Extreme Makeover, Jihadist Edition: Al-Qaeda’s Rebranding Campaign
Since the Islamic State made its dramatic military advance from Syria into Iraq more than a year ago — capturing Mosul and other key cities, and declaring the caliphate’s re-establishment — analysts have reached a near-consensus that the group’s emergence has devastated its parent organization, al-Qaeda. Indeed, the Islamic State has undermined al-Qaeda’s once unrivaled position as the standard-bearer of the jihadist movement, outstripping al-Qaeda’s public messaging with its robust propaganda apparatus. The Islamic State has persuaded several groups that were previously in al-Qaeda’s orbit — including Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Boko Haram — to break away and re-style themselves as provinces of the caliphate. Many analysts believe the Islamic State has become the preeminent global jihadist organization.
While the Islamic State’s emergence has harmed al-Qaeda in myriad ways, it has also presented al-Qaeda a long-awaited opportunity. For years, al-Qaeda sought to remake its image, hoping to rid itself of the reputation for brutality that it earned in large part through the excesses of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — the group that would later rechristen itself the Islamic State. Thanks to two parallel developments — the Islamic State’s emergence and rising Sunni–Shia sectarian tensions in the Middle East — al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign has been invigorated. Al-Qaeda has taken on the image of a more reasonable — and perhaps controllable — alternative to the Islamic State. And as the rivalry between Iran and Sunni states rages, including proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda can present itself as a bulwark against Iranian expansion.
Only within both this current context and that of the past decade can al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign be understood, and its chances for success assessed.
Al-Qaeda’s Failed Iraq Campaign
Al-Qaeda’s belief that it needed to remake its image dates back to the group’s campaign in Iraq in the mid-2000s. AQI ascended rapidly to the fore of the global jihadist movement and then burnt out just as quickly, scorching al-Qaeda’s image as well. AQI’s early success during the U.S. occupation derived in part from its ability to spark sectarian strife through waves of attacks into Shia areas; AQI correctly believed that it could interject itself into a sectarian civil war by presenting itself as the Sunnis’ protector. Yet even while it offered protection from the Shia reprisals that it had provoked, the group oppressed those same Sunnis by imposing an alien form of religious law through its reign of terror in Anbar province. An intelligence assessment written in August 2006 described AQI as the “dominant organization of influence” in Anbar.
AQI’s proclivity for brutality and indiscriminate violence raised concerns within al-Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL), which feared that AQI would alienate Iraqis. Members of AQSL sent at least two letters — from then-deputy emir Ayman al-Zawahiri and masul aqalim (head of regions) Atiyah Abd al-Rahman — to AQI’s emir Abu Musab al-Zarqawi exhorting the hotheaded Jordanian to moderate his approach. Zawahiri reprimanded Zarqawi for his videotaped beheadings of victims, warning the former street thug not to “be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the shaykh of the slaughterers.” Both Zawahiri and Abd al-Rahman emphasized the need to win over the population, with Abd al-Rahman instructing him to gain Iraqis’ support in a gradualist manner by “lauding them for the good they do, and being quiet about their shortcomings.”
The objections offered by Zawahiri and Abd al-Rahman were strategic rather than moral. Indeed, Zawahiri noted that rather than beheading AQI’s prisoners, “we can kill the captives by bullet.” The preeminence of strategic over moral concerns can be discerned also in al-Qaeda’s current rebranding efforts, where rather than avoiding atrocities, al-Qaeda appears more concerned with keeping them off-camera and minimizing the negative attention that often accompanies this brutality.
Zarqawi disregarded AQSL’s instructions, and after a period of repression, the Sunni population in Anbar rebelled in a tribal uprising known as the Sahwa (Awakening) movement. The Sahwa soon spread to other provinces and, along with the “surge” in U.S. troops and American shift to population-centric counterinsurgency, contributed to AQI’s downfall. It amounted to a repudiation of AQI — and by extension, of al-Qaeda itself.
The damage done by AQI and its successor organizations was so severe that in January 2011 Adam Gadahn, an American-born al-Qaeda media strategist, wrote a letter to Osama bin Laden arguing that al-Qaeda should cut ties with its Iraqi branch. Gadahn contended that if al-Qaeda did not expel AQI, al-Qaeda’s “reputation will be damaged more and more as a result of the acts and statements of” that group, “which is labeled under our organization.” There is no indication that Gadahn’s suggestion was seriously entertained at the time.
