September 9, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: A Region Choked by bin Ladin-ism

 • West from the Saharan deserts of Mali and Algeria and east to Libya and the Sinai, across the Sahel belt touching northeast Nigeria, to Somalia and over the Red Sea into Yemen, and then to Iraq and Syria, violent extremist groups are choking the life out of the region

• The so-called Islamic State (IS) has garnered headlines with its recent success, but it is far from the only capable and dangerous terrorist group espousing the toxic ideology of Usama bin Ladin

• While the region has a tragically long history with violent extremism, it has rarely if ever confronted so many capable armed groups operating in so many arenas at once

• As the international community begins to pressure IS, it will need to do so in the context of the larger regional battle with ‘bin Ladin-ism,’ a violent ideology that has more adherents now than ever.


The remarkable advances of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) this summer in both Iraq and Syria have rightfully captured the attention of the world, as the group presents a serious threat to two countries that don’t need any more threats.

While IS is unique in its territorial gains and material wealth, it is sadly not unique in its ideology and threat to a region that stretches from Algeria to Iraq. Al-Qaeda Central (AQ), led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, might be losing in popularity to its rebellious offshoot IS, but the ideology of its founder, Usama bin Ladin, is still winning over far too many followers. This violent extremist ideology, ‘bin Ladin-ism,’ is the common thread that runs through the disparate extremist groups that are choking the life out of the region. These groups have specific and local reasons for their existence, and they may have different tactics and goals, but they all espouse the violent extremist ideology originating from bin Ladin.

While al-Qaeda’s recent announcement that it had opened up a new franchise—Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS—can be seen as a plea for relevancy in light of the IS behemoth, it is also an unfortunate reminder that the Qaeda core remains a formidable network intent on regaining its luster. Zawahiri’s droning announcement lacked the polish of IS media productions, but it didn’t lack in ambition. Whether the announcement signals a new front of terrorism for the group (which has had very limited success in India) or merely a public relations ploy, is unclear, but it is clear that the group will continue to foment regional instability.

Bin Ladin-ism has long taken root in the deserts of eastern Algeria and northern Mali, where one of the now five official affiliates, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), remains a serious threat. AQ/IS wannabe Boko Haram also espouses AQ’s violent ideology, even if AQ won’t accept it as an affiliate. Bin Ladin-ism is now fueling, in part, the violent chaos in Libya, where hope for a stable future dims daily. The rhetoric of groups such as Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi sounds eerily similar to the rhetoric of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan so many years ago. It also runs through the violence radiating out from the Sinai, where Egypt battles violent extremists cut from the same cloth as Zawahiri.

Bin Ladin-ism is also strong in Somalia, where al-Shabab, another of the AQ franchises, might have just lost its leader but not its ideology. The group will be weakened by last week’s air strike that killed Ahmad Abdi Godane and several deputies, but as yesterday’s revenge suicide attack that killed at least 12 people demonstrates, the murderous ideology, capability, and intent remain a threat. The same can be said in nearby Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and its chief bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, remain a serious threat despite effective targeting by Yemeni and American forces. Again, the rhetoric and ideology of AQAP sounds just like AQIM, which sounds just like bin Ladin.

Moving north, the ideology has found tragically fertile ground in Iraq and Syria. IS has captured all the headlines, quite simply by seizing towns and cities in both Iraq and Syria. But in these headlines is the misleading notion that IS and AQ are quite different, or that IS is too extreme for AQ. Neither is true, since both groups operate under the poisonous influence of bin Ladin-ism, even if they argue about religious jurisprudence, doctrine, and allegiance. There are differences between the two now-rivals, but beating in their hearts is the ideology of bin Ladin-ism. The official AQ franchise in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, might be fighting IS in Aleppo and other towns but it is family when it comes to ideology, and one is as bad as the other.

As the international community crafts its strategy to counter IS, it must do so in the larger context of bin Ladin-ism. The region is facing unprecedented threats from all sides, and while one group might rightfully claim all the headlines now, it is the ideology that is tightening its grip over the future.


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