Every time it seems as if it’s about to finally outlive its viability, al-Qaeda and its affiliates astonishingly spring back to life. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, the organization was virtually wiped out. But the war in Iraq brought it back from the brink of oblivion, giving it a new battleground, recruiting tool, training field, and rationale. Following the “Awakening” in Sunni areas of Iraq, al-Qaeda again appeared to be a thing of the past, or at least relegated to permanent irrelevancy.
Yet the Syrian conflict and other “Arab uprising” environments have once again reanimated this monstrous corpse. Its malignancy has been the single biggest contributor in saving the Syrian dictatorship from what had appeared to be a looming defeat. And al-Qaeda in Iraq has also made a huge comeback in the context of the Syrian conflict, with the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq” killing an average of almost 1,000 Iraqis per month in the last quarter of 2013.
There was a time when people using the term “al-Qaeda” thought that they had a more-or-less clear sense of what they were talking about: an organization led by Osama bin Laden that grew out of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union and engaging in or inspiring extreme violence in much of the Middle East, other parts of the Islamic world, and, occasionally but dramatically, the West. It was informed by a paranoid and chauvinistic ideology that held that the Muslims of the world, and indeed Islam itself, were under siege by all non-Muslim powers and even by many Muslims. It sought to obliterate all of the Muslim-majority nation states and replace them with a new “caliphate” running from at least Morocco to Indonesia.
But even in the heyday of its most formalized hierarchy, there was always a wild, disparate, and fly-by-night quality to al-Qaeda. And now the term has become little more than a symbolic marker for the political ideology that usually calls itself “salafi-jihadism.”
There have always been differences within al-Qaeda, those who have either successfully seized or been granted permission to use the name as a kind of franchise, and other salafi-jihadi or “takfiri” groups. But while the parent organization based in Pakistan and Afghanistan seems to be increasingly irrelevant, the political ideology and program of mass murder that are now synonymous with al-Qaeda seem at least as robust as ever, if not more so. It is the monster that, for the past decade, simply will not die.
Indeed, while al-Qaeda and similar groups can only function in a condition of anarchy as no government would willingly permit such uncontrollable fanatics to operate within their own territory, not only are they continuing to find space in which to operate: they are proliferating.
In Syria, there are at least two competing versions of al-Qaeda: Jabhat al-Nusra and the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” (ISIS). A similar situation exists in North Africa, as such groups have proliferated in the northern Sahel region. In the areas immediately south of Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, there are at least two separate organizations battling over the al-Qaeda brand, and many more that adhere to some version or other of the salafi-jihadi ideology.
The revival of al-Qaeda in Iraq is in some ways the most terrifying. The so-called “Islamic State of Iraq” has been carrying out an average of almost 1,000 murders per month, mainly by suicide bombings. This means that the group is able to dispatch at least one or two suicidal lunatics bent on the mass murder of Shiites every day. The fact that they probably come from all over the Muslim world is beside the point: the salient issue is the seemingly endless supply of suicidal/homicidal maniacs imbued with this ideology who are willing to kill and die for it without any clear or rational strategy.
Given the horrifying breath, diversity, and adaptability of al-Qaeda-style political extremism in the Middle East – and the fact that every time it appears on the brink of oblivion, it reemerges, not only in one form or another, but increasingly in competing manifestations in the same place – several disturbing conclusions are strongly suggested.
First, the various narratives driving this extremism, which are embraced by far larger circles than are sympathetic to al-Qaeda and its offshoots, are the single greatest factor in its persistence. As long as a critical mass of angry young men can be convinced that everything they hold dear is being besieged by “infidels” of one form or another, including other Muslims, they will continue to kill and die in the most ruthless manner possible.
Second, there is a consistent – and, as demonstrated by the Iraq and Syria conflicts, also at times periodically and noticeably surging – funding base for these activities. The original al-Qaeda, it was always suspected and has now become even more evident, has significant ties to factions within Pakistan’s intelligence services. But many different, subsequent, manifestations of this ideology appear to be funded mainly from the Gulf, and by private individuals. The extent to which governments are aware of these activities, and choose to ignore or condone them, is not clear. But at the very least, there sometimes seems to be a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude towards money for such efforts, particularly when they are cast as an element, or even a vanguard, of a broader regional strategic and sectarian battle. And as long as someone is paying the bills, the show can go on and on.
Third, this ideology and the terrorism it inspires is having a much greater longevity and broader applicability than most had feared. When I was a teenager in the mid-1970s, such ideas were, at most, a faded twinkle in the eye of long-dead hardline ideologues, most notably Sayyid Qutb. And because this extremism has a clear political lineage based on historically contingent events and decisions that doesn’t date back much further than the late 1970s, it will surely also have a limited lifespan.
But that lifespan keeps getting extended despite the fact that salafi-jihadism hasn’t made any progress whatsoever in achieving any of its stated goals, and certainly hasn’t come close to taking power in any state, overthrowing any governments, or driving the West out of the Middle East. One can only conclude that, however wild-eyed and naïvely vicious its acolytes may be, for its behind-the-scenes funders and promoters, al-Qaeda and its ideology is an end in itself.
