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.