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Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony – The ‘Old Guard’, Team ISIS & The Battle For Jihadi Hearts & Minds

Author:  Clint Watts
February 20, 2014

Jihadi Competition After al Qaeda Hegemony – The ‘Old Guard’, Team ISIS & The Battle For Jihadi Hearts & Minds

(Part 3 of Smarter Counterterrorism, see Part 1 here & Part 2 here)

Before deciding where to focus and how to counter terrorists threatening the U.S., we need to evaluate the terrorism environment that the U.S. now faces.  I doubt it’s ever been as chaotic and dynamic.  The fractures surfacing inside al Qaeda and its affiliates should be expected after Bin Laden’s death. Bin Laden compelled allegiance through long-standing relationships dating back to the 1980s Afghan jihad, created the organization’s justifications for targeting the U.S., boasted a string of successful attacks on U.S. targets, held unparalleled international prestige and controlled resource distribution to a global network. Ayman al-Zawahiri had big shoes to fill, and while I do think he’s made some recent gains in reasserting control, he is no Bin Laden and he faces challenges Bin Laden never had to contemplate.  I believe al Qaeda’s current divisions come from several forces that began to emerge prior to Bin Laden’s death in 2011. 

What forces keep al Qaeda together? What forces break al Qaeda apart?

Dynamics of Success and Failure  – Al Qaeda grows strong when things are going well.  As I discussed almost three years ago in an FPRI monograph, al Qaeda and its affiliates since about 2007 have struggled to execute a substantial, successful attack on the West.  Benghazi didn’t rally the troops and the Westgate attack (2013) killed only a few Westerners.  Both were blips in the al Qaeda landscape and don’t measure up to 9/11 or the 2005 London bombings.  The biggest boon to jihadi recruitment comes from the Syrian jihad where al Qaeda has not led the fighting but has instead piggybacked on the conflict’s attractiveness for foreign fighters. 

Lacking a big attack for six years at the time of Bin Laden’s death, I imagine many al Qaeda members (Like the leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)) were primed to move in their own direction and find their own success.  Today’s jihadi recruits observe Syrian conflict social media content and see ISIS committing violence on a broad scale and actually setting up an Islamic state in accordance with a harsh version of Sharia – an objective al Qaeda Central touts but seems reluctant to pursue. Jabhat al-Nusra who talks to similar goals, pursues them pragmatically and with less violence-–a method of lesser appeal to young boys attracted to the violence and glory of battle.  ISIS has done a better job of sharing their successes and to them has gone more recent jihadi support. 

Resource Distribution: Centralized vs. You On Your Own (YOYO) – Gregory Johnsen said it best in his book on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) The Last Refuge, “Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.” In the pre-9/11 period, Bin Laden was not the only jihadi leader plotting attacks or training foreign fighters, but he was doing it faster than any other group because he could pay his cadre and resource his fight independently.  Other jihadi leaders like Abu Zubaydah came to Bin Laden seeking funds and its likely key operational jihadi planners like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed sought Bin Laden out because he knew al Qaeda could staff and empower his plot. The Abbottabad documents attest to Bin Laden’s role as the key intermediary for resource distribution in al Qaeda and amongst the affiliates.

Fast-forward to 2011, al Qaeda resources were running dry.  With Bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda affiliates increasingly resourced themselves, or if they requested funds, they were left short handed.  In today’s al Qaeda, Zawahiri commands far fewer resources and for affiliates it’s harder to take orders from the boss (Zawahiri) when he isn’t paying you.

Physical Relationships: The Value of Shared Experience – “Old Guard” al Qaeda came about from shared experiences and physical relationships built during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s; where future al Qaeda leaders Bin Laden and Zawahiri mixed with foreign recruits in the guesthouses of Peshawar building life-long loyalty.  This likely occurred again in Iraq, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi built teams fighting Shia and Americans, but this time, Bin Laden and Zawahiri were not there to build physical relationships with the next generation of jihadis.  As a result, I suspect part of today’s al Qaeda splits result from two generations of veteran foreign fighter networks demonstrating preference divergence: 1) those that fought during the 1980s Afghan jihad and 2) those that fought during the Iraqi jihad of 2003-2010.

Many of the latter generation of foreign fighters have no true physical relationship with ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda members and have fought jihadi campaigns on their own with little resource support or guidance from al Qaeda Central.  While al Qaeda Central leaders like Bin Laden & Zawahiri focused on television pontificating while self-imprisoned in Pakistan, al Qaeda’s second generation of foreign fighters built strong bonds of shared consequence in the prisons of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  A quick look at the biographies of ISIS or AQAP leaders would suggest strong loyalty between men imprisoned together in Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca or Sana’a.

