Understanding al Qaeda’s Pragmatism

In its 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Trump administration announced that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism,” is the United States’ main national security challenge. The world’s oldest global jihadist group, al Qaeda, seems to have similar priorities. Although the group has not produced a strategic document on the matter, the activities of its affiliates suggest that it sees state-to-state conflict as critical to its near-term success.

Al Qaeda’s focus is partly the product of circumstance. Interstate competition is increasing across the Middle East. The U.S.-Iranian conflict has heated up under U.S. President Donald Trump, as has the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with both countries courting client states, engaging in proxy wars, and routinely threatening escalation. The competition between Iran and Israel perpetually risks blowing up, both figuratively and literally.

And Iran is not the only focus of regional interstate conflict. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), severed relations with Qatar and placed it under a land, sea, and air blockade. The spat appears to be a product of long-simmering tensions between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc over Doha’s sponsorship of Islamist political parties and rebel groups during and after the Arab Spring.

These rivalries have roiled politics throughout the Middle East, fueling proxy wars from Libya to Syria to Yemen that al Qaeda has been able to exploit. But the group’s renewed focus on interstate conflict reflects more than opportunism. For years, al Qaeda has cultivated strategic alliances with a range of state actors, some of them ideologically hostile to it. For a time, it looked as though this strategy might backfire, with the rise of the more ideologically strident Islamic State (ISIS). Yet al Qaeda has defied predictions that ISIS would break up its transnational network or steal away its major affiliates.

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