Current Strategy of Al-Qaida
Dr Marcin Styszynski
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.
The death of Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaida’s leaders like Anwar Awlaqi or Abu Yahia al-Libi as well as political activities of Islamic groups during the Arab Spring have affected the strategy and activities of the organization. So far, Al-Qaida was considered a centralized movement composed of the Supreme Council (Shura) and local branches acting in different parts of the world such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Chechnya, Somalia or Maghreb.
The hierarchic image of the organization was demonstrated by regional jihadists who modified their groups and declared loyalty to the Supreme Council. For example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the leader of Iraqi radical group Al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad vowed obedience to Al-Qaida in 2004 by establishing Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. The loyalty was also expressed by Abdelmalek Droukdel from Algeria who affiliated in 2006 the organization The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat – GSPC with Al-Qaida’s Headquarter and called his group Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb- AQIM. The similar situation occurred with jihadists from Shabaab al-Mujahidun in Somalia, Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon or Jundallah in Palestine. The loyalty to the leaders enabled to globalize local conflicts and facilitated financial, logistic and ideological assistance.
In fact, the support strengthened military and operational capacities of local Al-Qaida’s structures. For example, after the affiliation of Maghrebian insurgents with the central commandment, AQIM prepared series of terrorist acts against local and Western authorities as well as economic interests. For example, the group claimed responsibility for the 11 December 2007 attacks against the United Nations offices and the Constitutional Court building in Algiers. The same situation concerns Al-Zarqawi, who took responsibility for many acts of violence such as suicide attacks, kidnapping and beheadings in Iraq.
The formalized structure of the organization was also supported by propaganda techniques and media campaign conducted through the years 2001-2010. Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s speeches enabled to unite and encourage different militants and fighters sharing the same demands and goals regarding the implementation of the worldwide caliphate based on Islamic values.
Most of al-Qaeda’s manifestos and media presentations were usually focused on two opposite images. The first was based on criticism, accusations and damnations of different political enemies like Western governments and military forces as well as local authorities and officials. The negative image was emphasized by descriptions showing tragic situations of Muslim communities in the world as well as humiliation of Islamic values. However, the second image concerned glorification of terrorist activities and encouragement of supporters.
The regular configuration of the organization was also obvious in different statements delivered by local groups. For example, the Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia stressed its terrorist attacks in the following statement:
On Sunday – 03.07.2005 the battalion – Furqan (the Victory) destroyed an American lorry on the motorway to Ramadi. In the same day at 2 pm. Furqan lunched a missile through the vehicle Hummer belonging to the crusaders. Hummer has been destroyed and all people who were inside have been killed as well.
Meanwhile, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb declared:
When the zero hour has come, during the dinner time a lion set out with a lorry full of 550 kg of explosive materials and he attacked the group of apostates. He managed to reach the aim and blew up himself, in contrast to silly reactions of the apostates. According to our sources, the attack finished by killing around 30 apostates, among them soldiers and gendarmerie and wounding many others. Some buildings of harbor as well as pagan gendarmerie’s center have been destroyed, too..
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan presented the similar statement:
Mujahidin from the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan have attacked a pick-up vehicle belonging to Special Forces. The explosion has finished by damage of the enemy’s vehicle and killing all special officers who were inside. News bulletins inform that Special Forces lost the region because of the blast. The killed and wounded officers have been transported to their headquarters. However, the destroyed vehicle is still in the region.
However, Shabaab al-Mujahideen stated:
On Friday -15.02.2008 your brothers from Shabab al-Mujahedeen Movement managed to fire at the center of the African forces slavish to Americans. Moreover, the harbor in Mogadishu has been fired by 11-mortar missiles 82 mm.
The statements are identified by the same composition and narration, which point out detailed descriptions of terrorist attacks. All texts stress dates of the plots, way of attacks and information about damages and causalities. Besides, the application of the religious terminology like apostates, pagans or crusaders illustrates the influence of the Supreme Council, which used the same meanings describing different enemies. In fact, the local groups became a derivation of Al-Qaida’s Headquarter, which conducted and managed operational activities of regional branches.
New concept of jihad
The neutralization of Al-Qaida’s leaders as well as political activities of different Islamic movements and parties during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya have disturbed Al-Qaida’s hierarchic structure and forced the organization to modify its own strategy.
The uprising in Syria against Bashar al-Assad and intensification of military and terror activities became a crucial step for Islamic groups. However, different political, religious and social slogans and demands as well as method of fight and disputes about the leadership have divided many insurgents. Al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-ISIS and Islamic Front are the main Islamic rebel groups in Syria. Although they all refer to Sharia and salafism or jihadism, the obedience to Al-Qaida’s Central is more complicated. For example Islamic Front is a coalition of 100,000 fighters ready to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army and secular forces. The organization declares more moderate religious demands and slogans and tries to conduct traditional guerilla fight instead of Al-Qaida’s terrorist methods.
