The public discourse about transnational jihadist organizations indiscriminately lumps together al-Qaeda, its forerunners (such as the Taliban), affiliates (such as Jahbat al-Nusra), its derivatives (such as Ansar al-Sharia or the Islamic State), and even groups which have no strong connection to al-Qaeda or such as Hamas, Hezbollah, or local tribal militants. It is not just laymen who succumb to this error, but media organizations, policymakers, analysts, and often even intelligence and law enforcement officials.
However, understanding the raison d’etre of these transnational jihadist organizations is critical for escaping the pointless cycle of escalation and retaliation which have defined the last decade of “War on Terror.” And in the shorter term, assisting with the evaluation of, and response to, the threats (and opportunities) these groups may pose to the United States and its interests.
Al-Qaeda is a prime example. Osama Bin Laden got his start in the U.S.-sponsored and Pakistani ISI trained mujahedeen resistance movement against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Under the leadership of Bin Laden, the movement drew resistance fighters from across the Muslim world—and after the Russians were driven out, a plurality of the exogenous fighters continued to follow Bin Laden in his new organization, which was to continue to the work of expelling foreign powers and autocrats from the Greater Middle East in order to promote the sovereignty of Muslims. At that time, they considered the United States to be an ally.
The group came at odds with America during operation Desert Shield (and later, Storm) when, against Bin Laden’s protests, the government of Saudi Arabia decided to host U.S. forces in the Hijaz to defend and project power against Saddam Hussein (who, for the reference, Bin Laden also wanted to overthrow). This was the moment where America shifted from being an ally of the cause to another foreign occupier which must be resisted.
It’s been nearly 30 years since al-Qaeda first declared jihad against America. A whole generation has grown up in the aftermath of 9/11—and yet it is astonishing how little people understand about al-Qaeda, its ideology, methodologies, and organization. They are even less informed about the nascent Islamic State—to our collective detriment.
Against the Neoliberal Crusade
The challenge posed by al-Qaeda, and religious fundamentalists more broadly, is not a rejection of values like justice, freedom and human rights—but of particular interpretations of these values and/or the methods and institutions used to promote them. Secularism and religious fundamentalism are competing interpretations of the same broader ideology: modernism.
Al-Qaeda doesn’t hate freedom or democracy—they see themselves as the champions of these ideals. Their purpose is to promote the self-determination of Muslims. This is why they strive to overthrow the region’s dictators and monarchs, and to purge foreign occupiers and their proxies. They are not at war with America because of its professed ideals, but for its actions–particularly in the Middle East. They are very explicit about this.
In fact, regarding ideals like freedom and democracy, al-Qaeda does not view America as particularly free or democratic. Its sympathizers and propagandists gleefully rail against Western hypocrisy: radical socio-economic inequalities, the domination of politics by oligarchic financial interests, the militarization of America’s police, the overreach of its intelligence services (particularly against Muslims), its unparalleled incarceration rates, and its self-serving historical support of dictators around the world. To the extent that al-Qaeda has an ideological grudge against the United States, it isn’t because America is a bastion of human dignity, but because it falls far short of the ideals it often forcibly seeks to impose on others and seems willfully unaware of the dissonance.
In a similar vein, contrary to the insistence of many conservatives, al-Qaeda doesn’t hate America because it is a “Christian nation” either. Acutely aware of the “Clash of Civilizations” and “End of History” narratives popular at the time of al-Qaeda’s formation–which consistently depicted Islamic civilization as the last frontier to be conquered by the neoliberal world order—the movement’s founders attempted to rally the Muslim community (umma) against this impending Crusade.
However, al-Qaeda views the crusaders as infidels, not believers. The aforementioned hypocrisies, when paired with Americans’ perceived decadent lifestyle and loose moral standards (especially as depicted in the pop-culture) represent to most mujahedeen a near-total refutation of the Prophet Jesus and his message. Insofar as al-Qaeda frames Americans in religious terms, it is typically not as Christian zealots, but instead as kuffar (those who have turned away from the right path, non-believers). If you asked them what god Americans serve, the answer would probably be “money.”
