Sorry Osama, your unruly affiliates continue to defy you even in death. Although discussion today often focuses on how much of a “state” the Islamic State actually is, al-Qaeda (AQ) affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have been in the business of governing territory for quite some time despite their dead emir’s guidance against it. Newly declassified documents from the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan shed more light on al-Qaeda’s internal disputes, specifically the thorny issue of controlling territory as part of their grand strategy. What are the implications of AQ’s evolution for US national security? Are they a terrorist organization, or do they look more like an insurgency seeking to become a state?
Al-Qaeda has always been a state builder in concept despite its primary role as the vanguard of a broader jihadist movement. Its methodology does not support AQ itself becoming the caliphate, but rather it serves in an assisting role for a caliphate that will materialize in the future.
In 2004 Abu Bakr Naji published a treatise entitled “The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass.” It provided a playbook for how to manipulate state collapse and establish a new political system from the ashes. He specifically addressed the need for administrative cadre to manage the chaos resulting from “vexation and exhaustion” operations and eventually transition to “establishing the state,” a process analogous to Mao Tse-tung’s theory of protracted war that secured communist victory in China. Among the several requirements for successfully managing state collapse, he lists: “spreading internal security; providing food and medical treatment; securing the region of savagery from the invasions of enemies; and establishing Sharia justice among the people.” The Islamic State adopted Naji’s blueprint for their caliphate project along with the label of an actual state.
Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) even flirted with announcing an “emirate” in Syria to provide rhetorical support to its governance structures on the ground, the “soft power” approach complementing its military capabilities.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attempted to convince Osama bin Laden to pursue this course prior to his death, but bin Laden rejected the premature establishment of an Islamic state due to their perceived inability to provide for their subjects’ needs. While rebuffed, AQAP nevertheless incorporated Naji’s approach and governed parts of Yemen’s Abyan and Shabwa provinces from 2011 to 2012, creating a police force to provide security, directing education, distributing food aid, providing water and electricity delivery, managing sewage removal, and administering markets. AQAP’s emir and bin Laden’s former aide-de-camp, Nasser al-Wuhaysi (now deceased), advised al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) emir Abu Musab Abdul Wadud on how to replicate AQAP’s successes through winning people over by taking care of their daily needs in Mali.
Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of AQ’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), articulated this approach in a speech delivered in January 2013, emphasizing the need to provide basic services, security, and dispute resolution in order to take advantage of the power vacuum caused by the war. JN even flirted with announcing an “emirate” in Syria to provide rhetorical support to its governance structures on the ground, the “soft power” approach complementing its military capabilities.
In southern Yemen, AQAP has recovered from its setbacks in 2012 at the hands tribal “popular committees” and the Yemeni Army. It continues to acquire and administer territory, capitalizing on the chaos wrought by the civil war between forces loyal to deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Shiite Houthi rebels supported by Iran, and President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his Gulf backers led by Saudi Arabia. Despite persistent US drone strikes decapitating its leadership, the “savagery” of war and lack of Yemeni state capacity continue to create the permissive conditions necessary for AQAP to expand into the power vacuum.
Does this mean AQ is now in the caliphate-creation business? Not quite. The events unfolding in Syria and Yemen are part of a broader phenomenon known as “rebel governance.” This term refers to “the development of institutions and practices of rule to regulate the social and political life of civilians by armed groups,” and it is not unique to what is occurring right now in the Middle East. Governance systems established by violent groups can be found in conflicts in places as diverse as Colombia, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Sudan. Zachariah Mampilly argues that service provision does not necessarily indicate embryonic state development, a significant component of state-formation theories advanced by authors such as Charles Tilly and Marina Ottaway, and instead situates it within a larger examination of the devolution of the nation-state framework that underpins the international political system.
David Kilcullen’s theory of “competitive control” provides additional insight into this phenomenon: “populations respond to a predictable, ordered, normative system that tells them exactly what they need to do, and not do, in order to be safe.” The delivery of public goods by itself designed to win “hearts and minds” does not necessarily result in security or control, a hard lesson learned by the United States in Afghanistan. Instead, the provision of goods and services in conjunction with armed force functions as a “fish trap” that locks the population into a set of incentives and disincentives from which it is difficult to escape. The armed actor that a population perceives to be most capable of establishing this normative system in an area defined by chaos and savagery is the one most likely to dominate. Establishing such a system may lead to proto-state development, or simply territory consolidated to serve as a “sanctuary of impunity” from which to launch attacks on the US homeland.
Implementing a rebel governance approach is not without risk. It may vindicate Osama bin Laden’s rejection of a premature Islamic state by exposing AQ to overreach and unmet popular expectations. It will also facilitate targeting efforts against AQ by providing a fixed geographic location. However, AQ must eventually consolidate territory as the basis of a revived caliphate or its words will be perceived as empty rhetoric. This is a critical component of the Islamic State’s efforts to outbid AQ for followership. If AQ’s initial efforts do not succeed, it can always revert back to the networked terrorist and incipient insurgent structure that has served it well over the past decade. Al-Qaeda’s failure to dominate the state-building narrative will compromise its role as the vanguard of the global jihadist movement and damage its long-term credibility.
In the meantime, AQ is doing quite well as the international community focuses its resources on the Islamic State. Its brand of governance is much more appealing than the Islamic States’ harsh implementation, which will make it harder to uproot from the communities in which it is embedded, particularly in countries with minimal state capacity to counter it like Syria and Yemen. AQ remains committed to striking the far enemy, so the United States must seriously consider the implications of AQ’s rebel governance approach for US national security and how to counter it most effectively. One thing is certain: it will require much greater emphasis on employing subnational actors rather than sinking excessive resources into what is left of the Yemeni state.