Why al Qaeda and Islamic State Threats To Attack The West Should Be Taken More Seriously Now

Much like other moments when al Qaeda seemed destined for defeat, an emerging force arises to breathe life into the ranks of global jihadists: this time, it was the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric for the last eighteen months has focused on being “tougher” on the Islamic State despite the group’s steady decline throughout the presidential campaign. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s leaders could not craft a more preferable American foreign policy for promoting global jihad if they tried. Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, advocated the return of torture, suggested aligning with Russia and by extension the Assad regime against the Islamic State, vowed to fill the Guantanamo detention center with “bad dudes,” and rejected the idea of taking in Syrian refugees.

Each of these policy positions demonstrates a complete reversal of U.S. strategy and narrative going back to 2006 when first the Bush and later the Obama administrations sought to narrow the fight to core terror group members and extract America from nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coming up on sixteen years since the 9/11 attacks, Team Trump seems committed to affirming al Qaeda’s original justifications for attacking the U.S. – i.e., defeat the “far enemy” they believe backs apostate regimes (“near enemy”) suppressing the Muslim world.

For terrorists with a globalist view, particularly members of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Trump administration is a dream come true. Jihadi globalists have argued for decades that the Muslim world was at war with the West. Trump’s top national security advisors agree. Bin Laden, if he were still alive, or Zawahiri today could not have picked an opposition team more perfect to their narratives and purpose than what will arrive in office on January 20. LTG (Ret) Michael Flynn, the incoming National Security Advisory, has called “Islam a Cancer,” and he routinely lumps a wide range of disparate adversaries into a grand evil alliance. His discussion of a broad war on an amorphous, largely undefined “Radical Islam” has been echoed by Trump advisors Sebastian Gorka, Clare Lopez, and Whalid Phares who collectively have alleged the creeping of Sharia law in the United States and the penetration of the U.S. government’s intelligence services by the Muslim Brotherhood. They also have advocated for allying with Russia and partnering with dictators to put down the Islamic State. These advisors and many of their harder line supporters in the U.S. government have advocated for years a hedgehog (“one big thing”) solution – ridding the world of “Radical Islam” (whatever that may be).

Scenario: Yeehaw vs. Jihad – The Self-fulfilling Prophecy of a Global Terrorist Showdown

Trump and his national security team must be tough moving forward or risk becoming a fraud in the face of adversity. This dynamic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where aggressive clamping down on a broad jihadi conspiracy entices extremists to attack. Meanwhile, jihadists with a globalist view seek to drag the U.S. into war in a Muslim country, hoping to unite the followers of Islam under their banner in a global battle against the West. Each side gets the fight they seek; both sides ultimately prove themselves right through their aggression.

If Zawahiri wanted al Qaeda to be thrust back into the spotlight, regain steam during the Islamic State’s decline, pull the U.S. to over-commit again in the Middle East, bring the West to back apostate dictators, seal an alliance between Russia and the U.S., unify divisions between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and convince Muslims worldwide that the West is, in fact, at war with Islam, now is the time to attack. The Islamic State is similarly motivated to strike. Any remaining Islamic State fighters with access to Western targets might have one last chance to revive a shrinking caliphate. A pinprick strike against a U.S. target in the homeland or even abroad might very well set off a Trump administration poised for a dramatic, over-sized response. Even further, Trump’s advisors and appointees appear dangerously out of sync for the start of a new administration.

Two years ago, al Qaeda’s leader Zawahiri told the Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra to hold back on attacking the West. Curiously, Zawahiri appears no longer hesitant about striking the U.S. stating in his January 5 speech, “We invite our mujahid nation to make the jihad against the modern day false idol, America, and its allies, their first priority as much as they can afford.”

The question, today, for Zawahiri and jihadi globalists, isn’t “should we attack?” but “can we attack?” The U.S. and its allies have aggressively pursued external operations cells planning attacks in the West. Al Qaeda likely doesn’t have a 9/11-sized attack in its pipeline. But, they also don’t need such scale to provoke the U.S. The Islamic State or al Qaeda could execute gun runs and bombings reminiscent of the Islamic State’s recent Ramadan campaign hitting Westerners abroad. The abundance of Trump properties worldwide also provides an array of symbolic targets for jihadists to hit to further provoke a thin-skinned president. Al Qaeda and its affiliates might also target the oil and gas industry, a common economic target of past campaigns, or major multinational corporations noting the ties of Trump’s ultra wealthy appointees to multinational corporations. Some might see this targeting calculus as spit-balling, but we should remember al Qaeda once targeted the Lockheed Martin CEO as an asymmetric counter to the drone program that was decimating their ranks.

I have no insight into recent rumors of an inauguration timed terrorist attack. However, the stars do seem in line for a globalist jihadi comeback (AGAIN!). This is only one of several scenarios emerging from the Islamic State’s wake, and I would note that if the West doesn’t see a directed al Qaeda attack or Islamic State attack provoking the U.S. in the next six months, then it would suggest that globalists either don’t have the capability to strike the U.S. as thought and/or that Western counterterrorism has gotten very good at detecting and disrupting terrorists ability to strike the West. Only time will tell.

Author’s Note: In October 2016, I was preparing an updated terrorism forecast regarding al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and whatever comes next. But I got distracted by a more pressing issue. Two colleagues and I decided to publish our long study of Russian influence operations against the U.S. electorate, and this delayed completion of a longer forecast of what might come from the third foreign fighter glut after Syria. Any forecast I would have made in October would surely have been off the mark, failing to account on the unanticipated changes and uncertainty of U.S. and resulting Western foreign policy and counterterrorism strategy. Rather than do a linear sequence of posts leading up to my final foreign fighter and terrorism futures forecast, I moved this scenario forward in the series due to its immediate relevance post inauguration. The rest of “Countering Terrorism From The Third Foreign Fighter Glut” and additional scenarios will come out here at FPRI in the coming weeks.

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Two-and-a-Half Years After ISIS’s Rise: Global Jihad Spreads And Morphs

Today, Islamic State foreign fighters bleeding out of Iraq and Syria power an unprecedented wave of directed attacks on three continents inspiring cascading waves of inspired violence from distant supporters scattered around the world. With that having been said, the good times for the Islamic State ended in 2016.  Their decline has come as fast as their rise and points to yet another shift in global jihad. The jihadi landscape, in only three years, has transformed from the unipolar world of al Qaeda to a bipolar competition between the al Qaeda and Islamic State networks to a multipolar jihadi ecosystem with dozens of groups holding varying degrees of allegiance and affinity for their extremist forefathers. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State now represent two big players in a sea of militancy filled with many competing currents. As seen in Figure 10 below, the world of jihad has never been so vast, dispersed, and diluted.

