An Opening for Al-Qaeda
Since the Islamic State (IS) made its dramatic military advance in Iraq more than a year ago—capturing Mosul and other key cities and declaring the caliphate’s re-establishment—analysts have been near-unanimous that the group’s emergence has devastated its parent organization, al-Qaeda. Indeed, IS has undermined al-Qaeda’s once-unrivaled position as the standard-bearer of the jihadist movement, outstripping al-Qaeda’s public messaging with its robust propaganda apparatus. It has also persuaded several groups that were previously in al-Qaeda’s orbit—including Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai and Nigeria’s Boko Haram—to break away and re-style themselves as provinces of the caliphate. As a result, many analysts now believe that IS has become the preeminent global jihadist organization.(1)
Yet, while IS’s emergence undoubtedly has harmed al-Qaeda in myriad ways, it has also presented the group with a long-awaited opportunity. For years, al-Qaeda sought to remake its image, hoping to rid itself of the reputation for brutality it earned in large part through the excesses of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the group that would later rechristen itself the Islamic State. Thanks to two parallel developments—IS’s emergence and rising Sunni–Shia sectarian tensions in the Middle East—al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign has been invigorated. Al-Qaeda has taken on the image of a more reasonable, and perhaps controllable, alternative to IS. And, as the rivalry between Iran and Sunni states rages on, including through proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda can present itself as a bulwark against Iranian expansion.
Al-Qaeda’s failed Iraq campaign
Al-Qaeda’s quest for an image makeover dates back to the group’s campaign in Iraq in the mid-2000s. AQI ascended rapidly to the fore of the global jihadist movement, then burnt out just as quickly, scorching al-Qaeda’s image in the process. AQI’s early success during the U.S. occupation derived in part from its ability to spark sectarian strife through attacks into Shi’a areas: AQI correctly believed that it could interject itself into a sectarian civil war by presenting itself as the protector of the country’s Sunnis. Yet even while it offered protection from the Shi’a reprisals that it had provoked, the group oppressed those same Sunnis by imposing an alien form of religious law through its reign of terror in Anbar Province. A U.S. military intelligence assessment written in August 2006 described AQI as the “dominant organization of influence” in Anbar.(2)
AQI’s proclivity for brutality and indiscriminate violence raised concerns within al-Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL), which feared that the franchise would alienate Iraqis. Members of AQSL sent at least two letters—from then-deputy emir Ayman al-Zawahiri and masul aqalim (head of regions) Atiyah Abd al-Rahman—to AQI’s emir, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, exhorting the hotheaded Jordanian to moderate his approach. Zawahiri reprimanded Zarqawi for his videotaped beheadings of victims, warning the former street thug not to “be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers.”(3) Both Zawahiri and Atiyah emphasized the need to win over the population, with Atiyah instructing him to gain Iraqis’ support in a gradualist manner by “lauding them for the good they do, and being quiet about their shortcomings.”(4)
The objections offered by Zawahiri and Atiyah were strategic rather than moral. Indeed, Zawahiri noted that rather than beheading AQI’s prisoners, “We can kill the captives by bullet.” The preeminence of strategic over moral concerns can be discerned also in al-Qaeda’s current rebranding efforts, where—rather than avoiding atrocities—al-Qaeda appears more concerned with keeping them off-camera and minimizing the negative attention that often accompanies this brutality.
Zarqawi, however, disregarded these instructions, and continued his repression. In time, this led the Sunni population in Anbar to rebel in a tribal uprising that came to be known as the Sahwa (Awakening) movement. The Sahwa soon spread to other provinces and, along with a “surge” in U.S. troops and a shift in American strategy toward population-centric counterinsurgency, contributed to AQI’s downfall. It amounted to a repudiation of AQI—and by extension, of al-Qaeda itself.
The damage done by AQI and its successor organizations was so severe that in January 2011, Adam Gadahn, an American-born al-Qaeda media strategist, wrote a letter to Osama bin Laden arguing that al-Qaeda should cut ties with its Iraqi branch. Gadahn contended that if al-Qaeda did not expel AQI, al-Qaeda’s “reputation will be damaged more and more as a result of the acts and statements of” that group, “which is labeled under our organization.”(5) There is no indication, however, that Gadahn’s suggestion was seriously entertained at the time.
