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.