As always, there are a few notes on the al Qaeda versus Islamic State chart as of September 2016 (see Figure 10). I generally don’t like organizational charts for describing jihadi terrorist groups. I’ve been to too many military briefings where organizational charts have been pushed as command and control diagrams. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates largely represent swarming collaborative relationships rather than a directed, top-down hierarchy synonymous of Western military constructs. 

In the chart, circle size represents an imperfect estimate of a group’s relative size compared to other groups.  Larger circles equal bigger groups, smaller circles denote lesser-sized groups, and I can only make circles down to a certain size before the writing becomes illegible.  More overlap between circles represents my estimate of greater communication and coordination between the groups. Sometimes I couldn’t overlap groups as much as I’d like due to space limitations and this being a two- rather than a preferred three-dimensional rendering. I’ve inserted dashed circles for what I anticipate to be emerging Islamic State affiliates or new jihadi groups of no particular leaning. I could probably list a dozen other names in the chart but to prevent excessive cluttering I’ve stopped with these names. (Many thanks go to Will McCants for insights on ISIS affiliates, J.M Berger as always for his social media prowess and Aaron Zelin, particularly this year, for further refining my perspective on the emergence of fractures.) For past estimates of  al Qaeda versus the Islamic State, see depictions from February 2014, March 2014, and April 2015.

estimate-4-sep-2016 aq vs ISIS

 
What’s changed in two-and-a-half years? What should we think of jihad’s winding path?

Remarkable Speed Of Change. The most remarkable aspect of jihad’s last five years has been the speed with which things have changed. The end of the Afghan Mujahideen to al Qaeda’s zenith on September 11, 2001 took a decade. Al Qaeda’s downward spiral in Iraq began in 2008 and the Islamic State’s rise began in 2013 –i.e., half the time of the previous generation. ISIS broke from al Qaeda and overtook them in roughly eighteen months and has now receded dramatically in nearly the same amount of time–a rise and fall occurring in a little over three years. Each foreign fighter mobilization and outflow over the last thirty years has been larger and faster than the one before it. Advances in communication and transportation have made each generation’s radicalization, recruitment and mobilization easier and subsequently faster. This trend, should it continue, points to a new wave of jihad arising fairly quickly.

Volume Of Fighters And Groups. The Syrian conflict generated the largest foreign fighter wave in history. Despite the Islamic State’s reckless consumption of its foreign manpower, today and through the near-term, there will be more jihadi foreign fighters scattered around the world than at any point in history. Compared to previous generations of jihadis, survivors of Syria and Iraq’s battlefields will be better trained, more experienced, better connected physically and virtually, and have greater opportunities amongst numerous weak and failing states. The world should prepare for, and expect, years of jihadi violence emanating from this most recent foreign fighter mobilization.

Don’t mistake dispersion for strength. Scary maps showing the spread of jihad have been a favorite scare tactic of governments and the counterterrorism punditry for a decade. Similar to al Qaeda’s transition to affiliates beginning around 2004, the Islamic State’s members, supporters and re-branded followers have now spread from Morocco to the Philippines. Unmet jihadi dispersion can equate to resilience, but should not be confused with strength. With the exception of a declining emirate in Libya and challenged affiliates in Yemen and Afghanistan, the Islamic State’s affiliates operate largely as small terrorist groups working to establish their base of operations and local popular support. Likewise, al Qaeda’s affiliates have yet to regain their previous heights–e.g., al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) of 2011, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of 2012, and al Shabaab of 2013. Affiliates of either stripe, as of yet, lack the projection power and global appeal of their headquarters. Don’t make what are mostly molehills into mountains just yet; this is particularly the case when there remain sufficient unconventional warfare methods to encourage their destructive competition.

Scale of jihad matters more than it’s spread. Dispersion should bring concern when one or more affiliates begin to scale in size. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during al Qaeda Central’s decline (2009 – 2012) and the Islamic State since taking Mosul demonstrate what Clauset and Gleditsch revealed in their study “The Developmental Dynamics of Terrorist Organizations” that the larger a terrorist group grows the greater number, pace and size of terrorist attacks they can execute.

Al Qaeda’s growth from 1993 to 2001 allowed them to increase the pace, complexity, and lethality of their plots. The swelling of the Islamic State’s ranks and the grabbing of turf in Syria and Iraq enabled the creation of operational space for developing external operations branches and the manpower to reach Western targets. Their growth brought the recent unprecedented violence of their Ramadan offensive–i.e., directed and networked attacks every day in a new country creating a wave of cascading terrorism perpetrated by inspired followers. The lesson for the West: ignoring jihadi group growth will lead to a terrorism cancer nearly impossible to rein in.

Fracturing and Competition. Despite recent fear mongering over the Islamic State’s rise or al Qaeda’s comeback, the global jihad as a whole has more fracturing and infighting than any time in its history. The Islamic State versus al Qaeda rivalry remains but is likely secondary to the generational and resource competition occurring across many affiliates. Splinters have erupted in Jabhat al-Nusra/Fateh al-Sham (Syria), Boko Haram (Nigeria), al Shabaab (Somalia), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU – AFPAK) in just the past few months. Characterizations of global jihad as unipolar or even bipolar should be met with skepticism–the sands have never shifted so much or so quickly. Remember, jihadis are violent young men, routinely narcissistic, highly egotistical, often jealous of each other, and particularly rash. Analysts should beware imprinting order on what is largely chaos.

 
What might we think of today’s jihadi terrorism landscape moving forward? 

The al Qaeda versus Islamic State debate is nothing more than a silly DC Beltway sideshow. Three years ago, pundits and analysts widely refuted the notion of an al Qaeda break up. Two years ago, I participated in a debate regarding “al Qaeda’s grand strategy” while the Islamic State was overtaking their terrorist forefathers by seizing Mosul and declaring a caliphate. Despite these analytical surprises, similar prophesying about jihad’s future direction has returned. Some analysts again trumpet a resurgent al Qaeda, a claim made by an analyst every year since the 9/11 attacks, or they have begun parallel theorizing about the Islamic State’s grand strategy. Luckily for pundits, no one keeps score in the counterterrorism fear factory where production is rewarded over performance.