Early Rebranding Efforts
After AQI’s failed experiment, top al-Qaeda commanders began exploring how to repair the group’s reputation, as revealed by documents recovered from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. In a letter from an unknown AQSL official to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the official criticized AQI for killing tribesmen and inciting a rebellion, and stressed the importance of gaining public support, noting that “people’s support to the mujahedin is as important as the water for fish.” The statement’s similarity to Mao’s well-known adage that “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea” is not coincidental.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of al-Qaeda’s rebranding efforts can be found in a letter that bin Laden wrote to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in May 2010. Bin Laden lamented the damage that affiliates had done to al-Qaeda’s image, noting that indiscriminate violence had “led to the loss of the Muslims’ sympathetic approach towards the mujahedin.” Bin Laden proposed commencing a “new phase” in al-Qaeda’s operations that would “regain the trust of a large portion of those who had lost their trust in the mujahedin.” Bin Laden emphasized minimizing Muslim casualties and directing affiliates to exert caution when civilians could be harmed. He urged a new media strategy, ordering media operatives to avoid “everything that would have a negative impact on the perception of the nation towards the mujahedin.”
AQSL even considered changing the organization’s name. In a letter found in Abbottabad, an unidentified official remarked that the group’s name had become disassociated from Islam, allowing Western states to claim that their war was with al-Qaeda and not the broader Muslim community. The official asserted that al-Qaeda (the base in Arabic) had become associated solely with a “military base,” without any “reference to our broader mission to unify the nation.” The official proposed several alternative names.
Officials continued to try to put the rebranding plan into action following bin Laden’s death. In September 2013, Zawahiri released a document entitled “General Guidelines for Jihad” that made public al-Qaeda’s new, population-centric approach. Zawahiri instructed affiliates to avoid conflict with Middle Eastern governments when possible, asserting that conflict with local regimes would distract from efforts to build bases of support. Zawahiri also instructed affiliates to minimize violent conflict with Shias and non-Muslims in order to prevent local uprisings, and to abstain from attacks that could result in Muslim civilian casualties. A purportedly leaked letter that Zawahiri wrote to the Islamic State’s caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in September 2013 notes that the General Guidelines were distributed to all of al-Qaeda’s affiliates for review prior to their publication to allow for comments and objections, thus suggesting the document represents the unified policies of al-Qaeda as a whole.
Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
Early efforts to change al-Qaeda’s image yielded mixed results. Some affiliates executed the rebranding strategy poorly or inconsistently, while others disregarded this more constrained approach entirely.
The jihadist experience in northern Mali in the spring of 2012 illustrates how aggressive local commanders could undermine al-Qaeda’s rebranding efforts. When jihadist groups under the command of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took control of northern Mali, they implemented a harsh form of sharia (Islamic law). The jihadists’ strict governance was at odds with Malians’ more moderate religious practice, and the jihadists’ heavy-handed approach — militants frequently beat, whipped, and stoned locals — sparked a mass exodus of civilians to neighboring Mauritania.
This approach earned a rebuke from AQIM’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, thus illustrating the cohesion between AQIM’s leadership and its counterparts in Afghanistan-Pakistan. In a letter to the Mali-based jihadists, Droukdel criticized the “extreme speed with which” they imposed sharia, castigating them for destroying Sufi shrines and for relying excessively on corporal punishments. Droukdel instructed the Malian jihadists to ally with other militant groups, including Tuareg rebels and other non-salafists, and to focus on amassing public support. These directives closely mirrored the guidelines for jihad that Zawahiri would release publicly a year later.
This uneven implementation was true also of AQAP, al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate. In December 2013, AQAP militants attacked the defense ministry compound in the capital of Sana’a. A hospital was targeted, and several unarmed medics and civilians were killed. While AQAP immediately claimed credit, the group backpedaled after a video aired on state television showing an AQAP fighter gunning down doctors and other civilians in the hospital. Qassem al-Rimi, AQAP’s then-military chief, was forced to issue a rare apology, claiming the hospital attack had been the work of a rogue militant who defied commanders’ orders. He promised that AQAP would pay blood money.
