Charles Lister writes: While the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2010 challenged al-Qaida’s insistence that only violent jihad can secure political change, the subsequent repression and resulting instability provided an opportunity. What followed was a period of extraordinary strategic review. Beginning with Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen (in 2010 and 2011) and then with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Din, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in Mali (2012), al-Qaida began developing a new strategy focused on slowly nurturing unstable and vulnerable societies into hosts for an al-Qaida Islamic state. Although a premature imposition of harsh Shariah norms caused projects in Yemen and Mali to fail, al-Qaida’s activities in Syria and Yemen today look to have perfected the new “long game” approach.
In Syria and Yemen, al-Qaida has taken advantage of weak states suffering from acute socio-political instability in order to embed itself within popular revolutionary movements. Through a consciously managed process of “controlled pragmatism,” al-Qaida has successfully integrated its fighters into broader dynamics that, with additional manipulation, look all but intractable. Through a temporary renunciation of Islamic hudud (fixed punishments in the Quran and Hadith) and an overt insistence on multilateral populist action, al-Qaida has begun socializing entire communities into accepting its role within their revolutionary societies. With durable roots in these operational zones — “safe bases,” as Zawahiri calls them — al-Qaida hopes one day to proclaim durable Islamic emirates as individual components of an eventual caliphate.
The Islamic State (or ISIS), on the other hand, has emerged as al-Qaida’s obstreperous and brutally rebellious younger sibling. Seeking rapid and visible results, ISIS worries little about taking the time to win popular acceptance and instead controls territory through force and psychological intimidation. As a militarily capable and administratively accomplished organization, ISIS has acquired a strong stranglehold over parts of Iraq and Syria — like Raqqa, Deir el-Zour, and Mosul — but its roots are shallow at best elsewhere in both countries. With effective and representative local partners, the U.S.-led coalition can and will eventually take back much of ISIS’s territory, but evidence thus far suggests progress will be slow.
Meanwhile, ISIS has developed invaluable strategic depth elsewhere in the world, through its acquisition of affiliates — or additional “states” for its Caliphate — in Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Russia. Although it will struggle to expand much beyond its current geographical reach, the growing importance of ISIS in Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan-Pakistan in particular will allow the movement to survive pressures it faces in Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]