The “al Qaeda versus Islamic State” dichotomy is a hollow paradigm, reflective of analytical status quo bias from those unable or unwilling to envision a future of jihadism different from what has been seen in the past. While “al Qaeda” or “ISIS” may be convenient for communicating media narratives, today’s vast jihadi landscape cannot be accurately characterized by the names of two groups who are past their primes and that have, at best, limited ability to control their adherents. However, this paradigm will continue in the near term because….

Right now, we know less, proportionally, about what’s going on in jihad than anytime since September 11, 2001. Never have counterterrorism analysts and pundits had so much to cover and so little time and ability to do so. Today, jihadi ranks have expanded widely across three continents and they communicate in dozens of languages. With the exception of a couple of open source outlets and academic think tanks, no one can track the endless string of al Qaeda and Islamic State “Number 2’s” killed by airstrikes. The rapid, successive deaths of leaders in nearly all jihadi groups worldwide has created a chaotic jihadi stew where younger, more violent emerging leaders strike out seeking to raise both their own stature and that of their group locally.

Successfully anticipating jihad’s divergence will require tens or even hundreds of analysts equipped with advanced degrees, language skills, and field experience tapped into a blend of human and technical sources. Luckily, we have that! It’s called the U.S. intelligence community. Moving forward, Western intelligence services will be positioned to put together the global picture.

Jihadis have gone local and academics and analysts should as well. To understand jihad’s local flavor moving forward, look to journalists (like here and here) and academics (here’s one) doing true field research, in-person interviews and reporting rather than those relying heavily on social media personas of dubious access and reliability.

Connections Mean Less, Intentions Mean More. A decade ago, and even in recent years, al Qaeda connections were used to characterize perpetrators or groups. But terrorist connections mean little in the wake of the Islamic State’s rise and the unending battle in Syria. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters from Africa through Asia have fought with al Qaeda last decade or the Islamic State this decade. Every Arab male between 18 and 26 years of age is now more likely than not to have a connection in some form to a person that fought with either or both terrorist group. Even recent inspired terrorist plots lacking any physical connection to al Qaeda or the Islamic State have surfaced links to both groups (here and here). Moving forward, analyses must wade past connections to examine the intentions of jihadis and their groups. Do they seek to target the West? If not, then add them to the long list of those needing monitoring but too numerous to thoroughly vet simply because “they are connected to a guy on Twitter who is connected to a guy who might be in the Islamic State”.

The next five years of jihad will look more like the 1990s than the 2000s. Figure 10 demonstrates the diffusion of jihad. I can’t properly account for all of the groups rising and falling, shifting between networks while paving their own local agendas. With the Islamic State’s decline, and al Qaeda’s limited reach, emerging groups powered by returning foreign fighters will converge and diverge largely based on regional and local forces. Instead of the al Qaeda versus Islamic State paradigm currently being put forth, the multipolar jihadi landscape of the 1990s leading to al Qaeda’s rise provides a more appropriate historical framework for anticipating future jihadi manifestations.

Prior to the September 11 attacks, many different Sunni terrorist groups with or without connections to al Qaeda pursued their own agendas competing for recruits, resources and influence amongst many different countries. This setting appears more reflective of the diffuse set of jihadis pursuing a range of ideological positions and local agendas in the near-term. Those groups that scale the largest and the quickest amongst this chaotic stew will be of the greatest concern moving forward.

 
Final Note

Unless something changes, Figure 10, will be my last al Qaeda versus Islamic State bubble chart. Surely my comments above have pointed to my own hypocrisy and underlying belief–there are too many actors, locations and competing interests to characterize jihad in a simple bipolar chart. Last decades’ theorizing should remind us how unlikely anyone will be to accurately estimate where, when, and how jihad’s next wave will emerge. Rather than focus on groups and fighters, it will be long-run forces that forge where jihad will revive and thrive next. Rest assured, after the Islamic State’s foreign fighter mobilization their surviving legions will unleash violence again somewhere soon.

Al Qaeda versus the Islamic State: a short video

Watch this short movie to see how the al Qaeda versus Islamic State estimates have changed in the past two-and-a-half years.

 

 

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What Should We Make Of The Islamic State’s Ramadan Wave Of Violence?

The Islamic State has taken the final week of Ramadan to make a big statement: “We will not go quietly.” In the last seven days the terror group has shown that a “wounded Islamic State is a dangerous Islamic State” lashing out in an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.

smoke

The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics from conventional military operations back towards insurgencies paired with regional and international terror attacks. The Islamic State overtook al Qaeda by declaring a caliphate and has since surpassed their forefathers as a terror group by executing a daily string of directed and networked attacks in six countries while narrowly missing in a seventh.

Here’s a quick recap of the Islamic State’s Ramadan Campaign. (For an explanation of the directed versus networked taxonomy see “Directed, Networked and Inspired: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo.” I’m estimating whether these attacks are directed or networked based upon available open source information. These classifications may change as further information arises.)

June 27 to July 5: The Islamic State’s Cascading Terrorism

Success breeds success for the Islamic State and their directed suicide assaults seek to amplify their image, rally their base during a down time, and inspire their supporters to undertake further violence in their name. Here’s what the Islamic State has perpetrated in short order.

Interestingly, only two of the above attacks do not involve a suicide operation – Bangladesh and Malaysia. Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group connected with the Islamic State, but not a formal wilayat, had until recently only perpetrated targeted sectarian assassinations and this attack appears to not only be a major, violent step forward for the group but also seems more reminiscent of the Paris attacks and other international hostage seizures. Association of the Malaysian grenade attack with the Islamic State would also be a new trend regionally. In both cases, these peripheral attacks in South and Southeast Asia show the lesser capability of these distant Islamic State associates. It’s difficult to tell at this point whether they don’t have the capability to perpetrate suicide bombings or the personnel willing to execute such attacks.

Ultimately, the Islamic State has cascaded its terror attacks striking one target in a different country each day. Will it inspire attacks globally? Only time will tell, but possibly not. Western media has paid short attention to these attacks with the exception of the Istanbul airport. As al Murabitoon and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb learned with its Western African terror campaign post Paris, Western media coverage endures when Westerners are killed in the West, all other attacks have less value.

Here are some other items of note from this past week’s terror campaign.

