The South Asia Channel

Splitting al-Qa’ida and its affiliates

Splitting al-Qa’ida and its affiliates

The following article was adapted from the author’s recently released report, "Breaking the Bonds Between al-Qa’ida and Its Affiliate Organizations."

The death of Osama bin Ladin and the fall of Arab dictators have left al-Qa’ida’s 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.

The role of affiliates is perhaps the most important uncertainty when assessing whether or not the United States and its allies are "winning" the struggle against al-Qa’ida.  If affiliates are really part of the al-Qa’ida core, then the overall movement Zawahiri champions is robust and growing.  But if the affiliates are al-Qa’ida in little more than name, then Zawahiri’s organization, the core of which has been hit hard in recent years, may be close to defeat.

The Rewards and Risks of Affiliation

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 its own attacks, but it also helped other jihadist groups with funding, training, and additional logistical essentials. Toward the end of the 1990s, al-Qa’ida incorporated Egyptian Islamic Jihad into its structure. After September 11, 2001, this process of deepening its relationship with outside groups 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.

Groups have joined with the core after losing recruits and popular support and otherwise seeing their original goals frustrated. For much of its history, al-Qa’ida was flush with cash, which made it an attractive partner for other terrorist groups. Al-Qa’ida ran training camps, operated safe houses, and otherwise established a large infrastructure in support of terror that offered local groups a safe haven and created personal networks among those who trained and sheltered there.  At times, groups sought to replace their more local brand with that of al-Qa’ida, believing the latter is more compelling. Because groups share havens, training facilities, and so on with al-Qa’ida, when these locations are targeted by U.S. or local government forces, the individuals from these join al-Qa’ida in fighting back.

Having a diverse array of affiliates helps al-Qa’ida extend its reach, gain access to hardened fighters, and fulfill its self-image as the leader of the jihadist community. Today, amid 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.

Despite the benefits to joining with al-Qa’ida, not all Salafi-jihadist groups choose to affiliate with it, including Egypt’s Gamaat al-Islamiyya and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and fighters in Chechnya, Gaza, and Pakistan, though some individual terrorists from these groups did join up.

Doctrinal disputes divide the jihadist community, and some groups go so far as to declare others to be unbelievers, which has tremendous consequences for how a group chooses its targets, and on a group’s popularity. In addition, an ideological divide over issues like targeting civilians has caused a rift among jihadists.  Local versus global outlooks have also played a role in keeping some groups from linking up with al-Qa’ida. 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.

Strains in the Relationship

Different aims and divergent strategies may strain 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. Often, local groups have markedly different convictions from al-Qa’ida, particularly when it comes to nationalism and democracy.   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. 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.

How to Fight Affiliates Better

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. 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 like Hamas that act against U.S. interests can still serve to weaken al-Qa’ida.

An information operations campaign can try to widen these gaps within the broader movement, highlighting differences and thus encouraging them. In addition, the foreign nature of al-Qa’ida should be emphasized and local nationalisms used to discredit the jihadis.  The United States and its allies should also call attention to al-Qa’ida’s unpopular stand against democracy and contrast it with statements by peaceful Salafi leaders, including some former jihadists, in support of elections.

Intelligence services can monitor radicals within diaspora communities and work with law enforcement officials to curtail fundraising for affiliate groups. If the core’s money diminishes, the core 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 to make up the funding shortfall. These actions paint the group as more criminal than heroic.

Washington must also 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.

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           

Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, and the Research Director at the Saban Center at Brookings.