It serves a purpose, but not the one its followers, and possibly most of its leaders, believe it does. After its uninterrupted series of failures, no rational person could expect al-Qaeda or similar organizations to actually achieve anything. Instead, they are only useful as a blunt instrument of raw destruction and as convenient and extremely efficient proxies for wreaking havoc when that is desired.
Even its shadow can be potent. In Syria, for example, the specter of al-Qaeda was invoked by the cynical and ruthless President Bashar al-Assad not only before it had any real presence in the country, but even while the opposition was almost entirely engaged in peaceful protests. For the Damascus dictatorship, it was an indispensable strategic goal to steer the uprising towards an armed conflict and ensure that it was as sectarian as possible, with the maximal amount of al-Qaeda influence within the opposition.
The minute the uprising began to become armed, the specter of al-Qaeda also served as a convenient excuse for those in the United States and the rest of the West who wanted nothing to do with any involvement in Syria. And now, it has emerged as a rationalization for some Americans, including within the policy establishment, and others to actually begin to publicly declare that the continuation of the savage dictatorship is the “least-bad outcome” facing Western interests in Syria.
This has been a disaster for the Syrian opposition and all of its regional and international supporters, and also perhaps the single greatest strategic asset in the hands of Assad. The Syrian dictator, moreover, has long-established links to al-Qaeda and similar groups that fought in Iraq, having offered them years of laissez-passer in order to fight against the Americans and their allies. Theoretically, al-Assad and al-Qaeda are the bitterest of sectarian and ideological enemies. But they have a well-established track record of knowing how to make each other useful, first in Iraq, and now again in Syria.
It’s impossible to know to what extent these organizations, their fighters, leaders and, most significantly, regional backers intended to provide, or even understand, the invaluable boon they have been for Assad and his regime. But it’s also very possible that many if not most of them just don’t care. What is clear is that al-Qaeda has found yet another stronghold, training ground, and recruiting tool in Syria, and that this will not be easily reversed as long as large parts of the country remain contested and the fog of war obscures governance, stability, order, and reason.
Syria is only the most dramatic instance of the recent resurgence of al-Qaeda. Iraq, too, for all of its carnage, only begins to hint at the proliferation of such groups. They are spreading and gaining traction in ungoverned, remote or contested areas in much of southern North Africa, in border areas, across the Sahel, in rural Yemen, the Sinai Peninsula, and many places where no government’s writ runs and all other Sunni Muslim ideologies and organizing principles seem pallid by comparison.
Given that many parts of the Arab world appear to be in the throes – and perhaps even still the beginning stages – of a lengthy, messy, and unpredictable transformation, opportunities for the monster that won’t die to continue to thrive seem disturbingly strong.
As long as states in the region continue to experience turmoil, drift towards anarchy, or contain significant ungoverned areas, al-Qaeda and its ilk will find spaces in which to operate. As long as wealthy individuals or others are willing to fund them, they can move beyond organized crime and become serious players in conflagrations such as the war in Syria.
And, perhaps most importantly, as long as the irrational and narcissistic, but powerful and alluring, narrative of an Arab and Muslim world under siege by hostile forces from within and without continues to be embraced by significant constituencies within the Sunni Arab world – even if most who subscribe to some version of this narrative reject al-Qaeda’s ideology, goals, and methods – it will continue to be able to draw upon a fringe of a fringe of a very large population.
A small number of determined individuals can do an extraordinary amount of damage, in every possible sense of the term. The daily suicide bombings in Iraq, the proliferation of competing al-Qaeda factions in Syria and North Africa, the drift towards ever-greater levels of extremism within such fanatical circles, and the likelihood of continued regional instability and persistence of large, ungoverned areas all suggest that the hydra which already should have died many times over is alive and well. Indeed, there is nothing on the immediate horizon that points to its imminent demise.
This is contrary to the interests of all parties that cling to any degree of rationality. The ideal scenario would involve a concerted regional and international effort to push back against these key factors: dry up the funding, restore local, state, and regional stability, and, above all, begin to firmly reject the popular narratives which feed this kind of extremism on the social fringes.
The Syrian experience demonstrates that any effort to “use” such fanatics to serve even the narrowest, most sectarian, and least worthy goals will, perforce, backfire. But the Syrian experience also shows that this lesson has not yet been learned. The more moderate Syrian rebel forces remain relatively neglected. Assad is increasingly presented in the West as, if not vindicated, then at least “not as bad as the alternative.” And, thanks in good measure to al-Qaeda, the tide of the conflict has drifted, at least for now, in favor of the dictatorship.
The monstrosity of al-Qaeda not only keeps springing up from the grave, but the elements are in place for it to remain relevant in numerous parts of the Arab world for the foreseeable future. Eventually it will go away, as all such extremist movements do. But this will require either much more time than most observers, until now, had feared would be needed. Or it would necessitate the kind of concerted international and regional effort that in the meantime remains, disastrously, as much of an implausibility as it is an urgent necessity.