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.