Al Qaeda’s Reemergence

Al Qaeda crafted itself as a supporter of the local movements‚ religious or not‚ during the 2011 Arab Spring. Its global network positioned it to coordinate across theaters and pump resources into local conflicts to shape their development. Al Qaeda also tapped its deep interlaced human networks to establish or reestablish contact with local Salafi-jihadi leaders and groups‚ pledging support and providing strategic guidance. Local al Qaeda affiliates became vectors to move resources strategically within the Salafi-jihadi movement such that al Qaeda developed relations with Salafi-jihadi groups in nearly all of the popular uprisings

Al Qaeda’s quiet momentum offset the May 2011 loss of its charismatic leader‚ Osama bin Laden. It began operating under new names: Ansar al Sharia‚

Ansar al Din‚ and Jabhat al Nusra. The Ansar al Sharia groups in Libya and Tunisia included veteran Salafi-jihadi leaders who had fought against the Soviets or trained in Afghanistan and were known to senior al Qaeda leadership. Ansar al Sharia Libya governed towns and cities after the 2011 Libyan civil war. Ansar al Sharia Tunisia was behind a string of assassinations of leading secular Tunisian political figures. Farther afield in Afghanistan‚ the Taliban began to reemerge‚ recapturing areas where al Qaeda had run training camps. Yet it was in Yemen‚ Mali‚ and then Syria where al Qaeda made significant plays.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)‚ al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate under Osama bin Laden’s protege Nasser al Wahayshi (Abu Basir)‚ was best positioned in al Qaeda to expand in 2011. AQAP operated from sanctuaries in Yemen outside of the government’s reach‚ and the US had paused targeted strikes in the country after accidentally killing a tribal mediator. AQAP had applied al Qaeda’s lesson to limit civilian bloodshed. The group took care to target only foreigners and members of the Yemeni government and security forces as it grew from 2006 forward.63 AQAP leaders also exploited their understanding of Yemeni society to be responsive to popular grievances against the government.

Before the Arab Spring‚ AQAP was under minimal pressure and reacted rapidly to replace the vestiges of the Yemeni state as it broke down. Bin Laden and Wahayshi discussed al Qaeda’s situation at the start of the protests in Yemen‚ focusing on whether Wahayshi had sufficient popular support to lead an effort to establish an Islamic emirate.64 Bin Laden referenced the experience in Anbar while querying Wahayshi about his relations with the tribes and stated‚ “If the mujahidin improve their dealings with the tribes‚ most likely the tribes will lean toward them; the blood’s effect on the tribal societies is great.”65 He analogized al Qaeda’s efforts to a bridge‚ an image that resurfaced in later al Qaeda correspondence‚ to note the requirement of gathering all the elements before launching a project. If started without all the necessary material‚ a bridge—or al Qaeda’s efforts—would collapse. Bin Laden’s guidance focused on the required elements for success‚ namely its popular support and whether al Qaeda would retain that support if pressured militarily. Al Qaeda’s military strength in Yemen was a secondary priority.

AQAP took control of parts of southern Yemen through a fielded insurgent force‚ Ansar al Sharia. The new force dropped al Qaeda’s name‚ and its membership was local—the Ansar. AQAP operatives were Ansar al Sharia leaders‚ but not all members of Ansar al Sharia were members of al Qaeda. It was a way to expand al Qaeda’s popular base in Yemen without compromising al Qaeda’s position as a vanguard. Ansar al Sharia governed for about a year with support from local tribes‚ who sought stability and security. It publicized its good works‚ such as fixing potholes and charitable activities. It also began to enforce shari’a and then carry out the hadd punishments (punishments mandated by Allah). Ansar al Sharia began losing popular support as the Yemeni government reformed in late 2011 and promised resources‚ and as the communities rejected the draconian lifestyle‚ especially after a February 2012 crucifixion. A Yemeni military and allied tribal militia offensive swept AQAP and Ansar al Sharia from southern Yemen by summer 2012.

The experience in Yemen—its short-term successes and ultimate collapse—informed how al Qaeda operated in Mali and Syria‚ two new fronts for global organization. AQAP emir Nasser al Wahayshi advised his Algerian counterpart‚ who had overseen al Qaeda’s rise in Mali‚ to implement shari’a gradually so as not to estrange the population and to avoid declaring a state because it would provoke the West and because the population would then expect all of its needs to be met.66 More telling is a partial set of documents outlining al Qaeda’s strategy in Mali.67 The concept was to hijack the local Azawad insurgency‚ describing the time as “a historic opportunity that must be exploited to interact with the Azawad people‚ including all its sectors‚ with the aim of uniting it and rallying it behind our Islamic project‚ by adopting its just cause and achieving its legitimate goals‚ while giving it an authentic Islamist tinge.” Al Qaeda leadership decided that the group would not be in the forefront‚ but that local organizations were to lead‚ building bridges to different segments of society: “The aim of building these bridges is to make it so that our Mujahideen are no longer isolated in society‚ and to integrate with the different factions‚ including the big tribes and the main rebel movement and tribal chiefs.” Al Qaeda focused not on military successes and terrain‚ but on the connection to the population.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb implemented the plan through a local affiliate‚ Ansar al Din. Ansar al Din initially partnered with the Tuareg who had rebelled against the Malian state to gain control of the Azawad region. AQIM and a separate AQIM splinter group provided scaled-up attack capabilities to support the offensive in 2012. Ansar al Din‚ with AQIM’s blessing‚ then moved to establish shari’a-based governance‚ using Timbuktu as a capital. The group turned against the Tuareg factions that resisted the authority of Islamic law‚ marginalizing the very groups that had initiated the Azawad insurgency. Ansar al Din advanced south in Mali‚ provoking a French intervention in January 2013 that removed Ansar al Din from governing populations. Twice in two years‚ al Qaeda had established shari’a-based governance only to be removed by a military intervention. Both times‚ its local insurgent force was ousted with the support of the local population.

