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Discussion Point: Beyond al-Qa'ida

The following is a special first look at an article that will appear in a publication by the Institute for Economics and Peace and online at www.visionofhumanity.org. It will be published as part of the release of the inaugural Global Terrorism Index, which will be launched in Washington, D.C., at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5. 

William Braniff

Data found in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) and conveyed in the Institute for Economics and Peace Terrorism Index demonstrate the breadth of violence emanating from violent jihadist groups globally. The Global Terrorism Index lists Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia as experiencing the greatest increase in “impact of terrorism” between 2002 and 2011.

The ten most lethal organizations in that timeframe include the Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq and its two precursor organizations (al-Qa’ida in Iraq and Tawhid wal Jihad - which make the top ten on their own record), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and Boko Haram.

Four of the five most lethal-single attacks of 2011 were conducted by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (110 killed), the Tehriki-Taliban Pakistan (80 killed), al-Shabaab (70 killed), and al-Qa’ida in Iraq (65 killed). According to GTD data for 2011, 11 of the most 20 active groups globally were al-Qa’ida linked. The same year, however, the al-Qa’ida organization itself was responsible for only one incident, a kidnapping, out of the 5,000 terrorist incidents conducted globally.

As a result, the al-Qa’ida organization no longer captures media attention, except when another important cadre member is killed or captured. Instead, observers now ponder the meaning of the continuous or frequently increasing levels of violence from other jihadist groups in the context of a post Arab-Spring world.

This is despite the fact that the various narratives of the Arab Spring seem to undermine al-Qa’ida’s reliance on violence and its call to reestablish the caliphate as the governing structure for the Muslim nation. Additionally, individuals continue to join jihadist groups or plot violent attacks of their own volition.

What should we take from the seemingly contradictory developments of a popular rejection of al-Qa’ida on the world stage, and heightened levels of jihadist violence? Did al-Qa’ida succeed by inspiring widespread jihadism, or has it lost to a variety of more popular, parochial actors? To address these questions, it is essential to understand al-Qa’ida’s origins and its place in the broader Islamist landscape; only in context can the decline of the al-Qa’ida organization and the persistence of violent jihadism be understood and can governments formulate policy for a threat environment beyond al-Qa’ida.

Historical Context

The al-Qa’ida organization gained centrality among militant organizations as a result of the role played by key members during the anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Through their participation in a logistical organization known as the Maktab al-Khidamat, or the “Service Bureau,” Usama bin Ladin and his key associates networked extensively with individual recruits and organizations that traveled to support the defensive jihad of the Afghan mujahidin.

The Services Bureau created mobilization infrastructure largely in the safe-haven provided by the Haqqani network, which promulgated local and global jihadist sentiment prior to the conflict with the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of volunteers, many veterans of previous or on-going local and regional conflicts, socialized together in the intake and training camps preparing them to fight an imperial superpower. Militants from Southeast Asia met those from North Africa, South Asia, China, and the Middle East, and in this peculiar historical moment the seeds of global jihadism were sewn.

Al-Qa’ida, a small organization that emerged from the Services Bureau in 1988, has spent the last 24 years arguing that the grievances vexing each of these militant communities were not unrelated, but instead were the result of a global conspiracy against “true” Islam led by the West and enabled by apostate Muslim rulers.

The failure of local jihadist groups to successfully topple corrupt Muslim rulers, the “near enemy,” and regionally oriented jihadist groups to reclaim political control of occupied territory has been a source of frustration since the 1970s. Upon Bin Ladin’s failure to convince the Saudi government to allow this community of jihadist veterans to protect the Arabian Peninsula from Saddam Hussein’s Bathist military, al-Qa’ida formulated the master narrative that would underpin the next 20 years of ideological and operational output.

The reason that the Royal Family would not allow the mujahidin to defend Mecca and Medina from Iraq’s advance was the same reason that local and irredentist jihadist groups elsewhere had failed in their parochial contests. The regimes were illegitimate proxies of foreign powers, and behind each of these puppet regimes was the military and economic aid of the “far-enemy.” Led by the United States, the far enemy pulled the strings across the Muslim world for their own imperial purposes and to undermine Islam.

Al-Qa’ida’s grand strategy would emerge from this diagnosis; al-Qa’ida would enable and repurpose the violence of other militant actors to erode the political, economic, and military will of the United States to remain engaged in the Muslim world. If al-Qa’ida’s geographically distributed attrition warfare could sever the ties between the puppet-master and the puppets, revolutionary local and regional campaigns could reestablish Islamic governance for the Muslim nation.

