With a new, vibrant generation of jihadist groups such as Islamic State (IS) emerging, al-Qaeda – which once forged the path for global Islamist militancy – is struggling to maintain its relevance and support base. Why?
al-Qaeda: a one-hit wonder?
Following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda became the incontestable embodiment of global jihad. The “War on Terror” and the corresponding scramble by many Western states to proof themselves against this “new” brand of terrorism was stark testament to this status.
Since 9/11, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have failed to reproduce an event that shook the international order in a similar manner. Despite assassinating prominent political figures, killing Westerners en masse in Muslim countries and occasionally inflicting a bloody nose on the US military, al-Qaeda was impotent when it came to striking the Western “far enemy” on its home turf.
During this time, al-Qaeda’s propaganda output was hit and miss. While it was able to produce E-zines like the infamous Inspire, it never really comfortably transitioned to the new generation of social networking and media technology emerging in the late 2000s. al-Qaeda videos were often either tedious, droning academic sermons on esoteric Islamic legalisms, or cheaply produced attempts at machismo.
Perhaps more damning was the lack of progression in the vision conceptualised by al-Qaeda’s Islamist intelligentsia. While it made a international nuisance of itself with sporadic terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda never transitioned to the territorialisation necessary for creating the Islamic state it purported to pursue.
This was actually hard-coded into the basic concept of al-Qaeda’s self-image. It never saw itself as an instrument of governance. Instead, it took on the role of an “inciter in chief” whose actions would inspire the global Muslim community to rise up and form a state based on the tenets of the pious ancestors and the first community.
However, al-Qaeda’s inability to foment global Islamic revolution in such a manner – while offering no alternative – has proved less than inspiring for those who support the idea of an Islamist state.
A swing and a miss
Al-Qaeda’s fortunes appeared to be changing in 2012. A secular-nationalist uprising in Mali’s north by disaffected Tuaregs was quickly hijacked by an Islamist coalition. Among its strongest members were al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
Together with the local Islamist group, Ansar Dine, this motley crew quickly imposed sharia law and began governing a new Islamic state. It seemed as if Osama bin Laden’s vision might be taking shape, albeit in a rather different geographical locale than was predicted.
But Operation Serval quickly reversed this success. The decisive French intervention in Mali in January 2013 routed AQIM and its allies. It pushed the survivors into Mali’s remote northeastern Ifoghas mountain range.
Brief calls on various jihadist internet forums to mobilise in support of the collapsing Islamic state petered out within days. No-one wanted to fight on a losing side.
Problem child, prodigal son
After its messy public split from al-Qaeda in 2014, IS quickly established itself as its own entity with its own style. Its rapid successes in Syria and Iraq stood in stark contrast to al-Qaeda’s efforts at global jihad over the previous decade.
IS’s declaration of a caliphate in June 2014 showed a resolve to see its vision to fruition. While Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s leadership waxed intellectual over the future of Islamic statehood, IS was getting down to the nitty gritty of governing. The perception for many supporters of jihad is that while al-Qaeda barks, IS bites.
This is far from the reality. While the Afghan-Pakistan centre of the al-Qaeda franchise seems increasingly inactive, affiliates like Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra and Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have long been engaged in brutal parochial struggles under the pretence of establishing an Islamic state. But while often showing prowess on the battlefield, neither has been able to market their struggles as effectively as IS.
Explaining Islamic State’s success
IS has been incredibly savvy in its use of technology to broadcast a compelling narrative that simultaneously serves to motivate supporters and intimidate opponents.
IS’s media is slickly produced and shot in high definition. Cuts and pacing are often reminiscent of modern, gritty action movies. It also places great emphasis on the emotional appeal of its media, rather than presenting arguments rationalised primarily through long lectures of Islamic jurisprudence.
Given the typically young age of most of its recruits, this is a logical choice. Like many traditional military recruitment advertisements, which also tend to target youth, IS promises excitement and glory, stroking the egos of would-be jihadists with the prospect of adventure, camaraderie and social status.
IS’s recruitment ethos, relative to al-Qaeda, also highlights its comparative efficacy. Traditionally, admission to al-Qaeda has often been a long, drawn-out process that requires knowing the right people at the right time to open the right doors.
In contrast, IS has embraced a far more egalitarian, open-door strategy. It uses social media extensively to provide pathways for those seeking to join up, as well as to groom other potential neophytes.
IS’s social media platforms include widespread use of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Snapchat – to name but a few. Governments worldwide have struggled to establish effective policies to combat this strategy. The results so far have been less than inspiring.
With a combination of progress, prowess and a healthy appreciation for the power of modern technology, IS currently appears to be stealing much of the oxygen used to keep the al-Qaeda flame alight. IS has rapidly gained affiliates in Libya, Egypt and even Nigeria. al-Qaeda appears to be in a state of contraction, typified most starkly by its inability to reign in IS.
Whether this is an emergent trend – or just a historical aberration – remains to be seen. The effect of the Charlie Hedbo attack in January 2015 was sudden but short-lived. With Yemen in meltdown, it is impossible to say what the future holds for the currently unleashed AQAP.
What seems assured is that al-Qaeda and IS will continue to struggle over the same pool of resources that comes with being seen to wear the global jihad crown.