The impending loss of Mosul will certainly weaken the Islamic State's core, but it is not the only jihadist group that will be affected by the upset. When the Islamic State seized swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and declared the birth of a caliphate, its brash new brand of jihadism stood in stark contrast to al Qaeda's more calculated approach and energized many young jihadists. Though many older Islamist ideologues saw Osama bin Laden's successful efforts to goad the United States into a war as reckless, many of their younger peers came to view al Qaeda as too old, stodgy and timid because of its reluctance to aggressively carve out an Islamic polity. At the height of the Islamic State's success, victory after victory on the battlefield seemed to confirm the group's claims that it held Allah's favor, building its reputation as an inexorable force that planned to establish a utopian Islamic society. Bit by bit, the group's supporters began to believe that they were helping to fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy.
But as the international coalition began to intervene against the Islamic State, its growth was checked and its resources were choked by military and economic measures against it. The group began to lose on the battlefield, and perhaps most important, the reality of life in areas under its control proved to be anything but utopian. Over the past two years, the Islamic State has been slowly driven out of territory it had claimed as its own. And those setbacks, greatly aided by U.S. and allied air power, training and advisers, have enabled al Qaeda leaders to say, "We told you so."
The al Qaeda Difference
The al Qaeda philosophy — "bin Ladenism," if you will — holds that it will be impossible for jihadists to overthrow Middle Eastern governments and establish a caliphate so long as the United States and its European allies (which bin Laden referred to as the "far enemy") are active in the region. Based on historical examples in Lebanon and Somalia, bin Laden believed that Americans and Europeans were soft and could be dissuaded from meddling in the Middle East by terrorist attacks against their forces. But until the far enemy was sufficiently cowed, bin Laden was certain that it would be impossible to seize and hold territory. According to al Qaeda's "General Guidelines for Jihad," published in 2013,
"The purpose of targeting America is to exhaust her and bleed her to death, so that it meets the fate of the former Soviet Union and collapses under its own weight as a result of its military, human, and financial losses. Consequently, its grip on our lands will weaken and its allies will begin to fall one after another."
This strategy was validated by al Qaeda in Iraq's losses after it declared an Islamic state there in 2006, by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP's) setbacks after it seized large portions of Yemen in 2011, and by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM's) failures after it declared a jihadist polity in northern Mali in 2012.
Bin Laden and al Qaeda counseled a low-key approach to jihad, one designed to secure bases of operation by working with local opposition or insurgent groups and to hide al Qaeda's hand by operating under other names.
They also stressed the importance of "dawa," or the preaching and spreading of jihadist ideology. Once established, these bases of operation could be used to continue prosecuting jihad against the far enemy and drive it out of the Middle East. Al Qaeda has always viewed its struggle as a long war, and its members believe that if they are patient and persistent, they can eventually triumph over the corrupt West. They also believe that their foe has a short attention span and little stomach for casualties, as evidenced by its past actions in places such as Vietnam.
We know from documents captured when bin Laden was killed that the core group even considered abandoning the name al Qaeda because of its negative connotations and the attention the brand attracted from its enemies. Al Qaeda-linked jihadists in Yemen, Tunisia and Libya, for example, use the name Ansar al-Sharia to conceal their association with the group. Likewise, al Qaeda's organization in Syria once used the name Jabhat al-Nusra to give it freer rein to operate in the country's civil war.
Thanks to its record of brutal attacks against civilians and fellow Muslims, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq drew condemnation instead of support in the areas it hoped to influence. Its approach prompted the umbrella al Qaeda group to draw up targeting guidelines that forbade attacks against places of worship, markets, non-Sunni Muslims who do not attack first and other noncombatants from minority groups. The Islamic State holds no such reservations and continues to operate using al-Zarqawi's vicious tactics.
These principles — embedding in the local community; maintaining focus first on the United States, Israel and their allies and second on their local partners; and abstaining from attacks against noncombatants — were clearly articulated and widely circulated in the General Guidelines for Jihad. (Al Qaeda's Shura Council and the leaders of its franchise groups approved the document, which was then signed by al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.) The guidelines, and the activities of groups such as AQAP, which assumed control of Mukalla and other parts of Yemen in 2015-16, made al Qaeda look restrained and reasonable compared with the Islamic State.
Furthermore, the behavior of Jabhat al-Nusra, which changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in July, has permitted it to set itself apart from the Islamic State in the Syrian civil war. While the Islamic State has taken the stance "You are either with us or against us," Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has shown repeatedly that it is willing to work alongside other rebel groups in Syria, jihadist or not, as long as they are not hostile toward it. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has also proved itself one of the most effective rebel organizations in Syria, and the help it has provided other groups during joint operations has earned it the reputation of being a critical element of the Syrian opposition. At the same time, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has emphasized its focus on the struggle in Syria, noting that it will turn its attention to external operations against the far enemy only once it concludes its fight against the Syrian government. This focus has enabled the group to find external funding and support, much to the consternation of the United States.
Regional Franchises and Grassroots Appeal
The type of mainstreaming Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has become known for will help to ensure the survival of the al Qaeda movement.
Though the al Qaeda core remains weak, its regional affiliates are becoming deeply engrained in several different regions.
Ansar al-Sharia, the Mujahideen Shura Council in Derna and other al Qaeda-linked militias in Libya remain among the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State in their respective territories. This has given them room to more broadly promote themselves in much the same way Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has in Syria. In fact, the Islamic State's loss of Sirte due to foreign intervention will give al Qaeda yet another opportunity to point to the validity of its approach.
The faction of Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi (better known by its former name, Boko Haram) led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi is already starting to adopt al Qaeda's style of targeting. Rather than using the tactics employed by Abubakar Shekau's faction, which is far more focused on civilians and Muslims who do not share its beliefs, the group is now singling out military targets and presumably Westerners. The change, coupled with al-Barnawi's ties to AQIM, could eventually lead the group back into al Qaeda's orbit.
Meanwhile, though AQIM's units in northern Algeria are coming under intense pressure, Mokhtar Belmokhtar's group continues to operate with tremendous latitude across the Sahel region. To the east, AQAP has lost some ground in Yemen, but it is still well-armed and deeply connected to the country's tribal structures. The group has considerable freedom of movement inside Yemen, though the war raging there has hampered its ability to project power beyond Yemen's borders, limiting the threat it can pose to the region.
Maintaining Its Relevance
Al Qaeda is far from dead. Its resilience enables the group and its affiliates to continue inspiring grassroots jihadists, even as the appeal of the Islamic State wanes in the face of its recent losses. Unlike the Islamic State, which has struggled to extend its reach, al Qaeda has a long history of conducting operations that span the globe. Though many of al Qaeda's experienced terrorist trainers and leaders have been killed in the years since 9/11, the organization nevertheless boasts a group of operatives who possess a level of transnational terrorist tradecraft that far surpasses the Islamic State's. If given the space to do so, al Qaeda will be able to train a new generation of fighters who can then go forth and conduct attacks abroad.
Al Qaeda is a crafty, resilient and opportunistic organization. It took advantage of gaps in air transportation security to pull off the 9/11 attacks against the United States. Likewise, it is now taking advantage of gaps in U.S. foreign and national security policy — and battlefield ambiguity in places such as Syria, Yemen and Libya — to embed itself in those regions and create bases that it can use to conduct future attacks against the West. Al Qaeda's leaders also see the inherent weakness in the West's long-standing policy of seeking stability at any cost, even if it means protecting brutal kleptocrats, and they are savvy enough to exploit it.