Why Al Qaeda is a bigger threat than ISIS – Distinction between Group and Ideology (part 1)

How the categories of “group” and “ideology” can help to compare the main points of strength and the main weaknesses of bin Laden’s group with al-Baghdadi’s. In this first part, a focus on Al Qaeda to understand why it is still the most serious, long-term terrorist challenge we have to face

It was the end of the 1980s under the fire of the Afghan-Soviet war, when in a mountainous region across the Af-Pak border Al Qaeda came to life. Born out of the schism between bin Laden and the Palestinian Azzam, who had been working together for years organizing the flow of Arab men and money to the Afghan mujahideens, Al Qaeda was since its first days characterized by an ideology that no other jihadist group had ever formulated. While the already existing groups – such as those in Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan – were aimed at fighting against a specific enemy – such as the Egyptian government, Israel, the Soviets – Al Qaeda embraced a universalistic ideology.

To explain how this ideology took form and prospered, it is to be underlined the fact that Al Qaeda never had a specific territory to fight from: after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war it had no reasons to stay in Afghanistan (nor did the Afghan mujahideens want Arabs to get too deeply involved in their post-war businesses); in the early 1990s the group was expelled from Saudi Arabia because of though frictions emerged between bin Laden and the Saud family; in 1996 it lost its safe haven in Sudan after al-Turabi ceded to international pressure; in 2001 it lost its safe haven in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban; nowadays it is divided into more groups that make up the Jihadist Nebula and it is scattered throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South East Asia.

This lack of territoriality would have been irreconcilable with a an ideology aimed at fighting a specific enemy in a specific area (like is, for instance, the case of Hamas) and this is why Al Qaeda adopted and maintained a universalistic ideology based on a broad, abstract concept of jihad against the infidels and the apostates worldwide. If it is true that since 1996 (when bin Laden launched his famous fatwa) the United States has come to represent the main enemy, it is also true that it wasn’t the only one (Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also been preferred targets because deemed apostates) and that the jihad pursued by bin Laden was a global one, to be fought in more places against more kinds of targets.

Such an abstract, universalistic ideology couldn’t have given rise to a concrete political project, and it didn’t. Not once did bin Laden, or his deputy al-Zawahiri, say what was to happen after the jihad was won, what would actually be done after the defeat of the United States and its allies. Bin Laden wanted, for instance, to oust the Saud family in the name of the creation of a state based on sharia (something that, moreover, Saudi Arabia already was and is) but never made a plan on how such an ideal state would be organized and would be run.

Al Qaeda never made its political project clear simply because it didn’t have one; and this situation, with time, has brought about both advantages and disadvantages for the group.

The most important and significant advantage is that the lack of a political project allowed Al Qaeda to survive, even when after 2001 it seemed that the group was doomed to disappear. The group’s ideology, in fact, being so broad, abstract and comprehensive, easily spread among jihadist groups in the Middle East, in Northern and Central Africa and South East Asia, because it was possible for them to adopt it without committing to a specific project in a specific area(something that with other groups’ ideologies, such as Hamas’, is not possible). They embraced Al Qaeda’s global ideology and adapted it to their particular, local needs.

This phenomenon (known as Jihadist Nebula) has implied that now Al Qaeda is not only a group but an ideology in itself: when we think of Al Qaeda today, not only do we think of the original group now leaded by al-Zawahiri and located in the Af-Pak region; we rather think of a specific ideology based on a global jihad, on a view of the world founded on the distinction between Muslim devotees and infidels, on a fight against the kafir that is without time and space.

And though, sacrificing part of its group nature to transform itself into an ideology brought with it vulnerabilities too. In fact, becoming less an organization as such and more a way of thinking and seeing the world, Al Qaeda (meant as bin Laden’s original group) saw reduced its capacity to control in a centralized way the actions conducted in the name of its own ideology. All the groups that now make up the Al Qaeda universe act independently – as they have a connection with Al Qaeda that is ideologically strong but strategically and operatively low – and this lack of cohesion and coordination can’t but be a weakness. In fact, more groups conducting non-coordinated, independent actions, means that the large scale attacks that made Al Qaeda (in)famous in the ‘90s are now impossible and that the group’s capacity of action is now largely reduced.

This element inevitably led to the perception that Al Qaeda’s operations are now limited, in decline and no longer able to reach the success the group achieved in the period 1996-2001; and this perception has as consequence the fact that the number of people joining the Al Qaeda group (mostly made up of fighters who got close to bin Laden before 2001 or immediately after that date) drops every year more, as they can’t see what they would be fighting for. After OEF the Al Qaeda group looks like one that predicates without acting, that calls for jihad but can’t fully undertake it. Al-Zawahiri’s fatwas, which contain religious sermons rather than proofs of successful actions, have by now lost much of their appeal, as they don’t give wannabe martyrs a clear cause to die for; and this drop in recruitment adds to the group’s vulnerabilities.

Al Qaeda’s threat is thus represented by the fact that it is weak as group but resilient as ideology.

The group’s recent difficulties in retrieving its past capacities shouldn’t lead us to underestimate its strength, but rather make us realize that we are no longer dealing with a definite organization, as we were until 2001, but with an ideology, and that our strategies have to adapt to this new reality. Defeating an abstract enemy such as ideas and views, in fact, is much more difficult than defeating a concrete enemy such as groups. For counterterrorism the fight against Al Qaeda is an extremely tough one because bombs, drones, and rifles can’t nothing against ideas. As history teaches us, only the proposal of alternative, credible ideologies can defeat the existing ones; and this is how we should think now of our approach to Al Qaeda.


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Hi! My name is Marta Furlan. I am from Italy and was born in Milan in 1993. I speak five languages, my main areas of interest are the Middle East and Islamist terrorism and my great passion is traveling. I'm majoring in Foreign Languages for International Relations at the Catholic University. Last year I attended a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the role of Israel in the Middle East, and have recently had been working in South Africa at the Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg. I am currently completing my thesis on the development of jihadist terrorism by Al Qaeda in ISIS. Follow my blog if you have a strong interest in International Relations, especially Middle East.

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