They remember what happened to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. The man who emerged as the most effective Al-Qaeda fighter against the US was diverted by his hatred of Shias. His YouTube videos showing grotesque scenes of slaughter were so revolting that he undermined his own support base.
So, rather than focussing exclusively on dishing out their version of justice, Al-Qaeda’s fighters in Syria are now assigning car licence plates and introducing price controls to enable the population to buy basic commodities.
In Iraq, where ISIS is the recognised Al-Qaeda affiliate, the jihadis have been fighting hard in towns such as Fallujah, presenting a genuine challenge to the Iraqi government. And in Yemen the AQIP has proven highly resilient providing a safe haven to Al-Qaeda members unable to operate in Saudi Arabia. The AQIP has a particularly strong line in kidnapping in Yemen that generates millions of dollars in annual revenue through ransoms.
But the area with the most remarkable Al-Qaeda growth is North Africa. In Somalia, Kenya, Algeria and now Egypt groups that have sworn allegiance to Al-Qaeda are fighting hard, mounting spectacular attacks and in some places establishing themselves in remote outlying areas. True, the French deployment in Mali has succeeded in forcing the local Al-Qaeda affiliate to the mountains, but the jihadi offensive in Mali also showed how easy it still is to draw in foreign forces.
Al-Qaeda owes much of its recent success to the failure of the Arab spring. Back in 2011, many thought the popular uprisings against Hosni Mubarak and his fellow autocrats showed there was an alternative to violent jihad. People power, the argument went, would prevail. President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that events in Egypt, for example, had marginalised Al-Qaeda. “Al-Qaeda’s sort of in the position of trying to catch the train after it already left the station”, he said.
But the Arab spring has failed to blossom. In Syria it turned into a civil war. In Libya, it left a power-vacuum. And in Egypt democracy has been denied. Even if it did not initiate the revolutionary movement in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to win every election it stood in after Mubarak was kicked out. But those results have been ignored and a military-backed government is once again in charge. Many of the Brotherhood’s leaders, meanwhile, have been sentenced to death.
Al-Qaeda has argued for years that the west’s much vaunted commitment to democracy is skin deep and that it won’t accept the election results if Islamists win. It turns out that Al-Qaeda has a point. Back in 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front won in Algeria – but to the relief of many in the west, the army stopped them from taking power.
In 2006 Hamas won in Gaza – but the west wouldn’t talk to them. And then the victorious Muslim Brotherhood was thrown out in Egypt. To many young Arabs the argument that only force would bring change in the Middle East is compelling,
Al-Qaeda’s comeback has required tactical flexibility. Bin Laden’s greatest innovation was to argue that jihadis should fight the far enemy rather than the near one. The way to weaken authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, he said, was to attack what he called the head of the snake: the United States. The 9/11 attacks proved that it could be done. Jihadis could inflict real pain on a superpower.
But today the groups fighting in Al-Qaeda’s name have, for the most part, given up direct attacks on the west. Many of them have calculated that the west’s military arsenal is so huge that it’s probably best to avoid provoking it. So, instead, they are fighting near enemies whether they are in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Mali.
This raises an important question. Should the west respond to Al-Qaeda’s change in tactics by adopting a more relaxed attitude to what could be seen as little more than old-fashioned local insurgences with a bit of a religious twist?
For the moment that may seem to make sense. After all, western military intervention often has significant strategic downsides. The west’s post-9/11 interventions in Muslim majority countries – from invasion to torture – have helped Al-Qaeda make its arguments.
But based on the experience of the mujahideen struggle in Afghanistan, western intelligence agencies are not prepared to let events take their course as they await to see what happens as a result of the various fights in the Middle East and North Africa.
After all, they argue, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan some of the holy warriors went on to continue the fight back home. Even if, for the moment, the foreign fighters in Syria have little argument with the US, it’s not unreasonable to think that some will go looking for a new front. The only question is: how many? One in a hundred? Or one in five?
And so the struggle goes on. And despite all the predictions, Al-Qaeda is still an active a participant in the fight.
The writer is a freelance British journalist.