Episode 30: Al-Qa'ida's Shifting Sands with Barak Mendelsohn

NJOHSP Intelligence Analyst Jenna Raymond speaks to Dr. Barak Mendelsohn, a professor of Political Science at Haverford College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, about al-Qa'ida and its affiliates in Episode 30 of Intelligence. Unclassified. 

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BARAK MENDELSOHN

Barak Mendelsohn

Barak Mendelsohn is a professor of Political Science at Haverford College and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  

In addition to teaching, Dr. Mendelsohn also oversees the Global Terrorism Research Project at Haverford, which focuses on statements and messages from al-Qa’ida Central. 

He has a bachelor’s degree in Middle East Studies from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a master’s degree in Security Studies from Tel Aviv University, a second masters in Government from Cornell, and a Ph.D. in Government from Cornell. 

At the beginning of 2016, he published a second book called, The Al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of al-Qaeda and Its Consequences, in which he argues that al-Qa’ida’s branching-out strategy of expansion was a response to al-Qa’ida’s decline after the 9/11 attacks.


ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

The Al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of al-Qaeda and Its Consequences

The al-Qaeda Franchise asks why al-Qaeda adopted a branching-out strategy, introducing seven franchises spread over the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. After all, transnational terrorist organizations can expand through other organizational strategies. Forming franchises was not an inevitable outgrowth of al-Qaeda's ideology or its U.S.-focused strategy. The efforts to create local franchises have also undermined one of al-Qaeda's primary achievements: the creation of a transnational entity based on religious, not national, affiliation. 

The book argues that al-Qaeda's branching out strategy was not a sign of strength, but instead a response to its decline in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Franchising reflected an escalation of al-Qaeda's commitments in response to earlier strategic mistakes, leaders' hubris, and its diminished capabilities. Although the introduction of new branches helped al-Qaeda create a frightening image far beyond its actual capabilities, ultimately this strategy neither increased the al-Qaeda threat, nor enhanced the organization's political objectives. In fact, the rise of ISIS from an al-Qaeda branch to the dominant actor in the jihadi camp demonstrates how expansion actually incurred heavy costs for al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda Franchise goes beyond explaining the adoption of a branching out strategy, also exploring particular expansion choices. 

Through nine case studies, it analyzes why al-Qaeda formed branches in some arenas but not others, and why its expansion in some locations, such as Yemen, took the form of in-house franchising (with branches run by al-Qaeda's own fighters), while other locations, such as Iraq and Somalia, involved merging with groups already operating in the target arena. It ends with an assessment of al-Qaeda's future in light of the turmoil in the Middle East, the ascendance of ISIS, and US foreign policy.

Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and Interstate Cooperation in the War on Terrorism

Although terrorism is an age-old phenomenon, jihadi ideology is distinctive in its ambition to abandon the principle of state sovereignty, overthrow the modern state system, and replace it with an extremely radical interpretation of an Islamic world order. These characteristics reflect a radical break from traditional objectives promoted by terrorist groups. In Combating Jihadism Barak Mendelsohn argues that the distinctiveness of the al-Qaeda threat led the international community to change its approach to counterterrorism. Contrary to common yet erroneous conceptions, the United States, in its role as a hegemon, was critical for the formulation of a multilateral response.

While most analyses of hegemony have focused on power, Mendelsohn firmly grounds the phenomenon in a web of shared norms and rules relating to the hegemon’s freedom of action. Consequently, he explains why US leadership in counterterrorism efforts was in some spheres successful, when in others it failed or did not even seek to establish multilateral collaborative frameworks. Tracing the ways in which international cooperation has stopped terrorist efforts, Combating Jihadism provides a nuanced, innovative, and timely reinterpretation of the war on terrorism and the role of the United States in leading the fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. are Americans, and they are mujahideen. Hundreds of men from every imaginable background have walked away from the traditional American dream to volunteer for battle in the name of Islam. Some have taken part in foreign wars that aligned with U.S. interests, while others have carried out violence against Westerners abroad, fought against the U.S. military, and even plotted terrorist attacks on American soil. This story plays out over decades and continents: from the Americans who took part in the siege of Mecca in 1979 through conflicts in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, and continuing today in Afghanistan and Somalia.