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ISIS’s Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards – Part 4 of “Smarter Counterterrorism”

Author:  Clint Watts
March 22, 2014

ISIS’s Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards – Part 4 of “Smarter Counterterrorism”

(This is Part 4 of Smarter Counterterrorism, see Part 1 herePart 2 here, and Part 3 here)

Ayman al-Zawahiri must have awoke to the news of Bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011 with the excitement of soon being al Qaeda’s global leader followed shortly by the anxiety of leading an organization and associated jihadi movement in sharp decline.  Zawahiri, while often described as an intelligent architect for al Qaeda’s violence and an aggressive influence on Bin Laden, lacked the traits of a charismatic leader able to reinvigorate a vast and varying network of affiliates populated by a younger generation more inspired to kill than pray.  Al Qaeda’s internal documents showed Zawahiri to be controlling; seen scolding al Qaeda’s most compelling leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and consistently trying to rein in an organization that by design was meant to be decentralized.  Zawahiri’s failures in Egypt always colored his view of al Qaeda’s future direction and where the group might misstep; fearful of excessive violence against innocent civilians eroding popular support and weary of wannabes loosely aligned or unknown to al Qaeda perpetrating bumbling plots of limited value.  In communiqués to Bin Laden, Zawahiri’s pushing for more control by al Qaeda’s central leadership appears to have been heard but either ignored or deemed too difficult to implement.  Adding to Zawahiri’s problems were his personality and history, which by many expert accounts, made him both difficult to work with and lacking the respect of al Qaeda’s frontline fighters.

By June 2011, al Qaeda’s conclave officially confirmed what was already assumed. Zawahiri became the group’s official emir and began receiving oaths of loyalty (Baya’t) confirming allegiance between al Qaeda affiliate leaders and al Qaeda Central’s new leader in Pakistan; that is with the exception of one affiliate – the Islamic State of Iraq led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – a first sign of the divisive internal politics to emerge in al Qaeda’s ranks post Bin Laden. 

Zawahiri’s Tenure as al Qaeda’s Chief

To understand how al Qaeda has faltered since Bin Laden’s death and to anticipate where jihad will go in the future, we must examine the leadership transition to Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Through the summer of 2011, senior al Qaeda leaders and conduits to affiliates were being eliminated every month, Anwar Awlaki in Yemen, Ilyas Kashmiri in Pakistan and strangely the elusive Harun Fazul in Somalia.  Fazul, once Bin Laden’s personal secretary, died at a Somali government checkpoint similar to ones he likely passed through easily dozens of times before.  In the following months, rumors swirled that al Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, had arranged for Fazul’s timely death to settle a score with the ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda leader floating in his turf.  The mysterious pattern of al Qaeda foreign fighters being killed in Somalia continued through 2011 and 2012 and rumblings of internal rifts in Shabaab’s ranks grew while a plan for formal membership to al Qaeda was in the works. With Bin Laden gone, al Qaeda princes across many affiliates were making their own plays in a ‘Game of Thrones’ where politics and power became the priority over ideology and al Qaeda’s grand strategy. 

Months if not years in decline forced Zawahiri to act after Bin Laden’s death and his actions led to al Qaeda Central’s unravelingApparently the message was “Do Something” and the affiliates used their own initiative and some of Bin Laden’s final guidance to push for Islamic states in the Arabian Peninsula, the Sahel and by alliance in the Horn of Africa. First came al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who rebranded a parallel militia, Ansar al Sharia, and began securing turf in Yemen, instituting Sharia law and establishing an Islamic state; only to be met by a flurry of U.S. drone strikes and the remnants of the Yemeni army.  By late 2012, AQAP slipped back into the shadows leaving behind their attempts at an Islamic state as a new caliphate emerged in the Sahel.  Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with an array of local insurgents stormed northern Mali in a pattern similar to what had recently taken place in Yemen.  Through the fall of 2012, AQIM made their run at establishing an Islamic state until the French intervention of January 2013, which quickly dispersed AQIM back into the desert and in pursuit of irregular warfare from the hinterlands as splinter groups led by emerging leaders like Mokhtar Belmokhtar conducted the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria. 

Three significant challenges arose requiring Zawahiri’s management in 2013; each demonstrating Zawahiri’s limited ability to control al Qaeda and begging the question of whether there remained a centralized al Qaeda at all.

