Osama bin Laden is dead. So is much of the influence his organization built with the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Al-Qaeda, however, lives on through a collection of like-minded Islamist militias holding territory and threatening to redraw the map in the Middle East and North Africa. Inspired by bin Laden’s jihad and hardened by battle, they have capitalized on the security and political vacuum left by the toppling of autocrats in the 2011 Arab Spring. They feed off the area’s sectarian and tribal conflicts, and are united by an ambition to bring new states with strict interpretations of Islamic law to the Arab world. The region’s governments are mired in a battle to fight them, while the U.S. and its allies struggle to respond.
The new face of al-Qaeda came into focus with the rampage of the militant group that now calls itself the Islamic State. It seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June. Then it captured oil fields in the north, battled Kurdish and Iraqi forces for control of dams and beheaded two American journalists in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes. The group emerged from the sectarian battles spawned by the American invasion of 2003, then honed its combat skills in the three-year Syrian civil war. It declared its own self-styled caliphate, or Islamic state, spanning both countries. The group’s extreme brutality contributed to a break earlier this year from what’s left of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. The battles in Syria and Iraq have been hailed by Islamists as a religious war against heretic governments. That’s helped attract recruits from across the Arab world, along with the U.S., Europe and Chechnya. A free flow of arms from Libya, ferried from bunkers once guarded by the army of Muammar Qaddafi, fell into the hands of militias both inside and outside the country. They include Ansar al-Shariah, which was blamed for the 2012 killing of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, and is now battling a renegade general intent on wiping out what he had dubbed “terrorists” in Libya. In September, the U.S. said it had killed the leader of the al-Shabaab extremist group in Somalia. It also pledged to expand airstrikes into Syria and arm local forces in a bid to defeat the Islamic State.
The conflicts stem from the region’s colonial past and the subsequent troubles in building nation-states. They were propelled by the mid-20th-century birth of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and social movement from Egypt that called for a return to Islam and at times embraced violence. Porous desert borders, arbitrarily drawn by Britain and other powers after World War I, divided tribes, sects and ideas. Those partitions served repeatedly as catalysts for conflict, often fueled by the split between Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. Bin Laden was drawn to his jihad in Afghanistan by the ambition to aid a Muslim nation that had become a battleground for the Cold War. With him came fighters seeking a purpose amid rampant unemployment and loss of hope in nations headed by iron-fisted leaders. The pattern would be repeated roughly two decades later in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and now Syria. The collapse of police states like Libya that had kept many would-be fighters at bay (or shunted them abroad to become someone else’s problem) meant that battle-seasoned fighters were freer to return home.
The militants’ rapid march through Iraq — and closer to critical oil supplies — has set off a new round of debate over the role other countries should play in Middle Eastern conflicts. U.S. President Barack Obama ruled out sending troops to Iraq but is deploying other military measures against the Islamic State and to support a central government that has failed so far to unite the country’s disparate peoples. To some that smacks of a return to the discredited ideas behind the U.S. invasion, which destroyed the army and other national institutions, left more than 100,000 Iraqis dead and cost the U.S. the lives of almost 4,500 troops and $2 trillion. Another view is that disengagement from the region, especially from the Syrian conflict, has created a breeding ground that let extremists grow strong and spread violence around the world. The cost of standing back, many observers argue, is that an ideologically driven mass of Islamist radicals proves even more fearsome — and effective — than the terrorist organization that inspired them.
The Reference Shelf
- U.S. State Department’s annual report on terrorism and the threat of al-Qaeda affiliates, and reports on terrorism in various countries.
- “Temptations of Power,” a 2014 book from the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid on the rise of Islamist movements after the Arab Spring.
- Stanford University’s “Mapping Militants” project, which traces the evolution of militant organizations and the connections between them.
- Bloomberg QuickTakes on Syria’s civil war, Egypt’s revolution and Iraq’s oil.