The Quiet Return of Al Qaeda
Al Qaeda’s efforts to win over the population continued even as ISIS claimed attention. The devolution of the popular uprisings into continued conflicts improved al Qaeda’s chances of success. Syria became the main battlefront. While ISIS had used conquest and bombastic proclamations to capture popular support and gain momentum‚ al Qaeda worked quietly with a softer approach to securing support. It operated through Jabhat al Nusra‚ its vanguard force in Syria‚ and through al Qaeda members or known Salafi-jihadi leaders who came to be part of the leadership of other Salafi-jihadi groups‚ such as Ahrar al Sham operating in Syria. Al Qaeda leveraged decades of experience to conduct what is turning out to be a very successful Salafi-jihadi experiment.
Al Qaeda in Syria actively adapts to its environment to retain its popular support base. It couches its message within the Syrian context‚ and its access to resources through the Salafi-jihadi movement allowed it to buy cooperation from components of the Syrian armed opposition. Al Qaeda could not offer capabilities like those of the US TOW missile program in Syria‚ but it offered weaponry and supplies without a long vetting period and could respond much more rapidly to ground developments than any other external actor because it was operating directly on the battlefield. The group supported other Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria‚ asking for deconfliction of military operations at a minimum while pressing continuously to unify the ranks against the Assad regime and its allies. Al Qaeda veteran military strategists provided guidance that helped to begin unifying parts of the fractured opposition into military operations rooms under al Qaeda influence that led to greater coordination.87 It also commenced a state-building process much more gradual than its predecessors in Yemen and Mali‚ transforming the structures of governance from within so as to couch them fully in local context rather than completely changing the administration.88
Salafi-jihadi influence is growing within the Syrian armed opposition because of how al Qaeda is actively reshaping the opposition.89 Jabhat al Nusra in particular has used a carrot-and-stick approach to shape the opposition. It is willing to work with nearly all groups in the opposition‚ under the belief that an existential threat to Sunni requires that the umma to unite in its own defense. Yet as Jabhat al Nusra works with armed opposition groups‚ it also works to more closely align their objectives with those of the Salafi-jihadi movement. The group has also targeted components of the armed opposition. For example‚ in March 2016‚ it stole TOW missiles and other supplies from Division 13‚ a Free Syrian Army unit‚ ultimately dislodging the unit from the town it held.90 The groups that work with Jabhat al Nusra have eventually merged into the group or subordinated themselves to Jabhat al Nusra– dominated operations rooms. Ahrar al Sham‚ which retains a more Syrian face than Jabhat al Nusra‚ has taken a similar approach.
The role of al Qaeda—not as a Salafi-jihadi vanguard force‚ but as fighters on the battlefield against the Assad regime—was and remains incredibly important to the Syrian opposition. Many in the opposition perceived US airstrikes targeting al Qaeda figures within Syria as weakening their own cause rather than eliminating terrorists among their ranks.91 Al Qaeda sought to preserve this image‚ eschewing involvement of the Syrian group in transnational attacks that could degrade its popular support in Syria and refocus counterterrorism efforts on al Qaeda after ISIS drew fire. It is successfully managing Syrian public concern about working with a designated terrorist group by downplaying its connections to the transnational al Qaeda organization. Jabhat al Nusra rebranded in July 2016 and declared that it had cut ties to al Qaeda externally.92 The al Qaeda affiliate then maneuvered through a series of mergers to advance al Qaeda’s objective of unifying the ranks.93
Al Qaeda in Syria is one of the most effective armed opposition groups on the ground‚ but its true strength comes from how it is reweaving the fabric of Syrian society. It began through a military line of effort‚ but as the Syrian opposition became more fully formed‚ it extended both religious and political lines of effort.94 Jabhat al Nusra‚ Ahrar al Sham‚ and others all ran da’wa programs alongside the provision of basic goods or services to begin to inculcate the people with Salafi-jihadi ideology. Al Qaeda is increasingly intertwining its structures‚ especially shari’a courts‚ with local administrations to gain legitimacy and shape the future of Syria.95 Al Qaeda’s responsiveness to popular sentiment enabled it to set the conditions in Idlib province in northwestern Syria so that the skeleton of an Islamic emirate began to form.96 Al Qaeda is accomplishing its objectives in Syria behind the frontlines of the country’s civil war.
