Al Qaeda Is Doing Nation-Building. Should We Worry?

Yes. But not as much as you might think.

A year after the death of its leader Osama bin Laden, according to al Qaeda's propaganda, the organization is closer to its most basic goal than ever before -- the establishment of Islamic states throughout the Muslim world. Al Qaeda has long failed miserably in this regard: Before the Arab Spring, the organization was better known for inviting the destruction of the Taliban state in Afghanistan, which al Qaeda's leaders considered to be the world's only true Islamic emirate, and for spectacularly overreaching in its failed attempt to create an Islamic state in Iraq. But by taking advantage of this chaotic moment in the Arab world and merging with a powerful insurgency in the Horn of Africa, al Qaeda is once again taking a shot at its own version of nation-building.

These efforts to create states -- usually called "emirates" in al Qaeda parlance, though they often don't merit the label -- have largely occurred on the periphery of the Arab world. In Yemen, al Qaeda front group Ansar al-Sharia controls several towns and moves freely in a large swath of territory in the country's south. In al Qaeda-controlled towns, the organization provides basic services and implements Islamic law -- although with a lighter touch than al Qaeda in Iraq. Better still, its clever propaganda wing regularly distributes interviews with the locals about how great things are going. In a recent video about the restoration of electricity in the area around the Ansar al-Sharia controlled town of Jaar, the interviewer asks a local man, "How is it working for you now?" "Wonderfully!" the man replies.

In Somalia, the militant group al-Shabab, or perhaps just a faction thereof, recently received al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri's blessing to become a full-fledged affiliate of al Qaeda. However, Zawahiri may have partnered with al-Shabab just as it begins its decline: Although the Somali militant group still controls a large part of the country, it has lost ground in the past few months in fighting against Somali and international forces. Al-Shabab is not known for its good governance, but it has recently tried to score propaganda points by funneling food aid to its starving population.

A group aligned with al Qaeda, Ansar al-Din, has also managed to capture territory in northern Mali with the stated intent of establishing an Islamic state there. Its members have flown the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda front group, over the captured town of Timbuktu. Based on media reports, its members have been less forgiving of transgressions of Islamic law than their fellow travelers in Yemen. Nevertheless, they are still providing basic services, like policing and medical supplies.

Al Qaeda's gains warrant serious attention, but they do not represent a shift away from the group's "far enemy" strategy targeting the United States to a "near enemy" strategy targeting local regimes. For al Qaeda, the two are not mutually exclusive.

The two-pronged approach was put forward most forcefully by Abu Bakr Naji, an al Qaeda theoretician whose real identity is unknown. Naji's 2004 book, The Management of Savagery, argues for the efficacy of forcing Western nations and their local allies to overreach in their response to terrorism, which exhausts their resources and increases those of al Qaeda by creating fertile ground for recruiting new members and raising funds. At the same time, Naji argues that al Qaeda's supporters should put aside any theological differences with their Sunni coreligionists and work with them to capture territory in areas where there are security vacuums, win over the population by providing basic services, and establish proto-states that can network with one another to become emirates (fully-functioning states where Islamic law is applied) and then finally the caliphate (the Islamic super state).

There's evidence that Zawahiri agrees. In 2005, when the head of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musab Zarqawi, was waging a sectarian war against Iraqi Shiites and beheading civilians, bin Laden's then deputy largely echoed Naji's advice in a letter to Zarqawi. Zawahiri urged the AQI leader to build a broad base of political support so the mujahideen could be ready to work with local elites to establish an emirate after expelling the Americans from Iraq. (He neglected to say anything about providing basic services, although he did urge Zarqawi to win over the masses with whatever means that are Islamically acceptable.)

Zarqawi's followers, however, failed to heed Zawahiri's advice, instead harshly imposing Islamic law in the few areas they controlled, trying to force their allies to bend the knee, and establishing the "Islamic State of Iraq," which was ridiculed by a significant number of al Qaeda's intellectual allies for not actually being a state.

In the regions where al Qaeda has been most successful in establishing nascent states, Naji's blueprint is well known. The Saudi incarnation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was the first to publish installments of The Management of Savagery online. In Somalia, a journalist friend of mine who has interviewed members of al-Shabab told me that Naji's book is very popular with members of the militant organization. This is not to say that these al Qaeda affiliates are slavishly following Naji's game plan -- the idea of provoking one's enemy to overreach and exhaust itself while trying to capture territory in security vacuums is not terribly original. But it indicates that al Qaeda and its affiliates do not view the destruction of its enemies and the creation of Islamic emirates as a linear process. It is a matter of what opportunities present themselves and what capabilities the organization has to exploit them.

