In a recent interview with EER, Hans-Jakob Schindler gave his take on the evolution of Al Qaeda and its changing role in the current world of Islamist terrorism. According to the analyst, Al Qaeda was, until 2019, a very hierarchically organized centralized organization, where it had its center in Afghanistan, with all the terror infrastructure that the Taliban had helped them to build up in order for them to train fighters for the Taliban. Schindler believes that the group will transform into a networked organization, with groups and affiliates outside of Afghanistan.
This has already happened in Africa and Southeast and Central Asia with groups like the Islamic Maghreb (JNIM), Abu Sayyaf, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan emerging. At first, these groups formed a network linked to the main Al Qaeda group under Osama Bin Laden and then, after his death, Ayman Al Zawahiri, simply out of personal loyalty. But the central organization became less and less involved in the operational decisions of the affiliates. For example, AQAP was doing what it wanted to do, keeping the central leadership informed of what they were doing. During this time many affiliates sprung up and attacked foreign targets. For example, Moqta bin Moqta, one of the leaders of AQIM was famously kidnapping foreigners and Abu Sayyaf were kidnapping for ransom.
AQAP was the most innovative affiliate, according to Schindler. They were the first Al Qaeda affiliate to hold the city Marib and to openly publish an online journal. ISIL, when it emerged later in 2014, adopted many of these tactics. They had very sophisticated bomb making artchitects within the network, from shoe bombs to laptops.
Schindler then talks about the evolution of Al Qaeda’s ideology. He says, it began with a multigenerational question: “Why is the Islamic world so much behind the West?” Some Muslims tried to answer in the 19th century by saying: “We’ve strayed from the path of Islam.” So, you had groups like the Muslim Brotherhood whose idea was to to Islamisize from the bottom up, then you had Sayed Qutb and the Islamic Jihad saying: “we need revolutionary attacks on the regimes and we need to Islamisize from the top down.” Later, Osama bin Laden’s innovation was to say that none of this, neither the bottom up nor the top down, was going to work because: “the West would prop up these regimes in our region, and only through increasing the costs through terrorism can we make the West withdraw from this region. Once this happens, the regimes would easily fall and society could Islamisize, Bin Laden concluded.
When the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, some Islamists thought this was the perfect time to topple the government and establish an Islamic State. However, Ayman Zawahiri did not agree that it was the right time. Also, Al Qaeda never subscribed to the ideology that anyone not being of the same ideological persuasion as them was an apostate by definition. They were not a tolerant group, but at the same time, they didn’t subscribe to a takfiri ideology at this point. Their main focus was to attack the West, with their primary target being the US. If Muslims died to achieve this end, they considered this to be justified, but Muslims were never the primary target. The Islamic State believed everyone against them was a legitimate target.
Switching back to Al Qaeda’s place in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of international forces in August of last year, Schindler emphasizes the close symbiotic relationship that Al Qaeda and the Taliban always maintained. He points out that not only Zawahiri, but every single leader of Al Qaeda affiliate groups outside of Afghanistan swore personal Bay’a to the leader of the Taliban, such as Mullah Omar and Mansour and Hibatullah Akhundzada. They all see themselves as part of the Taliban.
Al Qaeda vs. Islamic State Strategy
So, the question arises which ideology and strategy has worked better. The Islamic State strategy, according to Schindler, did not work, as they were defeated in Iraq, Syria, Libya, the Philippines, and basically everywhere where they started to hold territory. They were overwhelmed by military opposition. When looking at Al Qaeda, many people wrote the group off a decade after Bin Laden’s death. They said the group would lose youth support to the Islamic State and only the older generation would follow Al Qaeda. However, Schindler believes what we are seeing now is the emergence of an Islamist terrorist elite — not a mass army, not a Caliphate, not a radical organization — who conduct attacks whenever there is an opportunity. He believes this strategy has worked better.
War On Terror Is Unwinnable
The author then asks the Schindler whether he believes the US and West have done enough to counter Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, to which the analyst replies: “the war on terror is actually quite a misnomer”. Schindler goes on to explain that the term “war” implies you can either lose or win and the word “terror” is a methodology, equating it as to saying a “war on bad weather”. He says it is impossible to win against a methodology that has existed for thousands of years and that people have historically used violence to put forth their political aims. Even if groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State disappear, there will always be other groups emerging that will carry out attacks to achieve political gains.
