Localising al Qaeda: The Fluctuating Face of Jihad

In the aftermath of 9/11, Salafi-Jihadism and al Qaeda have invariably elicited Pavlovian reactions in the popular imagination. Conditioned by simplified media narratives and security-orientated government talking points, Western publics usually understand these labels in monolithic or one-dimensional terms. As such, they provide rather imprecise constructs, blurring complex realities with visions of existential bogeymen similar to the Red Menace years before. By subscribing to digestible binaries of “Good and Evil”, and deploying broad theological categories and politicised tropes in its Global War on Terror (GWOT), this American-led streamlining of Jihad has produced what Ahmed describes as a “miasmic fog” undermining the veracity of mainstream analysis. While similar utopian aspirations are discursively shared across the “Jihadosphere”, to interpret the landscape of Islamist militancy as qualitatively homogenous overlooks a wide range of divergent political and military strategies. A revised approach is therefore essential. By disaggregating between competing political preferences and appreciating the internal cleavages defining contemporary Islamism, it is possible to identify tensions and limitations in a manner conducive for devising more substantive counter-terrorism policy-making. Crucially, the various ideological sub-currents reveal a series of internal transformations and systemic weaknesses antithetical to illusions of Jihadism’s resurgence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In contrast to claims of a “timeless trans-historical authenticity free from the constraints of culture”, there is no single coherent set of beliefs constituting the Global Jihad paradigm (Deol and Kazmi 2014). It remains an amalgam of intersecting agencies with distinct preference hierarchies. Perhaps the most prominent example is the division between groups targeting “Near and Far enemies”, with al Qaeda displacing the orthodox state-centric models of revolutionary Islamism characteristic of the Cold War. Mobilising against individual Arab regimes in the 1990s, a series of discrete jihadi insurgencies, including the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria and Islamic Jihad in Egypt, failed in their efforts to overthrow the state and were gradually exhausted. Reinforced by the broader cooptation and normalisation Islamist political movements, its credentials as a counter-hegemonic force in the political sphere were critically undermined. In a bid to resuscitate this diminishing support, a tiny splinter group congealing under the label al Qaeda attempted to instigate a paradigmatic shift in ideological contention. By extrapolating claims against the state to a new international level, the group projected pan-Islamic narratives of non-Muslim aggression against the Muslim world as a means of mobilising a broader global constituency drawn from the imagined Umma. As such, it sought to transpose the traditional modes of Islamist insurgency into a new transnational “post-Maoist” realm, superseding locally confined conflict and operating across a “global archipelago of concerned states and communities” (MacKinley 2009, p.101). In contrast to the parochial agenda of previous Islamist movements concentrating both discursively and materially on state capture, this new incarnation was therefore far more radical in its aspirations. Al Qaeda directly challenged the state system, transcending domestic concerns of local authoritarianism and reconceptualising the international realm as a cosmological dichotomy between the “House of Islam” and the non-Muslim world. In this new global constellation, the US has been diagnosed as a principle antagonist, a global Leviathan operating through apostate clients to colonise the Islamic community on a political, cultural, normative and societal level (Holbrook 2014). However, Gerges (2005) emphasises that in this sense, “al Qaeda was more of a mutation than a natural evolution of Jihadism” and the shift to globalism and de-territorialisation was fundamentally a “desperate attempt to reinvigorate a declining movement” rather than an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to delineate between locally rooted “revolutionary” and “globalised jihadist” ideologies that, despite never being “absolute”, remained “operational in the world of pre-2003 Islamist militancy” (Hegghammer 2009).

Accelerated by its devolution following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al Qaeda has subsequently developed into an ethical rather than simply a political militant ideology encouraging a strategy of independent grass-root revolution. While it continues to pursue individual strategic goals, this new Jihadism has increasingly transcended the “the politics of intentionality” (Devji 2005). Outstripping its local causes, it has manifested as a network with no coherent vision for the future and no control at the international level. Instead al Qaeda provides a narrative that is appropriated and re-interpreted by its global constituents in their own particular contexts, producing a spectrum of loosely correlated but functionally autonomous ends. As such, Devji maintains it has more in common with the anti-globalisation movement than conventional terror groups, with its membership coalescing “around some common history of needs, interests or ideas, to create a landscape of relations in which very little else is shared”.