The Salafi-jihadi experiment in Syria is one of the most successful to date and serves as a model that al Qaeda follows elsewhere. AQAP in Yemen is charting a similar course. It regrouped after its 2012 losses in southern Yemen and returned to conducting a low-level insurgency by 2013. A few hotspots in Yemen fed the local Salafi-jihadi base.97 The 2014 collapse of the Yemeni political transition process and the arrival of full-fledged civil war in 2015 gave AQAP a second opportunity to gain popular support in Yemen. It did not repeat mistakes from 2011‚ but rather operated through newly established hyper-local proxy groups. It took over Yemen’s third largest port city‚ which it held for a year‚ and used its local militia force to provide security. AQAP’s proxy then facilitated the negotiations for a Salafi-dominated local administration to provide governance.98 The group had reestablished itself in the territory it controlled in 2011 before an Emirati-led counterterrorism operation reversed its gains.99
The entanglement of the Yemeni civil war in sectarian and regional conflicts sets conditions for AQAP grow strength on the ground. AQAP ceded control of much of its territory after the Emirati-led offensive‚ but it remains embedded with tribal militias in central Yemen fighting in the civil war. It gains popular support by providing weapons‚ training‚ and capabilities to local militias fighting on the frontlines‚ especially to local forces that are not receiving support from the Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen. The regional conflicts playing out in Yemen are changing the nature of the fight‚ and sectarianism is creeping into Yemeni identities.100 Iranian and Saudi support for opposing sides furthers the polarization within Yemen. Salafi militias‚ some of which include Salafi-jihadi fighters‚ are some of the more effective forces on the ground in key flashpoints and therefore receive additional support. Sustained US and Emirati counterterrorism operations against AQAP risk creating a narrative similar to al Qaeda’s narrative in Syria that the US is aligned against the Sunni. A surge in US airstrikes targeting AQAP in central Yemen shifted momentum to the opposing side in March 2017.101
Al Qaeda’s long-term investments in parts of Africa are also beginning to pay off. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb cultivated a strong network of Salafi-jihadi individuals in the Sahel who facilitated al Qaeda’s expansion in the region. These individuals jointly provide al Qaeda access to new communities and to the trade and smuggling networks that crisscross the continent. They include local leaders who can bring their communities along in support of al Qaeda’s objectives. The leader of Ansar al Din‚ an AQIM-affiliated group drawn primarily from the Ifoghas Tuaregs‚ used a personal relationship with an influential individual in the Fulani102 to foster the establishment of a Salafi-jihadi militia fighting for Fulani rights against the Malian state‚103 and the expansion of al Qaeda’s reach into the Fulani community helped to extend its area of operations into Burkina Faso.104
The localization of al Qaeda into these communities enables it to spread its ideology and network. The local groups remain reactive to shifts in the local context and seek to generate permanent ideological influence over their communities. Al Qaeda as a transnational organization and movement has grown stronger in Syria‚ Mali‚ Yemen‚ Somalia‚ Afghanistan‚ and elsewhere through its strategy of strategic patience and pragmatism. It would not have been successful in most of these cases‚ however‚ without reliance on the local network for access to infrastructure and the human Salafi-jihadi network underpinning the operations of each of its affiliate groups. This network‚ the Salafi-jihadi base‚ is more potent today because it has focused on strengthening its connections to the Sunni masses‚ the umma‚ and uniting the umma under the Salafi-jihadi movement. Al Qaeda is on course to establish an enduring presence in multiple Sunni communities that will enable it to further weave Salafi-jihadi ideology into the fabric of these societies.
The West‚ particularly the US‚ fell for al Qaeda’s trap. Al Qaeda leadership‚ sensitive to the US policy debate‚ calibrated the movement’s activities to remain below the level at which they would force a US policy decision. US policymakers translated the absence of a transnational attack as a sign of al Qaeda weakening. Al Qaeda‚ meanwhile‚ intentionally kept its names out of the headlines‚ which instead followed ISIS’s graphic‚ public brutality with morbid intrigue. Al Qaeda groups promoted their local focus to continue to mislead US policy conclusions that al Qaeda was no longer a threat. Yet al Qaeda did not abandon its pursuit of attack capabilities and continued to build these capabilities.105 Al Qaeda sought to enable and inspire attacks in the West‚ it just did not direct or coordinate them. The local focus of al Qaeda was intentional‚ as was the absence of a planned‚ transnational attack.