The Islamic State against all enemies – Muslim, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Arab, Western

Some have incorrectly suggested that the Islamic State nimbly focuses its attacks predominately against Westerners or certain audiences. This week’s Islamic State attacks and resulting deaths point to the opposite conclusion: all enemies of the Islamic State are targets and Muslims have suffered the worst. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Islamic State hit near a Western consulate, a Shi’a mosque and a Sunni holy site. Lebanon saw targeting of Christians. Bangladesh brought a focus on Westerners. The Istanbul attack killed mostly Muslims. Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw the Islamic State concentrating on security forces. Each Islamic State affiliate may pick and choose certain targets for local reasons but as an aggregate, no one faith or ethnicity is spared from the Islamic State’s wanton violence.

Islamic State’s Remaining Fighters: Die In Place Or Go Out With A Bang?

The Islamic State lost Fallujah last week and some of its members that tried to escape were pulverized in massive airstrikes. Many Islamic State foreign fighters can’t return home or have no Islamic State affiliate to drift back to. For those homeless foreign fighters, the choice is simple: they can either die in place fighting for a crumbling caliphate or they can go out as martyrs striking their homelands or a regional or international targets. The Islamic State owns the largest number of homeless foreign fighters in history. As the group loses turf, they’ll likely become part of the largest human missile arsenal in history and be directed against any and all soft targets they can reach. This campaign is likely not the end of the Islamic State’s suicide campaign, but only the beginning.

 Foreign Fighters Go As Far As Their Passports Will Take Them

 Last winter, the West suffered from the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly dispatch hundreds of European foreign fighters back to their homelands. Paris and Brussels burned and operatives across a host of European countries were arrested. Western passport holders and those hidden in refugee flows pushed as far as they could to hit high profile soft targets. Turkey struggled for years with foreign fighters passing easily through their borders into Syria and fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia found the country quite permissible, likely facilitating this past week’s Russian-speaking suicide bombers. Richard Engel reported that as many as 35 operatives were recently dispatched into Turkey alone. The Yemeni and Saudi attacks focused more heavily on security forces and were likely perpetrated by Islamic State pledges from their respective countries and possibly a Pakistani. The bottom line: the Islamic State is sending its bombers to the locations where they can achieve the biggest results. They are not in short supply of Western, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Russian operatives – expect more suicide attacks in places that al Qaeda only dreamed of reaching.

Strong Counterterrorism Matters: The Islamic State Preys On The Weak

Those countries with stronger counterterrorism and security apparatuses have fared the best this past week. The Saudis, long known for squelching terrorists in their midst, sustained far fewer deaths than other countries hit this week. Iraq, despite years of investment, seems unable to protect itself from suicide attacks with yet another massive suicide bombing. Lebanon and Bangladesh, two locations of rising promise for the Islamic State (see Figure 1), have weaker security environments and local conditions ripe for extremism. The Islamic State will likely learn from this past week and exploit those places where they got the greatest return on their investment.

Is The Islamic State Looking For An Exit Strategy?

In conclusion, the Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand. Affiliates, existing or emerging, may want to carry on the Islamic State’s vision outside of Syria and Iraq. Much like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was for the al Qaeda Central during their downturn, Islamic State Central will need an affiliate to carry the black banner forward or their caliphate experiment will crumble as fast as it was created.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

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How To Break Up With Al Qaeda & Date ISIS

A year ago I began building a graphic to describe the recent history of the al Qaeda and Islamic State split and the currents created by foreign fighter migrations to conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria.  The infographic here doesn’t cover everything, but it is what I use for my five minute brief on al Qaeda and the Islamic State.  This was also what I used to develop my research and resulting articles for 2016. (The bottom right hand corner is the “Third Foreign Fighter Glut”– you can read part 1, “Foreign Fighters”, and part 2,“ISIS Affiliates”.)

I offer this as another Sunday morning infographic to read as you wake up. If the graphic is helpful to anyone, have at it!  And in the coming weeks I’ll be updating it with another segment at the bottom entitled “2016 and beyond.”  

Break up AQ Date ISIS
 

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Brussels’ Big Terrorism Problem: Is This the Islamic State?

On this morning of March 22, 2016, the long tail of terrorism once again struck Europe. Less than a week after Belgian authorities arrested Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers, explosions have shaken multiple transportation hubs in Brussels, Belgium. At the time of this writing, two bombs have detonated at the Brussels airport and a separate bombing has occurred at the Maelbeek subway station. While the dust has yet to settle in Brussels, it appears more than two dozen have died from multiple blasts. The Brussels bombings, a major attack coming only months after Paris and days after the arrest of Abdeslam in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, confirms that Europe has a major terrorist problem in its midst.

 

2016-Brussels-Bombings-OpenStreetMap


Timing and Techniques: Is this the work of the Islamic State?

Few facts have emerged since the bombings. But the timing and techniques utilized in today’s attacks suggest that the same network that perpetrated the Paris attacks in November likely orchestrated this massacre. Last week, Belgian authorities arrested Abdeslam in the neighborhood where he grew up. He was the only surviving perpetrator of the Paris attacks and he eluded authorities for more than four months.  Two other suspects allegedly escaped when Abdelslam was caught.

Logically, one might assume this attack occurred in response to the Abdelslam arrest. Abdelslam’s terrorist facilitation network, having watched the arrest of their comrade, likely assumed law enforcement would continue rapidly pursuing any additional leads produced by intelligence gained during last week’s arrest. The choice for those still at-large in the network is to either go-to-ground and elude authorities or immediately accelerate any potential plot or plots currently being prepared. The speed at which this attack occurred suggests that the network had likely been preparing for this attack in some manner for many weeks or months prior to Abdelslam’s arrest.  The similarity of the attack to Paris, using suicide operations against soft targets, and the speed at which it was executed in relation to a Paris connected arrest suggest the Islamic State, either directly or through its network, is involved. The social media app Telegram is already littered with Islamic State propaganda stemming from the attack.


Capacity and Competency: Europe has a two-fold counterterrorism problem

The failure to detect and interdict the Paris attacks in November seemed to point to a problem of capacity. European countries, having stood by and watched for years as their angry boys were radicalized and recruited into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, seemed to have far too many terrorism suspects and resulting leads to manage. The volume of potential terrorists to cover seemingly exceeded the capacity of European authorities. In November, I discussed the “Iceberg Theory” of terrorist plots, where for the eight to ten Paris attackers, “we should look for two, three, or possibly four dozen extremist facilitators and supporters between Syria and France.”  Today I suspect we are seeing more of Europe’s terrorism iceberg.

