Two years ago today, counterterrorism forecasts focused on a “resurgent” al-Qaida. Debates over whether al-Qaida was again winning the war on terror ensued just a week before the Islamic State invaded Mosul. While Washington’s al-Qaida debates steamed away in 2013, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaida suffered unprecedented internal setbacks from a disobedient, rogue affiliate formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). With terror predictions two years ago so far off the mark, should we even attempt to anticipate what the next two years of al-Qaida and ISIS will bring?
Rather than prognosticate about how more than a dozen extremist groups operating on four continents might commit violence in the future, analysts might instead examine flawed assumptions that resulted in the strategic surprise known as the Islamic State. Here are insights from last decade’s jihadi shifts we should consider when making forecasts on al-Qaida and the Islamic State’s future in the coming decade.
Loyalty is fleeting, self-interest is forever. Analysts that missed the Islamic State’s rise assumed that those who pledged allegiance to al-Qaida would remain loyal indefinitely. But loyalties change despite the oaths that bind them. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State’s leaders used technicalities to slip their commitments to al-Qaida. Boko Haram has rapidly gone from al-Qaida wannabe to Islamic State devotee.
In short, jihadi pledges of loyalty should not be seen as binding or enduring, but instead temporary. When a group’s fortunes wane or leaders change, allegiance will rapidly shift to whatever strain of jihad proves most advantageous to the group or its leader. Prestige, money, manpower—these drive pledges of allegiance, not ideology.
Al-Qaida and the Islamic State do not think solely about destroying the United States and its Western allies. Although global jihadi groups always call for attacks on the West, they…