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Can the Islamic State hijack September 11 from Zawahiri’s al Qaeda?

Author:  Clint Watts
September 9, 2015

Can the Islamic State hijack September 11 from Zawahiri’s al Qaeda?

September 9, 2015

The increasingly reclusive Aymen al-Zawahiri sprung up his ugly head this week with a new lecture series entitled the “Islamic Spring”, seeking to remind the West and what few remaining admirers of al Qaeda that the group is not dead on the 14th anniversary of  September 11, 2001.  Along with revoking the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate, al-Zawahiri, via the title of his series, seeks to remind people of the democratic failings of the Arab Spring and how al Qaeda represents the true vanguard for jihad and a caliphate.

The 9/11 anniversary beckons an al Qaeda broadcast, but the group clings to anything that will provide it with any real relevance. Al Qaeda’s remaining hope lies in its tenuous relationship with its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra whom likely would stand to benefit from disavowing any connections with its global jihadi overlord Zawahiri.  The Islamic State continues to grow in popularity amongst jihad’s next generation and affiliates around the globe seek out allegiance with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not Zawahiri. 

The Islamic State has also successfully taken ownership in many ways of al Qaeda’s greatest leaders.  Islamic State propaganda commonly heaps respect on al Qaeda’s first leader Osama Bin Laden.  References to Bin Laden and pictures of Bin Laden often drape Islamic State propaganda.  A demonstration of such respect can be seen in the Islamic State’s naming of the “Osama Bin Laden School” in Raqqa, Syria – the stronghold of the Shari`a governed state. 

The Islamic State has also claimed at times another of Al Qaeda’s greatest heroes–American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The Islamic State’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani indirectly honored al-Awlaki’s legend by adopting the clerics call for lone wolf attacks in the West–a staple of Awlaki’s preaching and resulting contributions to Inspire magazine.   In January, the Islamic State named their English-speaking foreign fighter contingent designed for targeting the West the “Anwar al Alwaki” Brigade paying homage to the al Qaeda online recruiter’s ability to inspire attacks in the West.

Having laid claim to al Qaeda’s top heroes Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Awlaki, there remains only one piece of al Qaeda history left for the taking: the legacy of al Qaeda’s crowning achievement: the attacks of September 11, 2001.  What better way to snub Zawahiri than to hijack ownership of the group’s most celebrated attack?  The Islamic State might do this in two ways. 

The least demanding and least effective way for the Islamic State to take ownership of the September 11 attacks would be online.  Through smoking Twin Towers laden motifs and pushed hashtags, the Islamic State could pay homage to 9/11, positioning themselves as the preferred successors of Bin Laden’s al Qaeda rather than al-Zawahiri’s current contingent.  A social media campaign might be accompanied by Islamic State hacking activity as their online supporters and hacker volunteers have recently professed to future online targeting of U.S. government sites and the financial system. 

The more effective method for the Islamic State to hijack the memory of 9/11 from al-Zawahiri would be to do what al Qaeda has repeatedly failed to do: perpetrate an anniversary attack on September 11, 2015.  Bin Laden after 9/11 and al-Zawahiri since Bin Laden’s death have failed to commemorate their glory of 2001.  Al Qaeda needs an attack, but the Islamic State likely has more capability to execute one at this stage.  Using their foreign fighter resources and international supporters, the Islamic State could easily execute a suicide bombing in a neighboring country like Turkey or Saudi Arabia or go even further by coordinating lone wolf and small cell attacks in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.  Achieving notoriety on 9/11 would be a final snub to al-Zawahiri and send him further into oblivion. 

The best forecasts are probabilistic, thus I provide my off the cuff speculation here regarding whether there will be an attack on this September 11, 2015.  Note, I have no direct knowledge of a potential attack, just some thoughts if I were actually doing a forecast. The most likely scenario remains that there will be no anniversary attack this September 11.  As predictions go, there hasn’t been a successful anniversary attack in the last thirteen years so the safer bet is always that tomorrow will look like yesterday, this year like the last. 

The next most likely scenario, I believe, is that the Islamic State and/or its international community of supporters execute one or more low scale attacks.  This would rob al Qaeda of its precious anniversary and further establish the Islamic State as the global leader of jihad.  If I were one of the Islamic State’s leaders, this is what I would do if I already intended to execute an external operation outside Syria and Iraq. 

The third and least likely scenario, I imagine, is that al Qaeda finally launches the long expected anniversary attack with devastating consequences.  Al-Zawahiri’s pre-release of the inappropriately seasoned “Islamic Spring” series, al Qaeda’s diminishing capability globally, and al-Zawahiri’s guidance to Nusra’s Abu Muhammed al-Jowlani to avoid attacking the West suggests, at least to me, that al Qaeda either can’t execute such an attack or doesn’t want to.  Thus for the Islamic State, the anniversary of 9/11 may very well be available for the taking. 

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