Al Qaeda in Syria improved on the model‚ advancing its effectiveness by not just focusing on relationships with different groups‚ but also entwining itself with society.68 Al Qaeda began building support through its military operations‚ but then branched into shaping the governance of areas outside of Assad regime control. Jabhat al Nusra‚ al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate‚ aided in establishing shari’a committees in opposition-controlled areas in 2013 that were not comprised solely of Jabhat al Nusra members‚ but represented local factions as well.69 Abu Mohammed al Julani‚ al Qaeda’s leader in Syria‚ said of guidance from Ayman al Zawahiri:

We are committed to this and this is a basic part of the principles of jihadist work in general‚ including work by al Qaeda. We will not impose a ruler on the people. We seek the implementation of sharia and any ruler should be committed to the rules of the sharia and qualified for that. We will then accept him. In this context‚ we will accept what the people accept. Therefore‚ the directives are wise ones in accordance with the Holy Book and Sunnah‚ and such guidance only aims to achieve harmony and unity with other Sunni people and with the sea in which we swim.70

The group capitalized on the perceived betrayal by the West after the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks to embed itself further within the opposition. It began to shift the nature of the Syrian armed opposition to more closely align with its efforts and is actively consolidating strength in Syria.71

Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri issued general guidelines for jihad in September 2013 that laid out for all fighters the rules of engagement with various enemy groups and also directions for how to engage the Muslim masses.72 Importantly‚ Zawahiri emphasized the nonmilitary component of jihad by calling for the mobilization of the masses behind the Islamic vanguard force. Zawahiri ordered his followers to refrain from killing noncombatants‚ harming Muslims through indirect fire or destroying their property‚ and targeting mosques‚ markets‚ and other public spaces. He called for cooperation with other groups against common enemies and declared that al Qaeda prioritizes first the far enemy—the United States— and only the near enemy in self-defense such as in the Maghreb‚ Afghanistan‚ Syria‚ Iraq‚ Somalia‚ and Yemen. Zawahiri’s guidance showed that al Qaeda continued to embrace its role as the tip of the spear and the vanguard force‚ but also aimed to build connections to a popular base and ensure that al Qaeda as a vanguard does not separate from that base.

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AQAP’s sensitivity to civilian lives continues‚ and it actively promotes the steps that it took to avoid hitting civilians. The leadership has apologized and paid blood money according to local custom when the group has misstepped‚ such as a May 2012 suicide bombing of a military parade and December 2013 complex attack on a military hospital. Katherine Zimmerman‚ paper on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after the Arab Spring and rise of ISIS‚ Washington Institute for Near East Policy‚ forthcoming; and Katherine Zimmerman‚ “Yemen’s Pivotal Moment‚” American Enterprise Institute‚ Critical Threats Project‚ February 12‚ 2014.

AQAP video footage showing improvised explosive devices (IED) targeting Yemeni military vehicles also shows civilian vehicles passing over the IEDs safely. For an example‚ see SITE Intelligence Group‚ “AQAP Video Shows Manufacture‚ Use of IEDs on Yemeni Soldiers in Hadramawt‚” July 20‚ 2015‚ available by subscription at

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The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released some of the documents recovered during the May 2011 Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. A series of letters between Nasser al Wahayshi (Abu Basir) and Osama bin Laden (Zamarai) and Mahmud al Hassan (Attiya) revealed the decision-making process. These letters are: Zamarai‚ “Letter to Abu Basir‚” Office of the Director of National Intelligence‚ 2017; Abu Basir‚ “Letter from Basir to the Brother in Command‚” Office of the Director of National Intelligence; “Letter to Abu Basir‚” Office of the Director of National Intelligence‚ 2016; and Attiya‚ “Letter from Atiyah to Abu Basir‚” Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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Zamarai‚ “Letter to Abu Basir‚” 2017.

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Rukmini Callimachi‚ “Yemen Terror Boss Left Blueprint for Waging Jihad‚” Associated Press‚ August 9‚ 2013. For the letters‚ see Associate Press‚ “Al-Qaida Papers.”

Citation 67

Rukmini Callimachi‚ “In Timbuktu‚ al-Qaida Left Behind a Manifesto‚” Associated Press‚ February 14‚ 2013. For the translated documents‚ see Associate Press‚ “Mali-alQaida’s Sahara Playbook.”

Citation 68

Jennifer Cafarella‚ “Jabhat al Nusra in Syria‚” Institute for the Study of War‚ December 2014.

Citation 69

BBC News‚ “Syria’s Al-Nusrah Front Leader Interviewed on Conflict‚ Political Vision‚” BBC Monitoring Worldwide‚ December 2013 (accessed April 24‚ 2017‚ via LexisNexis).

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Citation 71

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.

Citation 72

SITE Intelligence Group‚ “Zawahiri Gives General Guidelines for Jihad Regarding Military‚ Propaganda‚” September 13‚ 2013‚ available by subscription at