For over a decade following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda captured the public imagination in many Western countries unlike any other terrorist organization. But despite the optimism following the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, al-Qaeda continued to exist. Since the declaration of its caliphate however, ISIS seems to have eclipsed al-Qaeda as the most infamous and headline-garnering jihadist organization. So has al-Qaeda lost the arms race for the hearts and minds of potential jihadists? The answer very much depends on the layer of the organization and possible audience of support one focuses on.
Al-Qaeda does not constitute a unified organization. Instead, we can differentiate in between at least four layers that are associated with the network: 1) core al-Qaeda 2) regional affiliates 3) directed networks 4) undirected networks. The distinction in between these layers may not always be clear- cut. Core al-Qaeda (1) for example has sent a group of veteran members to Syria in order to influence the operations of its former regional affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (2) and AQAP (2) claimed that the brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo-shooting (3 or 4) acted in its name. Al-Qaeda’s exact scope may also change over time. Over the last years, previously unaffiliated groups have joined (al-Shabaab, AQI, AQIM), and hitherto affiliated groups have parted ways (Jabhat Fatah al- Sham, ISIS) with al-Qaeda. Furthermore, al-Qaeda has established regional franchises like al- Nusrah and AQIS by itself.
To its own disappointment, al-Qaeda has never enjoyed great support amongst the global Muslim population and mainstream Islamic scholars, which were shocked by its indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants. This led al-Qaeda to re-evaluate its strategic approach and focus on local conflicts in Muslim-majority countries instead of striking the “far enemy” in the West. By appealing to the political desires of local populations and presenting themselves as the more “moderate” jihadist alternatives to ISIS, al-Qaeda affiliates have managed to gain ground, especially in Syria and Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has even managed to unite different factions anti-Assad opposition that broadly share its ideology under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al- Sham, which includes former members of Ahrar al-Sham. If anything al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates have gained strength and local trust.
However, if we look at the support from Salafi-jihadists in Western Europe and North America, the picture changes. Al-Qaeda failed to capitalize on the increased levels of radicalisation unleashed by the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Even though its regional affiliates did attract foreign fighters from the West, most of the estimated 4,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq joined its competitor ISIS.
In addition, attacks committed under the direct order of or inspired by al-Qaeda have declined further in their frequency and severity over the last few years during a time in which attacks organised or at least claimed by ISIS have risen. But why has al-Qaeda lost support amongst potential western recruits to its cause? While there is not a singular factor we can point to, there are multiple organisational, strategic and ideological reasons for AQ’s relative demise amongst westerners.
Let us turn to the organisational factors first. It has often been assumed that terrorist networks without strong hierarchies have organizational features that make it tough for states to effectively confront them. Al-Qaeda’s development after 9/11 may be a counter-example to this hypothesis. Core al-Qaeda’s capacities to carry out major attacks in the West have been significantly reduced by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the continued counterterrorism efforts of the United States. Most subsequent plots and attacks had therefore to be planned and carried out autonomously by local admirers, who were not able to establish contact to the leaders of the organization. Operations by such autonomous groups are very difficult to prevent. On the flip side, the impact of small cells remains limited, because they lack strategic direction and their attacks does not serve any attainable long-term political goals. Their violence becomes vacuous.
Next we need to look at how the strategic decisions al-Qaeda has made have disconnected the group from their western admirers. Over the last few years, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic approach away from the “far enemy” towards participation in local struggles in Muslim-majority countries through its regional affiliates. A combination of three factors can explain this change: firstly, offensive U.S. counterterrorism efforts put a lot of pressure on core al-Qaeda. Secondly, the American intelligence services simultaneously improved at preventing terrorist plots. Thirdly, the group recognized that its strategy during the 1990’s and 2000’s failed to win over Muslim populations. This led core al-Qaeda to place more importance on local conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Mali, in which regional AQ-franchises adopted comparatively more moderate tactics to win over the hearts and minds of the local populations. In a certain sense, core al-Qaeda sacrificed part of its global appeal in order to rebuild its strength by establishing more stable and sustainable bases. For western jihadists, it might have become more difficult to fully align with movements who seemed to be primarily concerned with national issues and not the global struggle.
A last explanation for al-Qaeda’s relative decline among support from Western jihadists concerns the ideological differences between itself and ISIS and the way they have been communicated. Terrorist groups thrive on narratives. Establishing a caliphate while gaining immense amounts of territory in a very short time provided ISIS with a powerful narrative. ISIS appeared to be confident, strong and victorious while al-Qaeda did not seem able to provide a powerful counter-narrative. Furthermore, ISIS communicated its message in a more accessible fashion by relying on social media, well-produced videos and stylish online magazines, while AQAP’s famous online magazine “Inspire” deteriorated in the quality of its articles and was also not published as often following the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in 2011. While al-Qaeda still put out sophisticated theological treatises, ISIS internet propaganda appealed to and specifically targeted a broader, less selective profile of volunteers. ISIS also came to be seen as the more radical, violent and apocalyptic group than suddenly “moderate” al-Qaeda. which may also have made al-Qaeda become less attractive for rebellious youth aspiring to join the cause.
When looking at al-Qaeda’s current support base, an ambivalent picture emerges. On the level of European jihadists, al-Qaeda has lost support in terms of groups committing directed or undirected attacks. Furthermore, the network has not been able to recruit as many jihadist foreign fighters from Europe as its rival ISIS. Regional affiliates of al-Qaeda however continue to be a major factors in local conflicts. Today, it has become clear that the jihadist movement is bigger than al-Qaeda and can easily survive al-Qaeda’s declining support amongst western jihadists. It will be interesting to see whether core al-Qaeda can re-establish a “safe haven” in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the American troops exit from Afghanistan. Without direction from a strong core al-Qaeda it does not seem like the group could inspire much support from potential western recruits in the future. With the current demise of ISIS’ caliphate and al-Qaeda’s preliminary success in establishing safe operational bases, it is however conceivable that al-Qaeda will present the more dangerous long- term terrorist threat to the West. Not much is left from the powerful narrative ISIS was able to present in 2014. Whether or not that might help al-Qaeda to regain its popularity among Western jihadists remains to be seen.
Jakob Guhl completed his undergraduate studies with a BA in Political Science and Religious Studies from Goethe University Frankfurt. Currently, he is pursuing his postgraduate studies at King’s College London, with a focus on jihadism and home-grown radicalisation in the West