AQI’s failed experiment was a strategic inflection point for both al-Qaeda and the group that would become IS. AQSL viewed AQI’s defeat as a repudiation of the group’s approach, while it saw America’s population-centric approach as a success. Consequently, al-Qaeda began to adopt a more population-centric approach in its global operations in the wake of the Iraq war. IS, however, did not share this conclusion; it viewed Zarqawi as a founding father who was above reproach. IS’s continued adherence to Zarqawi’s approach would drive tensions with its parent organization and contribute to its eventual expulsion from al-Qaeda’s network. And following the split, when it reached unprecedented levels of success, IS continued to be driven by Zarqawist principles.
Early rebranding efforts
Following the AQI debacle, top al-Qaeda commanders began exploring how to repair the group’s reputation, as revealed by documents recovered from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. Thus, in a letter to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one AQSL official criticized AQI for killing tribesmen and inciting a rebellion, and stressed the importance of gaining public support, noting that “people’s support to the mujahedin is as important as the water for fish.”(6) (The statement’s similarity to Mao’s well-known adage that “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea” is not coincidental.)
Perhaps the clearest evidence of al-Qaeda’s rebranding efforts can be found in a letter that bin Laden wrote to Atiyah in May 2010.(7) Bin Laden lamented the damage that affiliates had done to al-Qaeda’s image, noting that indiscriminate violence had “led to the loss of the Muslims’ sympathetic approach towards the mujahedin.” Bin Laden proposed commencing a “new phase” in al-Qaeda’s operations that would “regain the trust of a large portion of those who had lost their trust.” Bin Laden emphasized minimizing Muslim casualties and directing affiliates to exert caution when civilians could be harmed. He urged a new media strategy, ordering media operatives to avoid “everything that would have a negative impact on the perception of the nation towards the mujahedin.”
AQSL even considered changing the organization’s name. In a letter found in Abbottabad, an unidentified official remarked that the group’s name had become dissociated from Islam, allowing Western states to claim that their war was with al-Qaeda and not the broader Muslim community.(8) The official asserted that al-Qaeda (“the base” in Arabic) had become associated solely with a “military base,” without any “reference to our broader mission to unify the nation.” The official proposed several alternative names, including Jama’at wihda al-Muslimin (Muslim Unity Group), which he believed would have greater resonance with the global Muslim community.
The “Arab Spring” marked a watershed moment in al-Qaeda’s rebranding effort. The developments of the Arab Spring illustrated the power of the masses in effecting change, and underscored that if al-Qaeda were to succeed in the post-revolutionary environment, it would have to gain the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the populace. This, in turn, accelerated al-Qaeda’s shift from a revolutionary vanguard to a popular and broad-based movement.
With the fall of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, al-Qaeda perceived an opportunity to expand into new theaters and introduce itself to populations that had little experience with al-Qaeda’s ideology and worldview. In these post-revolutionary environments, al-Qaeda adopted a population-centric approach that included cooperation with local actors, gradual introduction of sharia law, and expansion through popular front groups, a tactic intended to avoid alienating or intimidating local populations for whom the al-Qaeda brand had negative connotations. The group also placed a premium on dawa (evangelism), with the goal of introducing local populations to the Salafi jihadist methodology in a relatively unthreatening manner.
In September 2013, Zawahiri released a document entitled “General Guidelines for Jihad” that made public al-Qaeda’s new, population-centric approach.(9) Zawahiri instructed affiliates to avoid conflict with Middle Eastern governments when possible, asserting that conflict with local regimes would distract from efforts to build bases of support. Zawahiri also instructed affiliates to minimize violent conflict with Shi’as and non-Muslims in order to prevent local uprisings, and to abstain from attacks that could result in Muslim civilian casualties. A leaked September 2013 letter purportedly written by Zawahiri to IS’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, notes that the General Guidelines were distributed to all of al-Qaeda’s affiliates for review prior to their publication to allow for comments and objections, suggesting the document represents the unified policies of al-Qaeda as a whole.(10)
Teaching an old dog new tricks
Early efforts to change al-Qaeda’s image yielded mixed results. Some affiliates executed the rebranding strategy poorly or inconsistently. The jihadist experience in northern Mali in the spring of 2012 illustrates how aggressive local commanders could undermine al-Qaeda’s rebranding efforts. When jihadist groups under the command of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took control of northern Mali, they implemented a harsh form of sharia (Islamic law). The jihadists’ strict governance was at odds with the more moderate religious practice of Malians, and their heavy-handed approach—militants frequently beat, whipped, and stoned locals—sparked a mass exodus of civilians to neighboring Mauritania.(11)
This approach earned a rebuke from AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, thus illustrating the cohesion between AQIM’s leadership and its counterparts in Afghanistan-Pakistan. In a letter to the Mali-based jihadists, Droukdel criticized the “extreme speed with which” they imposed sharia, castigating them for destroying Sufi shrines and for relying excessively on corporal punishments.(12) Droukdel instructed the Malian jihadists to ally with other militant groups, including Tuareg rebels and other non-Salafists, and to focus on amassing public support. These directives closely mirrored the guidelines for jihad that Zawahiri would release publicly a year later.
