My last post argued that determining al Qaeda's objectives is vital for any evaluation of the group's progress. I suggested that the U.S. government believes that the main goal of al Qaeda is attacking the United States and its allies, but that this is to confuse means with ends. The stated objectives of the group are to liberate all Muslim-majority countries of non-Muslim occupiers and their apostate rulers, impose their version of sharia in these places, create an Islamic state then that they call the "caliphate," and eventually force all human beings to follow their version of Islamic law. By carrying out attacks on the U.S. -- and other means -- al Qaeda believes that it can achieve these greater ends.
The confusion of means with ends has many consequences, but one of the most vital is that it makes it extremely difficult to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda.
If the main objective for al Qaeda were to attack the U.S., then it is obvious that the group has been an abject failure: It has not carried out a successful homeland attack since 9-11 and has been incapable of a mass attack on our allies since the London bombings of 2005. The group must be far weaker than anyone thought in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, less capable of projecting power, and therefore less of a threat to the United States than once feared. The death of Osama bin Laden might even mean that the group is finished -- a spent force that can be safely relegated to some second-tier category while the U.S. concentrates on more dangerous enemies (like China).
But if its main objectives are those outlined above, then measuring the successes and failures of al Qaeda is more complex than the number of attacks on the U.S. it has carried out and the casualties of Americans and our friends it has caused. To assess al Qaeda's strengths, we would need to look at where the group claims that it is active worldwide and see how much progress it has made in achieving its goals. Since they will only begin to force all other people to follow their version of shari'a after achieving the first three goals, I won't attempt to assess their progress on this front.
Instead, let's begin by examining al-Qaeda's objective of expelling non-Muslim occupiers and apostate rulers from Muslim lands. Since 9-11, American military forces have withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and soon will leave Afghanistan. Multiple NATO forces have also decided to leave Afghanistan and many countries left Iraq before the defeat of the insurgency. We would say -- and rightly so -- that the reasons for pulling out of these areas have little to do with al Qaeda's actions. The U.S. in fact left Iraq and is leaving Afghanistan because it believes that al Qaeda has been defeated in both countries, and was able to move forces out of Saudi Arabia because Saddam was no longer around to threaten U.S. interests. With our allies the situation is rather different: It was the stubborn refusal of the insurgents (whether members of al-Qaeda or not) to quit fighting that caused many of them to decide to leave first Iraq (see Spain) and then Afghanistan. But, despite the real reasons for the withdrawal of American and allied forces from Muslim lands, Zawahiri and other leaders of al Qaeda have been able to claim credit for pushing them out of these countries, and for achieving one of their most important objectives.
The same holds true for the ouster of "apostate" rulers like Saddam, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi, and Ali Saleh (see Abdullah, "Disobeying Ali Abdullah Saleh Is the Most Important Duty That Was Called For by the Good Predecessors," Sada al-Malahim, Issue 3, May 2008) -- all named by the group as deserving to be pushed from power and/or executed. The Arab Spring in particular was a force completely outside al-Qaeda's power to begin or control, but this has not stopped its leaders from pointing out that the downfall of these "tyrants" fulfills one of their objectives. From the start of the spring, then, the group could position itself as supporting the uprisings and has sympathizers in Libya and Egypt, and outright members in Yemen, that are in position to take advantage of the social and political foment that has naturally occurred in these countries.
The bottom line is this: regardless of the agency of al Qaeda in these events, the actions by the U.S., its allies, and the people of these Muslim-majority countries have fulfilled two major objectives that al Qaeda has consistently claimed that they are pursuing. And, because of its consistency in calling for the ouster of these rulers, the group is now in an excellent position to build support in all the countries touched by the uprisings.
Al Qaeda has had more direct involvement in achieving its third objective-creating the "caliphate" -- although apparently with less success. The graphic below shows the governance areas for the caliphate that al Qaeda has claimed it is in the process of creating through the jihads of its branches. The exact boundaries of these areas are open to discussion, but the names and general territories are as described by al Qaeda.
In at least five of these areas -- the Sahara, Horn of Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and Pakistan, al Qaeda has claimed to have established amirates, their name for the shadow governments that are supposed to expand their authority until it encompasses the entire governance area. I believe that, eventually, al Qaeda wants to make these areas into wilayat or provinces within the larger caliphate.
All these attempts to set up governance have had some success: al Qaeda's branches did not just announce the establishment of a state in each place, but have also been imposing their version of Islamic law by setting up a court system to establish legal penalties and settle cases, along with an institution traditionally called the "hisba" to enforce the law. They have also created a regular army, charged taxes, collected Islamic charity (traditionally the provenance of the state), and much else. Al Qaeda 's attempts at shadow governance have not been uncontested, however. In almost all these cases, the new amirates are under pressure from central governments and external forces (like the Kenyans in Somalia), and in one case, Iraq, lost nearly everything when the U.S. carried out a successful counter-insurgency in 2007-2008. Yet the new governance structures have proven to be resilient, and even in Iraq are making a comeback that show the depth of their influence. In Yemen, where the central government is weak and there are no strong neighbors to intervene, the situation is particularly dire, and al Qaeda has been able to take advantage of the chaos from the Arab Spring to spread its control across large portions of the country.
Any evaluation of al Qaeda's progress in achieving this objective would have to admit that the group has done far better here than expected, is a real threat in many of these countries, and will require far more effort than the U.S. or its allies is currently willing to exert if the extremists are to be stopped.
In my next post I'll look at how well the U.S. (and other countries) have done in countering al Qaeda, and give my net assessment of where we are at in our war with the group.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.