Last week’s arrest of Abdelslam and today’s failure to detect and disrupt a major terrorist attack similar to that of Paris suggests a far more ominous counterterrorism problem in Europe — incompetence. Belgian authorities arrested Abdelslam in Molenbeek, an area swept repeatedly by counterterrorism authorities in recent months. The arrest of Abdelslam should have immediately triggered an intense buildup in law enforcement activity to disrupt a likely retaliatory attack. Additionally, today’s attacks at the airport and in the subway system used suicide missions armed with explosives. The use of explosives suggests that a significant terrorist facilitation network likely remains in Europe empowering attacks al Qaeda always dreamed of executing but for which they lacked the operational support capability.

Belgium, a smaller European country, appears to have both a capacity and competency problem with regards to counterterrorism. Other small European countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, have also been home to large concentrations of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria and Iraq. Do they have the same counterterrorism capacity and competency problems as Belgium?


Safe Harbor and Bleed Out: Last decade’s al Qaeda fears have come to fruition with the Islamic State

Ten years ago following the London subway bombings, analysts feared the potentially deadly consequences of disaffected European diaspora communities providing safe harbor to returning terrorist foreign fighters (Bleed Out)  and inspired young boys. Al Qaeda never successfully mobilized these disaffected young boys to execute a string of attacks on Western targets. Today, the Islamic State’s current and former foreign fighters have come from these disaffected communities on a scale several fold larger than the numbers produced during al Qaeda’s heyday. In the coming months, the Belgian and European response to the wave of Islamic State networked and inspired attacks will likely influence the future of the Islamic State as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq. Will these attacks provoke a heavy backlash against already disaffected diaspora communities further empowering the Islamic State’s message? Will they further push European countries to resolve the Syrian conflict to stem refugee flows and apply increased pressure on the Islamic State? Will they finally bring about needed intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation between European countries? The Paris attacks were treated as an investigation, one pursuing a network associated with a single plot. Brussels on top of Paris demonstrates that this as a Europe-wide issue requiring a unified and coordinated response.

As the smoke still rises over Brussels, counterterrorists around the world must again pick up their intensity. The Paris attacks triggered a wave of Islamic State affiliate and networked attacks on three continents, provoked competitive attacks from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and inspired lone wolves and small cells in Philadelphia and San Bernardino. Brussels, like Paris before it, may likely create the same phenomena. Any plot(s) in either the Islamic State or al Qaeda’s network may very well be accelerated. Any inspired wannabe from afar may see today’s media attention as the final motivation to undertake violence. For the Islamic State success breeds success. Can the world’s counterterrorists stop this trend?


Clint Watts is a Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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Donald Trump and the Case of Tairod Pugh

Last Thursday Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper “I think Islam hates us…we can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States.” It is rhetoric he has stood by since unveiling his Muslim banning plan in December. As a first generation American born to a Pakistani father, an intelligence professional and an American, I am bewildered and disturbed that such a comment can be uttered, let alone taken seriously in 2016. Not only have those on both sides of the aisle called Trump’s plan offensive and un-American, how would it work practically? Nowhere else does the massive hole in Trump’s plan show through then in the case of one Tairod Pugh.

Pugh, a Muslim convert from Neptune, New Jersey, served in the United States Air Force as a mechanic from 1986 to 1990. After leaving the Air Force he held a series of positions in the aviation industry—he even worked as a DynCorp contractor in Iraq. But on January 10, 2015, Pugh’s life took a dramatic turn. Shortly after losing his job, Pugh flew from Egypt to Turkey where he caught the attention of Turkish authorities. While no evidence has emerged that Pugh was under surveillance by the US, Egypt or the Turks, it is clear he was known at least to US authorities. Pugh was interviewed by the FBI in 2001 after a co-worker told authorities that he made pro-Bin Laden statements. Furthermore, during the interview Pugh “expressed interest in traveling to Chechnya to fight jihad.” In spite of these claims, the FBI let Pugh go, seemingly losing track of him. So when Turkish authorities listened to Pugh’s claims that he was a special operations forces pilot visiting Turkey on vacation, they instead suspected he was attempting to enter Syria and put him on a plane back to Egypt. Alerted by the Turks, the Egyptians were equally weary of Pugh, and promptly returned him to the US. Shortly after landing at JFK Pugh was arrested and charged with supporting ISIS, charges which he was convicted of on March 9, 2016.

So what does Tairod Pugh have to do with Donald Trump? In December 2015 Trump’s campaign released a press statement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The problem with Trump’s plan, as Pugh’s case illustrates, is that he was not travelling back to the United States and as such would simply not warrant investigation. In fact, he was forcefully returned to the United States but not before he pleaded with Egyptians to stay because he believed “the U.S. doesn’t like black Muslims.” If it hadn’t been for alert Turkish and Egyptian authorities, either Pugh would’ve been simply returned to the United States undetected or he would’ve been allowed to go on his way. Instead, both the Turks and the Egyptians did what American authorities failed to do, raising the alarm and returning Pugh to the United States. This action demonstrates the capability of the Turks and Egyptians and their willingness to work with the United States. But how would Turkey and Egypt (both Muslim countries) have reacted if Trump’s plan was in place? Might they have agreed with Pugh’s claim that the United States hates Muslims? Surely it would reduce their willingness to cooperate with the US, which would impact detecting and neutralizing threats against the United States—especially those overseas.

From the capture of an ISIS’ chemical weapons operative to the targeting of al-Shabaab fighters planning to attack US and African forces, the US has an effective and pro-active intelligence system which aggressively pursues threats outside of the US border. Pugh’s case illustrate the reliance that the intelligence community, military and law enforcement have on foreign partners as well as the difficulty of identifying, tracking and neutralizing threats. What if Tairod Pugh, an American with a valid US passport, had made it to Syria and then returned to the US? Pugh claimed after his arrest that if he shaved his beard and worn jeans he would have avoided suspicion. Under Trump’s plan Pugh is right. Which begs the larger question: how does the intelligence community determine who is a Muslim? Which then leads to a larger question: is it legal for the US government to determine and track the religion of people? In a country where Americans’ feel uncomfortable with the US government collecting cell phone metadata, can they really be comfortable with database listing the religion of Americans? Thankfully, even as we debate whether Trump’s plan is even viable, the brave men and women in the military, law enforcement and in the intelligence community continue to keep us safe—even without knowing who is and isn’t a Muslim.