But despite these profound differences, the Americans and al-Qaeda have also fought on the same side—not just in Afghanistan, but also in the more recent campaigns to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddhafi, and Bashar al-Asad. The organization has and continues to be greatly enriched and empowered, both directly and indirectly, by American support of these uprisings. Al-Qaeda could also play an important role in the struggle against the Islamic State. Understanding why requires a more nuanced view of the organizations and their respective ideologies and methods.
Ideology Informs Structure, Methods
To start with, it is important to note that salafism is a diverse theological movement whose roots go back centuries (to the mid 1700’s, founded by Muhammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahab). While salafi are fundamentalist and iconoclastic, this does not entail rampant violence, intolerance or authoritarianism (e.g. Jesus was also an iconoclastic fundamentalist). Many salafi are disengaged from politics altogether—and most who do participate do so peaceably and within the existing framework of their states. While there is currently a lot of energy in the movement, salafism remains a tiny minority position among Sunnis, concentrated most heavily in the Gulf—and salafi are, themselves, often persecuted across the Middle East (identifiable by their beards and simple/traditional manner of dress).
Even within the more narrow framework of salafi jihadist organizations, there are important theological and differences–which resonate within al-Qaeda and its affiliate and derivative groups. For instance, Osama Bin Laden justified violence against other Muslims aligned with dictators, monarchs or foreign powers by evoking Ibn Tammiyya’s controversial notion of takfir—basically, declaring those who must be targeted as being de facto non-believers in virtue of their betrayal of the umma. However, this doctrine was to be used almost exclusively for the purpose of justifying why fellow believers may occasionally be collateral damage or even targets of the jihad against dictators, monarchs and malignant foreign forces—Bin Laden did not intend it to justify the persecution of religious minorities.
Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL) haw long de-emphasized top-down prescriptions or impositions of their particular belief system on other Muslims. They foresaw that attempting to convert other Muslims to salafism would primarily serve to divide the umma against one another (to the benefit of those who keep Muslims oppressed), and would alienate many believers from the group and its cause. To them, it was far more important for the Muslim community to present a unified (pan-Islamist) front against its true enemies: foreign powers and their proxies, be they “Zionists,” secular dictators, or past-due monarchs.
Takfirism was not to be used to force others to accept their caliphate. In fact, their goal is not to actually establish a caliphate at all—neither Bin Laden, Zawahiri, al-Awlaki or any of the movement’s other intellectual leaders saw themselves as candidates for al-khalifa, nor did they endorse anyone for that position, nor did they think it was appropriate to do so. Their goal was simply to lay the groundwork making it possible for a new caliphate to emerge. This is what their name means: al-Qaeda, “the base.” They are the revolutionary vanguard.
The specific form of the government to follow is left to the Muslim community to decide for themselves through shura deliberations (their interpretation of representative democracy)—albeit guided by Islamic principles. It is a pseudo-apocalyptic aspiration which most operatives seek to advance aware that they are unlikely to see it realized within their lifetimes.
The organization was initially funded by Osama Bin Laden’s personal fortune, and is now supported almost entirely through charity (particularly donations from wealthy private citizens from the Gulf States, generally in defiance of said governments, whom al-Qaeda aspires to overthrow) and relies heavily upon the participation of carefully vetted volunteer operatives. This enables them to spend the overwhelming majority of their energies on the struggle (jihad) rather than on vulgar pursuits—contributing to their reputation as non-corrupt, often in stark contrast to other resistance organizations.
Finally, Al-Qaeda gives its agents a good deal of autonomy and is extremely receptive to bottom-up suggestions for operations, content to provide support and guidance as needed. As perhaps the epitome of this philosophy, one of the last visions of the late Osama Bin Laden was to see a network of groups dedicated to fighting corruption, injustice and oppression in the service of Muslim self-determination—but at the local and state level (rather than the regional or international): with indigenous agents focused on resolving local problems, largely through civic activism, perhaps linked together by an extremely loose network by which they could learn from one another and become more effective. This idea has been realized posthumously in the nascent Ansar al-Sharia.
Salafi “Libertarians” v. Salafi Fascists
Given the preceding considerations, one could argue that al-Qaeda aspires towards a salafi interpretation of libertarianism–noting, of course, that this is radically different than its Western-originated secular varieties, and also that their status as revolutionaries (as opposed to reformists) predisposes them towards extremism in the service of their ideology.