To realize this grand-strategy, al-Qa’ida exploited relationships created during the anti-Soviet jihad and inserted itself into extant violent campaigns. It provided training, financing, and propaganda support when it did not also engage directly in the violence. The increasingly intertwined histories of local, regional and global jihadist actors had multiple consequences.

Most significantly, the global jihadist cause often benefited from resources mobilized for the purpose of defensive or classical jihad – a concept far easier to justify politically and religiously than the offensive jihad practiced by global jihadists. Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, the five fastest rising nations of the last decade in the Global Terrorism Index, illustrate this volatile relationship between military occupations or aerial strikes into sovereign territory and violent mobilization. In addition, the multiplicity of grievances espoused by local, regional and global actors created numerous radicalization pathways, and the harmonization of parochial and cosmic narratives by al-Qa’ida’s propaganda organ helped conflate actions on the ground.

In many cases, money, arms, and individual recruits were syphoned off from relatively robust resource pipelines and reoriented towards al-Qa’ida’s global cause. The perceived legitimacy of the conflicts in the Balkans, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Somalia drew foreign fighters who did not necessarily act in the best interests of the local communities in which they found themselves.

This often created tensions among the jihadist factions, or between the local populace and the militant actors. As a result, al-Qa’ida rarely succeeded in retaining popular support among the populace or reorienting jihadist groups en toto to their tactical and targeting preferences. However, they frequently achieved partial successes that amplified al-Qai’da’s operational reach far beyond their organizational safe haven along the Durand line. In several instances, the key leaders of militant organizations were persuaded to adopt fully al-Qa’ida’s operational paradigm, even changing their name to reflect a formal affiliation with al-Qa’ida.

Ideological context

The al-Qa’ida organization is a reincarnation - the latest manifestation of a militant idea that has surfaced at moments of crisis throughout Sunni Islamic history. The grand-strategy formulated by al-Qa’ida in the context of the first Gulf War embodies a logic previously articulated but not widely accepted. Scholars such as Ahmed Ibn Taymiyya argued that the reason the seat of the caliphate, Baghdad, had been sacked by the Mongols in the middle of the 13th century was that Muslims had turned their back on the proper, archetypal modality of Islam realized during the time of the Prophet Mohammad and his contemporaries - the establishment of a theocracy in which Islam served as the organizing principle of society.

Of particular importance to contemporary violence, Ibn Taymiyya not only diagnosed the problem through the lens of political Islam, but provided the justification for revolutionary violence that jihadists cite today. In the anti-Mongul fatwas, written half a century after the Monguls had conquered the Abbasid Caliphate and after many had converted to Islam, Ibn Taymiyya excommunicated them and their proxy rulers for not governing by an unadulterated interpretation of Islamic law. For this sin, he declared that they were no longer Muslim and could be violently overthrown, upending the Sunni convention of non-violence towards Muslim (even tyrannical or incompetent) rulers.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the ravages of colonialism, the failures of nationalism, monarchism, Marxism, and pan-Arabism in the post-colonial Middle East and North Africa, similar failures in South Asia, and the creation of the states of Israel and Pakistan, all contributed to the rise of militant Islamism. In this latest incarnation, an imprisoned Egyptian named Sayyid Qutb called for a vanguard to act upon the ideas put forward by ideologues like Ibn Taymiyya when faced with insufficiently Islamic governance from within the Muslim world, and toxic foreign ideological and physical incursions from outside of the Muslim world. These thought-leaders, hand-picked from moments of crisis, remain foundational thought leaders of jihadist movements today.

The vocabulary of this narrative is supplied by revivalist interpretations of Islam. Maximalist notions of tawhid, absolute monotheism, and taqlid, emulation of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an, provide a universally accessible and seemingly unassailable haven for Sunni Muslims looking for alternatives to the oppressive realities provided by their current regimes.

Faced with persecution by a morally bankrupt ruling class, the Prophet emigrated from Mecca to Medina in 622 where he established the first Islamic city-state. In this archetypal moment the Prophet Muhammad reorganized society around Islam as opposed to the bonds of kinship and tribal custom, after which he successfully defended his new Muslim nation and expanded the political boundaries of the Muslim empire.

For many Islamists, violent organizations like al-Qa’ida among them, this pre-Westphalian modality of Islam is instructional. “True” Islam only exists when it is the primary source of governance, manifest today by the implementation of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. It supersedes tribe, or nationality today, it is to be defended everywhere it exists, and when it exists it is an ascendant force. According to this logic, in the current moment of extended crisis Muslims are duty-bound to follow the example of the Prophet and emigrate from places of persecution to a place where they can fight on behalf of true Islam. If they cannot make that journey, they are to fight where they live.