This uneven implementation was true also of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate. In December 2013, AQAP militants attacked the defense ministry compound in the capital of Sana’a. A hospital was targeted, and several unarmed medics and civilians were killed. While AQAP immediately claimed credit, the group backpedaled after a video aired on state television showing an AQAP fighter gunning down doctors and other civilians in the hospital. Qassem al-Rimi, AQAP’s then-military chief, was forced to issue a rare apology, claiming the hospital attack had been the work of a rogue militant who defied commanders’ orders.(13) He expressed condolences to the victims’ families, and promised that AQAP would pay blood money.
The Mali case suggests a disconnect between top-level leaders and local commanders, while Yemen is more likely an instance of al-Qaeda’s trying to show moderation only after having its atrocities broadcast. At any rate, uneven implementation often undercut al-Qaeda’s early rebranding efforts.
Opportunity within adversity
Though the rise of the Islamic State has been a disaster for al-Qaeda in many respects, the group’s rebranding campaign in particular has benefited. While missteps such as those listed above previously received considerable media scrutiny, al-Qaeda’s use of violence has been eclipsed by IS’s unchecked atrocities. Beheadings, immolations, and mass executions carried out by the Islamic State have allowed al-Qaeda to change its image in a way that would have been unthinkable when the “Arab Spring” revolutions first gripped the region in 2011. Sunni–Shia geopolitical tensions have also been a boon to al-Qaeda’s rebranding strategy. Al-Qaeda is in the process of recasting itself to two audiences: presenting itself as a more palatable alternative to IS to locals, while portraying itself as a potential partner against both IS and Iran to regional governments. In essence, IS has now become a convenient foil for al-Qaeda.
As part of its rebranding initiative, al-Qaeda has launched a full-blown media campaign in recent months, deploying top officials to give interviews with mainstream media outlets. These officials downplay the threat the group poses to the West, and sometimes even encourage the perception of al-Qaeda’s weakness.
One of the first concrete signs of this media offensive came in early 2015, when Zawahiri issued a directive to Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the emir of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, ordering him to improve Nusra’s ties with the Syrian population and other rebel groups.(14) Zawahiri’s decree codified, to some extent, Nusra’s existing strategy. Since 2012, Nusra had collaborated with other Syrian rebel groups, and had amassed considerable public support. But in the latter half of 2014, Nusra was involved in infighting with other rebel factions, and Zawahiri’s edict was intended to clarify its position.
Since then, Syria has become a primary testing ground for al-Qaeda’s rebranding strategy. In March 2015, Al Jazeera aired an interview with Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, an Australian cleric who became one of Nusra’s top religious officials. Muhajir contrasted Nusra with IS, stating that Nusra’s primary goal was to topple Assad and “restore the right of the Muslim people to choose their leaders independently.”(15) His emphasis on popular representation and claim that Nusra focused on national objectives would become hallmarks of Nusra’s media campaign.
After Muhajir’s interview, Nusra granted Al Jazeera a conversation with Julani. In May 2015, Nusra’s emir sat for a 47-minute interview in which he, too, contrasted Nusra’s approach with IS’s extremism.(16) Julani asserted that Nusra’s sole goal was to topple the Assad regime. He hedged on the question of whether Nusra would establish an Islamic state once Assad was removed, claiming that all rebel groups would be consulted before a state was established. Julani adopted a comparatively tolerant stance toward religious minorities, promising that Nusra would neither target Druze nor Alawites. (Julani did, however, say that Alawites would have to renounce elements of their faith that contradicted Islam; Al Jazeera’s English-language reporting on the interview omitted these ominous statements.)(17)
Al-Qaeda ideologues have also been involved in the group’s rebranding efforts. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, two of al-Qaeda’s most prominent religious figures, gave an in-depth interview to London’s Guardian newspaper for an article published in June 2015.(18) Both men slammed IS, while claiming the group’s emergence had caused al-Qaeda’s organization to “collapse.” Through the prism of al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign, their portrayal of al-Qaeda as a dying organization fits the group’s strategy of understating its strength in order to both avoid drawing the attention of Western militaries and alleviate the fears of Gulf state governments.
