Al-Qaida: severing the heads will not necessarily cut the lifeline
The recent killings of al-Qaida’s top commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan by US airstrikes raise the common question of how such developments are going to affect the organization. Whereas these events highlight another loss for al-Qaida, recent history has shown that the organization recovers quickly and, in some cases, capitalizes on the deaths of its commanders.
The first recent hit was in Iraq. Abu Umar al-Baghdadi (Hamid al-Zawi), the Emir of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), was killed on 18 April in al-Tharthar desert area, north of Baghdad. He was killed with Abu Ayyub al-Masri (Yusuf al-Dardiri, otherwise known as Abd al-Mun‘im al-Badawi), his Minister of War. An Egyptian, who was a former mid-rank in al-Jihad Organization of Egypt, al-Masri succeeded the deputy of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, in taking the command of al-Qaida on 15 June 2006. In October of that year, al-Baghdadi’s Shura Council of al-Mujahidin and al-Masri’s al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) merged together, along with more than ten other smaller organization and various factions to form the ISI.
However, the formation of the ISI was a beginning of a decline of al-Qaida’s influence. The indiscriminately violent behaviour of AQI and its successor, the ISI, along with the expansion of the lists of enemies and targets to include less cooperative Arab-Sunni tribesmen, in addition to the coalition forces, the Iraqi military and security bureaucracies, Iran, and virtually all non-Sunnis; led to the revolt of Arab-Sunni tribesmen in early 2007. Al-Anbar province started the sahwat (awakening) phenomenon that not only pointed the guns at the AQI instead of the coalition forces, but also disseminated anti-Iranian propaganda and ideological materials as opposed to anti-American. The lack of a charismatic leader after al-Zarqawi and the stricter security policies of Syria and Saudi Arabia to stop the flow of funds and volunteers also helped undermine the AQI. Since no insurgency can survive without popular support, especially when the geography is not insurgent-friendly and the ideology and its manifestations are far from attractive to the locals, there was a sharp decline in the operational capacity of AQI/ISI after 2007.
Despite that, the ISI was swift in replacing its top commanders. Its new communiqué declared that “two were gone and three came.” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurashi became the new emir, Abu Abdullah al-Qurashi became his deputy and first minster, and al-Nasr Lidin Allah Abu Sulayman became the Minister of War, replacing the late al-Masri. All of these aliases have historical and religious relevance. Quraysh is the tribe of Prophet Muhammad and linking the ISI new leaders directly to the Prophet makes them ashraf or ‘noblemen’ in the Islamic culture. Al-Nasr Li Din Allah (The Supporter of the Religion of God) was the title of Saladin, the famous Muslim commander who fought against the Crusaders in the Levant in the 12th century. AQI/ISI is using more symbolism to substitute for the lack of charismatic leadership.
As for the new commanders, there is little known about them. Abu Bakr was a commander of one of small organizations that merged under the ISI. His minister of war is a Moroccan with close contacts to al-Qaida Central, like his predecessor. In his very first statement, al-Nasr followed the rhetoric of al-Zarqawi calling for an escalation against Shiite targets and Iraqi military and security forces.
In Afghanistan, Sheikh Said (Mustafa Abu al-Yazid), another former mid-rank in al-Jihad Organization of Egypt who became a leading figure in al-Qaida and, in May 2007, its top commander in Afghanistan, was also killed in a drone strike in Pakistan on 21 May. But, as opposed to its sister in Iraq, al-Qaida in Afghanistan (AQA) did not lack the charismatic leadership or the symbolism. To avoid the mistakes of Iraq, Sheikh Said declared more than once that al-Qaida is fighting under the banner of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan (the Taliban). In his interview with al-Jazeera in June 2009, he urged all other armed groups, including the Islamic Party (partly led by Gulbddin Hekmatyar), to join the Taliban. In other words, Sheikh Said was ‘embedding’ al-Qaida in its local contexts to guarantee the lifeline of local insurgent support. This is not far from the pattern in Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Peninsula is trying to avoid the mistakes of Iraq and therefore attentive to the interests of influential tribal leaders as well as the Southern Movement.
The deaths of Sheikh Said, Abu Ayyub and Abu Umar are important development in the war against al-Qaida. But the key lifeline to al-Qaida in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen is its tribal and organizational alliances. Those alliances were undermined quite significantly in the Iraqi case, with the awakening councils, the inhospitable Arab-Sunni tribal areas, and the clashes with other armed groups most notably the Islamic Army of Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades. Such developments have no parallels yet in Afghanistan and Yemen.
Decapitating the organizational leaders of al-Qaida, despite its significance, is not enough to end the lifeline for the rest of its transnational bodies. The other effect is that it may enhance the “demand side” to support or join al-Qaida. In his memoirs, Sayyid Qutb mentions that out of the 98 Muslim Brothers member imprisoned with him, 35 strongly supported his newly developed radical ideology, 23 strongly opposed, and 50 were hesitant. After his execution, the number of supporters and sympathizers was not only in the hundreds of thousands, but the commitments and the manifestations, took another level.