This ideological context helps to explain jihadism’s appeal beyond its embodiment in al-Qa’ida. In any current political climate where national leaders fail to deliver economic prosperity, just governance and security, and foreign powers prey on this internal weakness, the argument can gain traction.

By describing an alternative political order in a religious lexicon, jihadist ideologues disassociate themselves from the corruption and incompetence demonstrated since the post-Colonial era. Because al-Qa’ida inherited a resonant argument and spent decades propagating it in training camps and online, and because modern jihadist ideologues continue to interpret this argument for current political conditions, al-Qa’ida’s continued salience as an organization is not required for this narrative to remain compelling.

Bin Ladin is dead; long live jihadism

Jihadism persists because it predates al-Qa’ida and is not dependent upon al-Qa’ida. Ibn Taymiyya’s revolutionary narrative, inherited and amplified by al-Qa’ida, can gain traction among other aggrieved Sunni militant groups. Al-Qa’ida sought footholds where extant local or regional groups already existed and often propagandized on their behalves, creating the perception that these conflicts existed because of al-Qa’ida. While this interpretation is untrue, it is true that al-Qa’ida had varying success enabling the violence of others and reorienting that violence against the West.

Even without a robust al-Qa’ida presence, members of local and regional groups may continue to see Western targets as legitimate. As al-Qa’ida currently discourages foreign fighters to travel to Pakistan, globally minded individuals are more likely to target far enemy targets in their own locale. If nothing else, al-Qa’ida demonstrated that small groups can attack successfully powerful nation-states, potentially emboldening disparate groups and cells to take action.

In addition, jihadism persists because al-Qa’ida delegates operational decision-making to varying degrees in varying contexts, to include empowering lone-actors with no formal connection to the organization to take direct action. Following Nidal Hasan’s terrorist attack at Fort Hood, for example, al-Qa’ida did not claim the attack but endorsed the behavior. This is in large part because al-Qa’ida is a pragmatic vanguard with an expansive definition of itself. When operationally constrained it has stuck to the strategic principle of enabling the violence of others, as opposed to privileging absolute command and control.


The death of the 21st century’s first super-empowered individual, Usama bin Ladin, led to broad reflection about the viability of his organization and its place in a changing political landscape. Underscoring al-Qa’ida’s failure to generate widespread support for both the ends (severing of ties between the West and the Muslim world and reestablishment of the caliphate) and means (violence) of its campaign, protestors acted largely peaceably and entirely within the parameters of the international system that al-Qa’ida sought to overthrow. Control of the nation-state, not its dissolution, remained the prize of popular protests even for the Islamist political parties that have benefited from the instability.

Within the context of this political turmoil, extant violent groups persist and some have found new safe-haven. While many coalesced around a local agenda without any impetus from the al-Qa’ida organization, al-Qa’ida’s long-running propagation of global jihadism and its vilification of the West has influenced these militant organizations to varying degrees. As a result, in contested regions far from al-Qa’ida’s geographic center of gravity, violence targeting both local Muslim populations and far-enemy targets persists. Making this mix of violence more difficult to disentangle, it often occurs in places where anti-American sentiment is paramount creating the very real risk that American audiences will conflate the two.

It is essential, therefore, that policy-makers understand the differing motivations and goals among violent and non-violent Islamist actors in a given region. Many of these actors choose to act within the international system with the goal of winning a seat at the table. Others act outside of the system in the medium term, but for the same prize; the ability to govern within the international system. Foreign policy should endeavor to influence the behaviors of these organizations with the understanding that Western nation states retain the advantage in this arena, even if policy options are less attractive now than they were prior to the Arab Spring. There is a new political reality at play.

At the same time, the interplay of local, regional and global actors presents a parallel reality that counterterrorism professionals continue to address. This condition will persist to varying degrees even if the al-Qa’ida organization fails to recover from the withering attacks made against it in recent years. Sophisticated counterterrorism policy must minimize the effects of global jihadism without inciting local and regional groups to take up its cause. This requires an understanding of the jihadist narrative and the ability to distinguish it from political Islam and anti-American sentiment, as well as an understanding of the specific history that allows al-Qa’ida to enable the violence of others in so many regions of the world.

This article is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These Discussion Point editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This article and those that will follow it are penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.