  • Shabaab’s killing of its own foreign fighters in Somalia

Stories of al Qaeda foreign fighters being killed in Somalia by Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Godane, continued to surface via the social media pleas of American foreign fighter Omar Hammami.  While not the most important foreign fighter or American in Shabaab’s ranks, Hammami’s rants proved fortuitous of larger splits in al Qaeda’s ranks.  Shortly after Hammami’s public complaints came a call from an original Afghan mujihadeen member in Somalia, Ibrahim Afghani, begging Zawahiri to unseat Godane.  Al Qaeda stood silent as Godane’s loyalists killed off both Hammami and Afghani. Shabaab has since crumbled under Godane’s leadership and Zawahiri has publicly ignored these upheavals in Somalia.

  • Syria: The Great Jihadi Migration

By 2013, Syria became the ultimate jihad creating an unprecedented foreign fighter migration unmitigated by Western policy or intervention.  Fueled by Gulf money and motivated by calls for an Islamic state as well as sectarian fighting, young men flocked to join the ranks of a diverse set of Syrian militias.  While the FSA bickered, jihadists and Islamists groups grew strong on foreign cash and foreign men started carving out a stake in Syria’s rebel landscape and taking the attack to the Assad regime.  Zawahiri, as best he could, made a play to harness jihadi energy in Syria through its primary affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and with its estranged affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq).

Zawahiri dispatched emissaries to coordinate al Qaeda’s Syria mission, but likely lacked the pull to truly control the wide stretch of jihadis funded independent of AQ Central.  Al Qaeda’s second generation of fighters that fought in Iraq, saw their own vision in Syria and under the leadership of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, seized on an opportunity to coalesce all jihadis under one roof.  In the summer of 2013, Baghdadi made the first ever public rebuttal of Zawahiri attempting to annex all jihadis in Syria.  Zawahiri, with few options, tried to reassert control going as far as to issue public guidance to jihadis everywhere hoping to communicate around rather than through disobedient middle managers.  Despite Zawahiri’s attempts to manage jihadists in Syria in the summer and fall of 2013, ISIS continued to grow and with each day since ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda’s star has faded. 

  • Egypt: Opportunity Lost

The third big dilemma for Zawahiri has been Egypt; where as he predicted, democracy has failed at the hands of authoritarians who’ve retaken control and suppressed both Islamists and Salafists alike.  Of all opportunities, Egypt likely presents the opportunity of greatest appeal to Zawahiri. At no time since being forced from his homeland with his fellow al Jihad members has there been such opportunity for al Qaeda in Egypt.  Persecuted Islamists and a somewhat permissive security environment in the Sinai have allowed for al Qaeda to make a play.  But even in Egypt, Zawahiri’s homeland where old networks could lead an organized jihadi rebellion, al Qaeda has floundered.  The Egyptian state has proven steadfast in fighting jihadism and al Qaeda’s ability to resource and coordinate a deliberate campaign has again shown to be limited.  The Nasr Cell was dismantled and spikes of violence in the Sinai have been met by military action. Zawahiri and al Qaeda so far have failed to create a sustained rebellion in Egypt despite the opportunity.

Zawahiri’s House Of Cards

Frustrated by his inability to rein in al Qaeda affiliates and outshined by a more aggressive and dynamic Baghdadi with ISIS, Zawahiri ultimately engineered what might have been unthinkable only a few years ago – open war on fellow jihadis to reassert his power and control. First came the open revocation of ISIS as part of al Qaeda. Then came the denouncements of ISIS by ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda clerics.  Finally, Zawahiri, through al Qaeda connections in the Islamic Front and coordination with the FSA, helped orchestrate an all out attack on ISIS in Syria. Smartly, Zawahiri’s primary affiliate Nusra held back from the initial engagements with ISIS allowing them to save face by appearing more neutral while seizing abandoned ISIS outposts and foreign fighter defectors.

While Zawahiri likely didn’t command each action on the ground in Syria, his plan ultimately became a house of cards.  Betrayed foreign fighters witnessing jihadi groups facilitating the attacks of more secular groups on fellow jihadists began speaking out.  Social media, a medium through which Zawahiri himself had tried to circumvent a belligerent ISIS, turned on al Qaeda’s leader detailing how it was ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda influence that had orchestrated the fitna (discord) in the ranks.  Zarqawi’s foreign fighter legions from Iraq, sided with their ISIS brothers over the opinions of clerics from Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s generation.

