence encouraged retaliatory attacks by Shias, thus advancing AQI’s goal of inciting a sectarian civil war. AQI calculated that if it could inflame Sunni-Shia tensions, the jihadist group could insert itself into the chaos as the defender of the Sunni population.
This strategy had AQI flying high for a time, but then it came crashing back to earth. Col. Peter Devlin described AQI as the “dominant organization of influence” in Sunni-dominated Anbar province in an August 2006 intelligence assessment.8 But AQI’s use of excessive violence ultimately backfired. In 2006, local tribesmen in Anbar, fed up with AQI’s severe tactics and interference in the local economy, mounted an uprising.
Though there are multiple points in time one could point to as the genesis of the tribal uprising, the most salient is September 9, 2006, when a number of sheikhs publicly announced their plan to fight al-Qaeda. They called their movement the sahwa, or “Awakening.” The movement issued an eleven-point communiqué. Col. Sean MacFarland, then the commander of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, said, “Ten of them I would have written for them almost exactly the same way they wrote them.”9 The other point, suggesting that the Awakening would have to kill the governor of Anbar, was more troublesome.
The sahwa sheikhs proved willing to speak and work with the Americans. The U.S. was able to capitalize on the opportunity because it had shifted from primarily keeping its forces in massive forward-operating bases that were walled off from the rest of the country to population-centric counterinsurgency. Ultimately U.S. forces backed the tribal uprising, and it drove AQI from Anbar. Following the success of the Anbar Awakening, this model of resistance to AQI spread to other areas of the country where the jihadist group maintained a presence. AQI’s brutality, once a sign of strength, now appeared to show how it had overplayed its hand and alienated the population. By 2010, AQI had become strategically irrelevant, a shell of its former self.
AQI’s resounding defeat was a blow to al-Qaeda’s global brand. AQI was the first al-Qaeda affiliate since 9/11 to hold significant territory, and its collapse suggested that al-Qaeda was ill-equipped to govern. More worrying for al-Qaeda was the manner in which AQI fell. It fueled the perception that al-Qaeda, which had pledged to defend Muslim populations against foreign occupying forces, was itself an alien occupier.
Even when AQI was at its peak, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership saw this coming. In July 2005, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then bin Laden’s deputy, wrote a letter to Zarqawi urging the impulsive militant to temper his behavior.10 Zawahiri was no pacifist—he advised Zarqawi to shoot prisoners rather than behead them—but he feared that Zarqawi’s shows of brutality would alienate the population. As Zawahiri noted, “the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy … is popular support from the Muslim masses.” Thus, the jihadists “must avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve.” Later that year, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, another senior al-Qaeda official, wrote a harsher letter echoing Zawahiri’s advice. Atiyah told Zarqawi that military policy was subordinate to political objectives, and exhorted the Jordan-born leader to rein in his violent tendencies or risk eroding public sympathy for al-Qaeda.11 Atiyah advised Zarqawi to overlook the population’s “mistakes and flaws,” and to tolerate “a great deal of harm from them for the sake of not having them turn away and turn into enemies on any level.” But these calls for moderating AQI’s behavior went unheeded.
The disagreements between al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and AQI in the mid-2000s have fundamentally shaped al-Qaeda’s subsequent strategy, including its response to IS’s rise. With AQI in a state of collapse by 2010, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership set out to restore the organization’s global image. Documents recovered from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound provide a glimpse into the measures that al-Qaeda’s leadership considered.
Al-Qaeda’s early reforms focused primarily on changing the group’s strategic approach. In a May 2010 letter to Atiyah, bin Laden proposed a “new phase” in al-Qaeda’s campaign that would “correct [the mistakes] we made,” and “reclaim … the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis.”12 Central to this new phase was a population-centric strategy that mirrored the approach the U.S. had used to defeat AQI. Bin Laden warned that if al-Qaeda alienated the public, it could win “several battles while losing the war at the end.”13 In a separate letter to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Atiyah expounded on the need to win over the Muslim population, noting that “the people’s support to the mujahedin is as important as the water for fish” (a nod to Mao’s famous adage about the importance of the population for insurgents).14 This embrace of population-centric measures meant that the organization had repudiated AQI’s approach, which emphasized intimidating, rather than winning over, local communities. Indeed, Atiyah cited AQI as an example of the risks of alienating the public.