However, for the last several years the group’s founding leadership, ideology and methodology have been facing a profound challenge in the form of AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) and its successive iterations:
AQI was headed up by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Following his appointment, and commensurate with al-Qaeda’s modus operandi, he was given a good deal of independence and flexibility in determining how to best carry out the struggle in Iraq—it was a privilege he would come to abuse.
Again, AQSL had de-emphasized the persecution of religious minorities or other Islamic sects such as the Shia (after all, they were tolerated in the previous caliphates). The organization even made a series of generally unsuccessful overtures towards Iran and its proxies at various points in its history.
In defiance of this precedent and subsequent demands from AQSL to cease and desist, al-Zarqawi made AQI’s prime focus purging Iraq of those he viewed as heretics. He set out to ethnically cleanse Iraq’s Assyrians, to destroy Shia shrines, disrupt pilgrimages and religious holidays—evoking al-Qaeda’s fatwas regarding takfir as his justification, even as he actively defied its leadership’s orders. He even tried to provoke open conflict between the U.S. and Iran. His reign of terror played a profound role in establishing the sectarian cycle of violence which grew to consume Iraq and now threatens the entire region
But the Sunnis were not safe either. In the areas under AQI control, the organization enforced extraordinarily strict interpretations of Islamic Law, persecuting perceived violators with extreme prejudice. Muslims became the overwhelming majority of those killed by Al-Qaeda. As Bin Laden had warned, these measures backfired, leading to the uprising known as the “Sunni Awakening” against AQI and its allies which, in conjunction with the U.S. “surge” brought the group to the precipice of extinction. Al-Zarqawi was killed soon thereafter by American forces, who were allegedly tipped off by members of AQSL wishing to purge his virulent strain of their ideology.
But al-Zarqawi’s movement did not die with him, instead reborn as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which came under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2010.
Following the genesis of the Arab Uprisings, and particularly seeing the success of their Syrian affiliate Jahbat al-Nusra—the ISI emigrated across the border. They quickly established themselves as one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria, utilizing skills honed over years of struggle against the American and Iraqi governments. But they also distinguished themselves by their brutality, falling back on al-Zarqawi’s practices of persecuting religious minorities and imposing their idiosyncratic beliefs upon all conquered lands.
For these reasons, al-Qaeda leadership demanded they return to Iraq and leave the Syrian resistance to the largely indigenous Jahbat al-Nusra. Al-Baghdadi refused, instead audaciously declaring that the al-Nusra fighters were now under his command instead—and as many as 80% of them actually went along with this coup. They rebranded themselves ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) reflective of their new regional ambitions. As a result, al-Baghdadi and his fighters were excommunicated from al-Qaeda—a move which, ironically, freed the visionary leader to make still more radical transformations to his organization.
For instance, in contrast to al-Qaeda’s reliance on charity, which leaves them vulnerable to shifting social attitudes and interruption of revenue streams due to economic depressions or crackdowns on their financial network—al-Baghdadi decided that his organization needed to be self-sufficient. Eschewing donations, they sought financial independence, raising money by looting, trafficking, extortion, taxing religious minorities, and seizing critical resources (such as oil-fields). They armed themselves by first looting regime depots, and then turning against the “moderate” rebels seizing the supplies provided by Western powers and their regional allies. They used these resources to make a triumphant return to Iraq, where they were able to seize large sums of cash, arms, and further resources—rendering them one of the richest illicit organizations on the planet, valued at more than $2B and growing—and capitalizing on Sunni disenfranchisement against the al-Malaki regime to set up an emirate in that country as well.
They expended most of their energies in Syria and Iraq towards accumulating these assets and seizing contiguous territory rather than fighting against the respective regimes. Subsequently, they used the resources they amassed in order to grow their numbers, not just by proselytization (largely to nihilists and misfits abroad), but instead recruiting a large mercenary force from among the economically desperate local populations. All of this was orchestrated by meticulous top-down administration. That is, in contrast to al-Qaeda’s “salafi libertarianism”—given their hierarchical leadership, draconian enforcement of “Sharia Law,” their preoccupation with amassing ever-more wealth, power, and territory—the Islamic State is clearly a fascist salafi strain. But it would be improper to understand their ideology and method as being reflective even of the broader al-Qaeda movement, let alone the salafi tradition in Islam (or especially of the Muslim community, more broadly).
