Al Qaeda 3.0: More Pervasive, Less Dangerous

A more domestic incarnation.

Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been back in the news as of late due to high-profile attacks like the one on the shopping mall in Nairobi, as well as revelations of internal meetings and anticipatory Western actions like the closing of many U.S. embassies. These and similar incidents have led many to speak of a resurgence of the terror threat the Western world faces, with some going so far as to suggest that Al Qaeda has never posed a bigger threat to the West than it currently does.

“In the past 18 months,” The Economist recently noted, “Al Qaeda and its jihadist allies have staged an extraordinary comeback. The terrorist network now holds sway over more territory and is recruiting more fighters than at any time in its 25-year history.” Similarly, after the U.S. closed 19 embassies in the greater Middle East, an editorial in the USA Today noted, wryly, “any notion that the group is decimated seems fanciful,” while Con Coughlin argued that: “to judge by the recent upsurge in Al Qaeda activity, the organization is currently experiencing something of a renaissance.”

These views are mistaken. Although Al Qaeda is evolving, this evolution has been ongoing since 9/11, as AQ has gradually transformed itself from a global jihadist group to one increasingly focused on toppling local Middle Eastern regimes. In other words, AQ is evolving backwards toward the Islamist terrorist groups that predated it. Although some elements of AQ are undoubtedly still interested in attacking the West, the bulk of the organization’s resources are focused on local attacks. This makes it less, not more, of a direct security threat to the West.

Fully grasping the nature of AQ3.0 requires one to understand what differentiated the group from other radical Islamic-inspired terrorist outfits. AQ, of course, was hardly the first group to carry out terrorist attacks in the name of Islam. During the Cold War many nations in the Middle East and North Africa—especially Egypt but also Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and later Palestine— grappled with Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks. Some of these groups practiced what would be considered defensive jihad against a perceived foreign occupier such as Israel in Palestine or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Many other groups and individuals, however, were more revolutionary and national in their aims. These groups, which mostly had their origins in the Muslim Brotherhood and the writings of Sayyid Qutb, sought to topple local Middle Eastern regimes, like that of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successors in Egypt, and establish an Islamic state based on Sharia in their place.

These groups usually were anti-Western in that they believed Western influences were corrupting Islamic societies. However, to counter this threat they sought to overthrow existing Muslim rulers, seize power, and then use their power to eliminate Western influences in their societies. Their violence was largely directed at symbols of the local regimes such as the security forces or political leaders, although they also attacked religious minorities and foreign targets within their countries.

By the time Al Qaeda was gaining steam in the mid to late 1990s, many of these domestic jihadist groups were petering out. Although they targeted symbols of the regimes, minorities, and foreigners, their local attacks often killed ordinary Muslims and, as it turned out, people were no more favorable to those who killed their loved ones in the name of Islam, as they have been to dictators who kill family members in the name of the state, or the United States killing them to protect its own national security. Thus, these groups alienated the people whose allegiance they ultimately had to secure. This left them vulnerable to the efficient and brutal security forces Middle Eastern maintained. Before too long, many Islamist leaders found themselves in prison; others fled abroad. Indeed, in the 1990s many domestic jihadist leaders, particularly those in Egyptian prisons, began renouncing violence as a means to reach their desired end of a state based on Sharia.