Al-Qaeda even considered changing its name to distance itself from AQI’s legacy. One unnamed al-Qaeda official argued that the name al-Qaeda had become associated with a “military base with fighters,” and did not make reference to the group’s “broader mission to unify the Nation [umma].”15 The author also noted that the group’s name had become dissociated from Islam, and in that way “reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims, but they are at war with the organization of al-Qa’ida.” The official proposed several new names, including Muslim Unity Group (Jama`at Wahdat al-Muslimin) and Islamic Nation Unification Party (Hizb Tawhid al-Umma al-Islamiyya). Though al-Qaeda never changed the broader organization’s name, the group appears to have heeded the official’s advice in some of its expansion efforts. Several al-Qaeda front groups have adopted the name Ansar al-Sharia, while al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate eschewed the al-Qaeda label in favor of the name Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahli al-Sham, also known as the Nusra Front. (The conclusion of this article discusses Nusra’s recent announcement about its relationship with al-Qaeda, which has been widely portrayed as a dissociation.)
In September 2013, Zawahiri, who had replaced bin Laden as al-Qaeda’s emir, released the “General Guidelines for Jihad,” which institutionalized the reforms that the group had begun in the wake of AQI’s defeat.16 The document provides a revealing overview of al-Qaeda’s move to a more restrained and population-centric strategy. In it, Zawahiri instructs subordinates to avoid violence against religious minorities and “deviant sects” (referring to non-Sunnis) unless provoked, and cautions against behavior that could trigger a “revolt of the masses.” Zawahiri similarly advises al-Qaeda’s affiliates to refrain from killing women and children, to cease attacks in markets and mosques that could result in Muslim deaths, and to tolerate and collaborate with other Islamist groups, even those with whom al-Qaeda has profound ideological differences. In the event jihadists violate these edicts or otherwise err, Zawahiri urges them to apologize, and to compensate those who were harmed.
The publication of the General Guidelines represented the culmination of more than five years of internal discussions and debates about how to wipe away the black mark left by AQI, and they have served as a strategic blueprint for al-Qaeda’s confrontation with IS.
The Arab Uprisings: Al-Qaeda’s “Historical Opportunity”
The Arab uprisings of early 2011 presented another test of al-Qaeda’s ability to adapt. As previously discussed, the conventional wisdom among Western analysts at the time held that al-Qaeda would seriously decline due to the paradigm shift brought by the uprisings. Nothing could have been further from what actually transpired.
Though analysts’ predictions that the Arab uprisings would spell al-Qaeda’s demise were wrong, the protests of early 2011 did pose real challenges for the jihadist movement. Jihadists played little early role in the protests, and the fact that peaceful protests forced authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt to step down legitimately challenged al-Qaeda’s claims that violent jihad was necessary to topple the region’s tyrannical regimes.
But rather than seeing the Arab uprisings as a liability, al-Qaeda’s strategists saw them as a “historical opportunity,” to quote Atiyah’s assessment.17 Al-Qaeda strategists accurately calculated that the political turmoil and instability of the post-revolutionary environment would play to the group’s strengths. Indeed, ungoverned spaces proliferated in places like Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, southern Libya and the western mountains of Tunisia. These regions soon became jihadist safe havens. Dozens to hundreds of veteran jihadists were released from prison during and after the region’s revolutions, giving al-Qaeda an immediate infusion of experienced manpower.18
Al-Qaeda also concluded that political dynamics in post-revolutionary countries had created a fertile environment for the group to expand its support base, and to introduce new populations to its ideology and theology. Post-revolutionary governments sought to distinguish themselves from their authoritarian predecessors by lifting restrictions on religious expression. These loosening restrictions allowed al-Qaeda to publicly disseminate its salafi-jihadist views to the general public in post-revolutionary states without fear of a crackdown by state forces. As Hamid bin Abdallah al-Ali, a Kuwait-based jihadist commentator, remarked: “The Islamic project [will be] the greatest beneficiary from the environment of freedom.”19 Al-Qaeda strategists directed supporters in Tunisia, Egypt, and other post-revolutionary countries to engage in dawa (evangelism), and to “spring into action and initiate or increase their preaching, education, reformation and revitalization in light of the freedom and opportunities now available in this post revolution era.”20
Post-revolutionary countries became a testing ground for the reforms and policies al-Qaeda had implemented after AQI’s failed experiment. One such policy involved the use of front groups to conduct dawa and public outreach. Al-Qaeda calculated that use of its own moniker could alienate potential supporters, and invite the attention of Western states. Thus, al-Qaeda established groups with ambiguous names, including Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and Tunisia, to mask its presence and spearhead its public campaign in new places.
