The incisive Daniel Byman recently published a new study with the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy entitled Breaking the Bonds between al Qaeda and Its Affiliate Organizations. This is a critical topic for the contemporary study of al Qaeda driven and inspired terrorism, in large part because how we judge al Qaeda’s strength in late 2012 comes down to the question of how to assess gains made by the affiliates against losses inflicted on the core. Debates on this issue are often crude, with strong assertions made about affiliates’ connection, or lack thereof, to al Qaeda’s core without factual or theoretical substantiation. It seems that a significant amount (but by no means all) of the commentary about the relationship between core and affiliates is outcome-determined, based on whether the commentator in question wants to find a strong or weak al Qaeda.
Byman’s study can significantly sharpen this debate by providing a sound framework for such discussions. In it, he elucidates various degrees of connection between affiliates and the core; motivations for linkage from both the affiliates’ and core’s perspective; the reasons that other salafi jihadi groups have chosen not to affiliate; and possible strains in the affiliate-core relationship. Byman concludes with policy prescriptions about how the U.S. can magnify tensions between al Qaeda’s core and affiliates, and thus minimize cooperation between them. A careful reading of Byman’s report makes clear that it doesn’t try to answer the question of how tightly bound al Qaeda’s core and affiliates truly are today — which is almost certainly a wise decision, given our limited visibility into that issue based on available open source information. He does, however, provide a great deal of sound historical information that can improve our consideration of the core-affiliate relationship.
Byman provides seven different motivations that might cause a regional jihadi group to join up with al Qaeda, mustering historical examples of how each of them operated in the past. One reason is failure, when a salafi jihadi group’s inability to make progress in its fight against a local regime produces an internal crisis. Second, there are monetary considerations, with both al Qaeda’s core and also certain powerful affiliates (such as al Qaeda in Iraq during its heyday) being able to influence other groups due to their prosperity, at least by jihadi standards. Third, a safe haven from which to operate has proven to be a strong motivator for linkage in the past. Fourth, Byman notes that training, recruiting, publicity, and military experience have all been assets of the al Qaeda core; it has been able to bolster regional groups’ capabilities in all of these ways. Fifth, there is the issue of a common defense. Byman writes, “A number of individuals or cohorts within groups that loosely cooperated or operated in proximity to al Qaeda have chosen to affiliate as a result of being subjected to counterterrorism measures.” Sixth, there have been branding benefits to affiliates, in terms of recruits and funders. Earlier I mentioned monetary considerations; yet it is unlikely that al Qaeda’s currently diminished core will be able to channel money to regional affiliates as it once did. However, despite the core’s relative weakness, al Qaeda’s brand may help these groups to raise money from al Qaeda’s donor base (such as certain individuals and foundations in the Gulf Arab states). Seventh, there is the importance of personal networks. “Once a connection among jihadists has been forged,” Byman writes, “it is very challenging for an outside party to break it, so much that because of the prevalence and breadth of personal networks, it is difficult to truly destroy jihadist organizations.”
Byman also outlines five reasons why al Qaeda’s core may want to join with new affiliates. One reason is mission fulfillment, seeking affiliates in areas where Islam is perceived to be under attack, and in turn pushing the affiliates to adopt more global agendas. Second, relevance: al Qaeda has been on the defensive ever since the 9/11 attacks unleashed U.S. and international counterterrorism efforts against the organization. Byman notes that “some of the most notorious ‘al Qaeda’ attacks since 9/11 have in fact been carried out by affiliate groups.” Third, al Qaeda’s reach will grow due to its relationship with new affiliates. Fourth, affiliates can offer logistical advantages to al Qaeda, including “access to their media resources, recruiters, and other core parts of their organization.” Fifth, al Qaeda has often been able to gain new experienced members through its relationship with affiliates.
Yet despite the advantages that both regional jihadi organizations and also al Qaeda’s core can gain through affiliation, many groups have decided not to affiliate with al Qaeda when the opportunity presented itself. One reason is ideological differences, something illustrated by the decision of Egypt’s Gama’a al Islamiyya (GI) not to affiliate with al Qaeda due to the latter’s prioritization of “jihad over other forms of Islamicization.” One GI leader, Najih Ibrahim, told the Arabic-language London daily Al Sharq Al Awsat that GI decided not to join al Qaeda “because their goal is jihad, whereas our goal is Islam.” Other reasons that Byman provides include the question of takfir (declaring other Muslims to have apostatized themselves from Islam), the targeting of civilians, local agendas that predominate over the global, the fear of taking on new enemies, limited contact or interaction between the prospective affiliate and the core, and personal rivalries. In addition to this, Byman also outlines strains that may exist in the core-affiliate relationship even where both entities have chosen to take on an explicit affiliation.
Overall, Byman’s study makes a tremendous contribution to our thinking about the relationship between al Qaeda’s core and its affiliates, and analysts trying to assess this relationship would do well to use it as a basis for thinking about this question. Byman concludes by illustrating the complexity of acting (or not) on a developing core-affiliate relationship in a way that is often not reflected in popular debates about the subject:
There are no simple choices when confronting al Qaeda affiliates. On the one hand, ignoring groups until they become affiliates, or ignoring affiliates until they strike at U.S. targets, risks leaving U.S. intelligence and security officials in a defensive and reactive mode and vulnerable to a surprise attack. On the other hand, too aggressive an approach can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening bonds between al Qaeda and other jihadist groups by validating the al Qaeda narrative and leading groups to cooperate for self-defense and organizational advancement.
For any study of this kind, I will have quibbles, find evidentiary points with which I disagree, and the like. Byman’s study is no exception. Yet the overall contribution that Byman’s study makes on this important issue renders my quibbles and minor disagreements almost beside the point. This is one of the five most relevant studies about terrorism published this year, and I encourage all readers interested in the issue to give it a careful read.