The rise of Al Qaeda affiliates represents how jihadism has morphed into a multi-front struggle. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) , Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Shabaab represent an acceleration of jihadist efforts to attack near and far enemies. Often hailed as an Al Qaeda success making the war on terror more difficult, this is far from the truth. These alliances represent mutual failure as local and international jihadists have failed to achieve their objectives.
Al Qaeda’s collapse in Afghanistan led to the organization’s post 9-11 strategy to open multiple fronts. This involved tactics including encouraging lone wolf terrorist attacks in Western countries and supporting Islamic insurgents fighting foreign occupation forces. Frustrated in their inability to dislodge native regimes regional Islamists leapt at the opportunity to revive their struggle by aligning with Al Qaeda. These alliances hoped to turn singular failure into a joint success.
Al Qaeda groups have flourished in failed states and they have waged a simultaneous jihadist war against near and far enemies. Al Qaeda’s relationship with these groups was built upon indigenous traditions of radical jihadism. Prior Al Qaeda presence in these areas and past joint efforts facilitated this alliance. These networks have risen in countries ravaged by civil wars, guerilla insurgencies. “Arab Afghans” have played formative roles in Al Shabaab, AQIM and AQAP and have contributed to an internationalization of the jihadist war.
Somalia, Algeria and Yemen have years of chronic warfare that, in some cases, led to state implosion. Somalia is a dire case with Al Shabaab in control of two-thirds of the country. Yemen has been plagued by numerous insurgencies and is bordering on state collapse allowing AQAP opportunities to exploit a power vacuum. Algeria, similarly, was convulsed by a decade long civil war that became the impetus for a variety of radical Islamist movements of which AQIM is the recent manifestation.
Al Qaeda franchises developed in these countries because of chronic state failure, autocratic governments and tribal conflicts. These affiliates are strongest in remote areas where central authority is weak and heavily resented. AQIM and AQAP have also benefited by tribal alliances and criminal activity that give them a secure base of operations.
Emerging as autonomous movements committed to native insurgencies, these affiliates have branched out in attacking the far enemy of the West. Al Qaeda’s incorporation of these groups has resulted in simultaneous wars against internal and external enemies. The groups target Western interests inviting concern form American and European security agencies. All three cases have involved cross border attacks and the targeting of western interests inviting retaliation from neighbors and Western agencies.
Al Qaeda’s franchise operations seek an equitable division of labor: local groups gain by receiving advanced training and skilled fighters, while Al Qaeda enlarges its field of global operations to strike at Western targets. Al Shabaab, AQIM and AQAP actions now have the trademarks (IED and suicide bombings) of Al Qaeda Central.
This cross-fertilization of activities, however, has failed to stem the decline of regional jihadist networks. Al Qaeda’s branches are limited to remote areas on the margin of failed states where these networks are plagued by internal and external adversaries.
AQIM, Al Shabaab and AQAP have progressed from informal alliances to formal integration into Al Qaeda. More symbolic than organizational, the Al Qaeda franchises in Yemen, Somalia and the Maghreb are loosely coordinated and are autonomous groups. The most advanced relationship has occurred between Al Shabaab and AQAP where the Yemenis and Saudis have played an important role in the East African terror networks organizational growth and tactics.
These branches remain hunted by internal and external enemies which impedes their effective coordination. Al Shabaab, AQAP and AQIM operate in the periphery of failing states whose criminal activity and supporting tribes offers some hope of survival. The dependence on crime, however, is highly problematic and it’s contributed to their de-legitimization.
Harassed by security services and U.S. Predator drone strikes, these organizations are on the decline. The reverses these networks have experienced are exacerbated by their tendency toward factionalism and intra-group competition.
Al Shabaab and AQIM face declining popularity due to their own excesses and the failure of their Salafist ideas to gain some resonance. Instability in Yemen offers AQAP some reprieve as security forces become more fragmented and weaker. There may be some short term strategic opening created by regime change and instability. Despite the turmoil in Yemen and Mali these groups are unlikely to capitalize on this situation for larger trends in the region including the Arab Spring and death of bin Laden add additional, perhaps insurmountable, challenges.
Even Al Qaeda’s success in establishing a base in Mali by coopting and eventually displacing Tuareg rebels is precarious. AQIM and its Tuareg and Mauritanian allies have alienated much of the populace through their draconian imposition of Sharia law and destruction of Sufi shrines in the historic city of Timbuktu. Their excesses have caught the attention of both the UN and West African countries that are forming a military force to reconquer Northern Mali.
With strong external and internal opposition the current loose network of radical Islamist groups in Mali is likely to fragment. AQIM at best will be able to harass West African forces in much the same way they have done so in Somalia. They will not, however, be able to maintain a secure terror sanctuary.