Why We Need al-Qaeda

al-Nusra in Aleppo.jpg

Hosam Katan/Reuters/Corbis

Residents of Idlib, northern Syria, celebrating Jabhat al-Nusra’s defeat of government forces, April 24, 2015

Could the group long considered the most lethal terrorist organization in the
 world be the best option left in the Middle East for 
the US and its allies?

In Washington and other Western capitals there is rampant confusion
 about the status and future of al-Qaeda. Some Western diplomats and 
commentators claim that al-Qaeda has been largely surpassed by the much more 
popular and brutal ISIS. Others insist that it is expanding in Syria and Yemen,
 remains strong in Pakistan and Afghanistan where its present leadership is based,
 and continues to pose the most significant terrorist threat to the West.

Meanwhile, events in the Middle East suggest growing contradictions in Western 
policy. In Syria, the United States has been bombing Jabhat al-Nusra,
 al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, alongside ISIS. But members of the US-led
 coalition against ISIS, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are actively 
supporting al-Nusra with arms and money. In Yemen, the US has pursued a
 years-long drone campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a campaign that has included, most recently, the reported killing on Friday of AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi. But 
much of the Arab world is now essentially siding with AQAP in a Saudi-led war
 against Houthi rebels in that country. And while ISIS commands overwhelming
 attention for its ability to gain and hold territory and draw thousands of
 Western recruits, there has been little scrutiny of the dramatic effect it has 
had on al-Qaeda itself.

The truth is that al-Qaeda has evolved in profound ways since the death 
of Osama bin Laden and the emergence of ISIS. Despite a 
concerted campaign against it by the US and its coalition of more than sixty countries, ISIS can now claim to have ground forces in 
more than a dozen countries stretching from Tunisia to Central Asia and 
Pakistan, and it is implementing a state-building project—the 
Caliphate—that al-Qaeda could only dream of. The most dangerous 
long-term consequence of ISIS’s growth is the unleashing of a general war
 between Sunni and Shia that could divide the Muslim world for decades.

Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is much
 depleted. However, it still has a major presence in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen 
through its affiliates, and it continues to inspire Afghan, Central Asian, and 
Pakistani militants, who provide the group with sanctuaries and manpower in 
order to keep its leadership under Ayman al-Zawahiri alive. It also has 
increasingly set itself apart from ISIS in strategy and aims on battlefields in 
both Syria and Yemen. So the 
question has become urgent: if al-Qaeda is changing, what is it 
changing to? Is it for the better or the worse? And what part might it have in 
the crucial confrontation with ISIS?

Partly as a result of al-Qaeda’s ambiguous presence in the Middle East’s expanding conflicts, there is now a dramatic divergence between the US and the Arab states about how the war 
against ISIS should be conducted. In fact, amid the chaos of simultaneous 
conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, two quite separate super-wars are 
now being fought.

 The first war is being fought by the US and its Western allies, who are seeking to defeat Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and AQAP 
in Yemen alongside the campaign against ISIS. Significantly, however, the Arab states are taking no part in 
the war against al-Qaeda and are providing no intelligence support to the American forces leading it.

The second war, by contrast, is being fought by Turkey and the regional Arab
 states—primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt—against Assad and other Iranian-backed forces in the region, as well as ISIS. In this war the Arab states openly avoid bombing or attacking 
al-Nusra and AQAP, and in fact now provide both with financial support and weapons. This is because both groups have now declared aims that
 are shared by the Arab states.

 Al-Nusra has set as its primary objectives toppling the Syrian regime of Bashar 
al-Assad, defeating the pro-Iran Hezbollah militia, and eliminating Iranian 
support for Assad. AQAP, meanwhile, is resisting the Houthi uprising and also
 wants to eliminate Iranian influence in Yemen. So al-Nusra and AQAP have become allies and 
not enemies of the Arab states, despite the fact that al-Qaeda itself once sought to overthrow these 
same regimes.

All of this is completely at odds with longstanding US aims and purposes. President Barack Obama 
and Secretary of State John Kerry continue to insist that there is no difference between ISIS and the 
two al-Qaeda groups. It also remains true that both groups are lethal; AQAP in 
particular has in past years shown its ability to plan ambitious attacks against
 Western targets. Yet the Arabs are justified in concluding that al-Qaeda may be evolving. Both groups have now taken over cities and towns in 
their respective states, marking the first time that al-Qaeda has sought to 
control territory. And both have set out policies of local control that differ markedly from those of ISIS.


