IN recent weeks, I have found myself spending a lot of time thinking about the jihadist strategy of al Qaeda and how it compares to that of the Islamic State. Earlier this month, I wrote about the possibility that the al Qaeda brand of jihadism could outlast that of the Islamic State. Last week, I wrote about how ideologies are harder to kill than individuals, focusing on the effect that the death of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasir al-Wahayshi will have on the group and the wider global jihadist movement.
But beyond the impact of leaders like al-Wahayshi, there are other facets of strategy that will influence the war for the soul of jihadism. Specifically, I am talking about time and place. Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State seek to establish a global caliphate, but both differ quite starkly in how to accomplish this task and how soon it can be achieved.
Al Qaeda argues that the caliphate can be established only after the United States and its European allies have been defeated, to the extent that they can no longer interfere in Muslim lands — either because of a lack of ability or a lack of desire. The organization pursues a long-war approach that emphasizes the need to attack the United States, “the far enemy,” before focusing on overthrowing local governments. The Islamic State takes the opposite tack. It has adopted a more urgent “why wait?” approach and concentrates its efforts on immediately taking, holding and governing territory. This strategy banks on being able to use any conquered territory and resources for the purposes of continued expansion. The direct approach explains the Islamic State’s decision to quickly proclaim a caliphate at the beginning of Ramadan last year, after it had captured a large portion of Iraq and Syria. The group’s message to the Muslim world is that the caliphate is here and now, and there is nothing the world can do to stop its inexorable expansion.
Since the fall of the Taliban’s emirate in Afghanistan, several jihadist organizations have attempted to create Islamist polities, with the current attempt by the Islamic State (the organization’s second try) being the most recent. So far, each of these attempts has ended in a spectacular failure and in each case, including the Taliban’s emirate, western military intervention has played a key role in the downfall of the jihadist polity — and it will do so again in the case of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.
Recent jihadist polities
In 2006, an array of jihadist groups led by al Qaeda in Iraq announced that they were forming an Islamic state in Iraq. They even began to refer to themselves as the Islamic State in Iraq. While the group initially eclipsed the al Qaeda core in terms of attracting foreign fighters, outside funding and publicity, the US surge in Iraq and the Anbar Awakening greatly weakened the group. By 2010, when a US airstrike killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri — the group’s top two leaders — the organization had become only a shadow of its former self. The 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the sectarian policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government allowed the group to survive, and the civil war in Syria helped the organization recover its strength and grow into what it is today.
In 2011, as Yemen was struggling through a crisis that pitted elements of the military against each other, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized the opportunity afforded by the chaos to grab large quantities of weapons, while also extending its influence over large areas of territory in Yemen’s south. However, by mid-2012, Yemeni forces aided by US intelligence and training (and some air support) were able to recapture most of the territory taken by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
A unique window into the thoughts of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula during this period was revealed with the discovery of letters sent by al-Wahayshi to Abu Musab Abdel al-Wadoud, the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In the letters, which journalist Rukmini Callimachi discovered in the Malian city of Timbuktu, al-Wahayshi shared some of the lessons he learned — and mistakes his organization had made — so that al-Wadoud and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb would not repeat them.
According to one of al-Wahayshi’s letters, his group suffered significant losses of men, materiel and money in 2012, far surpassing what they had gained in 2011. The group’s higher profile and level of operational activity also resulted in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula losing a number of important members to US airstrikes, including Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.
In another of the letters, al-Wahayshi explained why his group purposefully did not proclaim an emirate in southern Yemen: “As soon as we took control of the areas, we were advised by the General Command here not to declare the establishment of an Islamic principality, or state, for a number of reasons: We wouldn’t be able to treat people on the basis of a state since we would not be able to provide for all their needs, mainly because our state is vulnerable. Second: Fear of failure, in the event that the world conspires against us. If this were to happen, people may start to despair and believe that jihad is fruitless.”
He encouraged al-Wadoud to also refrain from proclaiming an Islamic polity, but his advice went unheeded. Shortly after receiving the letter from al Wahayshi, jihadists aligned with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb declared an Islamic state called Azawad in northern Mali in April 2012. But the French intervention in Mali in January 2013 rapidly pushed the jihadists out of the territory they had conquered, ending the short-lived jihadist state of Azawad.
Past attempts to create an Islamic polity in Somalia were also thwarted by an international coalition. And in recent months Boko Haram, which now calls itself Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, lost most of the territory the group had previously seized in northern Nigeria.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula made another land grab in 2015 as the country fell into chaos. In April, the group took control of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth largest city and the capital of Hadramawt province. Meanwhile, jihadist groups in Libya, such as Ansar al-Sharia, the Mujahideen Shura Council and the Islamic State’s three Libyan Wilayats (or provinces) are all fighting with secular, nationalist and tribal forces for control of the country.