To compete with Islamic State, its chief rival al-Qaida is now working alongside existing local governments in attempts to appear moderate, neighborly, and more civic-minded.
After spending two decades as the world’s premier jihadi network, al-Qaida has struggled to maintain influence. Its recent decline is the result of aggressive targeting by the U.S. military and the rise of Islamic State, formerly its own franchise in Iraq. It now maintains a few key areas of operations, where it has attempted a new experiment in how to maintain territory.
Islamic State purports to represent Islam’s historic caliphate, and therefore claims that its political leadership is the only legitimate one for Muslims to follow. Within its insular pseudo-state, it has made meticulous efforts to present itself as an ideal society unto itself, complete with restaurants, schools and luxury hotels. (RELATED: US-Accented Podcast Is Tip Of ISIS Marketing Spear)
But recognizing that many in the Arab world consider ISIS vicious and extreme, al-Qaida is trying to be a successful part of society rather than building its own.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s flagship enterprise in Yemen, has taken advantage of civil war in the country by striking a deal with local courts and police. According to The New York Times, AQAP helps pay government salaries and subsidizes fuel in the Arab world’s most resource-poor country.
Though it frowns on smoking and immodest female dress, it has not yet banned them in territory it controls. And instead of denouncing other armed groups, they challenge them to soccer matches — al-Qaida in extremist-approved long pants, and its rivals in shorts. (RELATED: Al-Qaida’s Latest Move Is A Jihad On Drugs)
But AQAP rarely uses the al-Qaida brand in its public activity. Instead, it has used the names Ansar al-Shariah (the same moniker of a different group in Libya, it means “Supporters of Islamic Law”) and Abnaa Hadramawt (“Sons of Hadramawt”), both generic titles with easy local appeal. (Yemen’s Ansar al-Shariah has since switched its affiliation to ISIS.)
And in Syria, al-Qaida has launched a fervent publicity campaign to present itself as the most credible fighting force against both Islamic State and President Bashar Assad. In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, the head of the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra presented the group as a force for stability and order in a chaotic Syria. Instead of denouncing other Islamist groups, as ISIS does, he insisted that “they are Muslims, no different from us,” and welcomed their cooperation. (RELATED: Al-Qaida In Syria Claims It Isn’t Planning To Attack The West)
Osama bin Laden’s foundational documents for al-Qaida repeatedly emphasize fighting the “far enemy,” that is, Western aggressors in Muslim lands. This philosophy led to the group’s longstanding strategy of planning flashy attacks from faraway caves and bunkers — and the ideological fight that gave rise to Islamic State.
As early as 2012, a Yemeni al-Qaida commander advised Malian insurgents to win locals over with basic amenities, including running water and reliable garbage collection. “Make them sympathize with us,” he wrote, “and make them feel that their fate is tied to ours.” But al-Qaida fighters in Mali nevertheless engaged in ISIS-style cultural warfare, banning music and enforcing strict female dress codes.
Those jihadis in Mali did not hold territory for long, and became hated among local residents. In the intervening years, especially since bin Laden’s death, al-Qaida leaders may have learned from their past failures and sought to strengthen their appeal on the ground.
The shift toward engagement in key Middle East conflicts might therefore be not just a strategic move against ISIS, but also a key attempt to expand its global base for the future.
Meanwhile, the group’s activity remains focused on local and foreign attacks alike — after January’s terrorist attacks in Paris, both al-Qaida and Islamic State rushed to put their stamp of approval on the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly. As the U.S. government continues ranking it one of the most dangerous international terrorist groups, al-Qaida’s latest moves in the Arab world are not likely to be much more than a PR stunt.
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