Al Qaeda's Brand is Dead
As Al Qaeda’s operational capability has withered, some observers have sought to reframe the terrorism threat to the U.S. and the West in terms of Al Qaeda’s ideological appeal. According to this perspective, Al Qaeda continues to be a potent threat to the United States and the Western world because its ideology is spreading across the Arab world, and inspiring new groups that will attack the West.
Framing the threat in this way has the advantage of ensuring the Global War on Terror’s longevity. Indeed, by this measurement the U.S. is still embroiled in WWII given that neo-Nazi groups continue to exist, and sometimes carry out terrorist attacks in the West.
But the larger problem with the argument that Al Qaeda’s ideology is spreading is that it is completely inaccurate. The “Al Qaeda brand” was never as popular in the Arab world as it was portrayed in the West, and far from growing, its popularity has been rapidly declining in recent years. In fact, there are signs that Al Qaeda itself no longer believes in it.
Much of the confusion about Al Qaeda’s popularity is rooted in the Western tendency to conflate Al Qaeda with Islamic terrorism more generally. If one defines Al Qaeda’s brand as simply being any terrorist attack or insurgency carried out in the name of Islam, an argument could be made that the threat is growing. But, of course, this is not what Al Qaeda’s ideology is, nor is it what made Al Qaeda such a threat to the United States and its Western allies.
Islamic-inspired terrorism long predated the formation of Al Qaeda. It was, for instance, a constant reality in the Arab world during the Cold War thanks to the many groups that were inspired by the writings of Sayyid Qutb. These groups sought to be vanguard movements that used terrorism and leadership assassinations to overthrow Arab regimes [the “near enemy”] that they viewed as insufficiently Islamic.
Al Qaeda was an entirely different story, as a few astute individuals in the U.S. national security establishment realized during the 1990s. Al Qaeda had a very precise ideology, which was seen as a competitor to the ideology espoused by the domestic jihadists.
Like the domestic jihadists, Al Qaeda’s ultimate goal was to topple local regimes and replace them with ones based on Sharia Law (and ultimately a single Caliphate). However, Al Qaeda leaders claimed that the domestic jihadists were failing in this goal because of the support the local regimes received from the United States and its Western allies. According to Al Qaeda, the U.S. and its Western allies would never allow their allied governments in the Arab world to be toppled. Therefore, in order for jihadists to overthrow these hated regimes, and set up more Islamic governments in their place, they must first target the far enemy—the U.S. and the West. Only when the jihadists had forced the U.S. to stop supporting these local regimes could the latter be overthrown.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda, explained this ideological argument nicely in his famous 2005 letter to Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the letter, al-Zawahiri wrote:
“It is my humble opinion that the Jihad in Iraq requires several incremental goals:
The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq.
The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or emirate [in Iraq]….
The third stage: Extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq.”
Al Qaeda’s ideology was also evident in the way it operated before 9/11. Specifically, the group set up shop in countries like Sudan and Afghanistan, where sympathetic governments existed. Although Al Qaeda provided some limited support to these regimes to shore up support, and provided some funds to domestic jihad groups, living in friendly territory allowed bin Laden and Al Qaeda to concentrate the bulk of their energies and resources on attacking the United States. Even after 9/11, Al Qaeda Central has operated primarily from Pakistan, where the government at least supports its allies, the Afghan Taliban.
None of the so-called Al Qaeda franchises have replicated this model. Only Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen has shown any real commitment to attacking the U.S. or other Western homelands. Even so, this commitment has been extremely limited, particularly when compared with AQAP’s commitment to fighting the Yemeni government.