Foreign Policy mag’s War on Error article spends a good deal of time parsing the relationship between Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Most of the wordage in the article is unnecessary.
Al Qaeda, as we know it, was always meant as a base, the core that it takes its name from, a revolutionary vanguard to inspire a worldwide movement. The current situation is what it wanted all along.
The article similarly treats the fact that Al Qaeda is moving from terrorism to a larger scale insurgency as a significant revelation. It’s not.
This is the standard path for terrorist groups which begin with terrorist attacks and then try to carve out territories they control and recruit larger forces so that they can become guerrilla movements. All this has already happened with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Lefty critics have tried to make hay out of Al Qaeda’s unstable command structure suggesting that it doesn’t really exist. Again, a brief look at the history of terrorist and insurgent groups shows that this is more common than not. Al Qaeda has never been all that stable. It was always patched together and that’s true of a lot of non-Muslim terrorist groups as well.
Terrorism however is a tactic. Al Qaeda is not conflicted about whether it’s a terrorist group the way that Western pundits are. It sees itself as a classic Jihadist fighting group which uses terrorism and more conventional armed warfare as ways to achieve its religious goals.
Whether Al Qaeda engages in terrorism or armed insurgency depends on context, not identity or philosophy. Al Qaeda doesn’t yet have the manpower and firepower to engage in an insurgency in the UK or the US, so it engages in terrorism. It does have the manpower in Iraq, Syria and Yemen so it engages in something closer to armed warfare.
The term terrorism carries special meaning for the West, but true Muslim armies don’t observe any human rights and commit atrocities regardless of whether they are setting off bombs while pretending to be civilians or moving in bands and beheading civilians. That’s the legacy of Mohammed’s murderous conquests.
Al Qaeda engages in terrorism, it engages in insurgency and it runs towns and villages like a government depending on how much power it has at a given time and place. Its goal is the latter. It wants to be a government. Terrorism and armed warfare are a means to taking over and imposing Islamic law.
These are all just different means of killing people.