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Al Qaeda versus ISIS: In the campaign for jihad’s top slot, Yemen is a swing state.

Author:  Clint Watts
October 9, 2014

Al Qaeda versus ISIS: In the campaign for jihad’s top slot, Yemen is a swing state.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) rise began in the summer of 2013 but became fully evident this past spring.  Ayman al-Zawahiri’s retaliatory plan to punish an indignant and unruly affiliate backfired. Open conflict between ISIS and al Qaeda’s lead arm in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and their associated partners in the Islamic Front not only empowered ISIS in the eyes of global jihadi supporters but further diminished the allure of jihad’s original vanguard al Qaeda (AQ).  In March 2013, I posed three scenarios for what a future terrorism landscape might look like after a period of enduring jihadi civil war.  These scenarios, outlined in the article “ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards” from March 20, 2014, were the following:

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

  • Summary: ISIS overtakes al Qaeda as the leader of global jihad

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

  • Jihadi civil war in Syria spreading to Iraq and Lebanon

Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes

  • Regional jihadi groups, unsure of whether to side with ISIS or AQ, diverge maintaining loose connections but operating independently

Six months after developing these scenarios, jihadi support for ISIS across all regions has surged dramatically. See Figure 1 for my unscientific, estimated breakdown for each region of jihadi popular support between al Qaeda, ISIS, or independent/undeclared groups and supporters. 

  • North Africa & Sahel – As discussed this past spring, Tunisia and Libya were key audiences for ISIS support in North Africa.  Libyan and Tunisian foreign fighter networks to Iraq during the 2003 – 2008 time period greatly empower ISIS today.  Just this week, Derna’s Shoura Council of Islamic Youth (SCIY) pledged allegiance to ISIS while Abu Sleem Martyrs’ Brigade chose not to declare allegiance to either AQ or ISIS. (Hypothesis: SCIY hosts many foreign fighters returning from ISIS in Syria and Abu Saleem may have some old AQ members in their midst that are unsure which way to go…just a theory.) Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahel, conversely, remains loyal to al Qaeda publishing a joint call for unity with al al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.   Al Murabitin, led by Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, remains committed to AQ as well.  I imagine much shifting of allegiances between AQ and ISIS in this region in the coming months with many groups possibly opting out of declaring their support either way. 
  • Levant & Arabian Peninsula – This region remains the battleground for jihadi hearts and minds.  ISIS captures the majority of foreign fighters into Syria but Jabhat al- Nusra remains an important force in the fight against Asad.  For jihadis in the region, the decision now becomes, “which is more important, fighting Asad in Western Syria or the U.S. led coalition in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq?”  I estimate the majority of jihadis feel more inclined to join ISIS fighting a host of enemies rather than solely focusing on Asad. 

More important is the battle between ISIS and AQAP.  ISIS has gained significant backing from Saudi foreign fighters and had plots disrupted in the Kingdom. It’s likely donor flows to ISIS from the Arabian peninsula now eclipse those to al Qaeda – traditionally the resource lifeline of a Bin Laden-led al Qaeda.  This leaves Yemen. AQAP remains the strongest affiliate of al Qaeda and, as will be discussed below, serves as the counterweight to ISIS taking nearly absolute control of global jihadi support. 

  • South Asia – Al Qaeda’s remaining senior leadership now may only hold a slight edge in South Asia.  Protected for more than a decade by the Taliban, Zawahiri’s foothold in the hills of Pakistan may be eroding.  Alleged Taliban members calling for support of ISIS and reports of ISIS recruiting in Peshawar likely drive Zawahiri’s latest calls for establishing an al Qaeda affiliate in India – a ploy aimed at securing al Qaeda’s relevance and sustaining Taliban protection by engaging in a local issue that re-incentivizes AQ connections in Pakistan at a time when they are being outpaced by the glory of ISIS.
  • Southeast Asia – After initial concerns and flurries of counterterrorism activity post-9/11, jihadi groups in Southeast Asia loosely tied to al Qaeda largely went dormant by the 2006 – 2008 time period.  Jihadis in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Phillipines have awakened from their slumber; inspired by ISIS pursuit of a state and high levels of violence.  Kidnappings of Westerners in the Phillipines and recruiting in Indonesia for ISIS has risen to significant levels.  Southeast Asia is decidedly pro-ISIS.  
  • Balkans/Caucasus – The Syrian conflict, more than previous, recent jihadi campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has mobilized jihadi elements throughout the Balkans and Caucasus sending a swarm of foreign fighters into the ranks of ISIS.  While Nusra initially drew some contingents from this region, I’d estimate the vast majority of support from this region goes to ISIS.
  • North America, Europe & Australia – Small numbers of Western recruits to al Qaeda have popped up over the past decade.  Today, al Qaeda is a distant second for Western jihadi support.  European foreign fighters fill the ranks of ISIS and Australia has seen a disproportionate number of ISIS recruits as well.  Americans, still only a trickle of the foreign fighter flow, have mobilized more for ISIS than Nusra (AQ) with the notable exception of the first U.S. suicide bomber in Syria surfacing in Nusra/AQ ranks.
  • East Africa – East African social media accounts often praise the efforts of ISIS but al Shabaab’s tight control on local jihadis in Somalia and their affiliates in Kenya has sustained loyalty to al Qaeda.  The group recently reconfirmed their loyalty after the death of their emir Ahmed Godane.  Al Shabaab’s commitment to al Qaeda may possibly be enforced via their close connections to AQAP in Yemen who remains the anchor of al Qaeda allegiance. 

Yemen: The Swing State in the battle between al Qaeda and ISIS

If al Qaeda and ISIS held an election, Yemen would be the American equivalent of the swing state of Florida.  Zawahiri smartly designated Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP, as his global deputy last summer; a wise strategic move that provided an anchor of AQ support as ISIS surged.  AQAP’s loyalty to al Qaeda represents the remaining barrier to ISIS completely overtaking al Qaeda as the global leader of jihad.  AQAP acts as a key interlocutor with AQIM in the Sahel and essentially commands its own affiliate, al Shabaab, in Somalia.  Should AQAP shift allegiance from Zawahiri or remove itself from the dispute all together, al Qaeda would consist of nothing more than a few veteran envoys spread around the globe and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria – a group likely questioning why it remains loyal to Zawahiri as it is overtaken by ISIS.  I do not expect a shift by AQAP anytime soon, nor do I think Wuhayshi, a long-time al Qaeda man, will break his oath to Zawahiri.  However, for ISIS to fully rise without competitors, AQAP in Yemen must change its stance.  Another scenario to watch for is whether Wuhayshi, similar to the recent joint AQAP-AQIM call for unity, makes a decisive move to unify the ranks of AQ and ISIS should the situation become particularly dire for both groups. 

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