Nusra has buttressed this media offensive by adopting a more collaborative approach toward other Syrian rebel factions. In March 2015, Nusra and several other prominent rebel groups, including the hard-line Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham, announced the establishment of a new coalition, Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest).(19) Since then, Nusra and its allies have made considerable gains in Idlib province. Nusra has exported this collaborative model to other provinces, and has signaled that it is open to sharing power with other organizations; after Jaysh al-Fatah captured Idlib city, Julani stated that Nusra would not “strive to rule the city or to monopolize it without others.”(20)
Consistent with the uneven implementation of al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign, some of Nusra’s actions have departed from its goal of displaying a moderate face. In June 2015, Nusra fighters killed at least twenty Druze in a town in Idlib province, but the group’s leadership was quick to do damage control. Three days after the massacre, Nusra issued a communiqué apologizing for the attack and explaining that those involved had not secured the approval of their commanders. Nusra asserted that it would try the perpetrators in a sharia court.(21)
Al-Qaeda is also implementing its rebranding strategy in Yemen, where the conflict between Iranian-backed Houthis and a Saudi-led military coalition, as well as IS’s emergence, have enabled AQAP to recast itself as a force that can counter both the Houthis and IS. AQAP sometimes fights the Houthis alongside the Saudi-led coalition, as it did in the summer of 2015 in the coastal city of Aden.(22) At the same time, AQAP has engaged in a careful balancing act where it carries out attacks against Houthi militants while distancing itself from IS’s terrorist operations against Houthi civilians.(23)
AQAP has also capitalized on the anarchic conditions in Yemen to carve out territory for itself, and has exhibited its new gradualist approach to governance. In April 2015, AQAP seized the city of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt Province. The group refrained from hoisting jihadist banners, and even issued a statement refuting rumors that it would ban music and shorts for men.(24) AQAP established an umbrella group to rule Mukalla known as the Sons of Hadramawt, a name intended to emphasize local roots, and has generally avoided measures that could alienate the local population. AQAP will likely export this model of governance to other provinces as it continues to exploit Yemen’s chaotic situation.
Reaping the benefits
Al-Qaeda’s rebranding efforts have already found some traction with local populations and Sunni states, and even some Western analysts. In both Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda affiliates have received support from, or fought alongside, Sunni states. The Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in Syria has become a favorite aid recipient for Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, AQAP has benefited from the Saudi-led coalition’s preoccupation with the Houthi and Iranian threats. Mukalla residents say the tribes that run the city receive Saudi aid, some of which certainly reaches AQAP.(25) Saudi Arabia has refrained from carrying out airstrikes against AQAP strongholds, and has turned a blind eye to AQAP’s developing a foothold in other parts of southern Yemen.(26) Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, explained the Saudis’ divergent approach toward al-Qaeda and IS: “At this point we must really differentiate between fanaticism and outright monstrosity.”(27)
The IS threat has also raised al-Qaeda’s stock in Jordan. When IS captured a Jordanian air force pilot in December 2014, Jordan tasked Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi with negotiating with IS. Later, Jordan released Maqdisi from prison, and allowed him to appear on Jordanian television.(28) While Jordan isn’t naïve about Maqdisi or al-Qaeda, the Hashemite Kingdom appears to be tolerating Maqdisi and other al-Qaeda supporters in the hope that they can curb IS’s growth.
In recent months, two respected scholars have written prominent articles arguing for a different approach to al-Qaeda. In March 2015, Haverford College’s Barak Mendelsohn authored an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Accepting al-Qaeda,” which argued that the United States should “rethink its policy toward al-Qaeda, particularly its targeting of Zawahiri,” which he claims could play into IS’s hands.(29) In June 2015, Ahmed Rashid, the author of several bestselling books, wrote a New York Review of Books article titled “Why We Need al-Qaeda.”(30) Rashid cited several key elements of al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign, including AQAP’s governance of Mukalla and Julani’s interview with Al Jazeera, as evidence that al-Qaeda could be a partner against IS.
