The Corner

National Security & Defense

Al-Qaeda’s New Branding: The Less Extreme Alternative to ISIS

A member of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

Al-Qaeda turns 30 this year, and like many making the transition from extended adolescence into adulthood, it has used the opportunity to take a good hard look at itself in the mirror. The last several years, you see, had not gone particularly well for the group. In the immediate wake of the Arab Spring, it had started to seem irrelevant. And even after spring gave way to a chaotic winter, it was a new and more radical upstart, ISIS, that had managed to step into the fray. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, was left in the dust.

Yet a rebranded al-Qaeda may be making a comeback. According to RAND’s Colin Clarke, al-Qaeda in Syria spent 2016 and 2017 attempting to turn itself into a less extreme alternative to ISIS that is a “legitimate, capable, and independent force in the ongoing Syrian civil war” and is “dedicated to helping Syrians prevail in their struggle.” The group, it seems, has learned from ISIS’s failures.

For one, whereas ISIS “fully embraced sectarianism” and resorted to extreme violence against Shias, al-Qaeda has mostly denounced it in practice, Clarke argues, if not in rhetoric. In addition, whereas ISIS refused to work with locals, preferring to act as a “conquering army” that “taxed, extorted, and closely policed” them, al-Qaeda has opted to work with other opposition groups in Syria, even sometimes leaving locals to lead the areas it governs. Al-Qaeda has also focused on providing services and refrained from attacking Western targets in favor of taking on the Assad regime, which is more important for most of the country’s Sunnis. All of this has allowed al-Qaeda to hang on in Syria even as ISIS has been largely pushed out.

And that spells danger. “Although al Qaeda, considered broadly, will remain a global organization,” Clarke writes, “it has recognized that it is infinitely more successful when it focuses on local issues instead of a more amorphous and contested struggle with the West.” And that focus — as well as its efforts to make itself palatable to at least some faction of locals — could make it far harder to root out. In other words, it is unlikely that this will be the last birthday al-Qaeda celebrates.

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular


Cold Brew’s Insidious Hegemony

Soon, many parts of the United States will be unbearably hot. Texans and Arizonans will be able to bake cookies on their car dashboards; the garbage on the streets of New York will be especially pungent; Washington will not only figuratively be a swamp. And all across America, coffee consumers will turn their ... Read More
National Security & Defense

The Warmonger Canard

Whatever the opposite of a rush to war is — a crawl to peace, maybe — America is in the middle of one. Since May 5, when John Bolton announced the accelerated deployment of the Abraham Lincoln carrier group to the Persian Gulf in response to intelligence of a possible Iranian attack, the press has been aflame ... Read More

The Democrats Made Two Joe Biden Miscalculations

I think it's safe to say that there are many, many progressive Democrats who are more than a little surprised -- and a lot chagrined -- at Joe Biden's polling dominance. Look at FiveThirtyEight's polling roundup. Aside from a few high and low outliers, he leads the race by a solid 20 points (at least). Even ... Read More