In May 2011, President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. After a decade long exhaustive manhunt, the US had finally caught the leader of the most feared jihadi terrorist organization in the world, Al Qaeda. Two months later, Defense Secretary Panetta said that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.” After pouring billions of dollars into a counter-terrorism campaign after 9/11 to target the organization’s core members, the United States had successfully decimated its leadership and had lopped off the head of the beast. But what the US failed to understand was that the nature of the beast had begun to change. Al-Qaeda’s “strategic defeat” might have been imminent, but the United States was no closer to smothering the growing movement of other violent Islamic extremist and jihadi organizations across the Middle East and North Africa. One look today at the smattering of organizations across the region shows this dangerous reality. And so it is essential that the international community begins to understand this phenomenon, and respond to it in a thoughtful and effective way.
If anything, Al-Qaeda is not the primary issue. It was only ever a franchise organization that operated by way of its regional affiliates, like Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) or Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). For the past decade, these affiliates received support and guidance from Al-Qaeda’s core leadership thought to reside mainly in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda was then able to pursue its ideological goals regionally and internationally by way of its violent methods. But with the establishment of counter-terrorist networks, the breakdown of Al-Qaeda’s central command, and the death of Bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda network and brand name is now a shadow of its old self.
And then there was the fall of numerous Arab autocrats, à la the Arab Uprisings. This precipitated the breakdown of state security structures, the diffusion of weaponry, disorder, and Islamic rhetoric, and the emergence of new organizations pursuing their regional goals. What we have since witnessed is a deadly attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, a tragic hostage crisis in Algeria, an Islamist takeover in northern Mali, and the branding of a group fighting among the Syrian rebels as a terrorist organization. The relationships between the organizations linked to these various events are anything but clear, while their connections to Al-Qaeda are marginal at best and convenient at most.
The State Department blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria because of its affiliation with Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But making such a decisive distinction fails to recognize the changing nature of jihadi and violent Islamic factions across the Middle East. It would be utterly inadequate and counterproductive to equate Ansar al-Din in Mali, to Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, to the warlord Mokhtar Belmokhtar (the mastermind of the Algeria incident), to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), to Boko Harem, to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While some of these organizations might coordinate with some of the others, co-exist in some sense, and have connections with Al-Qaeda, they are by no extent monolithic in their efforts or perspective. Even on its own, “Ansar al-Sharia” is a set of multifarious organizations across MENA. Rather, the rise of these many Islamist factions reflects a horizontally structured jihadist network, working in loose collaboration, but rarely operating officially in tandem. This stands in contradistinction to the more hierarchical structured Al-Qaeda dominated network seen in the days overseen by Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and it begins to frame the relationships between these groups as we see them today.
Indeed, Al-Qaeda has been able to expand its reach with these recent developments, but not in the same way it was once able to do so. It is now dependent upon its various connections in this multipolar jihadi world. For instance, in Mali, Ansar al Din functions as a local umbrella under which AQIM can operate, yet it denies any links with Al-Qaeda. This informal coordination between groups is commonplace. They are individual organizations that pursue their individual interests and goals. Because, in the end, most of these groups have sprouted from regional circumstances, and their vision lies largely within a regional scope. An overview of the organizations operating in the Sahel reveals mobility between groups and a fluid political dynamic among them in which Al-Qaeda is a secondary player.
As yet another litmus test, a recent report released by the New America Foundation outlines the ways in which jihadi networks have begun to adopt online social networking platforms to disseminate their views and expand their reach. This is unprecedented. Previously, access to Jihadi forums and related material was more exclusive and tightly monitored by al-Qaeda in a “top-down” structure. These mechanisms have since evolved. Now, as the report exposes, “social media can expose the global jihadi message to anyone, whereas before, one had to knowingly want to be directly exposed to the message by going to the forums.” This further reflects a more “horizontal” anatomy. While some might argue these developments will dilute the jihadist threat, it is also undeniable that now there are different players—and more of them—entering and reconstituting the jihadi scene.
So, what now? Surely the international community cannot let these organizations destabilize the region and uproot relevant security structures. But to assume that they all pose a security threat on the international stage would be equally as bogus. Many of these groups essentially don’t have ambitions to coordinate or mastermind international attacks. Therefore, it is imperative that the international community first endeavors to understand the nature and character of the various emerging extremist factions. Doing so will allow the international players to then assess the level of threat these groups might play to security concerns. A terrorist attack in North Africa is one thing. A terrorist attack on American soil is a phenomenon of undeniably elevated significance, both for the United States, and for the extremist group behind it.
To believe that a heavy-handed approach can preempt the growth of these organizations is both shortsighted and subversive. The “whack-a-mole” strategy of incessant drone strikes won’t solve the problem. If anything, it will exacerbate it. Yes, the United States has been able to wage a largely successful campaign in Yemen to destabilize the historically threatening Al-Qaeda group there, but again, not all groups are like AQAP. Antagonizing “imminent threats” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. First and foremost, it must be understood that the evolution of the global jihadi character has changed in large part due to regional circumstances. These are regional problems, and must first be solved locally. For instance, a group of religious leaders in North Africa have come together to denounce the religiously fanatic jihadists, and to fight them with a “culture of tolerance and peace.” Better economic and political conditions too can stem the growth of violent religious fanaticism and jihadist ideology. Many of these groups have been able to establish a foothold because they offer adequate public services in areas where the governments cannot.
The United States, its allies, and the rest of the world must therefore be careful in how they respond to these changing circumstances. For one, groups within this evolving network must be understood for what they represent, and henceforth analyzed for the magnitude of threat they pose. After that, solutions must be pursued on a region level, and direct and combative action on the part of international players and the United States must be avoided. If the United States has learned anything over the past decades, it is that a larger footprint does not predicate greater popularity in the Middle East. Finally, these aforementioned measures should only be employed if the threat posed by specific groups has been assessed to be great enough to necessitate a stronger hand to fight them.
Judging the character of the many jihadi groups, the significance of their relations with Al-Qaeda, and their role within a changing global jihadi network is no easy task. With a loud and violent impact, these groups pose a threat to many across the Middle East and North Africa. Even to most Muslims, they are foreigners. In parallel, Hamid Dabashi (our own Columbia great) articulates how Muslims across the world are looking to “wrest” Islam from groups with an “outdated” militant Islamist ideology. Combating these groups must then be framed within a larger perspective. These efforts must reflect economic, political, and social changes. Local forces must champion them, and they must be undertaken with great care and coordination. There is no quick fix to deal with the spread of Islamic extremism and jihadi organizations. Believing that there is such a solution is, in fact, our number one problem.