The risks of rebranding
Though al-Qaeda has experienced considerable success in its rebranding campaign, it faces both internal and external challenges to maintaining strategic continuity. Externally, there is a chance that IS—which has embraced an ostentatious and aggressive military strategy—may so fundamentally threaten to steal away al-Qaeda’s most important affiliate groups that it forces al-Qaeda into a game of terrorist outbidding that undermines the latter group’s rebranding initiative. Essentially, if IS’s prestige rises significantly in the jihadist world, particularly if al-Qaeda loses key leaders who keep its network intact, al-Qaeda may be compelled to act more overtly and aggressively in order to reassert its relevance.
The October 31, 2015, Sinai plane bombing and the gruesome attacks in Paris that occurred two weeks later add further challenges for al-Qaeda, though these should not be overstated. In carrying out the Sinai and Paris attacks, IS has entered into an arena—attacks against Western targets—that al-Qaeda has traditionally dominated. Moreover, IS has already begun leveraging the two attacks as evidence that it has supplanted al-Qaeda, and now deserves the loyalty of the jihadist community.
The rebranding campaign could also create rifts within al-Qaeda’s ranks. Though AQSL appears to be committed to rebranding, militants at the middle and lower levels of the organization may not see the utility of adopting a population-centric strategy, and may become impatient with al-Qaeda’s methodical approach. Their restlessness may be further stirred by the spectacle of al-Qaeda’s coaching its fighters to be patient while IS seizes international headlines with its brazen strategy.
Thus far, however, al-Qaeda has managed to maintain strategic continuity. The group has resisted the impulse to engage in terrorist outbidding with IS, reasoning that the rebranding strategy will be beneficial over the long run, while calculating that IS is likely to burn itself out. Al-Qaeda has also maintained a high degree of group cohesion, even in the face of IS’s recruitment efforts toward al-Qaeda affiliates. As such, there is no indication that al-Qaeda has deviated from its rebranding strategy.
Seeing through the fog
As IS dominates the headlines, analysts seem to be underestimating al-Qaeda’s strategic capacity to adapt and thrive. Al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign leaves it well positioned to exploit political conditions in the Middle East for years to come. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates have worked to restore the group’s image, garnered public support in countries like Syria and Yemen, and even won the support of some Sunni states. But beneath the smoke and mirrors of al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign lies the reality that al-Qaeda remains a dangerous group with expansionist aims that is committed to striking the West and overthrowing Middle Eastern regimes. Unless analysts take a closer look at al-Qaeda’s ongoing rebranding efforts, we run the risk of underestimating the group’s staying power.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the chief executive officer of Valens Global, a consulting firm that focuses on violent nonstate actors. Nathaniel Barr is the research manager at Valens Global.
2. “State of the Insurgency in al-Anbar,” classified Marine Corps intelligence assessment, August 17, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/02/AR200702...
3. Ayman al-Zawahiri letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, July 2005, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Zawahiris-Letter-...
4. Atiyah Abd al-Rahman letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, late 2005, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Atiyahs-Letter-to...
5. Adam Gadahn, letter to unknown recipient, January 2011, http://www.jihadica.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/SOCOM-2012-0000004-Tr...
6. Letter to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, , date unknown, http://www.washingtonpost.com/r/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2012/05/03/Fore...
7. Letter from Osama bin Laden to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, May 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/r/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2012/05/03/Fore...
8. Letter from unknown al-Qaeda official, n.d., http://www.washingtonpost.com/r/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2012/05/03/Fore...
9. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” September 2013, https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/dr-ayman-al-e1ba93awc481hirc4...
10. The full text of this purported letter can be found at http://justpaste.it/asrarwkk
12. Letter from Abdelmalek Droukdel to Ansar Dine Shura Council, n.d., http://hosted.ap.org/specials/interactives/_international/_pdfs/al-qaida...
15. “People & Power—Western Jihadis in Syria,” Al Jazeera (Doha), March 4, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OD_A3CHzvjQ
16. For video of Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language interview with Julani, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QBuvwsg0Gc
17. “Nusra Front Leader: We Will Not Target Syria’s Alawites,” Al Jazeera (Doha), May 27, 2015. In reality, Nusra’s policies toward the Druze in areas it controls have been genocidal. It has generally employed “softer” genocidal policies (forced renunciation of the Druze faith and religious reeducation) rather than IS’s mass executions, but that does not make Nusra’s intent to destroy these religious minorities any less real. See Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “Druze Clues: Al-Nusra’s Rebranding and What It Means for Syria,” Foreign Affairs, October 6, 2015.
28. For a video clip of Maqdisi’s appearance on Jordanian television, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=75&v=XFh6gMKSGmA
Cover image credit: By Magharebia [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons