A study published by Foreign Policy magazine has shed the light on the possibility that al-Qaeda may be able to rebuild itself and regain its original strategy of attacking the West.
According to the report, following the death of the group’s founder Osama bin Laden in 2011 and the onset of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings, al Qaeda began to embrace a changed strategy. Terrorism scholars widely observed that al Qaeda began pursuing more limited strategic goals with a focus on localism and incrementalism.
This strategic shift was widely dubbed “controlled pragmatism” and “strategic patience.” Al Qaeda seemed to be “quietly and patiently rebuilding” itself while deliberately letting the Daesh withstand the worst of the West’s counterterrorism campaign.
Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, and Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, say in the study that this pragmatic localism strategy had been most evident in how the group operated in Syria.
It was there that a group known as the Nusra Front most effectively implemented an approach to jihad that had shown some previous success in Yemen and Mali, but which had still ultimately failed.
By channeling its energies locally, forbidding the penal code, building alliances across the Islamist and non-Islamist spectrum, and outcompeting less extreme rivals in providing efficient and noncorrupt governance, the Nusra Front built a level of popular credibility that no other al Qaeda affiliate had come close to.
In short, the Nusra Front remained acutely aware of how its brand was perceived by locals and acted accordingly. That it also proved to be the most potent military actor on the battlefield was merely an added bonus.
In an Al Jazeera interview from May 2015, then-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani explained that Zawahiri had instructed him not to use Syria as a sanctuary from which to attack the West.
That instruction, which had arrived in a secret letter earlier that year, came in response to the U.S. government’s campaign of strikes against the so-called Khorasan Group—a small cadre of al Qaeda operatives operating in northern Syria with the explicit intention to attack the West—that had begun in September 2014.
But the study put a number of points that may answer these questions; as to avoid any confusion over whether the United States and the West remained in the crosshairs of al Qaeda’s international efforts, the group released a series of messages over the next several years. In a message from April 2017, Zawahiri reiterated the importance of al Qaeda’s global struggle. The next month, messages from both Hamza bin Laden and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula emir Qasim al-Raymi urged al Qaeda’s followers to launch attacks in the West.
Unsurprisingly, in May 2017, then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats concluded in congressional testimony that “Europe will remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and elements of both DAESH and al Qaeda are likely to continue to direct and enable plots against targets in Europe.”
Yet another speech from Zawahiri, this one titled “America Is the First Enemy of Muslims” and released in March 2018, incited al Qaeda’s followers to strike the United States. None of this should be surprising, as al Qaeda’s overarching narrative has always been that the West is at war with Islam.