IN THE years following the 11 September attacks, the public as well as most analysts tended to view al-Qaeda as an organisation. As the Bush-era “war on terror” wore on, that view evolved amongst serious analysts.
Al-Qaeda was increasingly viewed as an ideology, a brand, and an inspirational and enabling force.
It sought to ferment terror by spreading inspiration, know-how, finance and training to loosely affiliated international “franchises” around the world.
Now, in 2014, post-Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda is best understood as an organisation divided into three levels of formal affiliation.
At the top there is a formal structure under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri.
As Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, testified to a US congressional committee in July 2013, “the backbone of today’s al-Qaeda consists of its ‘general command’ in Afghanistan and Pakistan”.
The next level are formal al-Qaeda affiliates such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Shabaab in Somalia.
All of these have publicly sworn an oath of fealty or “bayat” to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria should also be included in this list, because the group has openly proclaimed its allegiance to Zawahiri.
The third level are groups inspired by al-Qaeda which do not necessarily take orders from Zawahiri or receive funds from his organisation.
Many of these cells operate independently and it is hard to assess which are loyal to the “old” al-Qaeda and which have broken away to pursue their own actions, independent of funding or even direction from the al-Qaeda leadership.
Joscelyn describes the groups outside the formal affiliates as “ideological kinsmen”.
This analysis helps to explain al-Qaeda’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. One opposition group, al-Nusra, grew up independently of al-Qaeda but has formally affiliated to it.
Other extremist jihadist groups could well be inspired by al-Qaeda, but this does not imply any operational link.
The formation of al-Nusra was formally announced on 24 January, 2012, with the objective of establishing an Islamist state in Syria and a caliphate in Greater Syria.
Its leader, Muhammad al-Golani (also spelt al-Julani) is thought to have close ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
He has several times been pronounced killed in battle, yet he appeared recently on Al Jazeera TV, his back to the camera and his face covered by a black scarf.
Many of his recruits come from the jihadist network of Zarqawi, which was built during the 2000s and centred in Baghdad in 2002. These jihadists established “guesthouses” in Syria to channel would-be fighters to Iraq.
During this period, Syria acted as the main channel for funding for the network, with Saudi and Gulf Co-operation Council jihadists in the Levant securing financial support from sympathisers in their home countries. The al-Nusra Front gives al-Qaeda a territorial base in Syria. It now has an opportunity to use that base to rebuild and regroup.
But the biggest threat to its ascendancy in Syria is the success of a rival group which broke away. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has split from Zawahiri’s leadership.
In April 2013, al-Qaeda Iraq declared itself the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), expanding its historical identity now to include Syria.
It took control of wide areas without facing much resistance. Baghdadi himself sought to establish his own leadership credentials, claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad and styling himself a “philosopher jihadi”.
Zawahiri responded by expelling Baghdadi and his group. In a broadcast on Al Jazeera in November 2013, he said that Baghdadi had “made a mistake by establishing ISIS without asking for our permission”. According to William McCants of the Brookings Institution: “In the 25-year history of al-Qaeda, no affiliate has ever publicly disagreed with the boss so brazenly.”
At the same time, ISIS is losing support for attacking fellow rebels, adding the Kurds to its list of enemies, and imposing such a hardline interpretation of sharia law on those areas it has captured that it is alienating many in the process.
This is al-Qaeda’s weakness. Unlike, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood, it has never before made a concerted effort to govern, let alone win legitimacy through good governance.
And Syria is not fertile ground. Relative to other countries in the Middle East, it has a tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance.
Most of its conservative Sunni Muslim population have co-existed peacefully with the other religions and ethnic minorities for generations.
There is little indigenous demand for a hardline Saudi-style Salafi/Wahhabi doctrine of law. That means that al-Nusra is at risk of being seen as imposing a doctrine on a reluctant population.
At present, it seems that the population’s priority is the establishment of public services.
Where al-Nusra does that, it has won itself some support. Sharia law is a different matter.
It has so far been tolerated as long as it is not seen as too punitive, but it remains to be seen for how long that will be the case.
The group has set up 70 co-ordination groups (tansiqiyat), run by media and street activists, to organise demonstrations against the regime, information about the battle and generally keep the population motivated.
Unlike ISIS, the al-Nusra Front seems to understand that if it is to stay in Syria and retain legitimacy, it needs to win hearts and minds.
It claims to control parts of at least a dozen Syrian towns, including Binnish, Taum, Saraqib and parts of Aleppo.
One wing of the organisation, called the Relief Department, provides food and warm clothing to civilians, and distributes stolen wheat to the hungry.
All of this is milked for maximum public relations impact. It is also opening courts, a key step on the road to winning unofficial legitimacy. The group claims that Syrian civilians and non-members have come to the court for advice on personal matters.
In Deraa, the group has further demonstrated its nous on questions of alliance-building, by collaborating with other rebel groups.
These tactics have brought it some credibility with exiled opposition leaders, who have publicly disagreed with the US designation of the group as a terrorist organisation.
This is in sharp contrast to ISIS, whose goal seems to be to consolidate its own power in the areas it holds at the expense of other groups.
ISIS has also lost credibility by moving into already liberated areas and proving to be more barbaric than the Assad regime ever was.
This dynamic crystallises the real challenge which Syria poses for al-Qaeda’s affiliates.
If it is to hold territory and win legitimacy, it must tone down its harsh doctrines, especially in terms of punishment.
But if it is as doctrinaire as it needs to be to retain its identity, then it will lose legitimacy. It is the dilemma of a group which has fought a guerilla war in territory and media terms, but now faces a new kind of challenge.
Al-Qaeda remains a formidable brand for jihadi extremists, able to call on organisational resources in many continents. But although the Syrian civil war may have started as an opportunity for it to extend its sphere of influence, it may ultimately prove to be the event which exposes its weakness: al-Qaeda’s Vietnam.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and an international security lecturer at the University of Chicago