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Who attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris? Assessing a Jihadi Attack in The West, ISIS vs al Qaeda

Today’s terrorist attack in Paris killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine; presumably for their perceived insults to Islam and/or ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  As expected, media outlets, governments and their citizens want to know who is responsible for the attack.  In years past, arriving at a conclusion regarding culpability occurred rather quickly.  Attacks were either command directed by al Qaeda or perpetrated by an inspired adherent to al Qaeda’s ideology and justifications for violence.  Today, in an era where ISIS has grown to overtake al Qaeda in stature globally, the perpetrator of today’s attack at Charlie Hebdo appears far murkier.  Analysts and journalists should assess four different potential perpetrators and scenarios:

  1. An Al Qaeda Central (AQC) or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) directed plot from Yemen or potentially Pakistan (AQAP is AQC at this point)
  2. An ISIS directed plot from Syria and Iraq
  3. An al Qaeda inspired plot by supporters in the West
  4. An ISIS inspired plot by supporters in the West, of which there have been several in recent months. 

There could always be a fifth scenario, a completely unaffiliated different ideological movement that wants to attack Charlie Hebdo (I call this the Andres Brevik scenario), but I think its not sufficiently likely to warrant analytical effort at this point. 

While it remains too early to assess responsibility and events continue to transpire in Paris surrounding the attack, there are some factors and supporting evidence coming in to begin distinguishing between different scenarios.  While I DO NOT know who perpetrated the attack, I am building my own chart to track the possible scenarios and evidence that is leading me to one perpetrator over another.  When assessing jihadi attacks in the West these days, I look at several factors to begin distinguishing perpetrators, which I’ll discuss here.  In government, this might be called a quick and dirty Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH for short). The scenario with the most supporting evidence tends to be the most likely. NOTE: This will evolve throughout the day as more evidence comes in; I have not settled on one perpetrator over the others and I’m still compiling information.  Also, a good ACH takes time and the evidence is weighted and assessed for being confirmed or suspected.  I don’t have time to do that this morning so am just doing an initial draft here

Here are the factors I’m looking for:

  • Reconnaissance: Based on the success of the attack, killing 12 people and the Editor possibly during a morning meeting, I assume a significant reconnaissance was conducted which suggests a well-planned operation more consistent with a directed plot.
  • Targeting Mass/Random vs. Specific: The attackers went after specific people in a specific location, and this is more indicative of a directed plot.
  • Attack Locations – Single vs. Multiple: As of now, there appears to be only one attack location but this might change, or lead to a deliberate standoff. 
  • Weaponry – Advanced vs. Self Provided: The automatic weaponry used suggests access to a sponsor and a deliberate directed plot.  Inspired plots more often involve attackers providing and using their own lower capability weapons.
  • Sponsored Organized Media Release: This will be important in the coming hours. Both ISIS and AQ might try to take credit for the attack, but the timing of responsibility matters.  And, this could be an inspired attack, so maybe a media release will never come. 
  • Propaganda Citing Motive For Attack: While Charlie Hebdo did insult Islam which would be offensive to both groups, they directly insulted ISIS leader Bagdadi, although this may have been too soon before the attack.
  • Suicide Mission/Fight To The Death (FTD) vs. Planned Withdrawal: Generally, inspired attackers seek media attention and want to drag out the incident.  These guys withdrew professionally suggesting a command directed plot. 
  • Size of Attacking Element – Lone Wolf vs Small Cell: Inspired attacks are more often lone wolf plots.  This attack involved at least three perpetrators which suggests an ISIS or AQ directed action.
  • Symbols Present at Scene or Statements of Perpetrators: Little is known at this point, however, some news has trickled out that one of the perpetrators said that “al Qaeda in Yemen” was responsible.  I’m uncertain about the credibility of that claim.
  • Professional vs. Amateur: These guys look professional.  From the video, they handled their weapons well and look experienced, possibly suggesting the presence of a former foreign fighter being involved and leaning towards a directed plot rather than one that was inspired.
  • Foreign Fighter Origin: Very recent reports suggest one of the attackers was speaking Russian!  I am not sure of the credibility of the report, but with the vast number of foreign fighters in ISIS ranks, and the presence of so many Chechens and Caucasuses fighters in ISIS, this leans towards an ISIS command directed attack.

Here is my quick and dirty ACH chart as of 1030.  Note, I provide my assessment of each scenario and what I would expect in black text.  My assessment should definitely be challenged and debated.  I then, in red, pasted #JeSuisCharlie where I’ve seen evidence or potential evidence supporting each assessed factor in the scenario.  I thought this might be a useful tool for those to debate who the perpetrators might be.  More to follow…….

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Propaganda Wars: Militant Islam versus the Islamic State in Syria

In the past two and a half years, the uneven progress of armed rebellion against the Syrian regime has produced rebel infighting. Militant Sunni Muslim groups evolved new strategies to gain and control resources to keep the fighting going, and in doing so, also developed alternative visions and authority structures as individual fighters both in Syria and from outside sought to join whichever group was best able to absorb them. The global jihadi movement, which has come to be known primarily by its foremost proponent, al-Qaeda, established its presence in Syria by the end of 2011, going by the name Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front, JN), and focusing on the overthrow of the Assad regime, much as the previous generation of jihadis had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. As Faisal Devji has pointed out, the broad vision of al-Qaeda and its particular stream of global jihad did not establish a functioning state but rather expressed abstract goals, even when it was involved in local affairs.

           

One of the very ingredients for success then, was the appeal to piety and its other-worldliness that resists getting bogged down in day-to-day material struggles. The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and its offensive against JN and other rebel groups throughout 2013 followed by its establishment of a Caliphate in June 2014 has proved to be thus a boon and a bust for global jihad: now jihadis have somewhere to go if they want to be part of the Islamic State (IS), but on the other hand, creating a state with living subjects who may or may not share in the IS vision may undermine the purity of the original ideology.

Interestingly, advocates of IS claim that it has a better organizational structure and control of resources than JN ever had. JN originally claimed the exact same thing with respect to the moderate rebel institution they accused of corruption, the Free Syrian Army. Jihadi groups in competition with each other must convince potential fighters and donors that they are both militarily successful and materially responsible, and capable of fully providing for the jihadi soldier’s existence through a range of difficult circumstances. The IS regime, unlike JN, tends to assume that foreign fighters will end up staying on to live in its territory and create families. This fact can be seen in a number of aspects of their propaganda, including the typical “rite of passage” for foreign nationals to publicly burn their passports.

