The Soviet defeat and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 left victorious Arab mujahideen adrift. Many retired from their jihadi adventures returning home to North Africa and the Middle East. Others remained in Pakistan, committed to fighting jihads in other theaters, establishing a network that in 1991 would officially become known as al Qaeda. With time, Osama Bin Laden aimed al Qaeda’s ideology at the United States whom he believed to be the ‘Far Enemy’ who propped up the ‘Near Enemy’–local apostate Muslim dictators and their regimes. This strategic logic, annotated in al Qaeda’s 1996 declaration of war on the United States, has powered nearly two decades of terrorist attacks on Americans.
Al Qaeda’s ‘Far Enemy’ logic for singularly focusing on the United States has proven both wrong over the long-term and counterproductive to the terrorist group. In the months before and after Bin Laden’s death, the U.S. let North African and Middle Eastern dictators fall to Arab Spring uprisings. Until the rise of the Islamic State (IS), al Qaeda’s jihadi spawn, the U.S. refused to intervene in Syria–one of the bloodiest and most protracted civil wars in recent history. U.S. inaction in Syria, rather than meddling, has provided what little lifeblood al Qaeda clings to in its most important affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.
Jihad’s real ‘Far Enemy’ in Syria for many years has been Iran and now Russia. For several years, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces have helped Syria hold the line against a band of rebel groups to include Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State. Last month, Russia moved from the shadows and into the forefront with their military build up. The Russians talk of targeting terrorists, but the pattern of their airstrikes speaks otherwise. Most sorties have aimed their missiles at Syrian rebel groups including Jabhat al Nusra leaving the Islamic State mostly to the American-led coalition. Today, Russia, far more than the U.S., has returned to be jihad’s ‘Far Enemy.’
More than a year and a half ago, in anticipation of the Islamic State’s rise over al Qaeda and witnessing the U.S. desire to extract itself from the Middle East post-Iraq, I proposed that, ”U.S. information campaigns in counterterrorism should consider redirecting al Qaeda’s ‘far enemy’ narrative. Today, the real far enemies of jihadis in Syria are Russia and Iran.” I still believe this to be a wise strategy for the U.S. First, for more than ten years, the U.S. has failed to successfully counter jihadi ideology and supporting propaganda. Lacking any demonstrated success winning the hearts and minds of militant Muslims, why continue to waste time and money funding counternarrative efforts? Second, it’s almost always easier to shift a message (alternative narrative) than to counter it (counter narrative). If the goal is simply to protect Americans from jihadi violence, then it will likely be easier to shift jihadi violence to another target, such as Russia, than to convince jihadis to abandon their ideology and violence entirely. Third, the Russians have used social media driven information campaigns to discredit the U.S. for years. Facebook and Twitter remain littered with pro-Russian, Western looking accounts and supporting automated bots designed to undermine the credibility of the U.S. government. Why not return the favor back to the Russians and restore their place as the ‘Far Enemy’?
Unfortunately, the U.S. will likely be unable to execute such an information strategy to redirect jihadi angst onto a Russian adversary. Current calls for countering the Islamic State’s ideology echo those of ten years ago to counter al Qaeda. Americans appear permanently fixed on this failed tact. U.S. messaging efforts also remain painfully slow to program. Americans haven’t even figured out how to respond to the Russian invasion of Crimea, therefore it’s doubtful they’d be effective at redirecting jihadi angst prior to the end of the Syrian conflict. Lastly, the U.S. seems a bit scared of Russia in the information space in part because Russian cyber attacks on the U.S., whether by organized crime or the Russian state, have become a huge vulnerability. Don’t anger the bear if you can’t keep it in its cage.
Luckily for the U.S., jihadi propaganda appears to be spinning away from the U.S. and toward Russia. Months ago, the leader of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, said he was instructed by al Qaeda’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to avoid targeting the U.S. Shortly after Russian airstrikes, Julani released an audio message calling Russia the “Eastern Crusaders” and calling for attacks inside Russia and on Shiite villages. The U.S. at a minimum, through covert or semi-covert platforms, should take advantage and amplify these free alternative narratives to provide Russia some payback for recent years’ aggression. Russia would assuredly do that to the U.S.