What about all these other al-Qaeda affiliates?

J.M. Berger, at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, has a smart piece on where al-Qaeda’s other affiliates might be heading now that Jabhat al-Nusra tronc Xfinity SyFy Xe whoever they are have decided to cut ties, even superficially, with the mother ship. He argues that even if there’s no practical change to Nusra’s relationship with al-Qaeda, the symbolism of dropping formal ties and what that means for al-Qaeda’s brand is still significant, and from a more global perspective (i.e., looking beyond the Syria theater) he makes a pretty compelling argument as to why it’s significant:

The break formalises a dynamic that has been apparent for some time – al Qaeda’s affiliates have become less and less global, and more and more local. The vision of al Qaeda as one big thing has given way to the reality of multiple al Qaedas – in Syria, Yemen, Northwest Africa, East Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent. The affiliates increasingly cater to local concerns and local politics. Even before the break, al Nusra cited instructions from Zawahiri to cease any efforts to attack the West.

So the question now becomes whether those local affiliates will also start looking to break out on their own. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is, as Berger notes, probably the best bet to make a similar move simply because, after Nusra, it is the largest, strongest, best-organized of those affiliates, and the only other one firmly in control of its own territory. And, in fact, AQAP has had a separate brand since 2011 that it uses when it acquires and governs territory:

More broadly, this marks the beginning of the end for the global al Qaeda brand. Consider the next largest affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Aside from personal loyalties within its leadership, AQAP has little motivation to maintain its affiliation. For about five years already, AQAP has shifted many activities away from the al Qaeda brand and repositioned them under the name Ansar al Sharia.

This move was purely cosmetic, but it is difficult to articulate the benefits AQAP receives from al Qaeda affiliation at this stage in the game. A formal break would strengthen its position in terms of local support, as well as providing some degree of insulation from international attacks. AQAP’s commitment to attacking the West – a key element of what makes an affiliate “al Qaeda” – has been persistent relative to its siblings, but also superficial, with token resources devoted to extremely sporadic attacks outside of Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

I’m not sure how much insulation leaving al-Qaeda would really buy them–what happens now with Nusra will be instructive on that point–but certainly it’s not clear what the formal “al-Qaeda” tie really gets these guys anymore. Such a split would have been unthinkable back when AQAP’s emir, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was AQ’s number-two guy, but since Wuhayshi is dead right now that’s no obstacle.

One factor that I think is at play here is that these groups are moving away from the kind of work al-Qaeda was originally established to do. In its earliest form, al-Qaeda (and its predecessor, the Maktab al-Khidamat founded by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abdullah Azzam) was intended to provide financial and material resources to support the Afghan insurgency and, later the Taliban. It funneled foreign contributions and trained foreign fighters toward those aims. Then it added foreign terrorism to its list of activities. It was never an organization that intended to take and hold territory; that was left to its (sometimes uneasy) ally/host, the Taliban. But Nusra and AQAP have been trying to do both (well, AQAP has; Nusra hasn’t yet conducted any foreign terrorist operations like AQAP’s Charlie Hebdo attack) and have been finding out that these two roles don’t combine so easily. Both organizations look a lot more like the Taliban these days than like al-Qaeda, focusing on the local insurgency rather than the global terrorist mission, and to the extent that the al-Qaeda tie hinders their ability to carry out that local insurgency, it makes sense that they’d shed it (at least, again, superficially).

Ayman al-Zawahiri: the Terrorist Whisperer

Berger notes that the value of going their own way is less clear for other affiliates like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, but it’s also not fully clear what maintaining the connection to al-Qaeda Central does for them. He speculates that AQC could go back to its roots by recasting itself as a sort of terrorism consultancy, providing resources and technical assistance to client organizations rather than engaging in direct action itself, though Zawahiri could assume direct command of AQIS (or whatever it becomes if it leaves al-Qaeda) if that sort of indirect role doesn’t do it for him.

There’s a lot more on what the split may do to Nusra’s ideology over time and what implications it has for the AQ-ISIS competition. I’d urge you to read the whole piece.



3 thoughts on “What about all these other al-Qaeda affiliates?

  1. OK, I’m confused.

    I thought it was well establised (as in, 2002) that al-Queada was not so much a top down command and control organization like the Pentagon so much as a franchise operation like a heavily armed KFC. AQ didn’t give orders but would coordinate resources for groups in the field – like the Egyptians in Germany – who had identified targets on their own. Win/win for everyone, each group looks bigger and badder when the infamy is shared.

    This essays suggests that I have been reading too much into the articles that I have been reading.

    1. I think what you’re thinking of is cells, which are autonomous to some degree but get directives and support from the central organization. Al-Qaeda always operated on that model, though it also had relationships with like-minded groups, like Jemaah Islamiah, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (before they merged), and (probably) the Moro Front, that worked pretty much the way you’re describing. Still, the Cole, 9/11, Riyadh, and other attacks in the early 00s can be attributed to al-Qaeda directly even though they were directly carried out by particular AQ cells.

      But the rise of these regional affiliates, which aren’t just autonomous but are virtually their own organization, self-sustaining and largely self-directed, started in the mid 2000s–some were newly formed groups while others were groups that already existed but pledged themselves to Bin Laden and took the “al-Qaeda in…” name. The affiliates then started to eclipse the parent organization within the past few years–ISIS obviously, but many of the others as well. Bin Laden’s death played a big role there because Zawahiri is a weaker presence at the top of the organization (though Bin Laden was a marginal figure–hell, he might have been a Pakistani prisoner–by the time he was killed), but more than that AQC is just too isolated to really run things anymore.

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