Al Qaeda’s fundamentally different approach to winning the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims – recently thrown into shadow by the bold moves of the Islamic State – is now showing signs of longer-term success.
Al Qaeda has long espoused “strategic patience” to establish a global caliphate only after gradual persuasion of Muslims through a long war with the West. That approach contrasts starkly with that of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq months after breaking with Al Qaeda in 2014.
Now, as ISIS faces mounting pressure from the outside with apparently scant support from the populations it dominates, Al Qaeda’s “patience” appears to be paying off.
- In Syria, Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is solidifying both its place within the Syrian opposition and its hold on some pro-opposition communities.
- In Somalia, fighters with the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab are making a comeback and taking back some of the territory they lost over recent years, as the country's army fails to repel the group's advances.
- And in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has backed off its failed declaration of a caliphate in southern Yemen several years ago and is working through local leaders and tapping into local customs and systems to establish support.
“Al Qaeda is essentially doing the opposite of ISIS by doubling down and developing deep roots in the local societies where it has established a presence,” says Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “It’s positioning itself as an inextricable presence able to pursue its long-term vision of a global caliphate with local support and legitimacy – something ISIS hasn’t been able to do.”
With the rise of ISIS, Al Qaeda has faded from global attention. The Islamist terrorist group that carried out the 9/11 attacks may even have struck many as a bygone threat.
But experts say Al Qaeda is purposely lying low, learning from the Islamic State’s mounting defeats and preparing to retake the mantle of leadership of the global jihadist movement.
“Al Qaeda is growing stronger both as a result of circumstances that have the US and others leaving it alone as they focus on defeating ISIS, but also because it is an adaptive and networked organization that has learned from its own mistakes and those committed by ISIS,” says Katherine Zimmerman, an Al Qaeda expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Al Qaeda is evolving and using this time to build up its grass-roots support in a way that is going to make it more difficult to defeat in the long term.”
Learning from ISIS
ISIS captured the attention – and loyalties – of many of the world’s jihadists, attracting foreign fighters and individual Islamists from a wide range of Western, Arab, and other countries through its slick and mesmerizing use of social media. In recent years a number of Islamist extremist organizations – groups in Libya and Somalia are two examples – switched their allegiances from Al Qaeda to ISIS, seeing the latter as the rising expression of global jihadism.
Over the years of ISIS’s rise, Al Qaeda has held fast to its strategic approach, even as it has evolved to embrace some of the innovations that ISIS pioneered. “Those two are not mutually exclusive, I think we’ve seen Al Qaeda stick with its core ideology even as it has adapted to utilize some of the methods that have worked so well for ISIS,” says Ms. Zimmerman.
Al Qaeda’s evolution has included a savvier use of social media and more public use of the Internet.
“Al Qaeda always used the Internet, but largely to communicate with close followers and often using encryption,” Zimmerman says. “ISIS turned that on its head and made it quite public and a conduit for inculcation and a message of immediate action.”
Recognizing the importance of digital communication to spreading a global message, Al Qaeda created an online English-language magazine, Inspire, in July 2010. It has not followed ISIS’s lead in posting gruesome videos of shocking beheadings and mass executions – including many involving Muslims.
Persuasion vs. violent oppression
What Al Qaeda has never veered away from, on the other hand, is its preference for persuasion over violent imposition to advance its vision of Islamist governance.
In Syria, the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, also referred to as Nusra Front, has not met with universal acceptance. Recent anti-Nusra protests in some of the northwestern Syrian cities where it is present suggest continuing resistance to its ideology.
But at the same time, signs are proliferating across opposition-held Syria that the group is winning followers, Ms. Cafarella says. She notes, for example, that growing numbers of women wear the full burqa in opposition-controlled Idlib – not because the practice has been imposed, as ISIS has done in areas it controls, but apparently voluntarily.
“Nusra is following the established Al Qaeda approach of keeping a low profile and establishing legitimacy by building local support,” Cafarella says. “That includes slowly introducing its religious agenda and inculcating the local youth – and we’re seeing that phase now.”
Al Qaeda may be benefiting from the US-led coalition’s focus on defeating ISIS, but both Cafarella and Zimmerman say Jabhat al-Nusra has also been strengthened by the Obama administration’s hands-off approach to the Syrian civil war and in particular by the US reluctance to jump in forcefully on the side of the Syrian moderate opposition.
One reason the administration never wholeheartedly embraced – and armed – the opposition was unanswered concerns that US aid would fall into the hands of extremist groups like Nusra.
Degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS may have appeared as the more urgent objective to pursue, but leaving Al Qaeda to flourish will lead to new challenges for the West down the road, experts say.
“It’s not as though defeating ISIS defeats the message,” says Zimmerman, who adds that deeply implanted communities of support for extremist Islamist ideology – whether in Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa, or Western Europe – aren’t going to fade away just because the organization that caught their imagination breaks up.
“Whenever ISIS is defeated, the radicalized individuals and groups will be looking for leadership,” she says, predicting “that leader will be Al Qaeda.”