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A nation must think before it acts.
A year ago, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) was on the rise but few expected them to travel such a rapid trajectory to the top of the global jihadi community. The fighting (fitna) to kick off 2014 between Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, and ISIS seemed, at first, to be undermining the greatest jihadi foreign fighter mobilization in history. But in June 2014, ISIS swept into northern Iraq simultaneously seizing Mosul and the minds of jihadi supporters worldwide by doing what al-Qaeda always discussed but never delivered–an Islamic State. Through audacity, violence against Assad, Shia, the West, and slick social media packaging, ISIS now dominates the global jihadi scene. Foreign fighters have flocked to ISIS ranks and when unable to travel, have sworn allegiance to ISIS (bayat) in groups across North Africa to Southeast Asia.
Building from the estimates and scenarios created last March 2014 (ISIS Rise From al Qaeda’s House of Cards), I’ve generated a new estimate of the fractures between ISIS and al-Qaeda seen here in Figure 9. I’ve also pasted below this post the estimate of these fractures one year ago for comparison (Figure 4).
A few notes on the ISIS versus as al-Qaeda chart in Figure 9. I generally don’t like organizational charts for describing jihadi terrorist groups because I’ve been to too many military briefings where these are misinterpreted as command and control diagrams. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and now ISIS and its new pledges more represent swarming, informal relationships rather than a directed, top-down hierarchy. Circle size represents an imperfect estimate of a group’s relative size compared to other groups. Larger circles equal larger groups. More overlap between circles represents my estimate of communication and coordination between the groups. For emerging groups that have pledged bayat to ISIS, but ISIS has not officially recognized the pledge, I categorized them as “Lean ISIS.” For what I anticipate to be new ISIS affiliates that are emerging I’ve inserted dashed circles. Thanks again this year to J.M Berger, Aaron Zelin and Will McCants for their feedback and insight on the graphics. I’ve also included J.M. Berger’s latest link chart showing the same splits between ISIS and al Qaeda, which can be found in Figure 10 and downloaded at this link.
ISIS has clearly dominated al-Qaeda over the past year. Al-Qaeda couldn’t even release a confirmation video in a timely fashion when handed a success as the Kouachi brothers announced al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was responsible for the Hebdo assassination. Al-Qaeda is most certainly a distant number two in jihadi circles. A few observations of this year’s assessment (Figure 9) of the ISIS versus al Qaeda split as compared to last year’s evaluation (Figure 4).
Will al-Qaeda even make it the end of 2015?
Those who assessed that bin Laden’s death would be of no consequence for al-Qaeda have been proven wrong. Bin Laden, along with a select few of his top lieutenants and protégés who’ve been eliminated by drones, provided the last bits of glue that held a declining al-Qaeda network together. As discussed in the 2012 post “What if there is no al-Qaeda?”, al-Qaeda for many years has provided little incentive in money or personnel for its affiliates and little inspiration for its global fan base. Things have gotten so bad that rumors suggest Ayman al-Zawahiri may dissolve al-Qaeda entirely, that’s right, al-Qaeda might QUIT! I’ll address these rumors in a separate post next week. Until then, here is what I see as the good and bad for al-Qaeda and ISIS this year.
The Good News for al-Qaeda
The Bad News for al-Qaeda
The Good News for ISIS
The Bad News for ISIS
The next year for both al-Qaeda and ISIS will likely be as dynamic as this past year. Both groups remain under pressure. Arab countries have joined in the fight against ISIS in ways they never did against al-Qaeda and the growing sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunnis across the Middle East will likely grow and impact ISIS and al-Qaeda in unexpected ways. This growing sectarian battle has also, ironically, removed some pressure on the U.S. ISIS and al-Qaeda have so much to pursue locally from North Africa to South Asia, the U.S. has really become a peripheral issue to both groups. Both groups will likely take almost any opportunity to attack the West, but in reality, the opportunities and challenges in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, and other places likely don’t allow either group to expend sufficient time to conduct an external operations attack on par with 9/11. As for future scenarios for both groups, I’ll follow up in separate posts over the next couple of weeks.
Here is J.M. Berger’s link chart showing al Qaeda versus ISIS splits and for a better understanding of ISIS, check out his new book with Jessica Stern here: “ISIS: The State of Terror.”