This leads to perhaps their most radical challenge to AQSL:
Rather than merely preparing the way for the umma to realize a new caliphate, al-Baghdadi came up with the goal of immediately establishing a Sunni state—beginning with the territories they seized in Iraq and Syria; reflective of their new mandate, the organization condensed its name into the Islamic State (IS). This redefinition of the caliphate–from a transcendent entity uniting and guiding all believers into a vulgar, bounded (if yet undefined) nation, narrowly concerned with promoting the interests of Sunnis (as defined by al-Baghdadi), primarily Arabs—this is, itself, a profound proposition which has received scant notice. But combined, these maneuvers amount to a near-total refutation of al-Qaeda’s founding ideology and methodology.
No Quick or Easy Solution (For Anyone)
AQSL, in turn, has denied the legitimacy of the IS “caliphate,” and is anxious to see the group dismantled; it poses an existential threat to al-Qaeda. We have explored how most of al-Qaeda’s Syrian forces joined with al-Baghdadi—they are not alone. Recently, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) declared allegiance to the Islamic State as well; in contrast, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has rejected the “caliphate,” reaffirming its allegiance to AQSL. In short, the emergence of the IS threatens to tear al-Qaeda asunder, and it seems as though al-Baghdadi may reap the lion’s share in the event of a rupture. This is because, while most salafi religious leaders reject al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” as ill-conceived (at best)–most of those who would be inclined to join the IS are not particularly well-versed about Islam, fiqh, or the rulings of salafi sheikhs.
For this reason, if the IS seemed particularly vulnerable, likely under the combined pressure of Syrian and Iraqi forces as well as an indigenous Sunni uprising against them—it is plausible that al-Qaeda loyalists could attempt to sweep in to purge the heretical IS leadership and reassert control over the rogue forces and the assets they wield. And as strange as it sounds, it would likely be a positive development if they succeeded in this bid (rather than having more extreme splinter groups proliferate across the region warring to fill the vacuum in the aftermath).
But even if AQSL succeeds in routing al-Baghdadi and regaining/ retaining the allegiance of their affiliates, the ideology that underlies the Islamic State is likely here to stay. As peaceful resistance and democratic participation fail to result in just and free societies in the Muslim world, people will feel increasingly compelled to resort to violence. The Islamic State appeals to those anxious for a revolution in the here and now—not in some pseudo-utopian future. It is a spirit of vengeance against the counter-revolutions which stifled the Arab Uprisings, and for the failures of those who were supposed to be their champions. Obviously, this is the sort of sociological problem which can be easily exacerbated, but never resolved, by military means—especially at the hands of foreign actors such as the United States.
In fact, the threat to Western powers posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is actually lower than its ever been. In contrast with the late Bin Laden, the current head of AQSL, Ayman al-Zawarhi, has and continues to emphasize targeting the “near enemies” in the greater Mideast (likely to include the IS) rather than plotting complicated missions abroad that usually result in more foreign interventions and occupations. And the Islamic State, for the foreseeable future, will be almost completely consumed with their likely ill-fated quest to hold onto their territory and expand their governance; this is, in fact, their telos.
Contrary to the jingoism and fear-mongering which dominate the popular media echo chamber, there is no need for military intervention. It is ludicrous to think that a bombing campaign spearheaded by the U.S. in conjunction with corrupt regional autocrats and the Mideast’s former imperial and colonial powers in Europe will somehow undermine the Islamic State and its appeal. The best thing Western powers can do is to stop feeding the beast—beginning by cutting their aid to non-state actors in Syria and the broader region, and then by revisiting the levels and types of cooperation afforded to Israel and Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs in order to reduce its complicacy with their abuses. Notice, this stops far short of the failed policies of imposing or promoting Western liberal socioeconomic models in radically exogenous contexts. What freedom and democracy means in the Arab world is for the Arabs to decide, not the White House.