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A nation must think before it acts.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) rise began in the summer of 2013 but became fully evident this past spring. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s retaliatory plan to punish an indignant and unruly affiliate backfired. Open conflict between ISIS and al Qaeda’s lead arm in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and their associated partners in the Islamic Front not only empowered ISIS in the eyes of global jihadi supporters but further diminished the allure of jihad’s original vanguard al Qaeda (AQ). In March 2013, I posed three scenarios for what a future terrorism landscape might look like after a period of enduring jihadi civil war. These scenarios, outlined in the article “ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards” from March 20, 2014, were the following:
Scenario #1: ISIS Replaces al Qaeda as the Global Leader of Jihad
Scenario #2: Sustained Competition – ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda vs. Team ISIS
Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes
Six months after developing these scenarios, jihadi support for ISIS across all regions has surged dramatically. See Figure 1 for my unscientific, estimated breakdown for each region of jihadi popular support between al Qaeda, ISIS, or independent/undeclared groups and supporters.
More important is the battle between ISIS and AQAP. ISIS has gained significant backing from Saudi foreign fighters and had plots disrupted in the Kingdom. It’s likely donor flows to ISIS from the Arabian peninsula now eclipse those to al Qaeda – traditionally the resource lifeline of a Bin Laden-led al Qaeda. This leaves Yemen. AQAP remains the strongest affiliate of al Qaeda and, as will be discussed below, serves as the counterweight to ISIS taking nearly absolute control of global jihadi support.
Yemen: The Swing State in the battle between al Qaeda and ISIS
If al Qaeda and ISIS held an election, Yemen would be the American equivalent of the swing state of Florida. Zawahiri smartly designated Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP, as his global deputy last summer; a wise strategic move that provided an anchor of AQ support as ISIS surged. AQAP’s loyalty to al Qaeda represents the remaining barrier to ISIS completely overtaking al Qaeda as the global leader of jihad. AQAP acts as a key interlocutor with AQIM in the Sahel and essentially commands its own affiliate, al Shabaab, in Somalia. Should AQAP shift allegiance from Zawahiri or remove itself from the dispute all together, al Qaeda would consist of nothing more than a few veteran envoys spread around the globe and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria – a group likely questioning why it remains loyal to Zawahiri as it is overtaken by ISIS. I do not expect a shift by AQAP anytime soon, nor do I think Wuhayshi, a long-time al Qaeda man, will break his oath to Zawahiri. However, for ISIS to fully rise without competitors, AQAP in Yemen must change its stance. Another scenario to watch for is whether Wuhayshi, similar to the recent joint AQAP-AQIM call for unity, makes a decisive move to unify the ranks of AQ and ISIS should the situation become particularly dire for both groups.