Ana Maria Luca

Al-Qaeda’s revolution

The group’s strategy capitalizes on sectarian strife

Members of Jabhat al-Nusra

The Sunni insurgency against the Shiite-led government in Iraq’s Anbar province seemed to have started on December 30, 2013. After a protest against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was evacuated, violent clashes erupted between Sunni tribal militias and Iraqi Security Forces in Ramadi and Fallujah. A few days later, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had taken control of both cities.


With this worrisome development, it suddenly became obvious that al-Qaeda had re-emerged in the region, taking advantage of all possible opportunities: the Syrian conflict, political instability after the Arab Spring, increasing sectarianism across the region, and the lack of Western interference.


However, policymakers and strategists should have been worried long before the takeover of Ramadi and Fallujah, analysts say. Though al-Qaeda had not been attacking targets in Western countries as it did in the past, it had been forming armed militias to install Islamic states in the Middle East and North Africa.


Most of all, al-Qaeda gained territory in Iraq and Syria. The terrorist attacks in Iraq intensified, killing over 6,000 people and making 2013 one of the bloodiest years in the country’s recent history.


In Syria, AQI tried to incorporate the newly-formed Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra into the renamed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). While Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader refused the association and asserted his group was the true al-Qaeda representative in Syria, ISIS’s better-armed and better-trained fighters took control of several towns in northern Syria, violently imposing its Islamic state.


According to several experts, al-Qaeda’s tactics have always been to capitalize on sectarian strife in order to gain popular support and bring down the authoritarian regimes in the Arab World to replace them with Islamic states.


“Al-Qaeda [and its franchises] are political revolutionaries,” Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told NOW. “From the beginning they wanted a state and the Levant was always preferred. As long as we [in the West] perceive them as being narrow-minded terrorists who are only interested in mass-casualty terrorist attacks, we’re not going to beat them,” he said.  


Al-Qaeda’s strategy is to create or take advantage of sectarian conflict and become the defenders of Sunni Muslims. In Iraq, AQI needed a terrorist bombing campaign against civilian Shiite population in order to provide the environment of sectarian strife in which it thrives. A series of bombings in July 23, 2012 was the first to draw international attention to AQI’s “Breaking the Walls” campaign, Institute for the Study of War’s Research Director Jessica D. Lewis writes in a recently published study. In Syria, the civil war had already provided the necessary conditions. “The loss of regime control, especially in the northern and eastern provinces, has allowed al-Qaeda groups to enter existing vacuums,” Lewis added.


Complicating the Syrian case is the emergence of two al-Qaeda-related groups: ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIS failed in its mission, however, as Syrian rebels and activists have launched what they called “a second revolution" against ISIS. Battles have raged across northern Syria. However, this anti-extremist second revolution is not directed at Jabhat al-Nusra, the other al-Qaeda affiliated jihadi group in Syria. According to Joscelyn, this would be a mistake.


“Al-Nusra Front is and it has always been an al-Qaeda faction. This is very well planned. The ISIS [emirs] are the ones who didn’t understand how to change their tactics in order to earn the support of the population,” Joscelyn explained. “Why would al-Nusra Front make such efforts to change their tactics to gain more popular support unless they’re political revolutionaries, who are not interested in terrorizing [but in gaining political power]? They’re trying to build a popular base among the people and that is scary. That is what the biggest threat is,” he added.


However, many Syrian opposition figures don’t see Jabhat al-Nusra as an immediate threat. “We know that they want an Islamic state, yet they never harmed people like ISIS did. It never imposed its plan on people through terror. Jabhat al-Nusra was always in the battlefield. They never arrested nor kidnapped and tortured activists or foreign journalists. If it had done that, they would have been facing what ISIS is facing now,” said Manhal Barish, a member of the Syrian National Council who was attacked several times by ISIS fighters.


Joscelyn thinks that it’s precisely the population’s support that constitutes the key in combating extremism in the region and beyond. “We have to embrace the population. That where the US fell flat [in Iraq and Syria],” he said. “[The West] had an opportunity at the beginning to support Syrians who just wanted to be free of Assad. The vacuum has been filled now by the [al-Qaeda] political revolutionaries.”


According to a recently publishedstudy  by Quiliam foundation, a London-based think-tank that studies extremism worldwide, the popular support for its real projects is al-Qaeda’s weak point. In spite of al-Qaeda’s re-emergence in hot-zones like Syria, Iraq, and several countries in North Africa, it ultimately lacks the real popular support to be able to impose its ideology and become a ruling party.  


In Iraq’s Fallujah, the fighting continues. But according to local tribesmen, most militants from the al-Qaeda-allied ISIS have withdrawn from the town, leaving the Iraqi army and tribesmen locked in a violent showdown.


In Syria, opposition forces, including Jabhat al-Nusra, took over the ISIS headquarters in Aleppo. "I think that the idea of imposing an Islamic state in Syria is crazy,” Barish told NOW. “I do not think that it is feasible: the Syrians demanded freedom and a civil state when the uprising started, [and] they also demanded the separation of powers in the state.


“The idea of an Islamic state will be rejected by the Syrians.”


Ana Maria Luca is on Twitter @aml1609.

Members of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra take part in a parade in Aleppo calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria. (Mahmoud al-Halabi/AFP Photo)

“As long as we [in the West] perceive them as being narrow-minded terrorists who are only interested in mass-casualty terrorist attacks, we’re not going to beat them.”

  • Vlad Tepes

    The Egyptian revolutionaries welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood into their uprising. Next thing you know, the MB has just taken over your government. These so called moderates know what they are doing. All they want to do is overthrow Assad and everyone else is collateral damage. Unless of coarse, al-Qaeda starts killing and imprisoning them. Then they are up in arms. These moderates don't care about anyone but themselves. Assad is a popular president, unlike Mubarak, that's why he is still there. And that's why he will continue to be there for years to come. When it comes down to it, Assad is the closest thing to democracy and secularism that these armed degenerates will ever see. Assad is the real rebel. Read his interview with Der Spiegel and see for yourself. Do you think he even.gave one rats arse that they kicked him out of the Arab League. He thought it was wonderful. God Bless you Bashar al-Assad. Long live Bashar!

    January 9, 2014