Al-Qaeda and Related Groups: Present Status

A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies looks at the history and current status of al-Qaeda. The report by Rick “Ozzie” Nelson and Thomas M. Sanderson is a preliminary release and part of a more comprehensive yearlong project. The report traces the history of al-Qaeda and affiliated movements (AQAM) from the 1990s to the present.

Among other things, the report points out that despite public renunciations of many of al-Qaeda’s ideological positions (see the Amman Message) the number of groups that affiliate themselves with al-Qaeda is growing. The authors suggest three possible reasons for this growth,

The first is that AQAM may not actually be as unpopular as it seems. Despite anger over AQAM’s violent tactics, the basic grievances that [Osama] bin Laden and his allies claim to redress continue to resonate globally…

A more significant explanation for AQAM’s expansion is the growing resonance of bin Laden’s ideology in the post-9/11 world. Since 2001, the presence of U.S. forces in Muslim majority countries, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq, has fed the perception of a U.S. occupation of Muslim lands and has been used by al-Qaeda core and its affiliates to underscore their narrative of a Western war against Islam…

The final driving factor behind AQAM’s expansion is the material benefits that groups accrue when they embrace bin Laden’s ideology.

Disincentivizing the material benefits associated with al-Qaeda affiliation may be the most difficult of the three to accomplish. The recent drawdown in troop levels in Iraq may help to counter bin Laden’s apparent prescience regarding a U.S. war on Islam; albeit to a limited extent.

In the case of widespread sympathy for the causes that bin Laden and associates claim to fight for, there may not be an easy way to lessen the grievances but there may be a way to further turn the Muslim public away from the violent tactics of AQAM.

In an earlier post, it was pointed out that successful peaceful protests in Egypt will deal a blow to AQAM’s contention that violence is the only method for ensuring the redress of grievances. Therefore, one method of widening the gap between the public and AQAM would be for the United States to support the protestors in Egypt and similar protests if they should appear in other countries.

Washington could support the Egyptian protestors and any future democratic movements with well-messaged public statements as well as diplomatic engagement with the governments. The trick is and will be for the U.S. government to be supportive without trying to be, or appearing as, foreign interlocutors.

This is not to suggest that Washington should foment popular protests in other countries. However, supporting indigenous peaceful popular uprisings could be an effective means of countering AQAM’s violent rhetoric.

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