By Kevin Truitte, Columnist
Al-Qaeda emerged in the wake of the Soviet War in Afghanistan with the intention of centralizing support for local Salafi-Jihadist insurgencies. Osama bin Laden and his allies founded the organization as a means to unify global sponsorship of violent jihadists with money, materiel, logistics, and training support.[i] While the group’s focus during the lead up to the September 11 attacks became targeting the “far enemy” (i.e. the United States and the West), al-Qaeda’s central leadership continued to support Salafi-Jihadist insurgencies in Muslim countries, including in Iraq after the U.S. invasion and in Syria at the onset of the civil war, among others. However, since the early days of the group, al-Qaeda’s global aspirations have not always meshed with the more locally-driven aims of other insurgents, generating tensions within the international jihadist movement. Despite the transnational terrorist organization’s recent efforts to embed itself at a local level, these tensions will likely continue to challenge al-Qaeda’s ability to reconcile its international ambitions with regional realities.
Jihadist veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War returned to their respective countries radicalized, mobilized, and energized by their experiences with like-minded compatriots in south-central Asia. Emboldened by their visions of Salafi-Jihadist wars to “liberate” their countries from authoritarian governments, Egypt and Algeria in particular faced a brutal insurgency and civil war, respectively. In the case of Algeria, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, or GIA) waged a ruthless jihadist insurgency against the government, civilians, westerners, and other Islamists. Al-Qaeda initially viewed the outbreak of Algerian jihad favorably. Bin Laden established contact with the GIA in the hopes of establishing a more formal relationship and Ayman al-Zawahiri provided religious justification for the group’s violence. Ultimately, however, the two organizations never formed an alliance.[ii] This was partly due to al-Qaeda leaders’ reticence to back the GIA’s brutal, population alienating tactics, but also due to the GIA’s focus on jihad in Algeria, rather than pursuing a broader global movement. The GIA’s goal was to establish an Islamic state in Algeria to defeat the “apostate” regime, claiming their fight was as a “national framework of armed struggle.”[iii] Thus, the tensions between the broader global jihad objectives of al-Qaeda and the GIA’s nation-specific jihad generated played a role in preventing closer cooperation between the two groups.
Al-Qaeda primarily focused its energies on targeting the “far enemy,” especially the United States. After 9/11, however, the American overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan led to the displacement of al-Qaeda and loss of that country as a safe haven from which to plan attacks. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, provided an opportunity for the terrorist organization to return to its roots as a sponsor and vanguard of jihad locally. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) emerged when Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed an alliance with al-Qaeda central and bin Laden, which provided a brand and support for AQI.[iv] However, there were tensions in Iraq between the local affiliate and its parent organization. AQI’s harsh tactics worried al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Attacks against Iraqi Shiites aiming to stoke sectarian strife prompted Ayman al-Zawahiri to send a private letter to al-Zarqawi warning him against such actions — warnings al-Zarqawi dismissed.[v] Al-Qaeda’s central leadership showed concern, with good reason, that the local strategy employed by al-Zarqawi would alienate al-Qaeda from potential supporters and the global Muslim population more broadly. The local tactics and strategic savagery employed by AQI would outlast its leader and the tensions between AQI locally and al-Qaeda’s central leadership globally would culminate in the rupture between al-Qaeda and AQI’s successor, the Islamic State (IS), over the Syrian civil war in 2013.[vi]
The 2011 Arab Spring prompted al-Qaeda to reassess its strategy. In order to adapt to the shifting political winds of the Middle East, the group aimed to improve its local outreach and grassroots appeal. Capitalizing on regional conflict, al-Qaeda established a low visibility presence in local communities and emphasized co-optation of locals rather than domination and overt violence against communities. This reorientation further accelerated during the Syrian civil war with the divorce of al-Qaeda and IS (then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).[vii] Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), allied itself with other rebel groups in the fight against the Assad regime, while IS broke with al-Qaeda, conquered its own independent statelet, and governed through violent and oppressive means.[viii]
Despite al-Qaeda’s success in localizing its strategy, the organization continues to face intra-jihadist tensions, particularly in Syria. JN (now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or HTS) became one of the most indispensable insurgent groups fighting the Assad government. In order to avoid appearing as a foreign-controlled entity, HTS disavowed its ties with al-Qaeda’s central leadership in mid-2016, with local al-Qaeda leadership’s blessing. The move reiterated HTS’s efforts to shift its strategy, at least in the near-term, towards national objectives in Syria, albeit while still retaining the same jihadist ideology. Zawahiri criticized the move as abandonment of the struggle of global jihad in favor of a national struggle, and hardline al-Qaeda loyalists within HTS left the group to form their own more pro-al-Qaeda factions.[ix] The divergence between Zawahiri and al-Qaeda “hardliners” from more locally-focused members of HTS continues to create a wedge between Salafi-Jihadists in Syria.
While al-Qaeda, since its founding, aimed to be the central driver of jihad in the Muslim world, its global strategy has often clashed with the local, short-term objectives of the group’s regional affiliates. Al-Qaeda’s experiences indicate that even with as the group adapts, these tensions are endemic and will likely continue to affect relations between the central organization and future iterations of local Salafi-Jihadists.
[i] Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 38.
[ii] Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “Osama Bin Laden and the Algerian Jihad,” aymennjawad.org, September 30, 2018, http://www.aymennjawad.org/21654/osama-bin-laden-and-the-algerian-jihad; Lauren Vriens, “Backgrounder: Armed Islamic Group (Algeria, Islamists),” Council on Foreign Relations, May 27, 2009, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/armed-islamic-group-algeria-islamists.
[iii] Jean-Pierre Filiu, “The Local and Global Jihad of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib,” Middle East Journal, 63: 2 (2009): 218.
[v] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Zawahiri’s Letter to Zarqawi,” 2005, available at Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, https://ctc.usma.edu/harmony-program/zawahiris-letter-to-zarqawi-original-language-2/; Susan B. Glasser and Walter Pincus, “Seized Letter Outlines Al Qaeda Goals in Iraq,” The Washington Post, October 12, 2005, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/11/AR2005101101353.html.
[vi] Emily Hunt, “Zarqawi’s ‘Total War’ on Iraqi Shiites Exposes a Divide among Sunni Jihadists,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 15, 2005, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/zarqawis-total-war-on-iraqi-shiites-exposes-a-divide-among-sunni-jihadists.
[vii] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “How al-Qaeda Survived the Islamic State Challenge,” Hudson Institute, March 1, 2017, https://www.hudson.org/research/12788-how-al-qaeda-survived-the-islamic-state-challenge.
[viii] William McCants, “How Zawahiri Lost Al Qaeda,” The Brookings Institution, November 19, 2013, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/how-zawahiri-lost-al-qaeda/.
[ix] Charles Lister, “Al-Qaeda’s Turning Against its Syrian Affiliate,” Middle East Institute, May 18, 2017, http://www.mei.edu/publications/al-qaedas-turning-against-its-syrian-affiliate.