The Mali case suggests a disconnect between top-level leaders and local commanders, while Yemen is more likely an instance of al-Qaeda trying to show moderation only after having its atrocities broadcast. At any rate, uneven implementation often undercut al-Qaeda’s early rebranding efforts.
The Islamic State’s Rise and al-Qaeda’s Opportunity
Though the Islamic State’s rise has been a disaster for al-Qaeda in many respects, al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign has benefitted from the Islamic State’s emergence. While al-Qaeda’s missteps prior to the Islamic State’s rise as a competitor received considerable media scrutiny, the group’s use of violence has been eclipsed by the Islamic State’s unchecked atrocities. The Islamic State’s beheadings, immolations, and mass executions have allowed al-Qaeda to change its image in a way that would have been unthinkable when the “Arab Spring” revolutions first gripped the region in 2011. Al-Qaeda is in the process of recasting itself to two audiences: presenting itself as a more palatable alternative to the Islamic State to locals, while portraying itself as a potential partner to regional governments against the Islamic State. In al-Qaeda’s rebranding efforts, the Islamic State has become a convenient foil.
Sunni–Shia geopolitical tensions have also been a boon to al-Qaeda’s rebranding strategy. The intensifying rivalry between the Sunni Gulf states and Iran has provided al-Qaeda an opportunity to present itself as a bulwark against Iranian influence in places like Syria and Yemen.
As part of its rebranding initiative, al-Qaeda has launched a full-blown media campaign in recent months, deploying top officials to give interviews with mainstream media outlets. These officials downplay the threat the group poses to the West, and sometimes even encourage the perception of al-Qaeda’s weakness.
One of the first concrete signs of this media offensive came in early 2015, when Zawahiri issued a directive to Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the emir of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, ordering Julani to improve Nusra’s ties with the Syrian population and other rebel groups. Zawahiri’s decree codified, to some extent, Nusra’s existing strategy. Since 2012, Nusra had collaborated with other Syrian rebel groups, and had amassed considerable public support. However, in the latter half of 2014, Nusra was involved in infighting with other rebel groups, and Zawahiri’s edict was intended to clarify Nusra’s position.
Since then, Syria has become a primary testing ground for al-Qaeda’s rebranding strategy. In March 2015, Al Jazeera aired an interview with Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, an Australian cleric who became one of Nusra’s top religious officials. Muhajir contrasted Nusra with the Islamic State, stating that Nusra’s primary goal was to topple Assad and “restore the right of the Muslim people to choose their leaders independently.” His emphasis on popular representation and claim that Nusra focused on national objectives would become hallmarks of Nusra’s media campaign.
After Muhajir’s interview, Nusra granted Al Jazeera a conversation with Julani. In May 2015, Nusra’s emir sat for a 47-minute interview in which he too contrasted Nusra’s approach with the Islamic State’s extremism. Julani asserted that Nusra’s sole goal was to topple the Assad regime. He hedged on the question of whether Nusra would establish an Islamic state once Assad was removed, claiming all rebel groups would be consulted before a state was established. Julani adopted a comparatively tolerant stance toward religious minorities, promising that Nusra would neither target Druze nor Alawites. (Julani did say that Alawites would have to renounce elements of their faith that contradicted Islam, and Al Jazeera’s English-language reporting on the interview omitted these ominous statements.)
Al-Qaeda ideologues have also been involved in rebranding efforts. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, two of al-Qaeda’s most prominent religious figures, gave an in-depth interview to the U.K.’s Guardian for an article published in June 2015. Both Abu Qatada and Maqdisi slammed the Islamic State, while claiming the Islamic State’s emergence had caused al-Qaeda’s organization to “collapse.” The two clerics’ statements look different when examined in the context of al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign; their portrayal of al-Qaeda as a dying organization fits the group’s strategy of understating its strength in order to avoid drawing the attention of Western militaries and alleviating Gulf states’ fears.
Nusra has buttressed this media offensive by adopting a more collaborative approach toward other Syrian rebel factions. In March 2015, Nusra and several other prominent rebel groups, including the hardline salafi group Ahrar al-Sham, announced the establishment of a new coalition, Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). Since then, Nusra and its allies have made considerable gains in Idlib province. Nusra has exported this collaborative model to other provinces, and Nusra has signaled that it is open to sharing power with other organizations: After Jaysh al-Fatah captured Idlib city, Julani stated that Nusra would not “strive to rule the city or to monopolize it without others.”
