Dan Byman, Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, has a new paper out entitled “Breaking the Bonds between Al Qaeda and its Affiliate Organizations.” The paper, according to the Brookings web site,
examines the dynamics of al-Qa’ida-affiliate relationships and the interests each party brings to these partnerships.
Highlights from the paper include:
- Factors that determine why local groups decide to join or not to join with al-Qa’ida.
- Benefits al-Qa’ida and local groups gain from affiliation.
- Dynamics that lead to frayed al-Qa’ida-affiliate relationships.
Byman argues that by exploiting the areas where al-Qa’ida and its affiliates do not agree, the United States and its allies can limit al-Qa’ida’s influence and expansion around the world.
Here is a brief video of Dan on his paper, with the paper’s Executive Summary below the fold. And stay tuned--I will be interviewing Dan for the Lawfare Podcast on the issues he discusses in this paper and more.
Al-Qa’ida seems to be on its heels. The death of Osama bin Ladin and the fall of Arab dictators have left its leadership in disarray, its narrative confused, and the organization on the defensive. One silver lining for al-Qaida, however, has been its affiliate organizations. In Iraq, the Maghreb, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere, al-Qa’ida has used local groups to expand its reach, increase its power, and grow its numbers. This string of mergers is not over. In places as diverse as the Sinai Peninsula and Nigeria, al-Qa’ida-linked organizations are emerging. However, the jihadist world is more fractured than it may appear at first glance. Many Salafi-jihadist groups have not joined with al-Qa’ida, and even if they have, tensions and divisions occur that present the United States and its allies with opportunities for weakening the bond.
Al Qa’ida and its Affiliates
Al-Qa’ida has always been both a group with its own agenda and a facilitator of other terrorist groups. This meant that it not only carried out attacks on U.S. targets in Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen throughout the 1990s, but it helped other jihadist groups with funding, training, and additional logistical essentials. Toward the end of the 1990s, al-Qa’ida’s relationship incorporated Egyptian Islamic Jihad into its structure. After September 11, 2001, this process took off, and today a number of regional groups bear the label “al-Qa’ida” in their name, along with a more local designation. Some of the most prominent affiliates include al-Qa’ida of Iraq (AQI),al-Qa’ida of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qa’ida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Shebaab in Somalia. Yet, at the same time, several Salafi-jihadist groups chose not to affiliate with al-Qa’ida, including Egypt’s Gamaat al-Islamiyya and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and fighters in Chechnya, Gaza, and Pakistan maintained their distance as well.
Motivations to the Affiliate for Joining
There are a number of reasons why a group may choose to affiliate with al-Qa’ida, some practical, some ideological, and some personal:
· Failure. Setback often motivates a group to link with al-Qa’ida. Groups have joined with the core after losing recruits and popular support and otherwise seeing their original goals frustrated
· Money. For much of its history, al-Qa’ida was flush with cash, which made it an attractive partner for other terrorist groups. Aside from direct support affiliation with, or even an endorsement from, al-Qa’ida is also a way for groups to attract funding from deep-pocket donors, particularly those in the Gulf.
· A Haven. One of the most important determinants of a terrorist group’s success is whether it has a haven from which to operate. Al-Qa’ida , ran training camps, operated safe houses, and otherwise established a large infrastructure in support of terror. These facilities were an attractive resource for groups looking for a safe environment.
· Training, Recruiting, Publicity, and Military Experience. Al-Qa’ida historically offered impressive training facilities to various jihadist groups—an attractive service, particularly for groups with inexperienced personnel and no place to conduct these exercises in their home countries. .
· Common Defense. Because groups share havens, training facilities, and so on with al-Qa’ida, when these locations are targeted by government forces, the groups join al-Qa’ida in fighting back.
· Branding and Publicity. At times, groups may seek to replace their more local brand with that of al-Qa’ida, believing the latter is more compelling. Al-Qa’ida can also help ensure publicity for a group beyond the group’s borders
· Personal Networks. The fact that jihadists spend time together training or fighting has created numerous overlapping networks. These ties often are an important factor in a group’s decision to affiliate.
Motivations for the Al-Qa’ida Core
While there are clear benefits for an affiliate in linking with al-Qa’ida, there are also rewards for the al-Qa’ida core:
· Mission Fulfillment and Reach. Having a diverse array of affiliates helps al-Qa’ida extend its reach and fulfill its self-image as the leader of the jihadist community.
· Relevance. Especially since 9/11, al-Qa’ida has been on the defensive. Todayamid the U.S. drone campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the group, the actions of al-Qa’ida’s affiliates can serve as proof of the group’s continued strength. Some of the most notorious “al-Qa’ida” attacks attempted since 9/11 have in fact been carried out by affiliate groups.
· Logistics. Beyond the ability to carry out attacks, affiliates offers al-Qa’ida access to their media resources, recruiters, and other core parts of their organizations.
· Hardened Fighters. Since its inception, al-Qa’ida has sought members who are experienced and dedicated. Many of the affiliates who come to al-Qa’ida do so with just such a cadre.
The Decision Not to Affiliate
Despite the benefits to joining with al-Qa’ida, not all Salafi-jihadist groups choose to affiliate.
The jihadist movement as a whole has a wide range of ideological opinions, some of which are quite rigid. This has meant that al-Qa’ida has not affiliated with the many Sunni groups that are not pure Salafis. Some jihadist groups go so far as to take it on themselves to declare others to be unbelievers, which has tremendous consequences for how a group chooses its targets, and on a group’s popularity—the practice often alienates ordinary Muslims and creates divisions in the jihadist community. The divide is even greater between al-Qa’ida and a non-Sunni group like Hizballah, even though the latter would offer formidable capabilities in an alliance. In addition, an ideological divide over issues like targeting civilians has caused a rift among jihadis, partly based on disagreement about the appropriateness of doing so, and partly based on the that fact that jihadists often disagree on the definition of who is a civilian and who is not. Personal issues and even personalities play a role. Although some groups may want to affiliate with al-Qa’ida, the possibility to do so may be limited because of a lack of personal interaction or due to disputes among leaders.
