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Al-Qaida has been trying its hand at governing. The terrorist group is taking over territory, then providing services, trying to win over citizens who live there. It has happened in Somalia and in Yemen. Most recently, Islamist groups with links to al-Qaida have staked a claim in the northern deserts of Mali.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has this report on al-Qaida's land grabs.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: To understand al-Qaida's emerging strategy, you have to go back to 2005, when an arm of the terrorist group decided that it would take control of territory in Iraq.

PETER NEUMANN: They tried to establish some sort of local caliphate, a local emirate and it went horribly wrong.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Peter Neumann is a professor of security studies at Kings College, London.

NEUMANN: They were abusing the people that they were governing. They were imposing very harsh rules. They were going against the tribal structures. Ultimately, the local people turned against them.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Turned against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. His suicide bombers blew up open air markets and ignited car bombs. Eventually, local Iraqis realized that al-Qaida's attacks were killing more Iraqis than Americans, so the locals sided with the U.S. Tips flooded into U.S. intelligence forces in Iraq and the Americans found and killed Zarqawi in 2006.

London terrorism expert Peter Neumann says the lesson was not lost on al-Qaida.

NEUMANN: There was a huge amount of soul searching going on within the movement afterwards and the conclusion was that we have to immerse ourselves with the people rather than go against them.

GREGORY JOHNSEN: I think the mistake that we in the West so often make is to only view al-Qaida as a terrorist organization that only carries out terrorist attacks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, and he says that targeting the West is only part of what al-Qaida wants to do.

JOHNSEN: It wants to provide a way of life. It wants to implement its own version of Islamic law.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And al-Qaida affiliates seem to have decided that doing that requires land. Al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is the group Gregory Johnsen has studied most. And he says, in 2011 and 2012, AQAP started taking over towns in southern Yemen. The Arab Spring had started. The Yemeni government had all but crumbled and the Yemeni military wasn't putting up a fight. So...

JOHNSEN: They were administering the towns and, really, they were essentially the de facto government there. It was al-Qaida who was providing services, al-Qaida who was providing teachers, running the police forces and so forth. As difficult as it is to believe, al-Qaida was doing a better job of providing services to some of these areas than the Yemeni government had been doing for decades.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Obama administration officials have a more skeptical view of how well al-Qaida governed the areas it controlled, but given that the Yemeni government has been virtually absent for so long, even a day of electricity or a policeman on duty goes a long way.

There's a precedent for what al-Qaida is doing. Other violent groups have provided social services.

NEUMANN: And that's ultimately the lesson from Hamas.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Peter Neumann from Kings College, London is referring to the Islamists who govern the Gaza Strip.

NEUMANN: Hamas is so difficult to counter as a military force, not because of their military strength, but because they are so immersed within the population.

TEMPLE-RASTON: What's so interesting about the al-Qaida strategy is that it defies Osama bin Laden's wishes. Letters found in his compound in Pakistan show bin Laden telling leaders from AQAP not to take over territory in Yemen. He said that the group didn't have the ability to govern.

The U.S. military has been helping Yemeni forces drive al-Qaida from southern Yemen, but Johnsen says the groups thinks the retreat is only temporary.

JOHNSEN: In letters that they left in the towns that they abandoned, they essentially said, we'll be back.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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