Consistent with the uneven implementation of al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign, some of Nusra’s actions have departed from its goal of displaying a moderate face. In June 2015, Nusra fighters killed at least twenty Druze in a town in Idlib province, but Nusra’s leadership was quick to conduct damage control. Three days after the massacre, Nusra issued a communiqué apologizing for the attack and explaining that those involved had not secured the approval of their commanders. Nusra asserted that it would try the perpetrators in a sharia court.
Al-Qaeda is also implementing its rebranding strategy in Yemen, where the conflict between Iranian-backed Houthis and a Saudi-led military coalition, as well as the Islamic State’s emergence, have enabled AQAP to recast itself as a force that can counter both the Houthis and the Islamic State. AQAP sometimes fights the Houthis alongside the Saudi-led coalition and has engaged in a careful balancing act where it carries out attacks against Houthi militants while distancing itself from the Islamic State’s terrorist operations against Houthi civilians.
AQAP has also capitalized on the anarchic conditions in Yemen to carve out territory for itself and has exhibited its new gradualist approach to governance. In April, AQAP seized the city of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province. The group refrained from hoisting jihadist banners, and even issued a statement refuting rumors that it would ban music and shorts for men. AQAP established an umbrella group to rule Mukalla known as the Sons of Hadramawt, a name intended to emphasize local roots, and has generally avoided measures that could alienate the local population. AQAP will likely export this model of governance to other provinces as it continues to exploit Yemen’s chaotic situation.
Reaping the Benefits
Al-Qaeda’s rebranding efforts have already found some traction with local populations and Sunni states, and even some Western analysts. In both Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda affiliates have received support from, or fought alongside, Sunni states. The Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in Syria has become a favorite aid recipient for Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, AQAP has benefitted from the Saudi-led coalition’s preoccupation with the Houthi and Iranian threats. Mukalla residents say the tribes that run the city receive Saudi aid, some of which almost certainly reaches AQAP. Saudi Arabia has refrained from carrying out air strikes against AQAP strongholds and has turned a blind eye to AQAP developing a foothold in other parts of southern Yemen. Prince Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, explained the Saudis’ divergent approach toward al-Qaeda and the Islamic State: “At this point we must really differentiate between fanaticism and outright monstrosity.”
The Islamic State threat has also raised al-Qaeda’s stock in Jordan. When the Islamic State captured a Jordanian air force pilot in December 2014, Jordan tasked Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi with negotiating with the Islamic State. Later, Jordan released Maqdisi from prison and allowed him to appear on Jordanian television. While Jordan isn’t naïve about Maqdisi or al-Qaeda, the Hashemite Kingdom appears to be tolerating Maqdisi and other al-Qaeda supporters in the hope that they can curb the Islamic State’s growth.
In recent months, two respected scholars have written prominent articles arguing for a different approach to al-Qaeda. In March 2015, Haverford College’s Barak Mendelsohn authored an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Accepting al-Qaeda,” which argued that the United States should “rethink its policy toward al-Qaeda, particularly its targeting of Zawahiri,” which could play into the Islamic State’s hands. In June 2015, Ahmed Rashid, the author of several bestselling books, wrote a New York Review of Books article titled “Why We Need al-Qaeda.” Rashid cited several key elements of al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign, including AQAP’s governance of Mukalla and Julani’s interview with Al Jazeera, as evidence that al-Qaeda could be a partner against the Islamic State.
As the Islamic State dominates headlines and talk shows, analysts seem to be underestimating al-Qaeda’s strategic capacity to adapt and thrive. Al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign leaves it well positioned to exploit political conditions in the Middle East for years to come. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates have worked to restore the group’s image, garnered public support in countries like Syria and Yemen, and even won the support of some Sunni states. But beneath the smoke and mirrors of al-Qaeda’s rebranding campaign lies a more disconcerting reality: Al-Qaeda remains a dangerous group with expansionist aims that is committed to striking the West and overthrowing Middle Eastern regimes. Unless analysts take a closer look at al-Qaeda’s ongoing rebranding efforts, we run the risk of being conned by the group’s image makeover.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the chief executive officer of Valens Global, a consulting firm that focuses on violent non-state actors. Nathaniel Barr is an analyst at Valens Global.