If forced to choose between “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s direction or that of al-Baghdadi and ISIS, who would a fighter on the primary battlefields of Syria and Iraq choose:

  1. an elder Zawahiri in Pakistan whom he has never met and rarely hears from, or
  2. the local al-Baghdadi who suffered in prison with him and fights in the trenches with him everyday? 

The decision rests on each individual jihadi. Those most devout to jihadi ideology and inspired by Bin Laden I’d suspect pick Zawahiri and “Old Guard” al Qaeda. Those more committed to their brothers they fought with in Iraq or Syria and inspired by abu Musab al Zarqawi, I believe, will side with al-Baghdadi and ISIS.  On the whole, I estimate today more young jihadis side with their brothers from the battlefield (ISIS) than with the less personally known “Old Guard” al Qaeda.  Interestingly, Omar Hammami hinted at this preference divergence dilemma from Somalia a year ago on Twitter and today one can witness this individual shifting of justifications for the Syrian jihad and siding with either Jabhat al-Nusra (AQ) or ISIS in social media. 

Common Situational Awareness and Frequent Communication – Sustaining a command and control relationship requires al Qaeda Central to constantly and consistently communicate with its affiliates.  Best explained by Dr. Jacob Shapiro in his new book The Terrorists Dilemma, constant communication jeopardizes al Qaeda leaders’ operational control.  From 2008 – 2011, al Qaeda Central’s leadership in Pakistan was decimated by drones and communication from Bin Laden & Zawahiri to affiliates became less frequent and increasingly delayed.  Affiliates were left to pursue jihad as best they could with limited guidance naturally breeding independence amongst affiliates.  AQIM documents recovered in the Sahel and the public dissension from Shabaab’s fractures illustrate how al Qaeda Central communication gaps created friction in the ranks as affiliate leaders competed for control and direction of their regional jihads.  Zawahiri’s communication challenge shown most in the fall of 2013 when he began publicly issuing his guidance to jihadis everywhere as a way to get his intent to the rank and file in Syria and bypass his rival ISIS-–one of several public signs of the splintering to come. 

Unity of Effort: Global over Local or Local over Global  – Al Qaeda’s original justifications for violence hinged on Western occupation of holy lands, Western support of corrupt local dictators and the desire to create an Islamic caliphate (state). The U.S. has withdrawn from sacred Muslim lands, allowed for apostate rulers to fall and has in some cases completely ignored or temporarily tolerated the establishment of Islamic states (e.g., Taliban in Afghanistan pre-9/11, AQIM in the Sahel and ISIS in Syria). Attacking the “far enemy” of the U.S. holds less appeal today than it did ten years ago. From the Abbottabad documents, we know Bin Laden recognized the need to re-brand for local appeal and incorporate more local issues into the ideology. In Yemen, the Sahel, Somalia and Syria, al Qaeda’s global agenda has mutated to accommodate local issues and garner local recruits and resources.  However, with each mutation, “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s reach and control has waned yielding more power to local leaders with less unity to al Qaeda’s Central leadership.  With al Shabaab in Somalia, Ansar al Sharia in Yemen, AQIM in the Sahel, and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, local affiliates have implemented Sharia with such violence that it has tarnished al Qaeda’s image.  Overall, global al Qaeda issues carry less resonance with locals and affiliate members than local challenges encountered building an Islamic state. 

Marriage and Kinship – Kinship proved a binding force for al Qaeda’s “Old Guard” in Pakistan.  A decade of enduring fighting in Afghanistan (1980s) saw foreign fighters intermarry with local Pakistani and Afghani populations.  Al Qaeda’s intermarriage with local populations has been essential to sustaining their security in Pakistan.  This practice can be seen in some other jihadi campaigns, for instance Omar Hammami likely survived for a period by marrying into a local Somali clan, but the duration of jihadi campaigns up to Syria have been shorter and more intense in their combat (e.g., Iraq). While a lesser factor overall in al Qaeda unity, the bonds of family have likely weakened with more recent waves of foreign fighters. Will this dynamic of intermarriage return in Syria? Maybe, but it will likely be to “Old Guard” al Qaeda’s detriment and more supportive of ISIS and the newer generation of jihadis enduring battles in Syria & Iraq and pushing to build a state with locals. 

Today’s Jihadi Landscape: What does two competing jihadi networks and other freelance jihadi groups look like?

