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.
For the most part, the attacks in the U.S. that are often attributed to AQAP consisted of homegrown terrorists who contacted Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemin-born American cleric killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, to get his approval for their attacks. Although al-Awlaki was happy to encourage these homegrown terrorists, AQAP didn’t devote any of its own resources to support them. Similarly, al-Awaki and some of his associates published an English-language publication, Inspire Magazine, which urged Muslims living in Western countries to orchestrate their own attacks.
One of the exceptions to this model is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who unsuccessfully tried to down a commercial airplane flying to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Abdulmutallab had been in Yemen studying Arabic when he decided to join the international jihad. After making contact with AQAP, the group built him a specially designed underwear bomb that would not be detected by airport security. Thus, the group did devote some resources to the attack—namely, building the bomb and possibly financing Abdulmutallab’s airfare—but it wasn’t willing to sacrifice any of its own members to attacking the U.S. Furthermore, the original impetus for the attack came from Abdulmutallab, who contacted the group on his own initiative.
Another exception to AQAP’s usual model came in 2010, when the group attempted to ship two cargo bombs to Chicago. Tipped off by Saudi intelligence, the packages were discovered before the bombs exploded. Unlike the previous attacks, the initial impetus to launch this attack didn’t come from outside the group. Still, the amount of resources AQAP devoted to the attack were minimal, a fact that the group publicly bragged about.
While these events demonstrate that AQAP does pose some threat to the U.S. homeland, they hardly suggest the group is modeling itself off Al Qaeda’s ideology. In contrast to the limited resources it has devoted to attacking the United States, the group has spent the bulk of its energies on waging war against the Yemeni government. This has at times included launching conventional style attacks in south Yemen, and holding territory, which they have tried to govern. Clearly, then, AQAP is far more invested in attacking the near enemy, and only casually interested in attacks on the far enemy.
All the other Al Qaeda affiliates have focused exclusively on trying to overthrow local regimes and establishing Sharia governments in their place—which is a direct refutation to Al Qaeda’s ideology. This cannot be attributed entirely to a lack of viable options for attacking the West. For years now Somali Americans have traveled to Somalia to join al-Shabaab in its fight for control over that country. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, the group counted at least fifty U.S.-passport holders as members in 2011, and as many as twenty today. Al-Shabaab leaders could have directed any one of these members to return to the United States to carry out attacks there given the ease with which they could gain entry into America.
Yet there is no evidence al-Shabaab has decided to use a single one of these members for the purpose of attacking the United States. Instead, it has felt they are of more use staying in Somalia to fight in the civil war there. The only external attacks it has precipitated have been against African countries that have troops in Somalia fighting al-Shabaab. The goal of these attacks is to force those African countries to withdraw their troops from Somalia, and therefore increase the chances that al-Shabaab will prevail in its effort to seize control of the country.
The actions of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) are also telling. The group publicly claimed it was established to defend Iraq against the U.S.-led occupation, and for years it had easy access to U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq. True to its word, AQI did carry out brutal attacks against the U.S. and other international troops stationed in Iraq. Still, the bulk of AQI’s efforts went towards attacking the Iraqi government and the country’s Shi’a populations, despite al-Zawahiri’s plea that it focus instead on the infidels. Once again, in contrast to Al Qaeda’s ideology, AQI chose the near enemy over the far one. It has since expanded into Syria, where it once again is battling a near enemy rather than the West.