Besides, Al-Nusra Front and ISIS share the same ideological and theological backgrounds regarding jihadism and establishment of an Islamic state but they discuss the loyalty to Al-Zawahiri. However, ISIS points out its independence from Al-Qaida’s leaders and conducts violent actions in Syria and Iraq without coordination with other groups. ISIS is also criticized by other groups because of its brutality and isolation from social, historic and cultural backgrounds of Syria.
Ayman al-Zawahiri referred to the crisis among jihadists in his last statements. He condemned ISIS for its autonomy and insisted to conduct the struggle in Syria only by Al-Nusra Front. He also stated that ISIS should return to its first local structures and name: the Islamic State of Iraq. The leader of ISIS Abu Abdullah al-Baghdadi rejected Al-Zawahiri’s appeals and continued his fight in both of the countries.
In fact, Al-Zawahiri remarked the essential problem of the crisis between the leaders and regional commanders. It concerns nationalization of jihad and importance of social, ethnic and political backgrounds in particular regions affecting aims, plans and methods of the struggle. The recent events in different Arab and Muslim countries seem to prove that factor.
For example, after the military intervention in Mali jihadist groups operating in Sahel spread across the region and have been reorganized into small troops collaborating with Tuareg rebels declaring their separatism, freedom and religious autonomy. The similar situation occurs in Sinai where small groups of jihadists cooperate with Bedouins fighting for independence from central authorities in Cairo. The autonomy of particular insurgents is also evident in Yemen where Sunni communities in the south are in conflict with central government and other ethnic groups like Houthis.
Besides, the nationalization or internationalization of jihad is also discussed in Somalia. The American-born foreign member of Shabaab al-Mujahideen organization Omar Hammami also known as Abu Mansour al-Amiriki opted for transnational character of jihad and international recruitment of militants from neighboring and Western countries. However, the traditional leader of Shabaab Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys opposed to the idea and presented more nationalist orientation.
Abu Musab al-Suri is another influential opponent to Al-Zawahiri. He’s the author of the book « The Global Islamic resistance call », which describes a new concept of jihad including individual acts and separated activities.
The crisis among jihadists encouraged Al-Zawahiri to issue the new manifesto called « The Liberation of the circle of inefficiency and failure ». It contains an innovative vision of the battle and identification of new frontlines in the changing Arab and Muslim world. He specifies Syria, Egypt and Chechnya as the main destinations of jihad. The three countries aren’t mentioned accidentally.
Syria plays an essential role in recent uprisings in the Arab world, especially after the failure of the Arab Spring. The Syrian conflict is also a spectacular and emotional inspiration for foreign volunteers who support the battle against the brutality of Al-Assad’s regime. Al-Zawahiri encourages all jihadists to finish their disputes (ex. Syrian case), unite and fight for the same reasons and goals regarding the implementation of the caliphate.
The battle in Syria is confronted with jihad in Chechnya. It enables, in turn, to conduct political and economic pressure on Russia, which becomes the main obstacle in fight against the Syrian regime because of its support to Al-Assad clan and his allies like Iran or Hezbollah in Lebanon. It should be also remarked that Russia seems to replace Western influences in the Arab world, especially after isolation of liberal, democratic or Islamic movements by military forces. Besides, there are 14 thousands Chechen insurgents in Syria who integrate the fight with hostility against Russian invaders in their own country. The group Jaish al-Muhajireen wa al-ansar (The Army of Immigrants and Mohammad’s Supporters) with its Caucasian leaders: Omar Gorgashvili, Abu Omar Shishani or Magomed Abdurakhmarov is a good example. Moreover, the battle against Shia authorities in Syria is additional advantages for jihadists who consider that religious doctrine as heresy and apostasy.
Besides, Egypt is another important step. Al-Zawahiri is encouraged by radicalization of Islamic movements after the overthrow of Mohammad Mursi, intensification of terrorist attacks by the group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (The Supporters of the Holly House) or Bedouin’s rebellion in Sinai. Al-Zawahiri states that moderate Islamic forces have paid the price for peaceful cooperation with secularists and Western governments. He also hopes that all insurgents will return to the real military fight against their enemies.
It should be also pointed out that Al-Zawahiri’s manifesto ignore traditional regions like Iraq, Somalia or Maghreb and Sahel. Al-Qaida’s leader accepts in that way the nationalization of jihad and combination of religious and ethnic or separatist backgrounds in particular countries. Neutralization of terrorist structures in those regions plays an important role as well. The near future will demonstrate success or failures of the new political concept of jihad proposed by the last Al-Qaida’s worldwide commander Ayman Al-Zawahiri