Consider al-Nusra, ISIS’s primary rival in Syria. Unlike ISIS, which demands absolute subjugation of the inhabitants of any territory it conquers 
(surrender or be executed), al-Nusra is cooperating with other anti-Assad groups 
and recently joined the “Army of Conquest” alliance of rebel militias in northern Syria. Moreover, in contrast to ISIS’s
 largely international and non-Syrian fighting force, al-Nusra’s fighters 
are almost wholly Syrian, making them both more reliable and more committed to
 Syria’s future. Meanwhile, in interviews with Al Jazeera, al-Nusra leaders have vowed not to attack
 targets in the West, promoting an 
ideology that might be called “nationalist jihadism” rather than global jihad. In recent months, al-Nusra’s leaders
 have toned down 
the implementation of their own brutal version of Islamic law, while putting on hold 
their own plans of building a caliphate.

Many of these same changes have been evident with AQAP in Yemen. The al-Qaeda affiliate’s takeover of the 
southeastern Yemeni province of Hadramut this spring was a remarkably tame 
affair. The group seized the capital Mukallah, robbed the bank, and then retreated, 
declining to run the government themselves or impose sharia law and installing a 
council of elders instead. They have urged the council to focus on governance 
and providing services to the people. 

For Arab leaders, determining whether al-Qaeda has really changed
 will depend on the group’s long-term attitude toward Shias. Both ISIS and
 al-Qaeda detest Shias, but al-Qaeda has tried in the past to moderate its views
 and stave off the kind of large-scale sectarian war that ISIS is now advocating. 
As long ago as 1998, Osama bin Laden warned his Arab fighters and the Taliban to 
stop excessive killing of Shias in Afghanistan, and during the height of the war 
in Iraq, when the leader of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
 launched an exceptionally brutal campaign against Shias, both Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri
 warned him to desist. For the moment, al-Nusra and AQAP seem to be avoiding 
anti-Shia fanaticism, viewing it as an impediment to gaining more territory. What is unknown is whether this moderation toward minority groups such as the Alawites in Syria or the Yazidis in Iraq will continue if they gain total control. Also unknown is their attitude to an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq.

But just as important in the Arab rapprochement with al-Qaeda is the reality 
that US policies have failed. Both the US effort to build up a so-called
 moderate front in Syria and to bring Sunni and Shia together in Iraq through the 
auspices of a failed Iraqi Shia elite have become doomed strategies. And as the US enters the final stages of a nuclear deal with Iran, many Arab leaders view Washington as abandoning them.

With Arab money and persuasion, both al-Nusra and AQAP are gaining capacity for local governance and state building. However
 distasteful the jihadist ideology behind both groups, these efforts suggest an
 outcome that may be considerably less threatening than that of the Islamic State.
 According to some reports, al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri has issued advice 
that attacks on the US should stop for the time being in order to allow al-Qaeda and 
its affiliates to concentrate on the Middle East. Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the AQAP leader who was reportedly killed in a drone strike last week, took orders directly 
from al-Zawahiri; so does Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the leader of 
al-Nusra, who recently told Al Jazeera, “the instructions that we have are not to use al-Sham [Syria]
 as a base to launch attacks on the West or Europe so as not to muddy the current 

With 230,000 killed and 7.6 million people uprooted in Syria alone, the Arab 
states want a quick end to the Assad regime and a viable solution for Syria.
 They know that solution will never come from the weak moderate opposition, and that
 any lasting peace will require support by the strong and ruthless Islamist 
groups fighting there. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, since he came to the throne in 
January 2015, has pursued a far more aggressive policy toward both Iran and
 Syria, and is prepared to sup with the devil, including al-Qaeda itself, to
 achieve his aims. Turkey too has been humiliated by its loss of dominance in 
the region and has now set up a command and control center for al-Nusra on its 
own soil.

The West must recognize that the ground is shifting quickly across the region 
and the Arab Spring is now on the verge of turning into an Islamic 
fundamentalist winter, whether we like it or not. The US has paid a bitter price 
for declining to back the Arab states in removing Assad four years ago when there was a viable moderate opposition. In the
 months ahead, we should not be surprised if formal talks between al-Qaeda and
 these Arab states begin. The only one not at the table could be the
 United States. 


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