Nationalism is from Venus, al-Qa’ida is from Mars

by Monika Maslikowski & Z.S. Justus

As observers of Al-Qa’ida’s media strategy we notice a trend in their communication: When a conflict around the world involving a Muslim country heats ups, AQ leadership is quick to jump on the opportunity to provide analysis, encouragement, or criticism for the actions of players on the ground.

In the past year, with an imminent U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and a resurgence of both civilian and military forces in Afghanistan to fight terrorism there, AQ’s leaders have shifted their focus to more localized battles. Their aim is to characterize these fights as part of a larger global counterinsurgency, based upon AQ’s transnational ideology.

By connecting a local conflict to the broader Jihadist movement, al-Qa’ida tries to weave what are almost surely unrelated events into a broader narrative of a global, coordinated, and never-ending attack against the Islamic faith and Muslims. This creates the impression that what appears to be a national issue is really a part of a larger, decades-long conflict. Tapping into nationalist sentiments and manipulating those into a transnational frame appears to be a strategic communication tactic for al-Qa’ida.

The risk in this strategy is that nationalist groups can create headaches for al-Qa’ida. After all it was the Awakening Councils in Iraq that helped curb its spread, promoting a unified country free of transnational extremist elements. In the year prior to those developments, AQ created a fictitious native-born leader, Omar al-Baghdadi, to appeal to Iraqi national identity and pride. As a “local” figure, he could more credibly claim connections between the war in Iraq and the broader perceived persecution of Muslims around the world.

Local groups in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan also have the potential to threaten al-Qa’ida’s desired monopoly of power in that region. However, recent developments regarding the various factions of the Taliban on both sides of the border are troubling. Three major factions in Waziristan have joined together and pledged their allegiance to al-Qa’ida, while parts of the Afghan Taliban are increasingly declaring their more global intentions as well.

Transnational ideology seems to flourish in parts of the world where there is a weak central government–for example Afghanistan or Somalia.  Countries with strong or even just visible national institutions, like Hamas in the Gaza Strip, are better able to prevent al-Qa’ida’s transnational ideology from gaining a foothold. Hamas often rejects the support of al-Qa’ida when it’s offered by the AQ leadership in video messages.

AQ’s leaders face a challenge in that the global nature of their organization makes it difficult to sustain.  Their current solution is to focus criticism on local leaders in the Muslim world.  This, they hope, will keep AQ relevant and help sustain momentum in recruiting, fundraising, and operations. The latest example of this is their laser-beam focus on Somalia’s continuing struggle for stability.

Normally the words “Somalia” and “government” are always accompanied by the term “failed.”  But that may be changing. The landslide election of Sharif Ahmed earlier this year signals that Somalia might be moving toward a new era of social coherence. As Reuters reported,

Analysts say that Ahmed will have the best chance of all the candidates to unite Somalis, given his Islamist roots and acceptability to other sides.

Yet with the incursion of Ethiopian troops in Somalia in 2006, their subsequent departure just last month, and the waxing power of the AQ-linked Shabaab group, the Mother Ship has taken notice. Since the start of this year, three central AQ leaders–Usama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Yayha al-Libi–have repeatedly directed their rhetoric toward Somalia.

In his most recent message, bin Laden appears very alarmed about the emergence of a semi-functioning government there. He urges local al-Qa’ida forces to overthrow Ahmed’s coalition government. The recording asserts that Ahmed is yet another apostate sellout to the West who has forsaken Islam, and that he must be “dethroned and fought.”

There are many examples of bin Laden (as well as other al-Qa’ida leaders) taking issue with national leadership.  He  rants about quite a few in this latest release alone.  But the interesting thing about bin Laden’s monologue is his effort to exploit tensions between national and transnational forces.

His universal condemnation of all governments everywhere reveals a straegy of elevating his transnational solution by undermining national ones. Throughout the message bin Laden references “Global Infidelity” and the “Islamic world.” The lesson to be learned is that regardless of their political/religious orientations, functioning central governments are a threat to bin Laden and his allies.

This point became increasingly clear when former Islamic Courts Union official Hassan Dahir Aweys publicly denounced the outside influence of bin Laden and al-Qa’ida, despite his alleged connections to the group. Aweys and Ahmed both advocate Somali solutions to Somali problems and this is doesn’t leave room for al-Qa’ida.

In 2006 there was widespread concern that the Somali government would become Taliban 2.0. Now the government has been added to AQ’s hit-list, even with some of the same players still in place. The government taking shape in Somalia is far from ideal as it still has Sharia Law as a touchstone (albeit in more of a cafeteria style pick-and-choose fashion).  But it is worth noting that this rise in national independence has made bin Laden and other al-Qa’ida leaders very nervous. Religiously based nationalism may not be ideal from a Western perspective, but confronting terrorism is full of tough choices.  Supporting leaders like Ahmed in one form or another may not be an appealing choice, but it increasingly looks like a wise one.

The complex nature of this global counterinsurgency warrants a U.S. communication strategy that highlights the importance of opposition to al-Qa’ida’s transnational ideology by supporting more nationalistic local groups. To do that we should give these local actors a megaphone with which to voice their opposition, even if they’re not the kind of people we would pick to run our own country.