On July 25, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Barak Barfi, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. The talk dealt with the changing nature and strategy of Al Qaeda since 9/11, specifically the organization’s use of regional affiliates. The event, which was followed by a lively question and answer session, was moderated by Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.
Barfi began his discussion of Al Qaeda with a brief history of the organization, first describing the “golden era of Al Qaeda” between 1996 and 2001. During that time, the group benefitted from having a stable training ground and operational base in Afghanistan.
After the U.S. attack on Afghanistan in 2001, Al Qaeda was forced to move underground. Over time, it transformed from a centralized organization to one that relied on regional affiliates to carry out attacks. According to Barfi, in the reorganization of the group, Osama bin Laden came to be seen as more of a figurehead than the actual controller of Al Qaeda. Indeed, Barfi explained, “the fact that Osama bin Laden accepts these affiliates demonstrates his weakness because some disagree with his views.”
Barfi then launched into a discussion of the various Al Qaeda affiliates. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) emerged after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Al Qaeda was slow to see Iraq as a staging ground for attacks, and, as a result, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had a strained relationship with Osama bin Laden, began operations there. Zarqawi focused on killing the Shia in Iraq, which troubled Al Qaeda’s Pakistan-based leadership, as the organization hoped to unite the entire Islamic umma against the West. Zarqawi justified the killing of fellow Muslims with an obscure medieval Islamic concept called tatarrus, or the practice of human shields. Barfi called the need to justify its attacks against the Shia and Iraqi civilians “Zarqawi’s legacy to Al Qaeda.” Zarqawi further angered Al Qaeda by carrying out attacks outside of Iraq without its consent. Although the Iraqi branch differed markedly from its mother organization, Al Qaeda continued to endorse it, again illustrating the weakness of its central leadership.
Barfi next turned his attention to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Algerian jihadists also used tactics of mass killings in the 1990’s that did not endear them to Al Qaeda, leading to a strained relationship. In fact, in the 1990’s, when Osama bin Laden sent three emissaries to reach an agreement with jihadists in Algeria, they were incarcerated, as the Algerian jihadists hoped to keep their rebellion a national affair. Today, AQIM seems more intent on providing cover for drug smugglers and kidnapping westerners for ransom, while Al Qaeda Central hoped they would use their location as a base for attacks on Europe. AQIM therefore retains a largely national character, yet continues to maintain ties to Al Qaeda central..
Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is one branch that has made its mother organization proud and is perhaps the most “natural” affiliate for Al Qaeda Central, according to Barfi, as many of its leaders know Bin Laden personally. Furthermore, the organization, like Bin Laden, “wants to focus on targeting the West, not on civilians.” Therefore, AQAP carries out smaller, less bloody attacks than its sister affiliate AQI. Indeed, its largest attacks have killed around 20 people, while Zarqawi’s bloodiest attack accrued casualties of some 170 people. AQAP also differs from AQI because it does not target the Shia. As a result, Barfi explained, “AQAP’s killing is much more focused than the other affiliates.”
In his concluding remarks, Barfi assessed the strength of Al Qaeda, explaining that Al Qaeda has become “more of a brand than an ideology.” As such, it has been able to spread through loosely connected affiliates. However, Barfi cautioned that “Al Qaeda is currently on the run, but one homerun could change the game.” While Al Qaeda may presently be operating from a weak position, it could regain strength through only one successful large-scale attack on the U.S. Such an attack would allow it to argue that it has the West on the run rather than the other way around.
Following Barfi’s presentation, the question and answer session covered a range of issues, including the prevalence of Al Qaeda’s global network and the place of Israel in Al Qaeda’s rhetoric. Moderator Shadi Hamid asked about Al Qaeda’s long-term strategic vision. Barfi answered that it has no clear message: “The message is being diluted through regional organizations. It is unclear if the center can even communicate with affiliates.” While Osama Bin Laden ultimately hopes for the removal of western forces from the Islamic world and the implementation of its own version of shari’a, regional affiliates do not appear to be working toward these goals. Therefore, it remains to be seen how strong Al Qaeda Central’s vision is today.
One audience member asked whether engaging with Al Qaeda affiliates would be a useful strategy to defeat the organization. Barfi responded that this tactic has met with some success in Algeria through its National Reconciliation Plan, through which former jihadists are granted amnesty for violence committed in the 1990s. A number of Algerian members of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), who felt marginalized after the organization joined Al Qaeda without consulting leaders, have defected.
Another member of the audience asked whether Al Qaeda was solely a militant organization or if it was also attempting to address issues of socio-economic development to attract more followers. Barfi replied that Al Qaeda has not focused on more specific development concerns, as it hopes that promoting a more general anti-Western message will mobilize more supporters. Interestingly, in the 1990’s, Bin Laden released cassette tapes that covered a number of topics, ranging from sanitation problems to other issues of governance, yet he only gained international attention when he began focusing on broader goals.