Opponents of the Islamic State, however, point out that their fighters appear to be more interested in enjoying basic earthly pleasures and material objects rather than in praying, fasting, and carrying out the obligations of religious jihad. One account on YouTube said to be affiliated with the militant Islamic organization Ahrar al-Sham, accuses IS fighters of slacking off in the jihadi struggle, and abusing their free time (al-faragh). In the video, backed up by a jihadi anthem (nashid) a montage of photos attributed to pro-IS Twitter accounts shows a cake designed with the black flag of the Islamic State, smiling young men playing pool in a café, and a jihadi flashing a jar of the popular hazelnut spread, Nutella. There are many images of IS jihadis sitting around eating and drinking, and generally smiling and enjoying themselves instead of fighting, praying, or doing other “acceptable” jihadi activities.           

At first, IS social media warriors seemed to embrace this image, knowing that social media is by nature sensationalist. So fighters coming to join the previous incarnation of IS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham often bragged of living out a “five star” jihad, employing the Twitter hashtag “#5StarJihad.” Images that emerged from this meme included pictures of villas, swimming pools, and various chocolates and foods considered “luxury” items. Already by early spring of 2014, these images were waning in popularity, and it can be assumed that IS leadership wanted to stop the outflow of opportunistic jihadis, some of whom joined JN after growing disillusioned with IS and its constant battles against other jihadi and moderate rebel groups. The end of this trend did not stop pro-IS individuals on social media from gaining headlines in recent months for various non-jihadi activities, ranging from posing with cats to expressing dismay along with the rest of the world over the untimely death of American comedian and actor Robin Williams.  

One of the biggest ways that a jihadi can slander a rival group or individual is to accuse them of “chasing the dunya [world],” meaning to seek this world and its material pleasures instead of those of the afterlife. Indeed, the doctrinal roots of Wahhabism and contemporary salafi-jihadism go back to Ahmed Abu Hanbal, who was notorious for his piety, which as Nimrod Hurvitz notes, implies strong will in the face of persecution and a refusal to give into moral temptations of excessive materialism. Social media was set ablaze for a few days following the first speech of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, who appeared to be sporting the “James Bond” Omega watch costing thousands of dollars. In this case, instead of promoting the image of a cash-loaded Caliph, the social media minions of the IS argued that it was actually an “al-Fajr” Swiss-made watch designed to tell the times for prayer, and offering a compass to orient oneself towards Mecca, and costing around $430.      

Rival jihadi groups must boast of their material bounty and aspect of good living along the path of Allah, in order to attract fighters into their ranks. Moreover, the Islamic State now has the added pressure of trying to attract whole families to live in the shadow of their “Caliphate.” In order to do so, not only do they have to send out the message that fighters are well armed, but also generally well equipped, well fed, and their wife and children (or future children) will also be cared for and protected. A Canadian recruit for the IS spoke in a video published by al-Hayat Media Center, one of their dominant media organs, saying to future jihadis, “Your families would live here in safety, just like how it is back home.”*     

Nevertheless, in addition to constantly accusing each other of being trained, funded, or otherwise supported by either the CIA or the Mossad, the Salafi groups in Syria, in particular, tend to accuse each other of trying to make a profit off of the devastating civil war—see, for example, this. The oilfields were particularly contentious, in northeastern Syria, as most of the smaller groups did not actually have the technological know-how to extract and transport the oil in a safe or highly lucrative fashion. The Victory Front was the first group to advertise its consolidation of the Syrian oil fields in Raqqa province in 2013. In particular, the leader of JN, Abi Muhammad al-Jawlani, believed that a self-sustaining organization with strong control of resources was the key to victory over the Assad regime. So it was surprising to many rebel organizations to see how quickly and violently the Islamic State worked to drive out JN and take over the oil fields and refineries. Before the recent US-led bombing of many of these centers in late September it was estimated that IS was netting around $3 million a day from illicit oil sales. Such profits enabled IS to pay fighters more than other groups. One Syrian defector from IS recently told a reporter that he was able to make $600 a month, which is something he had never dreamed of before the Syrian civil war.

Before the US-led coalition bombing of Syria, it seemed that JN was trying to distinguish itself from IS and appeal to outside donors. This can be seen in the fact that they allowed Qatar to publicly negotiate the release of American journalist captured in 2012, Peter Theo Curtis, one week after IS gained new notoriety by beheading James Foley. However, the bombing campaign inside Syria which targeted JN as well as IS triggered reactions from the JN leader accusing Arab states supporting the bombings of assisting Jews, Persians, and Romans, and warning other rebel groups not to cooperate with the campaign in any way. On the other hand, the campaign targeted IS-held oil refineries and fields, potentially limiting the self-sufficiency of IS for the near-term may weaken the appeal of the Islamic State by depriving it of one of its claims, namely, the monopoly on prosperity.

 

Dr. Joel D. Parker is a researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and North African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and tends to employ a multi-disciplinary approach to contemporary Syria, propaganda, radical politics, jihadi ideology and music, and youth movements in the 20th century. Hebatalla Taha and Linda Dayan also contributed to this article.

 

*Such accusations emerge in anti-JN propaganda by IS targeting the spiritual leader of JN, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani. One comment charges specifically, “Abu Mariya al-Galaxy [sic] only wants to increase his power in Der ez-Zour, because there are oil fields and gas plants in Der ez-Zour. Abu Mariya chases a dunya.” One respondent, and JN defender, pointed out the irony that the misspelled name al-Galaxy instead of al-Qahtani was probably because of an auto-correct program from a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

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Seven Flaws In the U.S. Strategy to Counter ISIS

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)

The past week’s debate on how to counter ISIS has proven just how effective terrorism is as a tactic for extremist groups.  Two videos showing the beheading of American hostages have provoked the largest U.S. response since the attacks of 9/11, compelling President Obama to hastily gather up a strategy to counter ISIS. Aside from the general confusion over what to call the group, there is even greater disagreement over what to do.  Overall, I don’t disagree with most of the actions the U.S. is taking to counter ISIS, but I am baffled why ISIS, America’s third or fourth most pressing national security concern right now, requires such a reaction.  The lesson for other extremist groups scattered from Morocco to Malaysia is clear – fly a black flag, film an atrocity and post it on the Internet and you too can capture the American media cycle and provoke a U.S. response. 