Whether it is the anarchists in Italy in the 80s, or the ETA conducting attacks in Spain, or the Irish Republican Army, Schindler explains that terror is a methodology that you can never win against. Therefore, counterterrorism operations need to be multigenerational and 20 years are not going to be enough to eradicate the ideology. So, while you can do quick counterterrorism operations by destroying the caliphate in Iraq and Syria or, prior to that, destroying all the terror infrastructure and camps in Afghanistan in 2002, this will only give these groups a set back, but not necessarily eradicate their ideas. Therefore, military operations will continue and only be able to mitigate immediate threats.
Implications Of US Withdrawal In Afghanistan
This brings forth the question whether the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was the right thing to do. Schindler said that the US — from the Obama administration to the Trump administration — wanted to withdraw. Biden only actioned this. Schindler, however, believed the timing of the withdrawal — just before the 20th anniversary of the 911 attacks— to be a bad choice in political communication terms.
The actual withdrawal, Schindler pointed out, laid bare the fact that the system in Afghanistan was not yet a self-sustaining system and that even though Afghans were, for 20 years, exposed to ideas of freedom and equality and religion being a personal issue, not a state issue, this did not really change the fact that the security system was weak in the face of the Taliban.
Taliban And Al Qaeda’s Close, Symbiotic Relationship Remains Intact
The author then asked about the future of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Schindler pointed out that the group had a large number of affiliates already operating in the country such as Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Group, the ETIM (East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement, the Uyghurs of China and Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish Al Mohammad and Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan. These groups used Afghanistan as a center or base to conduct terrorist attacks outside of Afghanistan, but never really had designs on the country itself.
Schindler believes the real problem Afghanistan faces is that the Taliban regime in Kabul is exactly the same as it was in the 1990s and the same ministers are now holding the same positions. Therefore, this guard is still operating with the same mindset as it did in the mid 90s when it had a strong symbiotic relationship with Al Qaeda. Beginning with Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaida always cooperated closely with the Taliban via the Haqqani Network, which it is still one of the most powerful factions in the current Taliban movement and holds the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Refugees among other portfolios. The Taliban has not officially separated from Al Qaeda and the Al Qaeda base group is very much in touch with its affiliates. Schindler believes it to be unlikely that the Taliban will crack down on foreign groups operating in the country and instead try to integrate these foreigners into the national Afghan army, offering them to become Afghan citizens. So, not actually reining them in, but organizing them.
Much like, before 2001, when terror camps in Afghanistan were being organized with thousands of fighters, these fighters were not used to conduct attacks such as 911, the US Cole in Yemen or bomb embassies, they were meant to be special forces for the Taliban. Therefore, Schindler believes what is happening currently in Afghanistan is likely to be a repeat of what happened prior to 2001.
Taliban Should Not Be Considered Legitimate Government
The author then asks the question of how the international community can aid the Afghan people. Schindler points out that Taliban should never be considered to be a legitimate government as they came to power through war and not through the will of the people. In order to deliver aid to the people, the international community needs to be engaged with the Taliban to some degree, but should never consider them to be a legitimate government, even though the Taliban will use humanitarian aid as leverage to gain legitimacy. Schindler points out that the international community should never forget that the Taliban is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in the country. However, an absolute humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan is also not in the Taliban’s interest and if this happens it could potentially implode the Taliban movement. So, the international community and the Taliban must strike a careful balance.
While the Taliban and ISIS-K have a complex rivalry, the two groups have struck a number of deals, so they cannot be trusted as counterterrorism partners against the Taliban. It is important to deliver humanitarian aid, but the international community must ensure the minimum possible benefits for the Taliban. Schindler points out they are not honest brokers and do not care about the people, but only their own power and they still consider themselves to be part of a global terrorist movement with links to Al Qaeda.
