Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Has Al-Qaeda Learned from Its Mistakes?

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Has Al-Qaeda Learned from Its Mistakes?

Article excerpt

The destruction of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is undoubtedly a significant success, but it will not be the end of worldwide Islamist insurgencies. The Islamic State may be eradicated, and ISIS as an organization may be eclipsed, but the forces and mentality it represents within Islam and jihadism-virulent intolerance and murderous hyper-violence targeting the entire world, including any jihadists who disagree with it-will continue to wreak havoc throughout the Middle East, Muslimmajority countries, and the world at large. And while it remains to be seen whether ISIS will be able to recuperate from its defeat, it is not the only jihadist group the world faces. In particular, al-Qaeda, including its nominally independent major affiliate in Syria, Hay'at Tahrir ash-Sham,1 may turn out to be the greater long-term threat, having survived a massive worldwide campaign to destroy it and having modified its strategy to reflect lessons learned from past mistakes.2

Jihadist Mistakes

The destruction of the ISIS polity is but the latest setback inflicted on the forces of global jihad. Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups have already endured a string of major defeats in Egypt, Algeria, and in the 1990s, in the Balkans. Al-Qaeda, along with its Taliban and other allies, was expelled from Afghanistan in 2001, and its attempted uprising in Saudi Arabia two years later was crushed, with the survivors fleeing to Yemen. The Taliban have regained strength in recent years, not due to anything alQaeda has done, but as a result of the weakness of the Afghan government, the duplicity of the Pakistani regime, and the disastrous shortsightedness of President Barack Obama's military drawdown. ISIS's predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), was largely eradicated in the previous round of warfare in that country. Over time, al-Qaeda Central (AQC) has endured serious attrition to its command structure by drone and air strikes and special forces raids, including the loss of Osama bin Laden. In spite of these assaults, the organization has survived.

Although many factors have contributed to these defeats, a central reason were the tactics used by al-Qaeda and other jihadists, first and foremost by alienating the local population and killing Muslims.

Alienating the Local Population. There have been at least two ways al-Qaeda and other jihadists have worn out whatever welcome they may have initially had: hostility to tribal interests and practices, and hostility to the local practices of Islam.

Paradoxically, for an organization originally led by a man from tribal Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda often ignored the tribal factor, and, in fact, sometimes seemed hostile to tribalism. One of the key reasons the Iraqi Sunni tribes eventually turned against alQaeda was because it began to attack tribal interests and leadership and affronted tribal honor.3 The tipping point may have been when al-Qaeda offshoot ISI took a sheikh's daughters by force to provide wives for its operatives.4

No less important, while Islam is a diverse faith with many interpretations, jihadists practice a very rigid, austere, and intolerant form of Sunni Islam. In the past, al-Qaeda and other jihadists repeatedly tried to force local Muslims to follow their practices, whether or not this was acceptable to local practices and customs.

During the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, jihadist insurgents were extreme even by alQaeda's standards, and routinely killed people they defined as un-Islamic for such crimes as not wearing proper Islamic dress or for speaking French. Over time, most of the Algerian population came to support the Algerian government, however reluctantly. So etched have these painful memories been that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has largely given up operating in Algeria and has transferred its operations farther south.5

In the Balkans, local Muslims were heavily influenced by both the historic legacies of the Ottoman Empire, which was generally tolerant of variant religious practices, and the legacy of decades of communist repression. …

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