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.