The outcome from Zawahiri’s retribution has been surprisingly to ISIS advantage.  Rather than punishing ISIS and regaining authority over the global jihad, Zawahiri and al Qaeda may soon become the second largest jihadist organization in the world.  Angered by Zawahiri’s betrayal and admiring of ISIS commitment to pursue an Islamic state, what were once thought to be al Qaeda Central affiliates are openly declaring allegiance to ISIS emir Baghdadi.  As seen in Figure 4, jihadist groups across North Africa and the Middle East have switched allegiances largely along the lines of the Iraq 2003-2009 foreign fighter distribution from Figure 3 in Part 3.  While al Shabaab in Somalia has reaffirmed its support for Zawahiri and ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda, the majority of contested affiliates have swung to ISIS’s favor. Ansar al Shariah in both Tunisia and Libya appear to be far more in ISIS camp. The younger generation of jihadis in AQAP/Ansar al Sharia in Yemen have sided up with ISIS (See Figure 6) even pushing at times in social media for AQAP’s emir al-Wuhayshi to shift his support from Zawahiri to Baghdadi –  I expected a transition, but this is occurring at a pace far quicker than I anticipated.  Zawahiri’s plan has backfired and his status has never been so diminished. 

Future Jihadi Scenarios: Best Case, Worst Case and which is most likely

Having reviewed al Qaeda Central’s efforts since Bin Laden’s death and recognizing the splits within jihadi ranks leading to ISIS’s rise, exactly anticipating the future direction of today’s jihadi landscape seems nearly impossible for there are too many variables, too many groups and too many countries to extract how this dynamic system will play out.  As a result, I’ll propose three potential jihadi scenarios and conclude with which one I think is most likely to occur as of today (probably a bad idea) and what might be the most dangerous scenario that would compel significant Western action. 

  • Scenario #1: ISIS Replaces al Qaeda as the Global Leader of Jihad

ISIS’s star has risen rather than fallen as al Qaeda Central, Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and other Islamist and jihadi militias have taken up arms against ISIS.  A month ago, I anticipated a battle for jihadi hearts and minds amongst two competing generations of jihadi fighters, particularly in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen (See here for background).  However, the shifting of sides to ISIS has occurred far faster than I could have anticipated.  The deputy commander of Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia surfaced with ISIS in Syria and ISIS support amongst Yemeni jihadis has been significant.  As seen in Figure 4, pledges of support to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi continue to roll in and this week ISIS announced in the coming weeks the merger of two additional groups and a new incarnation of their name – a name I would expect to be more globally oriented. As for the two groups merging in the ISIS announcement, the first appears to be the Central Region of AQIM in Algeria and I think the second might be a younger splinter group in Yemen (See Figure 6). Other candidates for the second merger might be Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia or Ansar al Sharia in Libya who’ve been pipelining folks into Syria, al Murabitun led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar who is a long-time Zarqawi fanboy, or a real wild card situation where AQAP in Yemen pulls out of al Qaeda entirely and joins with ISIS. A month ago, I would have expected this scenario to take at least six months to occur if it were to come to fruition.  Today, I think this scenario could occur in as little as one to two months, see Figure 5 below. 

Tipping Point for Scenario #1: AQAP’s leader Wuhayshi.  If Wuhayshi, al Qaeda’s global second in command, shifts his loyalty to ISIS or just chooses to set AQAP on its own path, al Qaeda will crumble.  The remaining franchises of al Qaeda would have little incentive to stay under Zawahiri. 

  • Scenario #2: Sustained Competition – ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda vs. Team ISIS

This scenario would be a sustainment of the al Qaeda civil war initiated two months ago.  Al Qaeda Central and its primary affiliate Nusra along with associated Islamist and jihadi groups (like Ahrar al Sham) continue to battle ISIS across multiple countries creating a jihadi civil war front stretching from Iran to the Sinai. Over the last two to three weeks, Nusra has openly discussed its intent to build its own operations in Iraq to compete with ISIS and has notably expanded its operations in Lebanon.  Meanwhile, ISIS has discussed potentially pushing operations into Iran; a logical step for an organization committed to killing Shia as much or more than Westerners.  I’m uncertain whether this competition might play out between AQC-minded versus ISIS oriented nodes in Egypt and Gaza but I would not be surprised if this occurred. Overall, I believe this scenario would weaken global support for jihad over the longer run, but could also render a more dangerous scenario that I alluded to in Part 3 of this series, where a desire to be seen as the more powerful jihadi element pushes both sides to execute attacks on Western targets abroad, Western targets in Europe or possibly aim at Israel.