The expansion of political freedoms in post-revolutionary countries thus provided al-Qaeda with an opportunity to pursue a dual politico-military approach. While the group’s military wing established safe havens and developed offensive capabilities, its political operatives focused on dawa: preaching, providing social services, and gaining the support of local populations. These political efforts were designed to lay the groundwork for an eventual military confrontation with the state.
Al-Qaeda’s emphasis on dawa and community outreach allowed it to amass a considerable following in Libya and Tunisia. A 2012 conference in Tunisia hosted by Ansar al-Sharia, for example, drew between 3,000 and 10,000 participants.21 Al-Qaeda’s outreach campaign eventually came to an end in Tunisia, after an escalation in its violent activities caused the state to ban Ansar al-Sharia and crack down on it. Thereafter the group transitioned from open preaching and outreach to warfare against the state.
Al-Qaeda now maintains a presence in almost every country that experienced significant turmoil during the Arab uprisings. The group’s strategic ingenuity enabled it to exploit both instability and also democratic reforms that emerged from the tumult of the uprisings. The group disproved those who viewed al-Qaeda’s strategic doctrine as stagnant and immutable. But the jihadist group’s next major challenge would come from within its own ranks, from a group that rejected al-Qaeda’s turn to a population-centric approach.
Countering the Islamic State Challenge
IS’s emergence presented al-Qaeda with a challenge unlike any other the group had encountered. Through al-Qaeda’s various trials and tribulations prior to IS’s rise, the group had at least managed to maintain unrivaled dominance within the jihadist movement. In turn, the lack of competition from other jihadist groups allowed al-Qaeda to pass up tactical victories that might make for good propaganda but represented negligible strategic gains. Instead, al-Qaeda had a long-term vision for subtle yet real organizational growth and progressive destabilization of its state enemies. Typifying this approach was al-Qaeda’s response to the Arab uprisings, in which it adopted a deliberate expansion strategy, obscuring its activities and presence through the use of front groups.
IS’s rapid ascension threatened to disrupt al-Qaeda’s deliberate growth model, and oust al-Qaeda from its position of supremacy over the jihadist movement. IS’s strategy was diametrically opposed to al-Qaeda’s, and was designed, at least in part, to turn al-Qaeda’s strengths into weaknesses. While al-Qaeda often grew through clandestine means, IS stole the spotlight at every opportunity. IS built a robust propaganda apparatus suited for the digital age, pumping out a constant stream of videos, photos, and statements advertising its victories that were widely disseminated by its social media legions.22 Al-Qaeda has sought to build relationships with other armed groups, including non-jihadist factions, while IS wanted to dominate all Sunni Muslim groups. Al-Qaeda has maintained the appearance of a population-centric approach, while IS has openly advertised its brutality against residents of its caliphate.
With this brash approach, IS openly wooed al-Qaeda’s affiliates, attempting to absorb its parent’s global network. Many analysts believed IS had the decided upper hand in this intra-jihadist competition, and thus misunderstood the strategic course that al-Qaeda would travel. Analysts widely assumed that the only way al-Qaeda could remain influential was by replicating IS’s conspicuous model—for example, by carrying out spectacular terrorist attacks. Typical of this view is a February 2015 Foreign Affairs article by Clint Watts, which argued that al-Qaeda was losing its competition to IS, but that it still had a “clear path back to contention: a dramatic follow-up to the Hebdo attack.”23 But al-Qaeda defied conventional wisdom. Rather than trying to replicate IS’s model, al-Qaeda took the exact opposite approach. Al-Qaeda reduced its public profile, downplayed its successes rather than publicizing them, and embedded further within local populations. In this way, al-Qaeda presented itself to the world as a more palatable alternative to its bloodthirsty rival.
Al-Qaeda leaders’ interactions with the media provide a valuable lens for understanding the group’s strategy for benefiting from IS’s shocking rise. In a discussion with an Al Jazeera documentarian in early 2015, Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, a high-ranking Nusra Front religious official who hails from Australia, accused IS of “delegitimizing” other Sunni Muslim groups.24 Muhajir contrasted IS with the Nusra Front, which he portrayed as trying to “restore the right of the Muslim people to choose their leaders” in Syria. Muhajir’s statement highlighted how al-Qaeda’s localization strategy featured in its propaganda war with IS, as the Nusra Front was portrayed as an organic extension of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian people.