The strengthening of al Qaeda is more dangerous than the success of ISIS. Al Qaeda’s softer approach to building popular support at the grassroots level evoked little‚ if any‚ reaction from the West. The West bought al Qaeda’s line that its local focus is a local issue. Al Qaeda further managed the reactions of the communities into which it was insinuating itself by permitting outbursts of local resistance and adjusting its timeline to avoid generating backlash. ISIS’s conquest‚ by contrast‚ resulted in the West mobilizing a military effort against the group and harsh reaction from its conquered communities over time. ISIS’s coerced popular support within the Muslim world will collapse. Al Qaeda is positioned to absorb the remnants of ISIS‚ benefit from ISIS’s global mobilization‚ and sustain its own momentum within Sunni communities to strengthen the Salafi-jihadi movement.
Katherine Zimmerman‚ “The Khorasan Group: Syria’s al Qaeda Threat‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ September 23‚ 2014.
Jennifer Cafarella‚ “Jabhat al Nusra in Syria‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ December 2014.
The Russian air campaign in Syria has also shaped the Syrian armed opposition. Russian airstrikes targeted the largest pockets of the opposition forces that did not have significant Salafi-jihadi penetration. See Genevieve Casagrande’s work on mapping Russian airstrikes in Syria for the Institute for the Study of War. Genevieve Casagrande and Ellen Stockert‚ “Russia Lays a Trap in Syria‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ May 21‚ 2017.
Thannassis Cambanis‚ “The Syrian Revolution Against al Qaeda‚” Foreign Policy‚ March 29‚ 2016.
See‚ for example‚ Sam Dagher and Maria Abi-Habib‚ “Syrians March to Protest U.S. Airstrikes Strategy‚” Wall Street Journal‚ September 26‚ 2015.
Katherine Zimmerman and Jennifer Cafarella‚ “Avoiding al Qaeda’s Syria Trap: Jabhat al Nusra’s Rebranding‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ and Institute for the Study of War‚ July 29‚ 2016.
Jennifer Cafarella‚ “Al Qaeda Resumes Offensive Operations in Syria‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ March 3‚ 2017.
Jennifer Cafarella‚ Harleen Gambhir‚ and Katherine Zimmerman‚ “Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ and the Institute for the Study of War‚ February 11‚ 2016.
Jennifer Cafarella‚ “Jabhat al Nusra in Syria‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ December 2014.
See Yasir Abbas‚ “How al Qaeda Is Winning in Syria‚” War on the Rocks‚ May 10‚ 2016.
An example is the fighting around Dar al Hadith school in Dammaj‚ Sa’ada‚ in northern Yemen. Fighting broke out between students at the Salafi religious center and Zaydi Shi’a al Houthi members in October 2013. The fighting escalated‚ pulling in a few thousand Salafi fighters from across Yemen and spreading to neighboring areas. The conflict had sectarian roots‚ but spread as local tribes sought to contain the al Houthis influence. A negotiated ceasefire mandated all nonlocal students return home‚ dispersing the Salafi youths that had been fighting. A second example is the low-level fighting that occurred in central Yemen in al Bayda governorate in 2013 and 2014.
AQAP clashed with al Houthi members that were contesting AQAP’s sanctuaries in the governorate. On Dammaj‚ see “Clashes in Dammaj Take a Turn for the Worst‚” Yemen Post‚ October 29‚ 2013; Mohammed Ghobari‚ “Three Killed in Yemen Sectarian Clashes as Truce Fails to Take Hold‚” Reuters‚ November 3‚ 2013; and “Yemeni Gov’t Evacuates Salafis from Northern Conflicts‚” Xinhua News‚ January 13‚ 2014.
On al Bayda‚ see Middle East Eye‚ “Houthi Rebels Seize Province‚ Clash with al Qaeda in Yemen’s Rada’a‚” October 21‚ 2014.
Katherine Zimmerman‚ “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat‚” CTC Sentinel‚ September 11‚ 2015.
Author’s conversations with nongovernmental organizations operating programs in Yemen.
Maher Farrukh‚ “Targeting AQAP: U.S. Airstrikes in Yemen‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ March 7‚ 2017.
Also identified as Peul or Fulbe.
For an overview of the ethnic and tribal communities in Mali‚ see Mike McGovern‚ “Understanding Conflict Drivers and Resilience Factors in the Sahel: Desk Study‚” Navanti Group‚ June 7‚ 2013.
Katherine Zimmerman and Alix Halloran‚ “Warning from the Sahel: Al Qaeda’s Resurgent Threat‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ September 1‚ 2016.