Tipping Point for Scenario #2: Gulf donors coming to al Qaeda’s rescue would be the only way I think this scenario continues over the longer term.  Zawahiri has already rolled out lots of top clerical support and this hasn’t done much to overcome ISIS rise. I doubt Zawahiri’s ability to corral and then allocate resources makes this scenario possible.

  • Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes

Two forces, al Qaeda Central and ISIS infighting and the continued trend towards self-funding, might dissolve common notions of large jihadi organizations and alliances.  Al Qaeda affiliates and regional upstarts may find little incentive to hitch their group to a volatile global jihadi alliance that would only erode their local popular support without bringing in outside resources, operational capability or ideological clarity.  Thus over the longer term, jihadi groups gradually distance from each other and focus on local governance and self-resourcing.  Affiliates will remain more tightly wound regionally, but might only maintain very loose connections between regions; more similar to how jihadi groups operated during the inter Afghan jihad period of the 1990s. (See Figure 7) 

I would still expect affiliates to send their fighters to Syria for experience and training as a way to entice local recruits to gain credibility and bring back knowledge – similar to how Lashkar-e-Taiba sent fighters to the frontlines in Afghanistan during the 2000s to maintain their recruitment and credibility vis-à-vis Taliban elements who were drawing more support to Pakistan’s western rather than its eastern border.  Affiliates will still maintain connections, but these linkages would be more person-to-person and leveraged when needed rather than in a unified way – a swarming network rather than a set of unified affiliates.

Tipping Point for Scenario #3: Assad tamps down the Syrian rebellion and achieves a ceasefire in some form while al Qaeda aligned elements like Nusra continue to battle with ISIS.  The failure to achieve a sustained jihadi state in Syria because of infighting turns off jihadi donors, diminishes global foreign fighter recruitment and leaves affiliates to operate on their own.

In conclusion, I’m certain there could be other scenarios and the actual outcome will likely be some variant of one of these three.  But for planning counterterrorism actions, I would assess the scenarios as follows.

  • The best-case scenario from the West’s perspective is Scenario 2 (Continued Competition) minus the most dangerous additional element of competitive attacks on the West by each side (AQ vs. ISIS).  Absent one-upping attacks on the West, this scenario severely tarnishes global jihadi visions in the eyes of future recruits, donors and passive supporters of al Qaeda.
  • The most probable scenario may be Scenario 1 (Rising ISIS).  I’ve been surprised by the pace of support shifting to ISIS. The physical relationships built amongst the younger foreign fighter generation in Iraq and Syria, ISIS actually pursuing an Islamic state and Zawahiri’s betrayal have all combined to truly give ISIS an edge moving forward.  I expected shifting but the magnitude so far suggests ISIS might become the new global jihadi leader.  I’d only give Scenario #1 a slight edge over Scenario #2 (60% – 40% as of now). I believe that Scenario #1 (Rising ISIS) is less preferable to Scenario #2 as ISIS, if left unchecked, is likely to push for spectacular regional and global attacks as they grow.
  • Scenario #3 (Regional Nodes), I believe, is the least likely in the near term because I don’t see an end to the Syria situation for some time.  Scenario #3 though may represent a longer-term phase of what would come if Scenario #2 were to come to fruition in the near term – a continued distancing of jihadi groups globally.

The past four installments (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and this Part 4) of the Smarter Counterterrorism series have been designed to build to the final installment on what strategy the West might pursue in a chaotic but still threatening jihadi landscape.  The fifth and final part will (hopefully) come out in the next two weeks.

To download the charts shown in this post, visit this link and click on the graphics.

**** Special thanks to J.M. Berger of Intelwire.com who not only helped me stay in tune with the ISIS vs. Nusra shifting the past month and chart development but also gave me the idea for this installment’s title to include a House of Cards reference.  See below in Figure 8, J.M. Berger’s updated “State of Play” chart and visit this link to download a copy.

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