Local versus global outlooks have also played a role in keeping some groups from linking up with al-Qa’ida. Al-Qa’ida has a global agenda and global adversaries, whereas most of its affiliates formed to address far more limited objectives. Therefore, while working with al-Qa’ida may help an affiliate solve problems relating to logistics and branding, it may threaten to change the nature of the struggle.
Even if a group shares al-Qa’ida’s goals and ideology, going global brings a host of downsides, particularly the wrath of the United States and other strong powers. This, in turn, might set back their chances of achieving their local objectives. The 9/11 attacks were a disaster for many jihadist groups, as the United States came down on them in full force.
Strains in the Affiliate-Core Relationship
Even if a group makes a decision to affiliate or otherwise move closer to al-Qa’ida, tensions often arise, or existing ones become exacerbated. Different aims and divergent strategies may create tensions in the al-Qa’ida-affiliate relationship. Because al-Qa’ida’s affiliates started out with local goals, linking with the al-Qa’ida core and expanding attacks to global targets can make it harder for a group to achieve its original aims. On the flip side, the core’s anti-Western brand can become hijacked or contaminated by local struggles. Similarly, since the core is less in tune with local conditions and realities, mistakes at the local level more likely to occur when the core is calling the shots.
Often, local groups have markedly different convictions from al-Qa’ida, particularly when it comes to nationalism and democracy. Nationalism, in particular, is a two-edged sword for al-Qa’ida. While some al-Qa’ida affiliates have at times exploited anti-foreign sentiment, be it in regards to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq or Ethiopian forces in Somalia, al-Qa’ida itself has a strongly anti-nationalist bent. Al-Qaida criticizes Muslims who it sees as having excessive devotion to their country, believing nationalism creates a dividing point among the true community—Muslims. At the same time, elections, and political opportunities in general, can create a divide between local fighters and foreign fighters attached to jihad. In essence, local populations see elections as a means of gaining power or otherwise defending their community, whereas for the more globally focused jihadists, elections represent a threat to ideological purity.
Practical matters like finances often get in the way of the relationship. U.S. and allied pressure on al-Qa’ida’s finances has reduced the organization’s ability to dispense largesse, often to the point where it has sought financial help from affiliates, charged potential recruits for training.
Expansion also creates tensions inside and outside the core. As the number of affiliates increases, the overall security of the al-Qa’ida network decreases. An influx of outsiders creates tension by challenging al-Qa’ida’s insularity and making it harder to protect itself from possible infiltrators. At the same time, in cases where al-Qa’ida sends its own operatives and other non-locals to join an affiliate, these foreign fighters may alienate locals through their personal behavior or attempts to alter local traditions.
These issues, and others, may not only create tension between the core and its affiliates, they may be cause for like-minded groups or prominent jihadists to publicly condemn al-Qa’ida—something that costs al-Qa’ida heavily in terms of prestige, and possibly recruitment.
Implications for Fighting Al-Qa’ida Affiliates
It is vital to distinguish between those groups that are full-fledged affiliates and those groups where there is just limited interaction with al-Qa’ida. By lumping an unaffiliated group with al-Qa’ida, the United States can drive it into Zawahiri’s arms. It is also important to consider how some Sunni groups that act against U.S. interests can still serve to weaken al-Qa’ida.
With these understandings in mind, the United States and its allies should take a number of steps that capitalize on the differences in interests between al-Qa’ida on the one hand and its affiliates and local populations on the other.
Because there is also a wedge between the way al-Qa’ida and many others in the Muslim world approach the issue of democracy, the United States and its allies should call attention to this, and contrast it with statements by peaceful Salafi leaders in support of elections.
Aside from capitalizing on the differences between the core and its affiliates, there are additional steps the United States and its allies can take. Intelligence services can monitor radicals within diaspora communities and work with law enforcement officials to curtail fundraising for affiliate groups. Washington should also continue to disrupt al-Qa’ida’s financing, which is also a blow to the group’s affiliate strategy. If the core’s money diminishes, it will be less likely to be able to attract new affiliates to its banner. Moreover, depriving affiliate groups of revenue often leads them to undertake illicit activities, such as kidnapping and theft as a means to make up the funding shortfall. These actions paint the group as more criminal than heroic, further damaging its brand.
It is also important for Washington to understand how actions its takes in the region may influence the al-Qa’ida-affiliate dynamic. In deciding whether to intervene abroad, for instance, U.S. policymakers should consider, along with other more obvious costs and benefits, how doing so may impact al-Qa’ida affiliation. Often only a small portion of an affiliate’s organization focuses on Western targets and an even smaller portion focuses on operations against Western targets outside the local theater of operations. In addition, while many members of affiliate groups are combat-hardened, and some have received al-Qa’ida training, relatively few are truly elites.
Ultimately, there are no simple choices when confronting al-Qa’ida affiliates. On the one hand, ignoring groups until they become affiliates, or ignoring affiliates until they strike at U.S. targets, risks leaving U.S. intelligence and security officials in a defensive and reactive mode and vulnerable to a surprise attack. On the other hand, too aggressive an approach can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening bonds between al-Qa’ida and other jihadist groups by validating the al-Qa’ida narrative and leading groups to cooperate for self-defense and organizational advancement. So, as with most difficult counterterrorism issues, judgment and prudence are essential.
(Disclosure: Ben’s wife, Tamara Cofman Wittes, is the director of the Saban Center, and Dan and Ben are working on a book together.)