Osama bin Laden is dead. So is much of the influence his organization built with the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. in 2001. Al-Qaeda, however, lives on through a collection of like-minded Islamist militants, fighting to redraw the map in the Middle East and North Africa and occasionally striking elsewhere. 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 lure recruits worldwide to their mission to establish new states with strict interpretations of Islamic law. The region’s governments are mired in a battle to fight them, while the U.S. and its allies struggle to respond.
Most prominent among the new faces of al-Qaeda are two groups: Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Islamic State emerged from the sectarian battles spawned by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, then honed its combat skills in the three-year Syrian civil war. Having captured a U.K.-sized area spanning both countries, the movement declared its own self-styled caliphate, or Islamic state, in 2014. The group’s extreme brutality – as evidenced by the beheading of captives – contributed to a break from what’s left of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. The Yemen-based AQAP, on the other hand, swears allegiance to the original group. While launching attacks within Yemen, AQAP also has repeatedly plotted against targets in the West. At least one of three gunmen who killed 17 people in two attacks in Paris in January 2015 had connections to AQAP; another, in a video, declared allegiance to Islamic State. The battles in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have been hailed by jihadists 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. Islamic State’s successes have emboldened smaller groups, for example in Egypt, where militants have allied themselves with the group. Jihadists have been aided by a free flow of arms from Libya, ferried from bunkers once guarded by the army of Muammar Qaddafi. The U.S. began airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq in August 2014 and has been launching airstrikes aimed at AQAP commanders since 2002.
The conflicts stem from the region’s colonial past and subsequent troubles 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 in 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 has set off a new round of debate over the role other countries should play in Middle Eastern conflicts. U.S. President Barack Obama opposes sending ground troops to Iraq, but the U.S., in addition to launching bombing missions, is giving air support to Kurdish and Iraqi troops on the ground. The U.S. is also backing a central government that has failed so far to unite Iraq’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 jihad, Syria’s civil war, Egypt’s revolution and Iraqi nationhood.