A Further Perspective

Alive and Deadly

The workings of al Qaeda's expanding franchise.

By 10.25.12

It has become accepted to use the term al Qaeda when referring to any violent Islamic grouping that appears to have a broader organizational connection. To refine that definition there has been added the recognition of at least three so-called "franchises" with a national or regional orientation: al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). All have an outreach beyond their immediate geographical area. The mistake that is made, however, is to characterize al Qaeda as the overall operational director of the movement.

The theoretical central control organization, al Qaeda, itself – with Ayman al Zawahiri as its post- bin Laden leader – is nonetheless viewed by most Western observers in a headquarters context for broad planning, propaganda, and sometime coordination among the several franchises. To a certain extent, central al Qaeda reportedly has informal elements circulating as mentors among various local popular groups.

One example of this perception was offered up in the early stages of the "Arab Spring" as manifested in the large-scale riots in Cairo. This concept gave way to the view that the large crowds were influenced by large-scale Muslim Brotherhood contingents not necessarily al Qaeda related. Later analysis has shown that these original demonstrations were led by left-wing students, youths, and neighborhood gangs, with Brotherhood squads later joining in.

The violent demonstrations in Cairo on Sept. 11 of this year against the U.S. because of a video trailer produced in the U.S. defaming the Prophet Mohammed featured a black flag similar to but not actually an al Qaeda banner. There was no al Qaeda affiliation as an instigating factor, according to Cairo police sources. They said it was strictly "street" organized. In Benghazi, however, it was quite a different story.

Benghazi has been a key jihadist recruiting ground going back even before the American military presence in Afghanistan beginning October 2001. As the center of Cyrenican (eastern province of Libya) resistance against Gaddafi's central government, local insurgent groups eventually formed into varying-sized militias with clan ties. Before that, however, the legends of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda had encouraged the growth of a development pool of Afghanistan-bound young men. This movement later evolved into several anti-Gaddafi underground nets. One of these assumed the name Ansar al Shariah, which had surfaced originally in Yemen as part of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Why the Yemeni group nomenclature was assumed by a Libyan organization can be explained in various ways. The predominant view is that one or several Libyans from the Benghazi area had once served in Yemen and carried the ethos of the group originating from AQAP back to Libya. The question is now whether this Libyan Ansar al Shariah will now join with the broader jihadist instrument that refers to itself as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is worthwhile to note that a merger of AQIM with Algeria's ) was announced on Sept.11, 2006 by al Qaeda's then No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The GSPC had become well known for high profile targeting and suicide bombings. This reputation instantly raised the perception of AQIM's lethality. More importantly, the joining together under the al Qaeda banner of militant Islamic groups set the tone for what would develop in the future as the so-called al Qaeda franchises.

European analysts quickly came to a consensus that al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants who formerly fought in Iraq would now aim at vulnerable civilian targets in Western Europe. AQIM was in the perfect position to organize this, it was said. For al Qaeda- central it all fit well into the concept of expanding the global reach of its Islamic jihadist militancy. Essentially the ideology tended to sell itself. The Internet was used to spread the word and recruitment followed, mostly self-initiated.

Financial support for Islamic militancy appears to have followed in a form of logical progression. For those of Middle East descent – either currently resident there or not – it's just not smart notto be at least a financial contributor to jihadist causes. Such aid is judged very carefully against the ability to assist. Poorer merchants are generally not pressed beyond their means, while rich targets understand well the need for being generous and discreet. It's an old Mafia methodology of extortion. Protection is offered, and thankfully received by "the chosen."

In the past six years mergers have been initiated between al Qaeda and various groups primarily among the exiles such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and similar local national instruments of Lebanon, Syria, East Africa, and elsewhere in Central Africa and on that continent. In most instances the relationships simply have been a rebranding in order to emphasize links with the broader movement for international political purposes. Osama bin Laden wanted to create a revolution and with it an Islamic revival. He appears to have succeeded in spite of some politicians' self-serving claims to the contrary.

Don't be surprised to learn soon that a new al Qaeda franchise has evolved in the Eastern Mediterranean including Syria, Lebanon,, and Gaza. Al Qaeda as a rallying point for a global Islamic caliphate still has a long life ahead of it. 

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.