In the decade after 9/11, al-Qaeda expanded its operations to several new arenas, whilst at the same time its central command experienced the severe impact of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and global counter-terrorism efforts. In The Al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of al-Qaeda and its Consequences, Barak Mendelsohn explains the connection between al-Qaeda’s post-9/11 setbacks and its decision to pursue an expansionary strategy of franchise building. Joe Devanny commends Mendelsohn’s theoretical approach, which helps readers to understand the decision-making process of terrorist organisations contemplating expansion.
Image Credit: The US Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, after the 7 August 1998 al-Qaeda bombing (DS Records, Wikipedia Public Domain).
going the franchising route, giving affiliates the benefits of a brand name while preserving their organizational structure, al-Qaeda hastened its own hollowing-out. The group expanded geographically, but its resources did not increase correspondingly to give it sufficient leverage over its affiliates.
Al-Qaeda’s position is weaker than anytime since it became a household name worldwide, synonymous with non-state terrorism. It is headed by an uninspiring leader, its strategy is in shambles, the United States routinely targets its commanders from the air, and ISIS – its main competitor – is much more exciting and successful.
Mendelsohn sees no realistic prospect for al-Qaeda to improve its position under the leadership of al-Zawahiri, who took over after Bin Laden was killed in a US Special Forces operation in May 2011. Irrespective of the leadership question, al-Qaeda’s future is indelibly associated with that of its erstwhile affiliate, Islamic State. Mendelsohn is right to argue that ‘the future cohesiveness of al-Qaeda has become intricately linked to the fortune of ISIS. The more established the “caliphate” becomes and the more territories and people it brings under its control, the greater the internal pressure al-Qaeda’s branches experience.’
Mendelsohn is less persuasive in arguing that Islamic State’s capture and holding onto territory is a model that al-Qaeda must emulate in order to survive:
to rejuvenate, al-Qaeda must show that it can do more than kill. Governance is particularly important because ISIS has created new standards for success, while regional instability has created ungoverned spaces where jihadi groups could demonstrate their ability to rule.
This is arguably the wrong lesson to draw from Islamic State’s eclipse of al-Qaeda as the world’s most fashionable jihadist group. Mendelsohn might have afforded himself more space to compare al-Qaeda’s and Islamic State’s approach to attacking Europe and the US. He notes that ‘al-Qaeda emphasizes fighting the “far enemy” and postponing governance, while ISIS has been all too willing to fight the “near enemy” while simultaneously introducing an Islamic state.’ Islamic State has, of course, perpetrated attacks outside of Iraq and Syria, and other acts of terrorism have been carried out in Europe and the US by individuals claiming (with varying degrees of credibility, but clearly in line with the group’s aspiration) to act in the name of Islamic State.
Islamic State may have come to prominence as it expanded its territory, but it is unlikely to wane significantly so long as it can continue to perpetrate and inspire similar attacks. This is surely an easier model for al-Qaeda to emulate, and it is much more consistent with its past practice. In this light, a more obvious proxy for measuring a future al-Qaeda resurgence would be the number of terrorist attacks credibly attributed to it, or reportedly inspired by it, rather than the quantity of territory it can capture and administer.
The Al-Qaeda Franchise is a relatively short book with an attractive cover. The publisher may hope for a broad, general readership. It should be stressed that this is very definitely an academic rather than a trade book, with an even balance of theoretical and empirical chapters; its prose reflects this (Mendelsohn uses the verb ‘to problematize’ perhaps more often than one should). This isn’t a criticism of the book – any more than it is a criticism of a giraffe to say that it is not an elephant – but merely a guide to prospective readers. This is a sound text, aimed primarily at the undergraduate market, very clearly structured and well-signposted, with summary conclusions closing each chapter. It will have broader appeal to those who are more generally interested in the subject matter, so long as they are prepared to engage with it on its own terms.