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.
It was at this moment that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda offered a potential salvation for the jihadist movement. The group’s central innovation was to turn the focus on the far enemy—principally the United States and the Western world. Although bin Laden and AQ shared their predecessors’ ultimate objective of establishing local governments based on Shari’a law, they differed radically in their approach for achieving this end.
Whereas earlier groups had targeted local Muslim regimes, AQ argued that this fight was futile so long as these regimes maintained the support of the United States. According to AQ, Washington, as the world’s only superpower, would never allow its client states in the Middle East to fall. Thus, the group argued that the jihadists must first force the United States to abandon its support for these regimes. Lacking U.S. backing, the governments would quickly crumble and the jihadists could take the reins of power.
Based on this logic, pre-9/11 AQ was almost entirely focused on attacking U.S. targets in the Middle East, as well as the American homeland proper. Whereas domestic jihadists had battled their local governments, AQ formed tactical alliances with the governments in the countries they operated in. The move to wage a global jihad was highly controversial within the jihadist community. Domestic jihadists, already under siege, saw little benefit in taking on the world’s most powerful country. After all, they were already failing in their fight against its much smaller proxies. Thus, they resoundingly rejected AQ’s decision to target the far enemy. For example, when Ayman al-Zawahiri announced he was merging his group, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad , with bin Laden and Al Qaeda in 1998, he faced an immediate and intense revolt from his own ranks, all of whom rejected his decision to focus on the far enemy. As a result, al-Zawahiri was forced to step down as EIJ’s leader.
But taking the fight global temporarily revived the jihadist movement. There were a couple of advantages to this approach. First, attacking the United States and the West was widely popular among the Muslim world, given the region’s widespread opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Second, by concentrating their attacks on the United States and the West, AQ didn’t kill Muslims in the Middle East as extensively as domestic jihadists had. They therefore didn’t alienate the constituency whose support they ultimately aim to secure.
Despite some initial successes, AQ has been evolving away from the global jihadist model since first being displaced from Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion in late 2001. At times this has been a conscious, if misplaced, decision. For example, after leaving Afghanistan, bin Laden directed many of the Saudis who were training in Afghanistan to return to the Kingdom to wage jihad against the Saudi monarchy.
They began these attacks in 2003 but, despite some impressive strikes, the group had become a spectacular failure by 2006. Like the domestic jihadists, AQ alienated the local population because their attacks mostly killed ordinary Saudis. The Saudi government’s internal-security forces were therefore able to rollup this network quickly, with most of the remaining leaders fleeing to Yemen, where they formed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Much of AQ’s evolution towards a domestic jihad model has been out of necessity, however. With AQ’s central leadership holed up in Pakistan under intense U.S. pressure, they have had to contract out their activities to local leaders in places like Iraq, North Africa, Yemen and Somalia. This has resulted in a loss of control for AQ’s central leaders, who have failed to inspire their proxies to maintain a focus on the far enemy.
Of all these groups, al-Shabaab in Somalia is perhaps the most capable of launching an attack on the U.S. homeland. For years Somali Americans have been leaving the United States for Somalia to fight on behalf of al-Shabaab. This has generated extensive fears among U.S. authorities that these individuals will someday return to the United States to put their new skills to work against their adopted homeland. To date, however, there has been no indication that al-Shabaab is interested in attacking the United States.
Instead, its energy and resources has gone towards fighting the transitional Somali government, as well as the foreign African troops trying to prop it up. Indeed the only attacks al-Shabaab has mounted outside of Somalia have been against countries that intervened in Somalia to prevent the group from seizing power there. In other words, al-Shabaab is waging a domestic jihad on a fringe of the Arab world.