Aside from my quibbling over the U.S. need to be out front in countering ISIS, it is clear that something needs to be done to counter the rise of the group.  The U.S. actions to counter ISIS to date are not necessarily wrong.  Building up rebels, airstrikes to protect key allies, and working with partners all represent sound actions the U.S. will need to take at one point or another.  As a comprehensive strategy, however, the plan will likely fail from seven fatal flaws presented by the current situation in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. can do whatever it wants to militarily, and probably will, but these apparent weaknesses will prevent any meaningful defeat of ISIS and, in the process of being the global leader to counter ISIS, the U.S. has confirmed the jihadist narrative it so desperately sought to escape in the past decade – the “Far Enemy” propping up “Near Enemy” apostates. (See my post from two weeks ago “Why Does The U.S. Want To Be ISIS ‘Far Enemy’?” for a larger discussion on this issue.)

Seven Flaws in the U.S. Strategy To Counter ISIS

My thesis remains that the “U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS”, but neither my proposal nor the current U.S. plan being put forth, “Airstrikes and Allies” (or maybe “Mitigate and Pray” might be more appropriate), can achieve its goals without addressing seven obvious challenges present in Iraq and Syria (See Figure 1). 

  1. Syrian Civil War – Two years of Syrian civil conflict has created a gapping wound in the Middle East exploiting many religious, regional and international friction points.  A wound left untreated turns into an infection, an infection today known as ISIS.  Fearful of blowback after Qaddafi’s collapse in Libya and mired in the 2012 reelection campaign, the Obama administration accompanied by the West has avoided the Syrian conflict for years allowing ISIS to fester and grow amongst the chaos. The U.S. will be unlikely to defeat ISIS in a meaningful way without developing a strategy for resolving the Syrian conflict.
  2. Turkish Border – Foreign fighters and resources pour into Syria and ultimately ISIS through Turkey.  A strategy of containment and annihilation will not work when there is a gapping hole in the perimeter.  Recent news suggests that the Turks may be deploying up to 50,000 police to seal the border.  But how effective will this be when Turks compromise a large base of support for ISIS and a steady supply of foreign fighters?  
  3. The Double-Edged Sword of Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia quickly signed up as a partner in the U.S. coalition to counter ISIS – a logical and smart move for the Saudis who may be most threatened by hundreds of their citizens helping power ISIS. Saudi Arabia was one of the first to arrest ISIS operatives in their country back in May and is a natural terrorist target for the group. Of course, partnering up with Saudi Arabia affirms al Qaeda’s old narrative for attacking the U.S. – the “Far Enemy (US)” is propping up “Near Enemy (Saudi)” apostates. The current U.S. plan includes sending military trainers to Saudi Arabia , another justification used by Bin Laden for attacking the U.S. dating back to the 1990s.  More importantly, the U.S. plan re-opens the 13-year debate about the tradeoffs encountered with counterterrorism partners. How can the U.S. promote democracy to counter a terror group that beheads people and observes Shari’a law, while partnering with a government that just beheaded dozens of people “according to Shari’a” for offenses that include drug trafficking and sorcery?
  4. Arab Partner Nations – Defeating ISIS will not come without a wide base of support from Arab partners.  However, most Arab countries, to include what might be the United States’ most important ally Jordan, seem reluctant to join forcefully into the coalition for two reasons.  First, these countries have disenfranchised communities that sympathize and even support ISIS with fighters and money.  By joining the U.S. coalition, they are putting themselves at risk domestically.  Second, ISIS’s campaign to date has largely focused on killing Shi’a and countering the Assad regime.  Thus ISIS has become a convenient proxy army for Sunni nations wanting to meet what they see as Iranian (Shi’a) expansion in the region. 
  5. Iran is a bigger adversary to the U.S. than ISIS – By engaging ISIS, the U.S. is simultaneously 1) acting as a proxy air force for Iran whose IRGC has become a line of defense for the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government and 2) becoming the savior for Iran’s regional ally; the Assad regime in Syria.  By destroying ISIS without addressing the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. is rewarding its adversary Iran who bloodied American noses the past decade in Iraq. 
  6. Sunni partners in Iraq – The U.S. must create some lasting stability in the Western and Northern Sunni areas of Iraq if it wants to permanently root out ISIS.  ISIS gains correlate with Sunni disenfranchisement in the so-called democratic system left by the U.S.  The U.S. has noted the need for a more inclusive and representative Iraqi government, but the plan to counter ISIS must go further and regain the buy-in of Sunni leaders in Iraq.
  7. Shi’a Dominated Iraqi Government – The Iraqi government looks to Iran for direction and the U.S. for support, while undermining the country’s new democracy by reinforcing ethnic divisions. Meanwhile, Shi’a divisions of the Iraqi army, despite being numerically superior, refused to fight for Sunni areas of Iraq instead turning tail and retreating only to be executed in mass by ISIS.  The U.S. must address the challenges of the past decade and explore new possibilities for how to stabilize Iraq in terms of both governance and security.

Two Fronts For Defeating ISIS: On-The-Ground and Online

Along with these seven challenges, the U.S. media has made ISIS’s success difficult to understand.  Defeating ISIS requires the U.S. to meet and defeat ISIS both “On-The-Ground” and “Online.”  These two fronts of ISIS aggression though are symbiotic. ISIS’s success building an Islamic state and conducting widespread violence on the ground in Syria and Iraq has empowered their well planned and technically sound media strategy on the Internet.  As seen in Figure 2, ISIS’s increased success leads to greater online support.  Greater online support equals more recruits and more resources for ISIS from their international base of support.  Thus, the U.S. can’t really defeat ISIS online, without degrading ISIS on the ground.  Fortunately, foreign fighter recruits are a fickle bunch. In general, when a terror group begins to fail, recruits tend to decrease and donors start to dry up.  Everyone likes a winner, even terror group supporters. 

ISIS’s two fronts also speak to U.S. interests with regards to defeating ISIS and should shape the amount of effort the U.S. puts into its counterterrorism actions.  ISIS’s on-the-ground success threatens the security of the Middle East and American allies in the region.  ISIS’s online success threatens the U.S. homeland and U.S. personnel abroad.  The U.S. strategy against ISIS will ultimately have two campaigns and countering ISIS online will depend on U.S. success defeating ISIS on-the-ground. 

My next several posts will be a series called “Thoughts On Countering ISIS.” The first in this series actually came out last week – the “Let Them Rot” strategy — which I still contend is the more appropriate approach for defeating ISIS, although it appears the U.S. lacks the patience to execute it.  In the upcoming posts, I’ll try to provide some perspective on how the U.S. can fight the two campaigns against ISIS’s two fronts while addressing the seven challenges I noted above.   

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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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