In June 2015, The Guardian published an extended interview with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, two of al-Qaeda’s most senior religious figures, that revealed another remarkable aspect of al-Qaeda’s strategy. Rather than trying to convince the audience of al-Qaeda’s strength or continued relevance, the two ideologues instead concentrated on fueling the illusion that IS had already destroyed al-Qaeda. Maqdisi claimed that al-Qaeda’s organizational structure had “collapsed,” while Abu Qatada alleged that Zawahiri had become “isolated.”25 This portrayal was almost certainly disinformation. Al-Qaeda had numerous strengths at the time, including affiliates that were noticeably gaining in strength in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa. If Maqdisi and Abu Qatada truly feared al-Qaeda’s collapse, they likely would have pointed to these strengths to try to rally the group’s supporters. Instead, their emphasis on al-Qaeda’s weakness was seemingly directed at regimes feeling anxious about allowing the militant group to operate more openly.
These media themes were consistent with how al-Qaeda affiliates functioned in practice. After a coalition of Islamist rebel factions, including the Nusra Front, seized the northwestern city of Idlib in April 2015, Nusra emir Abu Muhammad al-Julani said in an audio statement that his group did not “strive to rule the city or to monopolize it without others.”26 Julani’s remarks were intended to reassure both Idlib residents and other Islamist rebel factions that the Nusra Front, unlike IS, could cooperate with others, and would not forcibly impose its will on the population.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) adopted a similar approach to governance after it seized the Yemeni port city of Mukalla. The group appointed a local council, known as the Hadhrami Domestic Council, to govern Mukalla. Initially AQAP adopted a gradualist, somewhat lenient approach to the implementation of sharia, though it eventually began cracking down more heavily on sharia violations.27 By gradually introducing sharia and overlooking minor transgressions in its early months of governance, AQAP tried to win over local Yemenis, while distancing itself from IS. In a video released shortly after his death in June 2015, Nasir al-Wuhayshi indirectly criticized IS for focusing on policing minor transgressions, claiming that this approach reflected a “narrow understanding” of sharia.28 Wuyahshi’s view was that it was theologically acceptable and strategically wise for sharia to be introduced slowly, allowing Yemenis to come to accept it, rather than alienating the population in the earliest stages.
But while al-Qaeda made these global changes, its local approach to countering IS was the most effective aspect of its anti-IS strategy. One reason analytic assessments of the competition between al-Qaeda and IS were generally inaccurate is that observers underestimated the strength, cohesiveness and loyalty of al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates proved both willing and able to ruthlessly stamp out pro-IS sentiment within their ranks.
One place where al-Qaeda’s anti-IS strategy has been deadly effective is the Sahel region. In May 2015, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, a spokesman for al-Murabitun—a jihadist group established in 2013, when an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar joined forces with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), another AQIM offshoot—pledged allegiance to IS. Sahraoui ostensibly did so on behalf of the entire al-Murabitun organization. Sahraoui’s announcement was not well-received by Belmokhtar, an al-Qaeda loyalist, who quickly released a statement reiterating al-Murabitun’s allegiance to al-Qaeda, and lambasting Sahraoui for failing to consult with other members.29 Belmokhtar went on the offensive against al-Murabitun’s pro-IS contingent, wounding Sahraoui and killing over a dozen of his men in clashes in June 2015. Several months later, al-Murabitun formally rejoined AQIM, cementing the group’s position within the al-Qaeda network.30
Belmokhtar’s crackdown on Sahraoui shattered IS’s expansion prospects in the Sahel. Though Sahraoui re-emerged in a May 2016 audio statement, his first public statement in a year, his network is much diminished, and has dim expansion prospects while AQIM remains the region’s dominant militant force.31 IS’s failed push into the Sahel has also had a lasting impact on the group’s position in Africa, as it has prevented IS from establishing a territorial link between northern Nigeria, where the IS-affiliated Boko Haram operates, and Libya, which has served as IS’s North African command and control hub.32
IS has fared little better in Somalia, where al-Shabaab, another al-Qaeda affiliate, mounted a merciless campaign aimed at rooting out IS supporters in its ranks. IS’s early efforts to bribe Shabaab into defecting from al-Qaeda were rebuffed.33 When IS changed tack and tried to convince Shabaab foot soldiers and mid-level commanders to form a pro-IS splinter group, it ran up against stiff resistance. Shabaab’s intelligence wing, the amniyat, arrested at least dozens of pro-IS militants—and perhaps far more than that—while other IS sympathizers turned themselves in to government security forces to avoid the amniyat‘s wrath. As one Shabaab commander put it, many IS supporters in Somalia apparently preferred to “fall into the enemy’s hands instead of meeting death in the hands of” the amniyat.34