There are two enduring problems with al Qaeda's strategy of incite and conquer. The first is the problem visited on the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2001. How do you protect a new emirate if you incite a foreign power to invade it? Al Qaeda needs conflict with Western powers to bolster its reputation and resources, but often finds it unable to defend itself from the inevitable repercussions. It's a conundrum from which the organization has not been able to extricate itself: It could unilaterally declare an end to its war with United States and its allies, which would present some interesting policy choices for Washington. But by doing so, al Qaeda would lose its primary selling point and excommunicate itself from the company of the global jihad movement it helped create. As for the United States and its allies, it is hard to imagine they would believe such a declaration or tolerate the existence of a proto-state that declares its allegiance to the organization that killed more than 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

The second problem is that the only land that can be "conquered" is in countries where the state is weak and tribal politics are paramount. Controlling land and governing people requires greater involvement in local politics than merely securing a safe haven. Thus, it makes Shabab and AQAP vulnerable to shifting tribal loyalties. The problem is not intractable; Naji cites the precedent set by the Prophet Mohammad to justify buying tribal allegiances. "When we address these tribes that have solidarity [amongst their members] we should not appeal to them to abandon their solidarity," he writes. "It is more preferable to change the trajectory of the solidarity so that what it will be set upon the path of God, especially since they are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of the principles and honor which they believe in. It is possible to begin doing so by uniting the leaders among them with money and the like."

But allegiances that can be bought can be sold to others. In Iraq, for example, the decision of the Sunni tribes in Anbar to stop working with al Qaeda ended the organization's pretensions at state building. Even if the tribes are not strong in the areas al Qaeda controls now, Naji is right to worry that other elements can fill the void left by the weak or collapsed state. Good governance is key, and at least in Yemen the organization is going to great lengths to show the world that it will not repeat the mistakes of al Qaeda in Iraq by abusing the local population. But al Qaeda's refusal to renounce its war on the world means it can provide no lasting security in the territory it holds -- a reality that will, over time, wear on its local allies.

Al Qaeda's control of territory, in any guise, is a shot in the arm for its beleaguered followers and a small step toward its goal of establishing Islamic emirates. But let's get real about al Qaeda's gains: These are not yet states by any stretch of the imagination, regardless of the terror organization's propaganda. AQAP holds a few towns in southern Yemen and the Shabab's grip on its land is loosening. Set next to the near collapse of al Qaeda Central in Pakistan, the broad Islamist rejection of al Qaeda's model of an Islamic state, and al Qaeda's failure to reduce U.S. influence in the region, the organization's control of territory in weak or collapsed states is little more than a silver lining amid some very dark storm clouds for the global jihad.


Democracy Lab

Congratulations and Condolences

The conviction of Charles Taylor is welcome news. But don’t be fooled: The international criminal justice system is in deep trouble.

Celebrations were muted in the windswept streets of the Hague last week at the war crimes conviction of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. The first guilty verdict for a head-of-state in the history of UN war crimes courts is an important milestone to be sure, but it masks a deeper malaise for war crimes justice, which is finding it harder to win cases as political support drains away.

The center for these anxieties is not the Sierra Leone Special Court, which is expected to give Taylor a long jail sentence next month, but the gleaming skyscraper across town that houses the International Criminal Court.

The ICC was designed as the successor to half a dozen temporary UN courts that are now, like the special court that convicted Taylor, winding up their affairs. Lost amid the triumphant headlines about the Taylor story are some grim figures. The ICC, which has been open for ten years now, has cost more than $1 billion, employs 750 staff, and has a grand total of one conviction. That solitary conviction, of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanda, who was jailed earlier this year for use of child soldiers, seems like a poor return on so much investment.

In the bars and restaurants of The Hague, the lawyers and activists who cluster around the half-dozen courts that make their home here argue about the reasons for this lack of success.

Some blame mistakes by ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, seen by some as lacking bite by virtue of a background spent in academia rather than battling in the world's courtrooms. Others say it simply takes time for a court which such an ambitious mandate to get its act together. What all agree on is that the number one problem for the ICC and for war crimes justice is political support. Or rather, the lack of it.

The ICC was originally designed by the UN to replace ad hoc courts that have brought justice to the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. But objections from the United States, China, and Russia, among others, saw it divorced from the UN apparatus. It exists, instead, as a curious free-standing organization, governed by its 121 member states.

Its long-term aim is to win integration into the UN, but for the moment it is stuck halfway down the road. It can police its own members, but most states who commit war crimes do not join the ICC. Instead, it encourages the UN's Security Council to refer cases to it.