Invariably, post-Cold War transformations have compounded these trends further. The incorporation of Muslim publics in new globalised circuitries of economic activity, neoliberal norms and mass migration has fundamentally impacted how Muslim identities are shaped and reproduced. Crucially, rising literacy levels, university-education rates and the direct access to diverse sources of information and influences are central in the dilution of ecclesiastical institutions and authority structures, challenging the historical dominance of the state-backed Ulema and allowing the production of new discourse, praxis and more cogent niches for fringe interpretations to manifest and perpetuate. Nowhere has this pattern been more overt than the Internet, which has accelerated the permeability of the public sphere and engendered processes of religious democratisation and individualisation. Operating as a hub connecting “socially disembedded networks” it has created space for mimicking the idealism propagated in Salafi rhetoric by strengthening a virtual, egalitarian community purged of national peculiarities. To this end “little al Qaedas have sprung up everywhere”, acting with autonomy as a broad leaderless Jihad more akin to a diffused social movement than a conventional terror network (Sageman 2008). By reproducing itself as an abstraction operating at a meta-physical level, this new incarnation has subordinated the local to the global and “cannot be dealt with by national solutions”, despite the hounding of its central leadership and the degradation of its covert infrastructure. Instead, al Qaeda exists both as an itinerant organisation hijacking local conflicts for its own millenarian agenda, and as a set of amorphic ideas consumed and championed by independent actors.

Al Quaeda according to Swiss Intelligence Services (in 2013)

Al Quaeda according to Swiss Intelligence Services (in 2013)

More recently however, there have been indications of a further transformation and re-localisation of Jihad, with the rising prominence of regional subsidiaries nominally operating under the al Qaeda franchise. Discursively propagating global aspirations, they nevertheless exist within the parameters of authentic homegrown issues and are increasingly coalescing as “ideological hybrids” mixing “ideal rationales for violence” by attacking both local and “Far” Western adversaries simultaneously (Hegghammer 2009). Whereas Jihadism in the 1990s thought and acted locally, and al Qaeda shifted its contentious activity to the international level by operating globally as an anti-systemic movement, these new manifestations “now talk globally and act locally”. Al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers is a prominent example, conducting a territorially defined insurgency in Iraq against both external coalition forces and the new Shia-dominated government after 2003. While the conflation of US ground forces and local sectarian actors provided a rather uniquely conducive environment for such hybridity, transformations in the current incarnation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) provides further evidence of this trend.

Al Qaeda has extensive historical experience in Yemen mobilising local groups to bomb the USS Cole (2000) and to support operations in Saudi Arabia but the country itself has been perceived as a land of “provision and preparation” rather than an intrinsically valuable jihadi front in and of itself (Loidolt 2011). Maximising covert economies of scale after its flight from Afghanistan, al Qaeda Central delegated authority to a collection of dispersed branches, including named affiliates operating in the Arabian Peninsular. Manufactured in the 2009 merger between Saudi and Yemeni operatives, AQAP demonstrated “strong commitment through its rhetoric and actions to a sustained international terrorist agenda” emphasising the necessity of transcending the “insulation wall” of local actors to “strike those hidden behind it” (Wilkinson and Barclay 2011). Despite being based in Yemen’s periphery, AQAP did not see “intrinsic value in striking targets or rhetorically delegitimising the Saleh government” (Loidolt 2011). Rather, it promoted a twin track approach of independent Jihad in the West and terrorism against non-Muslim targets regionally, constructing a series of prognostic frames through its Arabic and English outlets prioritising the liberation of Palestine, Somalia and encouraged lone-wolf attacks against the US mainland. Predominantly striking foreign tourists, US supply bases and sponsoring the Christmas Day bombing attempt (2009) and the Cargo Plane plot (2010), the group largely avoided violence against the national regime, preferring to instrumentalise Yemen as a platform for projecting a globalised agenda and synchronising its militant strategy with a predominantly internationalised rubric.

However, it is possible to delineate a shift in its strategic trajectory after 2010, resulting in an unprecedented escalation of domestic operations and the adoption of more orthodox models of populist insurgency akin to the revolutionary contention of Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and Hamas. While its infiltration of Yemen’s tribal fabric was not unprecedented, as illustrated by efforts to embed locally through marriage, the establishment of parastatal Islamic emirates in 2012, 2014 and 2015 indicate a more pronounced reorientation towards state capture. Religious rationales against the West have been enriched or even supplanted by socio-political themes, with new AQAP operations increasingly adopting “Maoist like efforts to win the hearts and minds of the population” and develop a framework for cultivating grass-root legitimacy through social outreach (Eleftheriadou 2014). By delivering empowerment programmes to disenfranchised communities, investing in public utilities and diluting its application of Sharia law with pragmatic concessions to local customs, AQAP has not only exhibited the embryonic capacity to provide shadow-state services but a practical approach to governance that has “more in common with the Taliban than it does with Bin Laden’s globalised jihad”. In asserting direct territorial control, the object of al Qaeda’s violent contention has, by definition, been assimilated into the local sphere, requiring behavioural and discursive shifts to cohere with the Yemeni polity.