As a result of the amniyat‘s crackdown, IS managed to establish only a small and tenuous foothold in Somalia. In October 2015, Abdulqadir Mumin, a Shabaab religious official, pledged allegiance to IS on behalf of a group numbering no more than 100 fighters.35 The fact that Mumin was based in Puntland, hundreds of miles from Shabaab’s stronghold in southern Somalia, may have enabled him to evade the amniyat initially, but he and his group soon found themselves in Shabaab’s crosshairs. A month after Mumin’s pledge of allegiance, Shabaab warned in a radio broadcast that it would “cut the throats” of IS members.36 In December 2015, violence erupted between Mumin’s faction and Shabaab militants in Puntland.37 Several other small, pro-IS groups have emerged in Somalia since Mumin’s pledge, but none have seriously threatened Shabaab’s grip on power.
The Sahel and Somalia are not the only locales where IS has struggled to gain a foothold. In Afghanistan, IS has run up against a much stronger opponent in the Taliban, which has contained IS’s growth and crushed several nascent pro-IS factions.38 In November 2015, the Taliban largely wiped out the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which had pledged allegiance to IS several months earlier. The IMU’s defeat prompted one of the group’s supporters to remark that “what America and its agents could not do in 14 years, the Taliban did in 24 hours.”39 IS’s struggles in Afghanistan amount to a victory for al-Qaeda’s coalition-building approach. While IS has decided to try to take on and crush all competing centers of power, al-Qaeda has built relationships with local power brokers like the Taliban. Meanwhile, internal discord hampered IS’s growth in Yemen. Since December 2015, over 100 militants—more than 10 percent of the Yemeni IS branch’s total manpower—defected from the group after expressing discontent with its wali, or governor.40
Essentially, IS has struggled to establish a presence in most countries where al-Qaeda has a foothold. Even when IS was at its peak, the vast majority of al-Qaeda affiliates refused to defect, and instead hunted down and neutralized IS sympathizers. Now that IS is demonstrably losing territory in Syria, Iraq and Libya all at once, its chances of wooing al-Qaeda affiliates are even further diminished. It is IS’s global network, not al-Qaeda’s, that is now vulnerable to fragmentation.41
The Future of the Intra-Jihadist Competition
On July 28, 2016, Nusra Front emir Abu Muhammad al-Julani issued a short video statement that was widely interpreted as dissociating his group from al-Qaeda.42 In the video, Julani announced the cancellation of operations under the name Jabhat al-Nusra and the formation of a new group called Jabhat Fath al-Sham, which would have “no affiliation to any external entity.” Rather than demonstrating the withering of al-Qaeda as a brand or an organization, Nusra’s alleged dissociation from al-Qaeda represents a reversion to al-Qaeda’s pre-IS strategy for Syria.
To be clear, in his statement, Julani did not actually dissociate from al-Qaeda. Though the statement was clearly designed to leave the audience with the impression that Nusra had left al-Qaeda, Julani never outright said that this was happening. As Thomas Joscelyn has noted, Julani’s statement that Jabhat Fath al-Sham would have “no affiliation to any external entity” is of less consequence when there has been a heavy movement of senior al-Qaeda operatives into Syria. It is likely that the senior al-Qaeda leaders in Syria are not considered an external entity under Julani’s formulation. Further, Julani made no reference to his own bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri, thus suggesting that it remains valid.43
Before IS emerged as a significant independent challenge, al-Qaeda’s Syria strategy was to have Nusra serve as a front group and unacknowledged affiliate. But the conflict with IS knocked this strategy off course when IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly claimed that Nusra was subservient to him. In response, Julani acknowledged Nusra’s affiliation with al-Qaeda, while appealing to Zawahiri to resolve his dispute with Baghdadi. But originally, al-Qaeda did not want the ties between Nusra and the broader al-Qaeda organization to be known: Instead, al-Qaeda wanted to pursue its front group strategy in Syria. In 2015, rumors surfaced that Nusra might leave al-Qaeda to form a new entity (as it ultimately did the following year).44 It is entirely possible that the transformation of Nusra into Jabhat Fath al-Sham would have come a year earlier had al-Qaeda not perceived IS as such a threat to its global network at that time. Among other things, the fact that Nusra dissociated from al-Qaeda the following year demonstrates that al-Qaeda no longer believes that the Islamic State can capitalize on such a move.