This has happened twice, with the Security Council ordering it to investigate Darfur in 2005, and last year, Libya. Both cases are stuck in the mire. In 2008, Ocampo indicted Sudan's president Omar Al Bashir for genocide. Bashir, not surprisingly, chose not to turn himself in and, to date, the Security Council has put little pressure on Sudan to change the policy.

A similar impasse, for different reasons, is underway with Libya. The new government arrested Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, son of the late dictator, in November last year. Charged with war crimes by the ICC, the rules say Tripoli must hand him over to The Hague, but Libya's government insists it will try him at home. As with Sudan, the court itself is powerless to intervene. Only the UN can take action and, as with Sudan, there has thus far been a deafening silence.

The problem is not new. Richard Goldstone, who prosecuted war criminals from the former Yugoslavia in the first international court in The Hague, famously said that the international community were his "arms and legs." Without those arms and legs, a prosecutor can issue indictments, but will have little power to actually haul suspects to court.

Political support for these courts has been sporadic. When there is a will, there is a way. In the late 1990s, America and Britain ordered their special forces to arrest war crimes suspects in Bosnia, and soon the cells of the Hague Tribunal were full to bursting.

But international support for war crimes courts is more honored in the breach: The ICC's very first suspect, the murderous Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, remains free and continues to cause mayhem in the forests of central Africa.

More cases are piling up for the ICC, but as with Libya and Sudan, too often the political support is lacking to make arrests. This is not a new problem: Indeed, war crimes justice exists more by accident than design. There has never been a world conference of key states to lay out the necessity for war crimes courts. The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia was set up back in 1992 more as a fig leaf for the international community's inaction than as an institution with a clearly defined agenda. The horrors of Rwanda obliged the UN to create a second tribunal in 1994, and more wars triggered more courts: Cambodia, East Timor, Lebanon, and Sierra Leone.

Even the choice of the Hague as the world's war crimes justice capital is accidental. The Hague Tribunal moved there because there was an existing court, the UN's International Court of Justice. But with the winding down of the UN courts and the flailing efforts of the ICC to pick up the slack, the world's experiment in war crimes justice is at a crossroads.

Most of the world's war zones are in states that are not part of the ICC, and none are likely to see an ICC referral from the Security Council: Not only are the permanent five security council members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States in effect exempt, but so are their allies. Thus America is expected to block any attempt to investigate Israel for Gaza, China will prevent Sri Lanka being investigated for horrors against the Tamils, and Russia will block any such effort for Syria. (Above, Syrians mourn at the funeral of those killed by government forces.)

The result is that the ICC is forced to work with what is left. All seven of its investigations are in Africa, which has triggered criticism from leaders across the continent that they are being unfairly targeted -- the theme of much of Charles's Taylor's own defense. ICC chiefs have sought to dampen such criticism by choosing a Gambian, respected jurist Fatima Bensouda, as the new chief prosecutor when Ocampo retires in June.

But cynics suspect that Africa's leaders are less concerned for the nationality of the prosecutor than the fact that while most of the world's war crimes are being overlooked, theirs are the subject of scrutiny. The African Union has already declared that member states are not obliged to arrest ICC suspects, and some are considering withdrawing from the court altogether.

Supporters of the court insist that, whatever the political machinations, the system has proved itself. "The system works," declares Sir Geoffrey Nice, a British Queens Counsel who prosecuted former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic. "There is a family of international courts, they are developing law in their judgments, which is they build on each other. If you view these courts as a mechanical device, then you can say the machine works."

But the problem of political support remains. And international courts have their critics. One perennial problem is the sheer time and cost of the trials: Taylor's took six years. Milosevic's took four -- so long that the defendant died of heart failure before it could finish. Skeptics, notably Henry Kissinger, have pointed to the lack of accountability of a court which has no jury trials, and whose judges are not answerable to any elected government.

Among supporters, the fear is not that the ICC will vanish --  it is too big to fail -- but rather that it will continue to find itself sidelined. Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch in New York, says: "There is a real danger that this court will be League of Nation-ized, and that will happen if there isn't an increasing commitment on the part of states."

For an example of what that might mean, the occupants of the ICC have only to travel a few miles across The Hague to the International Court of Justice. It is housed in the gothic splendor of the Peace Palace, commissioned in 1913 by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the hope it would become a "world court."

That role never materialized, and the Peace Palace has assumed a more humble role. The ICJ arbitrates on disputes between states. Important work, certainly, but the lack of any criminal prosecution, and the need for arbitration to be voluntary, means the court seldom hits the headlines.

Just such a fate may yet await the ICC. In years to come, it may find itself a historical curiosity along with the Peace Palace, viewed as a monument to something that was a good idea that never quite worked out.

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