I’ve been wondering since Bin Laden’s death what a world without “One Big al Qaeda” might look like–see this for example.  Only now can we start to see the effects of a generational shift amongst jihadis representing two loosely formed larger networks surrounded by some, or maybe even many, loosely tied or unaffiliated jihadi groups with more regional rather than global orientations. 

With the environment changing rapidly and no good way to depict today’s jihadi landscape, I, with input from friends, have put together the following visual estimate of what today’s fractured jihadi landscape might look like.  I tried to avoid the vertical, top-down task organization chart models because I don’t believe these relationships represent command and control as much as communication and collaboration.  Today’s global jihadi landscape looks more like a swarm not a corporation: it is fungible, malleable and evolving.  For the purposes of the charts you see below (Figure 1 and Figure 3), I’ve created three categories, which should not be viewed as definitive or exact as I anticipate much shifting of allegiances in the coming weeks and months.  I put forth a discussion here, not an answer, and I’m open to input.  If a group appears left out, it’s likely because I was uncertain how to assess them.  The amount of overlap represents the degree to which I estimate the groups are interlinked in their communication & efforts.

“Old Guard” al Qaeda – Jihad’s First Generation

I believe allegiance to al Qaeda’s Central leadership in Pakistan rests largely on those recruits most ideologically committed to Bin Laden’s original vision for the organization and the founding members of al Qaeda were bound together by shared experiences from Afghanistan, Sudan and Pakistan (1980 – 2005). Even amongst the “Old Guard” stalwarts, a Zawahiri-led al Qaeda, I believe, relies heavily on Zawahiri’s closest allies, those physically sitting next to him in Pakistan, his original confidents from Egypt and former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members that migrated to Afghanistan in the 1990s. I’d imagine some of the remaining “Old Guard” North African al Qaeda members hovering in Iran the past decade and now migrating to places like Libya represent key interlocutors for Zawahiri.  Abu Khalid al-Suri with Ahrar al-Sham may be another example.

To sustain “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Zawahiri must cling to two affiliates above all others; al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Jabhat al-Nusra, the key lever for the “Old Guard” to remain relevant. (Large Green circles – Figure 1.) Other “Old Guard” adherents may be a mish-mash of foreign fighters that fought more recently in Afghanistan since 2003–an example of this might be the uptick in German foreign fighters that made their way into Pakistan.  Zawahiri’s remaining loyalty comes from public oathes of allegiance (bay’a) from many leaders he doesn’t know.  As Frank Underwood in the recent American hit show House of Cards says, “The nature of promises … is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”  But promises, as seen in the show, can be interpreted differently depending on the circumstances. ISIS has interpreted Zawahiri’s role as emir of al Qaeda differently than most other affiliates. How will other affiliates interpret their promise to Zawahiri moving forward? Only time will tell.

Team ISIS – Jihad’s Second Generation

ISIS strength comes from its foreign fighter networks generated in Iraq from 2003 – 2010.  These foreign fighters revere Zarqawi; a man of action in their eyes who walked what he talked targeting both the U.S. and the Shia.  The Iraq foreign fighter networks provide great power to ISIS for they drew nearly equal parts from both North African and Persian Gulf countries.  (See Figure 2.) Unlike “Old Guard” al Qaeda, Team ISIS actually works to implement the vision of an Islamic state and their broader targeting of the Shia has brought wide appeal in the most important foreign fighter migration in history, Syria, based on the availability and immediacy of targeting Hezballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.  Team ISIS has surprisingly received oaths of loyalty from affiliates (Red Circles – Figure 1) and has received strong support from second generation foreign fighters across both North African and Persian Gulf affiliates. 

Independent Jihadi Groups – “You On Your Own”

Some jihadi groups have operated largely independently for many years receiving little guidance and constructing their own independent, illicit financing (e.g., AQIM) or even garnering their own donor relationships.  Syria and Libya represent two prime examples of how patrons from Kuwait and Qatar have backed jihadi groups outside of “Old Guard” al Qaeda. 

Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s “Those Who Sign With Blood” may be the first sign of how jihadi groups with cash and charismatic leaders set out on their own jihads establishing their own objectives.  The more independent jihadi groups have linkages to both sides of the “Old Guard” al Qaeda versus ISIS schism, may choose sides based on personal loyalties, or may wait out current debates to side with the winner rather than back a position outright.  Why should independent jihadi groups risk alienating a key ally in the future if they currently have no stake in the infighting? Groups in the Sahel, Libya, Tunisia and the Horn of Africa already operate and resource independently.  Why pick sides until one has to? Likewise, these lightly tied al Qaeda affiliates might want to rise up on their own, much like ISIS, and pursue an independent path to becoming the biggest force in jihad. An all out war between “Old Guard” al Qaeda and ISIS might result in further separation of jihadist groups into three to five regional networks more integrated into local environments and less connected globally.  Either way, the future jihadi landscape will be in flux for many months if not years as networks reshape. 