Perhaps this transition is most overt in the increasing role of its subsidiary Ansar al Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law). Acting under a monolithic label, this new wave of Islamist actors nevertheless remains a mosaic of disparate entities “fighting in different lands using different means” and is “not necessarily beholden to al Qaeda’s strategies or tactics”. Its first incarnation emerging 2011 did however operate under the direction of AQAP in Yemen, with Shaykh al Abab describing it as a surrogate vehicle deliberately used to “introduce ourselves (al Qaeda) in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals”. As such, it afforded shelter for al Qaeda’s “hardcore within a broader organically derived popular front” enumerating the benefits of Islamic governance and providing services to satiate marginalised tribal communities without reference to the organisation’s global brand (Swift 2012). Eleftheriadou (2014) claims that, whilst not being “exactly reminiscent of Maoist popular organisations”, the group has fundamentally hybridised, integrating strategies “more sensitive to popular demands and perceptions” in ways very similar to Jahbat al Nusr in Syria and, on a larger scale, Islamic State (IS).

These transformations are undoubtedly the accumulated product of multiple variables including: increased US pressure on the Yemeni government to confront its tribal peripheries, drone strikes depreciating AQAP’s international reach and the security vacuums proliferating in the wake Saleh’s downfall in 2011. Specifically however, the root cause of this re-territorialisation mirrors the driver originally globalising Jihad in the 1990s: intrinsic weakness. The normative transition of AQAP reflects the imperatives of ideological adaption necessary for addressing the needs of a “new revolutionary climate”. Perpetuating itself as an abstract counter-hegemonic force detached from any objective ends for measuring its success or failure, al Qaeda remained elastic but marginalised: failing to be defeated at the expense of genuine social traction. To this end, while regional authoritarian conditions eroded political expression and maintained Jihadism’s cogence as the only viable mode of protest, the rise of increasingly assertive civil societies demanding socio-economic and political reform during the Arab Spring (2011) fundamentally disrupted this equilibrium and challenged the “very conditions that fuel extremist ideologies”. Crucially, the expansion of IS has accentuated these pressures still further. The establishment of a Caliphate with discernable borders, functioning institutions and the momentum of genuinely successful military campaigns, has both realised the utopian aspirations hitherto only paid lip-service by al Qaeda and re-defined the properties constituting a successful Jihadi organisation by “presenting a vision of Islamic governance that al Qaeda cannot match”. The proliferation of IS franchises in the Sinai, Libya and Yemen therefore provides direct competition for preexisting Islamist groups, mobilising a new support base not only through a far more dynamic social media strategy but more relevant and identifiable goals.

As such, taking into account the obvious strategic opportunities generated by mass uprisings and social unrest in the wake of the Arab Spring, AQAP has nevertheless been forced to shift the site and terms of its violent contention into a definitively Yemeni context and propose concrete objectives to maintain relevance in the face of emerging mass political mobilisation and strong endogenous competition. Despite the proliferation of radical actors in the current environment of sectarian division and counter-revolution, these hybrid groups are not only the products of systemic weakness but are becoming increasingly substantial and thereby susceptible to greater scrutiny by the publics on which they now rely. The delivery of services, administering governates, providing security and stability, they are all measurements now relevant for interpreting al Qaeda’s successes and failures. To this end, while the underlying ideas fuelling contemporary Jihadism remain ubiquitous, the locally embedded insurgency structures they have manufactured are relatively brittle. By engaging with identifiable consistencies they are exposed to national peculiarities and as a result more vulnerable to national solutions.

Of course, these “glocalisation” processes remain inherently fluid and context-dependent. However, it is crucial to understand such qualitative transitions are, in the words of Hegghammer (2009), the “product of strain and a sign of weakness”. The globalisation, re-territorialisation and hybridisation of Jihad is indicative of a movement continuously trying to embed in new contentious processes as a means of resuscitating it. This therefore suggests a cycle in Jihadi contention: abstracting itself to perpetuate ideological longevity in the face of military degradation, suffering diminished popularity with the production of new political movements and alternate ideas, and re-materialising to maintain relevance and suffer the associated risk this implies. Understanding the genealogy and dynamics of Islamist militarism is therefore essential for designing more effective policy and understanding the inherent limitations such movements experience.

Author Biography

Michael E K Jones is a recent MSc graduate in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics, focusing on international security, terrorism and counter-insurgency. He has a particular research interest in MENA geopolitics and political Islam, completing theses exploring both the counter-revolutionary animation of sectarian identities in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and new transformations re-shaping Global Jihad. Having previously worked at the Democratic Progress Institute he is currently pursuing interests in policy analysis and humanitarian advocacy.

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Image credit: Paolo Porsia under a CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license

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