This is not a mere public relations move. The alleged dissociation from al-Qaeda may open Jabhat Fath al-Sham up to deeper cooperation with other rebel groups and greater support from external sponsors. Al-Qaeda theoreticians have made clear that they expect this precise benefit. Abdallah al-Muhaysini has said, for example, that the main obstacle other militant factions used as an excuse not to support Nusra—its affiliation with al-Qaeda—had been removed.45 Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi has spoken to the Arabic-language media about a fatwa he had issued a few years ago that permits “changing names if they become a burden on the mujahedin.”46 In other words, al-Qaeda believes that in Syria it can reap all the benefits that it has experienced in other theaters through the use of front groups.
Today al-Qaeda seems to be the strongest it has been since 9/11, and is arguably in the best shape it has known in its history. Assuming one does not take Nusra’s dissociation from al-Qaeda literally, the organization is the dominant military force in significant swaths of territory in Syria and wields considerable influence across southern Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s newest affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which was formally established in September 2014, has quietly established a foothold in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and poses a growing threat to India and Bangladesh. Shabaab and AQIM are resurgent, with the former group intensifying its attacks on African Union forces and the Somali state after a period of relative decline.
Al-Qaeda’s successes can, of course, be attributed to factors that extend far beyond IS’s rise. Geopolitical developments, including the escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and certain Sunni states’ increasing willingness to work with unsavory actors to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime, have benefited al-Qaeda in Syria and Yemen. Al-Qaeda also continues to exploit the instability produced by the Arab uprisings. But al-Qaeda’s handling of IS’s emergence has also been a factor in the former’s gains. While IS horrifies the world and alienates Sunni Muslims with its brutality, al-Qaeda has appealed to local populations and other armed factions by casting itself as a less extreme and more effective alternative to IS.
The conventional wisdom about IS and al-Qaeda has been wrong. IS did not devour al-Qaeda’s network. IS did not even force al-Qaeda to try to carry out spectacular attacks to reassert its relevance. Instead, al-Qaeda skillfully and subtly played off of IS’s rise to advance its position. Analysts’ failure to anticipate al-Qaeda’s moves has set back our ability to counter the jihadist group.
It’s clear that al-Qaeda is better positioned than IS to succeed in the future. IS’s growth model, which emphasizes immediate, constant, and highly public successes, is undoubtedly effective when the group is winning. Indeed, when IS swept through northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, the group seemed nearly unstoppable, with its sleek propaganda apparatus amplifying its every victory. But it is not clear that IS ever prepared itself for a rainy day—and now a rainy season has arrived for its caliphate.
Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, has a track record of thriving in the face of adversity. In the case of both AQI’s failed experiment and the Arab uprisings, al-Qaeda’s capacity for strategic patience and ability to adapt its approach enabled it to overcome challenges and capitalize on unanticipated opportunities. Al-Qaeda continues to play the long game today. While the international community remains narrowly focused on IS, al-Qaeda is flying below the radar, building its support base in countries like Syria and Yemen, establishing safe havens, destabilizing enemy states, and preparing for a post-IS future. Al-Qaeda also boasts re-establishment of the caliphate as its goal, but believes that IS was too hasty, announcing the return of the caliphate when the foes of jihadists were still strong enough to bring IS’s “state” to ruins.
Unlike IS, which is happy to alienate even prospective allies, al-Qaeda has maintained a relationship with donors and other external supporters. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States put considerable effort into shutting down the charity networks that supported al-Qaeda throughout the globe. But times have changed. With several states now openly aiding al-Qaeda in Syria, and elsewhere, opportunities for non-governmental and quasi-governmental organizations that support al-Qaeda to expand their assistance to the jihadist group have magnified. The longer the international community underestimates al-Qaeda’s planning and potency, the more entrenched the group will become, and the more difficult it will be to uproot.