Daesh Defeat Prompts Shift In Strategy
The author then shifts to speak about the reemergence of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Schindler believes the group lost two leaders, Baghdadi and Qureshi, but that strategic rebuilding began before 2019. The group understood it was not going to survive military confrontation as the entire international community was against them, as well as Iran and Syria. So, they began rebuilding from a collapsed state into an affiliate grouping much like Al Qaeda. Before he was killed, Baghdadi started implementing this strategy shift which was continued by Qureshi. This strategy of establishing affiliate networks worked very well. So, that is why we are seeing many affiliate groups emerging in the past couple of years in West Africa, the Greater Sahara, East Africa, Central Africa, Southeast and South Asia. This model works very well. At the same time, we have seen an increase in smaller scale attacks in Iraq and Syria — not the same large scale attacks we saw in 2013-2016 — but we are seeing night raids on houses and kidnappings and murders of key individuals. However, a few weeks ago, there was a large scale attack on an SDF prison in Syria which was more similar to the large scale Islamic State-style attacks of 2013-2016, which was a very complex attack involving lots of fighters and car bombs breaking the walls of prison doors and suicide bombers swooping in. It was a very well-coordinated attack and the SDF had trouble getting the attack under control. So, only very recently have you seen a shift to this higher level of capability that was seen just before Qureshi was killed. So, Schindler believes this to be a worrying trend and an indication that ISIL could become increasingly more capable in Iraq and Syria.
Schindler also points out that Qureshi’s killing was the second time that an Islamic State leader gets killed in territory controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, which was formerly Jabhat Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Schindler believes the fact that Islamic State leaders were operating in HTS territory without their knowledge was very unlikely. The fact that IS considered this territory to be a safe place to operate, Schindler believes, is an indication that the HTS is not completely divorced from international terrorism.
IS Affiliates Face Important Choice
After Qureshi’s death, it is only a matter of time before the next IS leader is chosen. However, Schindler believes that affiliate groups now have to make an important calculation whether to operate independently or to continue to be part of the global IS brand. Once the new leader is announced, Schindler believes it will be interesting to see whether the affiliate groups immediately pledge Bay’a or wait for a while. He believes what happens in the next couple of months could define how the network evolves and whether it will have more independent affiliates.
Schindler then stresses that while IS has established powerful affiliates in Africa in the past couple of years, this does not take away from the symbolism and importance of Iraq and Syria being the main base, because this was where the original Caliphate was established, where the religious sites are, where Baghdadi ruled and where it all started. Schindler does not believe these groups will ditch the center as the center really doesn’t need to do much, except for the propaganda and brand management part. He also points out that insecurity remains in Syria and Iraq, which provides a fertile environment to continue operations there.
European Counterterrorism Strategies
The author then shifts to talk about extremism in Europe and asks Schindler why there are such drastically different approaches to combating extremism among various European countries. Schindler points out how Germany has a very unique national history of being extremist and, as such, it has much more detailed categories when defining terrorism and extremism. Therefore, in Germany you can be under surveillance if you are considered to be in the extremist category but not have actually committed a terrorist attack. This gives the government the ability to intervene before an actual attack takes place, whereas in countries like France and the UK there is simply and “on and off” button where you are either a terrorist or not a terrorist, but in Germany you have a better stop gap.
Another difference is that different countries adopt different programs to counter radicalization and every model is specific to the local circumstances of that country. For example, in Denmark you have the Aarhus model, where the community is engaged to prevent extremism. Then you have the Channel and Prevent program in the UK, you have the safety houses in the Netherlands and you have the federal model of the German government. So, none of these are easily transferable.
So, the way the safety houses work in the Netherlands, wouldn’t be possible in Germany legally. The way that the Prevent and Channel program works and trains from the top down would be impossible to implement in a federal state like Germany. Therefore, you have to take these local circumstances, including social, political, economic, and legal, into account to build up your strategy against extremists.
There is the Radicalization Awareness Network of the European Union, which is an attempt by the bloc to learn from each other, to bring together counterterrorism practitioners and to compare what has worked in the UK or what has worked in Italy and what can be used in Germany, for example. This is just so that other countries are aware of each other’s progress and problems and helpful information can be exchanged. There will not be a unified European counter extremism strategy, this is simply impossible with European comprising 29 different cultures, countries, languages, historical circumstances, Muslim populations and different right wing extremist groups.