Most of the local societies in which Al-Qaida and its affiliates and offshoots operate in the Middle East and Africa have a predominantly tribal or at least have a strong tribal component (Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Mali, and Sinai). Countering Al-Qaida's continuing presence, therefore, requires addressing the tribal milieu and understanding Al-Qaida's critical vulnerabilities when it operates in tribal societies. In this context, the capability that tribally-based militias provide may be one of the most effective tools against Al-Qaida, and may offer a cost-effective mechanism serving as a force multiplier for U.S. forces. It could reduce the need for U.S. force commitment on the ground in environments that might offer unfavorable conditions for a U.S. Landpower footprint.
It is important to appreciate the vulnerabilities that Al-Qaida faces in dealing with tribes inherent in the dilemma between implementing its ideological and political program and the social realities that are likely to generate conflict, such as Islamic vs. tribal law, folk religion, social and economic mores, and the presence of outsiders, not including the challenge to traditional tribal leaderships that Al-Qaida's influence may entail. Given this environment, it is therefore not surprising that tribally-based militias can be organized and function as an effective supportive counter in the effort against Al-Qaida.
In this monograph, Dr. Norman Cigar identifies two models for tribal militias — either managed by local governments and supported by outside patrons or managed directly by an outside agent. The resulting dynamic is most often a triangular one among Al-Qaida, the tribes, and the local government. It must be studied within that perspective, as Al-Qaida "has a vote" in the ensuing struggle as it attempts to adapt.
Dr. Cigar focuses on the experience in Iraq and Yemen, but some lessons learned may be applicable more broadly. While the positive results may be significant, as in the case of Iraq and Yemen, there are cautionary guidelines to be drawn from past experience for the creation and functioning of such tribal militias that could mark the difference between success or ultimate failure, including balancing the local government's dilemma between encouraging an effective counter to Al-Qaida and managing the threat from such autonomous forces in the long run.