Battleground for Jihadi Hearts & Minds – Libya, Tunisia, The Sahel & Yemen

Today’s jihadi fault lines likely represent the divergence of two jihadi generations. Looking at the breakdown of foreign fighters to Iraq discovered in the Sinjar records (Figure 2), there must be divided loyalties amongst those foreign fighters that returned home, reconstituted during the Arab Spring and now fuel both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria.  As I attempted to depict in Figure 1 with the dashed box, Libya and Tunisia were two large suppliers of foreign fighters to Iraq whose Zarqawi inspired recruits now influence Ansar al Sharia Tunisia (AST) and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (Benghazi, aka ASB).  AST and ASB have tight bonds with ISIS fighters and many of their fighters have been imprisoned together and were sprung together during recent raids in Iraq (see this Aaron Zelin post for evidence).  AST ideologues have been vocal supporters of ISIS.  Thus, I imagine a sub-surface battle is currently underway between Zawahiri’s envoys and North African foreign fighter veterans from Iraq.  I suspect Zarqawi’s legions rather than Zawahiri’s old dogs will win sway resulting in AST and ASB being more supportive of ISIS moving forward – although this support may not be overt. 

The decisive point between “Old Guard” al Qaeda and ISIS may have been forecasted a few months back when Zawahiri formally and publicly promoted Nasir al-Wuyhashi al Qaeda’s second-in-command.  The logic for this selection was initially obvious; AQAP has attempted the only viable external attacks on the U.S. in years and the affiliate had assumed most of the functions of al Qaeda Central issuing operational guidance, coordinating with affiliates and even distributing resources.  More subtly, Zawahiri’s nomination may have signaled an attempt to maintain control over a successful affiliate more evenly manned by both generations of jihadi fighters; the “Old Guard” represented by Wuhayshi (a loyal Bin Laden man) and at the time Said al-Shihri and the new wave consisting of returning Saudi and Yemeni foreign fighters fromIraq that fueled AQAP’s 2009 resurgence.  By promoting Wuhayshi, Zawahiri (an Egyptian) may have sought an ally more proximate and representative of Arabian al Qaeda members who have larger taps into Gulf cash and can check the rise of an aggressive ISIS led by al-Baghdadi.  AQAP provides crucial coordination between al Qaeda Central with its affiliates al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Sinai.  Without AQAP and more specifically Wuhayshi, the outer orbits of “Old Guard” al Qaeda (Shabaab, the Sinai & maybe AQIM) may evaporate and Zawahiri’s great prize of an Egyptian jihadi uprising can easily fade. 

The Benefits and Risks of Jihadi Competition

I’ve been a strong, vocal advocate for keeping jihadis competing (see here for example) and still believe jihadi-on-jihadi violence in places like Somalia and Syria provide a net positive for counterterrorism as infighting burns up resources, turns off donors and sours foreign fighter recruitment flows.  Over an extended period and if large-scale jihads like Syria end, the chaos and confusion of jihadi fighting can permanently damage the appeal of a global al Qaeda message and ideas of jihadi unity, hopefully reducing targeting of the West and jihadi violence overall. 

Excessive jihadi competition, on the other hand, can in some scenarios produce great risk to the U.S. and the West.  If resources to both “Old Guard” al Qaeda and ISIS remain constant, due to an unending Syria conflict for example, competing jihadi networks may present a most dangerous scenario where competition for notoriety and resulting perceived gains in manpower and resources push groups to seek more spectacular attacks on the West to demonstrate their prowess and assert their dominance.  (There is more to come on this dynamic in my next two posts.)  In contrary to counterterrorism pundits raising fears of a resurgent “One Big al Qaeda”, the most dangerous scenario is parallel, competing jihadi networks attempting to outpace each other through spectacular attacks on the West. 

This leads to next week’s post, Part 4 – “Anticipating ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s Plan”

See here, Figure 3, a chart put together by J.M. Berger, myself, Aaron Weisburd, Aaron Zelin and some additional friends.  We will update this chart in the coming weeks, but it attempts to map organizations, forums, clerics and their relationships to affiliates.  Its a work in progress, and we welcome feedback.

For those interested in downloading a larger version of this chart, click here

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